Thursday, November 29, 2012

Fare thee well, Blogger!

 “The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

We'll start with the news for those who do not wish to read the rant about the news.  The news is that this blog is moving to:

It will be this exact same blog, just in a different location.  So, if you like and follow this blog, you will need to seek it out through the link.


Well, Google has capped the amount of photographs that one can upload onto their blog for free.  I have reached that limit and they want me to pay money for the privilege of enriching their content.  I doubt I need to elaborate on my level of willingness to submit to this desire of theirs.  I tried to delete some photos (note my missing userpic) to kick the can down the road, but nothing doing. 

Also, I am far too visual minded to entertain the idea of a blog without photographs.  Wordpress offers thrice the free photo uploading space that Blogger allows and seeing as it's taken me four years to reach this point on this blog, who knows?  Maybe I won't live long enough to fill this new one.  If I do, chances are that another free blog host will exist for me to hop to at that point.

I started this blog in 2009.  I can still remember the transition from Livejournal to Blogger.  It's a bit like moving out of a house that you built.  I feel that change can be a very good and healthy thing.  Certainly there are some things that have happened in the past four years that make the prospect of a fresh start (albeit not by my willing choice) attractive.  Of course, I will leave this blog up and intact so that students can continue to get caught plagiarizing. 

I am a little cheesed that I won't have all of the Harvard Classics posts available under one tag (I never imagined that this reading project would outlive this blog!)  The good news is they don't seem to have caught up to my daily creek photo blog yet. 

Well, there you go.  No use crying over free services lost, especially when you can just as easily start it up somewhere else.  I hope to see all of you over on the new blog.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Cenci by Percy Bysshe Shelley

In Shelley's Preface, he references a painting of Beatrice Cenci by Guido Reni.  He notes the sorrow in her face, the puffiness around the eyes, and the resignation to her fate.  The painting he refers to is the one above.  This sets the tone for what we are about to read.

I wonder if Dr. Eliot ordered this volume advisedly so that this would come directly after She Stoops to Conquer to contrast a work of merely adequate writing against a work of truly excellent writing.  Shelley was one of the greatest writers the language has ever known.  He sort of needs to be for such dark material.

I was reminded, in reading this, of a friend of mine who had worked in theater for many decades.  He told me that he only ever turned down a part in a play once.  If memory serves, it was a play about Vlad the Impaler and he said that it was a play entirely void of hope.  It was as bleak, dark, and amoral a play as you could imagine on that subject and he didn't want to be a part of it.  He said that he had certainly been a part of plays that dealt with very dark material before, but this was downright nihilistic and not something he could associate himself with in good conscience.  I think that this is an important distinction to make as artist, especially as artists in collaborative media.  I think it is an especially brave act for those who, as it were, rely on singing for their suppers to have this kind of integrity.  No one should ever align themselves with something morally reprehensible.

The Cenci (in case you're interested, pronounced chen-chee) is not without hope and certainly not nihilistic.  I would argue that it is a highly moralistic play, albeit one that travels through some grim territory to drive the point home.  Cenci is an old man and a father to relatively grown children.  He is also one of most horrible human beings you'll ever hear of.  He murders and then pays off the Pope to get away with it (and you begin to see Shelley's worldview peeping into his choice of material.  Oh, by the way, it is based upon actual events).  The Pope senses a source of steady income and keeps on absolving away.  This is frustrating to, well, everyone in the play, but I meant to say Cardinal Camillo.  Cenci is just as awful to his family, and they live in terror.  He commits an unspeakable act with his daughter (well, unspeakable in 1819.  Today we would just say rape and incest).  Naturally, his family decide to kill him, but they are unwilling to do the dirty work (save for the daughter Beatrice who seems perfectly willing, but she goes along with the hired-hand plan).  Fortunately, there is no shortage of other people willing.  The two hired goons strangle Cenci and throw him off the balcony to make it look like a murder.  He lands in a tree just below the balcony and so when the police arrive they immediately know it was murder.  Why did the police arrive?  They had an order to immediately execute Cenci because he had been out a-murdering again.  The conspirators are not adept at hiding their guilt and the remainder of the play is a bit like watching a snuff film.  You know what's coming and you pretty much just have to sit and watch it play out.

We as the audience are faced with the problem of being put in the position of rooting for the murder.  There are questions raised about justice and certainly questions about the role of the church in civilization.  It would seem to suggest a belief in an ordered universe as it seems to suggest that Cenci would have reaped what his behavior had sown.  If only the family had dithered for one-half of an act longer, the police would have come and done the job for them legally, leaving them to live presumably long and deeply emotionally scarred lives.

There is also a moral issue reminiscent of Hamlet.  I think Lucretia brought up the issue of Cenci's death in his sins.  Were he given the opportunity, she suggests, he may have repented and amended his ways (bear in mind that this is a severely abused wife talking).  Especially in light of the death sentence that was looming unseen, this further illuminates the iniquity of the act of murder.  This may seem an odd stance for Shelley to take, but morality is not a movable feast. 

In the end, I feel like this is a great play. It would provide hours of discussion material among fellow theater-goers.  A word on that: both Eliot and Shelley mention in introducing the material that it seems unstageable to them what with all of the rapid cuts between locations.  I should probably mention that scripts for plays that were never meant to be produced is an established form of literature, one that Shelley seems to have had in mind.  However, the unproducibility of this particular script is no longer the case as theatrical conventions have changed.  I am surprised that it is not performed more often as it is a meaty work of theater which does not let the audience off of the hook (vague connotation in my metaphor of torture devises entirely intentional).

Paul Mathers' Greatest Fear

Saturday, November 24, 2012

She Stoops to Conquer, by Oliver Goldsmith

"Goldsmith shares with Sheridan the honor of being the only dramatist of his century whose plays are both read and acted to-day. "She Stoops to Conquer," while less brilliant in both dialogue and characterization than "The School for Scandal," is rich in amusing situations and still holds its audiences delighted with its genial and rollicking fun."
Those are the words that Dr. Eliot chose to introduce this piece, and I feel that he was being entirely fair.  I will tell you something about me that has horrified people in the past.  I've seen a lot of theater in my life and, in doing so, I have seen a lot of really bad theater.  Whenever I see bad theater, I go to the box office and demand my money back.  Sometimes it works!  But either way, I feel duty-bound and this is where people tend to get a little upset with me, calling me a pompous self-titled guardian of splendor.  I feel that if you really care about live theater, you are duty-bound to elevate the great and do everything in your power to squash the awful.  Live theater has a steep enough hill to climb today.  It shouldn't also have the handicap of the first play you ever drag your cynical, sports fan, investment broker uncle to in his life end up being a sub-par production of Suessical.  This may sound like I am being dramatic, but this is a phenomenon I observed when I lived in Orange County and worked in theaters.  You would see these couples or families come in and you could tell the ones who had been drug to the theater.  If it was a great piece of theater, you would sometimes see them converted by the end!  If it was bad, you may as well have just horsewhipped them while making them recite "I shall never go to the theater again" and saved yourself the $50.

I am speaking of individual productions here.  One of the oddities of the form of literature known as theater is that it is entirely possible to do a decent production of an awful piece, and it is entirely possible to do a horrible production of the greatest plays ever written.  The worst play I ever saw was a production of Macbeth by a college in Northern California.  I saw it for free and afterwards I went to one of the actors and demanded my time back.  He understood.  He told me that the director kept dictating bad choices, readings, and staging to the actors, not allowing them input into the process of their own production.  And so, Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.

All of which is a long way around to tell you about a third category of theater.  When the curtain fell and we were gathering up our coats, one of my party would ask me how I felt about the show and I would say, after these third category productions, "Well, I'm not going to go ask for my money back!"  Meaning the night was not entirely wasted in sitting through the show.  However, it was not one of the transformative experiences of my life either.  It was enjoyable or contained something worth discussing, but that's about as far as the experience would take me.

She Stoops to Conquer reminded me of those plays.  It wasn't poorly written at all, but wasn't nearly so well written as The School for Scandal.  Some of the bits were humorous, but often overstayed their welcome.  The series of turn-arounds were less than inspired.  I can see why it is still read and performed, however, if I were the creative director of a classic theater company, this is the first dramatic work in the entire Harvard Classics series that I would never produce.

While the Continent was consumed with sophisticated urban life, this play takes place in the countryside that Restoration England was so fond of.  There are two girls to marry off, a few men who are eligible, and the usual parents a-tugging at their hair over it all.  The character who steals the show is the dissolute young Tony Lumpkin who hangs around taverns, plays pranks, and sometimes liberates other people's jewelry.  In the end, everything works out to the relative satisfaction of the characters we wish to see relatively satisfied. 

I kept wanting to like it more than I did and I think, in the end, it turned out to be that I wanted it to be slightly more clever than it was.  Was it "genial and rollicking fun?"  Yes, I suppose it could be, if done well. 

Next up, we have a jarring transition into extremely heavy drama.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The School for Scandal, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

This volume may well have been the most enjoyable for me thus far.  It has also been the quickest read in quite some time (I find that play scripts read almost as quickly as watching the plays).  It is called "Modern English Drama," and by "Modern" it strictly means "not ancient."  The closest to present-day offering in the volume comes from Lord Byron.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the works of the ancients are less alien to us than works of comedy of manners. And just saying that makes me feel as if cultural evolution derailed somewhere along the track.

I enjoyed reading this play tremendously.  My two major recurring thoughts throughout the reading were:
1.)  Here is a progenitor of the work of P.G. Wodehouse.
2.)  I would love to produce this play today (in the back of my head I still dream of having a theater company which produces classic works of theater.  Some dreams don't fade, you just give up, at some bleak point in your life, trying to make them into a reality).  But would a contemporary audience accept it?  Am I overly cynical about contemporary audiences?
To the latter question: Probably.  To the former question: Perhaps.  We have this dismissive image of the comedy of manners as a genre of Restoration era filigree.  Men in powdered wigs are about as alien to today's audience as fungus on Neptune.  But the truths about human nature revealed in this play are eternal, which I suppose accounts for its endurance. 

The matter of the play deals with a group of people who gossip mercilessly and to the destruction of many.  Some have proto-Dickensian names like Sir Benjamin Backbite.  There is the usual course of intrigues, turn arounds, and comeuppances, which season our delight in observing people behaving badly in a manner to make it more palatable (a bit of a lost aspect of the art in my humble opinion).  It becomes a study in human nature and a mirror held up to the audience.  My favorite scene was the one where Charles Surface auctions off portraits of his ancestors to his disguised uncle Sir Oliver Surface.  Sir Oliver's series of reactions are hilariously true and, in the end, we see how far the apple lies from the tree.  I would want to play Sir Oliver (the old rascal).

Next up is another comedy of manners.  Here is Samuel Barber's Ouverture for The School for Scandal: 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Let's All Write A Chant!

As I may have mentioned before, I have creative written my way through the Handbook of Poetic Forms once before in my early 20s.  I am not sure if I was as strict about doing every one as I am in this go 'round of the project, but the Chant is a form that I actually remembered from the first time.  I had written one about a night when I was probably talking to a girl and a rainstorm suddenly happened.  The repetitive line was, if memory serves, "And the skies open up when we speak."

This was somewhere in the dark recesses of my brain when I arrived at writing a poem in this form and, as synchronicity would have it, at the same time I was reading the story of Noah from the book of Genesis from the 1599 Geneva translation of the Bible (for fun).  The line jumped out at me "The windows of Heaven were opened."  So, I decided to write my chant as sort of a reflection on the relief of annihilation.

Ron Padgett says that chants have no fixed form, but do feature repetitive lines, words, or phrases.  He pays particular attention to a revival of the chant form in poetry with a sort of modern primitive feel among some poets in the 1960s.  There is a suggestion of power or weightiness to the repetition.

I understand the draw of this.  Although I am now about as urban as they get (and, hopefully, urbane as well) I do have the vestigial remains of roots in modern primitivism from my younger days.  The example of chant that immediately sprung to my mind is a song by Faith & The Muse (a favorite of mine in the years of my life which always remind me of that Paul Verlaine line
"What have you done, O you there. Who endlessly cry,. Say: what have you done, there. With youth gone by?")

So, here is my chant poem.

And The Windows of Heaven Were Opened
by Paul Mathers

This lifeless dry rock face a-craving for weeping and
the windows of Heaven were opened.
The earth was congested with cruelty and
the windows of Heaven were opened.
All eyes were clouded and fogged out of sight.
The heat of mid-day burnt fully at night.
The people grew cagey and ready to fight and
the windows of Heaven were opened.

All creation groaned from its caverns beneath and
the windows of Heaven were opened.
The blood-spattered dust demanded a fee and
the windows of Heaven were opened.
We stood on the hills, we stood in the vale,
watched darkness pour in and beginning of hail,
and soon we'd be sleeping in the eye of a whale and
the windows of Heaven were opened.

The task of atonement makes one quite alone and
the windows of Heaven were opened.
The sins on a ship or the sins on the loam and
the windows of Heaven were opened.
We huddle in mansions, we huddle in caves,
we huddle in gutters, we huddle in graves.
We count up our losses and ignore that which saves and
the windows of Heaven are opened.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

All For Love, by John Dryden

"Be juster, Heaven; such virtue punished thus, will make us think that chance rules all above, and shuffles, with a random hand, the lots, which man is forced to draw."
I should start with two ways in which the odds were stacked against my favoring this play.  First, regardless of how compelling the emotional arguments, I am universally incapable of sympathizing with adultery.  To me it is an action born of greed and poor impulse control, which are two of my least favorite human characteristics.  This doesn't stop me from, for example, loving Woody Allen films.  It simply means that I am not going to sympathize with what the author is trying to manipulate me into sympathizing with.

The second problematic element is John Dryden's prefaces.  Dryden had a tendency to circumlocution that makes even me look concise by comparison.  You will remember that Dryden wrote about 800 pages of preface/dedication to his translation of The Aeneid (or, at least, it seemed like it).  This preface was notably shorter.  As I've said before, I refuse to skip prefaces unless the author commits the unforgivable sin of spoiling the material in the act of introducing it.  In short, I felt that his preface was a bit indulgent and seemed as if he might have been paid by the word.

And so I entered the piece in a grumpy mood, finding one more hurdle to enjoyment immediately.  In the beginning I was struck with the realization that I could not imagine how to mount a successful production of this play today.  I felt that there was too strong of an expectation for the audience to accept Antony as a great, heroic figure, whereas contemporary audiences would see Antony throwing himself on the ground in grief as a blubbering emo drama queen.

However, as the play unfolded, I began to suspect that this may have been intentional on Dryden's part (or if not, at the very least, this might be a way in which a modern production could work).  Even in Plutarch, Antony seems to have been a remarkably impulsive figure.  I was not convinced that Cleopatra was expected to be an entirely sympathetic figure in the piece, nor was the eunuch particularly villainous.  I think the key to this understanding lays in the character of Ventidius.  I felt that the curmudgeonly Ventidius may well be the true protagonist in the piece.  He is certainly the one who comes off best at the end of the play.  It's the part I would most like to play although in my mind's eye I had him cast as mid-to-late aged Paul Newman.  His character is the through-line to the tragic ending, but his is also the commentary on all of the other characters.  While we are shown the tragedy of the tormented lovers and we do see it as tragic, we also have the sort of John the Baptist, voice of righteousness figure in Ventidius, who doesn't allow us to wrap ourselves too deeply or too sympathetically in the drama of the love affair.

As my reading progressed, my opinion on the piece reversed.  The winning aspect of the piece was the quality of the writing.  What Dryden lacked as a prose author, he more than makes up for in verse.  He is clearly indebted to the Bard as we see hints of Romeo and Juliet's starcrossing, Iago's treachery (albiet in a far less spiteful form), and Hamlet's ending.  We also see it in his wordsmithery and keen eye for the human experience.  Here is an example in an exchange between Antony and Ventidius about Octavius:
Vent. I heard you challenged him.
Ant.  I did, Ventidius.
What think'st thou was his answer? 'Twas so tame!-
He said, he had more ways than one to die;
I had not.
Vent. Poor!
Ant. He has more ways than one;
But he would choose them all before that one.
Vent. He first would choose an ague, or a fever.
Ant. No; it must be an ague, not a fever;
He has not warmth enough to die by that.
Vent. Or old age and a bed.
Ant. Ay, there's his choice,
He would live, like a lamp, to the last wink,
And crawl the utmost verge of life.     
 In this passage we see the futility in the face of the inevitability of death and a foreshadowing.  Why seek self-preservation when the eventual end is a whimpering death?  We, the audience, are finally convinced of the greatness of these figures as they take the helm of their own extinguishing and thereby hold up a mirror to how conscience doth make cowards of us all.

I'm not sure a piece in this series thus far as surmounted such odds to win me over.  Truly this is one of the great pieces of Western drama.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen

I have a friend who has contended for some years that it is unfair to attempt to psychoanalyze dead people, specifically those who died before the birth of psychoanalysis.  At the very least he has convinced me of the futility of any therapeutic value towards the dead analysand. But there are still some figures whose scabs, try as I might, I can't stop picking.  I use that metaphor to illustrate my awareness that it is a filthy habit of mine.

The painting above is of Andersen reading his story "The Angel" to a child who seems to be a bit under par at the moment.  "The Angel" is the story of an angel flying a dead child to Heaven.  I chose this picture because everything about what I've just said perfectly encapsulates the Hans Christian Andersen experience.  Aesop was wise with a morality foreign to our time and place.  The Brothers Grimm were occasionally gruesome, but more often than not simply bizarre (although Andersen's "The Red Shoes" gives them a run for their money).  Andersen, at least to me, was a testimony to an existence infused with sorrow. 

I know.  I just did it again.

Something else I would highlight about his Tales is how good they are.  I hesitate to rank in this manner, but I thought that they were undoubtedly the highest quality work in this volume.  I would urge everyone to read them in their original form.  "The Ugly Duckling", "The Emperor's New Clothes", and "The Little Sea-Maid" are all of much higher quality than the versions that have been handed down to us by third party sources.  There are also many other tales that are just as great.  I may not be exaggerating much in saying that I found "The Garden of Paradise" to be one of my favorite children's stories of all time.

So often I hear, especially of the more ghoulish of older children's books, that modern readers find them unfit for small children.  I feel that this is wrong.  First of all, I think a sanitized fiction life is destructive and dissonant to a child in comparison to the reality that they are about to spend the rest of their lives experiencing.  I speak as one whose love life was, until comparatively recently, of nearly the same quality as that of Mr. Andersen's, a fact which I have no qualms blaming at least in part on expectations presented to children by the well intentioned people of the Walt Disney Company. 

I feel that when approaching literature for children, the question ought not be if the material is too difficult or too harsh or too frightening for the child.  Lord knows many children thrive on too difficult, harsh, and frightening.  The question ought to be, in my mind, "Is this true?"  Above all I feel that the worst thing children's literature can do is to betray the trust of a child.  And, upon reflection, I feel that this can largely be applied to adult reading as well.  Andersen, I feel, possesses the quality of truth.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Household Tales of the Brothers Grimm

So often I have heard people harken back to earlier times, wishing they could be transported to them or that the people of the present would adopt the values of the by-gone era.  Invariably, I find, when someone talks with such a glow over a certain period, they are thinking of a time before they were born, a time which they never experienced firsthand.

As an aside, if you haven't seen it, this was handled brilliantly in what I fear may be Woody Allen's final masterpiece Midnight in Paris.

I've known people (at times been one myself) who idealize periods of history.  Being the sort of man who knows bawdy songs by heart that were written long before my own nation even existed, I also invariably know the most depraved and horrible acts that humans accomplished in any period that someone may be idealizing.  Isn't that what learning history is really about?

The collected tales of the Brothers Grimm are well known, even by people who haven't read them, as earlier, much darker versions of many of the fairy tales that have entered our collective knowledge.  It is true, but the horror seems to serve the function of fear motivations (don't go into the woods alone, don't take gifts from strangers, and so forth) for the amelioration of children, rather than exploiting horror for entertainment value.  Personally I did not find all of the incest and evisceration nearly so shocking as the bizarre and fungible morality throughout.  For example, the version of what we know as the frog prince has the princess behaving like an absolute monster to the frog.  Eventually she throws it against the wall which is what catalyzes the transformation into the prince (seems an odd way to break a curse).  I thought, "Okay, here it comes with the comeuppance!  Sock it to her, Jacob and Wilhelm!" Nothing doing.  The prince whisks her off with all speed to marry her.  The book was filled with these sort of moments.

I suppose I could (and probably should) get away with reading this whole series without mentioning the Disney adaptations.  I am finding that the emerging picture as I see it is of an increasingly desperate and insecure company.  To wit, Snow White is strikingly similar to the original.  They've added the earlier appearance of the prince in order to work a duet into the beginning.  They've subtracted the evil Queen eating the false heart of Snow White and the evil Queen's gruesome manner of death (as well as the repetition of attempts leading up to the poisoned apple).  Likewise with "Briar Rose", retitled Sleeping Beauty, simply adds a boss fight at the end of the story for catharsis.  But comparing Aladdin or The Little Mermaid, each bear as much resemblance to the original as a hyperion to a satyr.

I do agree that this is a collection that every household should own.  I would read them to a child (and probably will when Ezekiel comes of age).  I think that it is a volume well worth preserving in our collective knowledge and, like so much else out there, the original vastly surpasses the filtered versions in quality.

As a quick aside, I am well into the works of Andersen and have noticed that this remains one of the slimmer volumes in the series.  I am perplexed.  The volume contains the (presumably) original works of Aesop, the compilation of unoriginal works by the Brothers Grimm, the mixed bag of Andersen's.  Why wouldn't he round out the volume with the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde?  Actually, I know the answer to that question and it is a tragedy and a travesty.  

More soon.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Aesop's Fables

Well, this was, without a doubt, the easiest read in the series!  It was 45 pages of paragraph-long stories about animals.  It almost seemed like a vacation.  It was so easy, in fact, that I am finding it extremely difficult to write about!

I was struck by how political the morals of the stories seem to be.  Indeed, the introduction states that it is thought that these were written as social commentary in a time when speaking overtly on such matters might be dangerous.  I found this to be perfect reading for election season.

Some of the stories are familiar, all of the stories contain a moral at the end, almost all of which are accepted common wisdom.  These phrases make up so much of our language, our thought, our civilization: "Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear", "Plodding wins the race", "Destroy the seed of evil, or it will grow up to your ruin", "There is always someone worse off than yourself", "Gratitude is the sign of noble souls."  I, for one, feel that young people ought to fill their heads with these books of ancient wisdom in palatable form, to allow all these stories to permeate their being.

Of course, there is also the wealth of cultural universal images throughout this work.  From the frogs dancing on their log-king, to the tortoise and the hare, the ass in a lion's skin, the dog with a bone reflecting in the still pond, the fox and the grapes, the ants and grasshopper, and so forth, these are images that recur so often in our shared culture.  So often I have found it pleasurable and profitable to read the originals of well known memes.  So often they are much richer than what's been passed down second hand (and, I might add, so often they are so much darker!  But more on that when we hit the Grimm's).

I relished the experience of reading these fables.  My hypothetical child would read them (and I plan to lobby to have my actual grandson read them).  That is, however, about all I have to say about them.  Which seems fitting.