Quotable: On Politics and Buoyancy

I happen to be the mayor. 
I levitate like a Buddha above the political fray.

-Boris Johnson, Mayor of London,
on why it wasn't "cheeky" to show up at a celebration of the opening of a tube line 
that his predecessor and political nemesis championed.

The Hairy Seed Cathedral

D turned to me this morning and said, "Here's a sentence you don't hear everyday: 'As we expect buildings neither to be hairy nor in motion, these qualities give it a certain charm.'"

As it turns out, he was reading a Guardian article on the British Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, a building which most closely resembles an extremely frightened hedgehog. (If this highly literal description has peaked your interest, click on the link to the article for a picture.) 

Despite the author's virulent skepticism of expositions in general ("All of these journalists are even grumpier than me.  They hate everything" - D.), which he expresses as a wish that "expos and world fairs would lie down and die," his description of the pavilion itself is unabashedly affectionate.  Let me leave you with this:

The hairy thing sits on an uneven plane something like crumpled paper, to symbolise, in the gushy rhetoric of expos, a just-unwrapped gift from Britain to China. [...]

A tour around the site takes visitors past a series of installations themed on the role of nature in British society, culminating in the interior of the hairy cube/dandelion/hedgehog.  Here the other ends of the wands form a glowing fuzz, and the end of each wand entraps rare seeds, 217,300 in all, from Kew Garden's Millennium Seed Bank project which aims to preserve the world's most endandered seeds.  Heatherwick [the pavilion's designer] calls this space the "seed cathedral" [...]

The Guardian abets my Listmania

Today, D's roommate walks by and finds me gazing raptly at the computer screen.

"I thought you were going for a walk," she says.

"Um.  I was.  I should have," I reply.  "Now I am doing something considerably less virtuous."

"What," she scoffs, "are you looking at porn?"

"Bibliophile porn," I reply. 

I have been ensnared, you see, by the Guardian's 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read List.

Now, you all know how I feel about lists.  I have a bit of an addiction, to be honest.  I can't seem to resist them: they are just so filled with possibility.  They seem to promise (always falsely) that there will be no disappointments here: these are vetted pantheons of greatness, just waiting to be wandered by me. 

I have been deeply in the thrall of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list and the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list for a number of years now, with the lasting effect that I now think about my own mortality in terms of how many books and films will remain unexperienced.  Oh god, I thought the other day, someday there will be a book that I just ... never finish.  This struck a distinctly tragic note with me.

The Guardian's list is considerably less historical in its orientation and notably more generic in its organization.  The result is that there are a lot more mysteries, sci fi and fantasy works, and graphic novels than the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die has room for.  I am doing slightly better with the Guardian's list than with the other, but I have still only read about 17% of the list. 

Let me repeat that: after twelve years of uninterrupted academic study of the field of literature, I have only read 17% of the list.  And I am astonished at how few of the works from the lists I have read in recent, stressful years.  Admittedly I have been focusing more narrowly on my field (drama) in these years, but still.


The Thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now?

My partner works very hard behind the scenes on a well-known television crime procedural.  Yesterday, D gets home from a 14-hour workday at 2:30 a.m. I begin to complain solipsistically about the mountain of papers and exams I have spent the day grading. 

D sighs: "Tomorrow I hope I have time to take a shower. My hands are all covered in blood." 


Longer pause.

He glances over at me absently. 

Then, urgently: "Fake blood. Fake blood!".

Is this a fairly common conversation to have with your beloved?

Dreamers of the Golden Dream

(In pale tribute to Joan Didion)

I read a book about modern-day Fausts on the plane to Los Angeles.  When we flew in over the city, I was struck as I am every time by the vastness of its sprawl.  Its infinity.  A thousand Halifaxes could fit inside it.  (Or so it seems.)

In the shuttle on the way home, I sit next to the driver.  As he drives through the streets of LA, he types on a laptop, flicking his eyes between the street and the screen.  I vaguely contemplate whether he is at work on a screenplay.  Later, he processes my credit card with an old-fashioned manual slide machine while driving up Palms Boulevard.  Note that this process should require two hands, at the very least.

As we pull out of the airport, he points to the highway.

"It's moving!", he cries.

"I beg your pardon?" is my witty rejoinder.  I wasn't sure I had heard him correctly, and had mostly caught the wild gesticulation.

"The freeway! Look at it!"

"Yes."  I try to match his enthusiasm.  "I've never seen it moving so fast!"  But really, you have to be an Angelino for this level of traffic-based glee to ring true.

We both look at our watches on the on-ramp, dumbfounded by the really remarkable absence of vehicles.  It is the height of rush hour.

"Is it a holiday?", he asks.

"Um," I reply.  Have I lost track of the schedule of major American holidays?  Is this how quickly one becomes Canadian?  Oh, nepenthe of the north....

"In my country, this is a holiday. But not a major one."

I can't place his accent: "What holiday is that?"

"Anniversary of the first man in space.  Gagarin."

"Ah yes, Gagarin!  The first cosmonaut!"

"First cosmonaut.  Yes."

We grin at each other. 

He goes back to processing my credit card, bored already by the vast emptiness of the rush hour highway.

And so we moved out, sad in the vast offing...

...having our precious lives, but not our friends.

I am really, REALLY looking forward to the first episode of Treme tonight. Sometimes, while looking forward to the beginning of a series like Treme, I consider how lucky I am to be living in this golden age of television, when so many are doing so much that is interesting with the form, and I could almost weep from excitement.  It feels, without exaggeration, like what it must have felt like to the avid theatregoers of London or Madrid in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, waiting for a new Shakespeare or Marlowe or Lope or Calderon piece to appear.  Never forget that those were the reviled and revered pop forms of those eras.

In almost equal measure to my excitement about this show, I am distressed by the recent death of David Mills on the set of the show.  He was a Washingtonian by birth, a Maryland Terrapin by education, a journalist with a gift for controversy of the most illuminating kind, and the screenwriter for some of the most admired episodes of some of my most admired shows (Homicide and The Wire).   It was only in the aftermath of his death, alas, that I learned about his very entertaining and thought-provoking blog, Undercover Black Man.

And so, by way of tribute, I offer this really brilliant clip from UBM, a clip that Mills was himself offering up as a tribute to Martin Short.  Because what is there not to love about a good meta-Broadway critique of race in musicals?

A Big Black Lady Stops the Show

A Big Black Lady Stops the Show from http://undercoverblackman.vox.com/

Do you ever have a day when you really love what you do for a living?

Today one of my Intro to Drama students gave me a YA novel called Another Faust, which she had inscribed with the following note: "To A, whose course made me want to be an English major (so I could learn more words like 'defenestrate'!)".


Hey, not one but TWO Spanish Golden Age plays we read this semester featured defenestrations. (Apparently Madrid, like Scotland and Prague, is a place where you don't want to stand near a window in times of civil unrest.) I told them I didn't get to use the word very often, so I was going to make up for it by using it dozens of times in those classes. And I was as good as my word.

I also appreciated it when the last student out of the exam turned to me and said "I hope Duke sees the results of their hubris next year." 

Double points for Duke-bashing and use of "hubris" (a term ID from the exam).  He had obviously learned the lesson of a whole semester listening to me whine about college basketball and the plight of my beloved Tar Heels.


Of late I have been filled with blog ideas, but not filled with time in which to make them blog realities.  Between the end of the semester (and the consequent towering of Mt. Grademore), the complications of my first dual-nation tax season, and preparing to leave home for 7 weeks on Monday, I am utterly out-tuckered.

As a solution, I am going to attempt a series of shorter blog posts this week.  Let's see how it goes.

What my job is like every single day

I am recalled to the challenges of teaching literature when I see this (really sort of sublime) article from the Onion: Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text.

Dumbfounded citizens from Maine to California gazed helplessly at the frightening chunk of print, unsure of what to do next. Without an illustration, chart, or embedded YouTube video to ease them in, millions were frozen in place, terrified by the sight of one long, unbroken string of English words.

Yes, I know that apocalyptic vision well.  It is what the view looks like from the front of my first-year "Introduction to Literature" class.

"It demands so much of my time and concentration," said Chicago resident Dale Huza, who was confronted by the confusing mound of words early Monday afternoon. "This large block of text, it expects me to figure everything out on my own, and I hate it."

Curse that block of text! So demanding.

Hmm. I wonder what would happen if I handed this out on the first day of my "Intro to Lit" class next year.  No, really.  I am seriously considering it.

Bacchic revels and Autographing Jesuses

I have been absent for a while, I know.  In the time since I have last been with you, I have been to California to give a paper at a conference, graded up a storm in preparation for the end of the semester on Tuesday (with miles to go before I sleep), taught endlessly, sat in a state of exquisite tension watching my Tar Heels' progress through the NIT tournament, and tried to ignore the odious Blue Devils' (our archnemeses) progress through (sigh) the NCAA tournament.  It has been quite the psychodrama.

Oh, and I have fallen back into infatuation with Dancing with the Stars (which I continue to dream will one day feature a Tar Heel basketball "Star"), watched the ingeniously low-key and oddly Darwinian Fantastic Mister Fox, failed to hate New Moon on the scale that I was sure I would (is it possible that it is the rare film that is actually at its best on a tiny airplane screen? It gave all the teen melodrama the perfect minute frame.), and thoroughly loved one of the rare Judith Ivory novels I hadn't yet read (Bliss).

~     ~     ~

But back to the conference, which, as it turns out, was fascinating.  Quite the trigger of new ideas.

I saw a paper given by a fight director/historian of stage combat about the Rumble in West Side Story, whose forms he traced back to a variety of Spanish switch-blade fighting called navaja that is (as it turns out) very closely related to flamenco.

The day before, I attended a presentation on a small town in Brazil (Nova Jerusalém) that stages a mammoth quasi-medieval processional drama every year.  It began on quite a humble scale. Eventually, its founders created a "stage" around which the audience could process, with the actor-Christ, through the stations of the cross.  This stage is a third of the size of the original walled city of Old Jerusalem.  Nowadays thousands attend each performance (which has a cast of hundreds), and the starring roles are played by telenovela actors, prompting the New York Times to ask: "Should Jesus sign autographs?".

~     ~     ~

The keynote was a very interesting talk on metatheatre (theatre about theatre), which is my field, so I was filled with delight.  We got into a rollicking debate about the nature of metatheatre in Euripides' The Bacchae, which is often cited as the non-comic origin of metatheatre as a genre (theatrical self-consciousness suffusing every part of the play) rather than a device used every now and then.  Old Comedies, you see, had been flinging their theatricality at their audiences like the embittered stand-up comics they were for years before The Bacchae.

In this, Euripides' last play, the king of Thebes, Pentheus, is disturbed to find that a new religious cult from the East has come to his city and possessed its citizens.  The women of the town, in particular, have been moved to abandon their homes and take to the forest, where they spend their days in a state of ecstatic glee, frolicking amidst the flowers, striking rocks to make streams of wine spring forth from them, and ripping animals into pieces with their bare hands.

Pentheus is particularly annoyed to find that this is the cult of Dionysus, a cousin of his.  Dionysus' mother, Semele, miraculously conceived before she was married.  She claimed that she had lain with Zeus, the king of the gods, in disguise.  The women around her, including her sisters and a woman who is actually Zeus' wife in disguise (those gods like nothing better than a good game of dress-up), mocked her for the feebleness of this lie - clearly she had slept with a mortal man and was attempting to hide it in the most sacrilegious possible way. Or perhaps her lover is only pretending to be a god, and she is just the most gullible woman ever to walk the earth.

Semele begins to feel a bit doubtful.  So she begs her lover to reveal himself in his true form. Reluctantly, he gives in, and when she gazes on him in all his divine glory, she is struck by a lightning bolt and consumed by flame.  Zeus snatches the fetal Dionysus from her burning body.

See?, her sisters (including Pentheus' mother) say, the god struck her down because of the infamy of her claims to divine impregnation.  And that is when the newly-divine god of wine and theatre decides to come to town and teach his female relatives a vengeful lesson about doubting divinity.  He drives them wild with Bacchic ecstasy, taking over their senses almost against their will.  When Pentheus tries to drive the cult out, he lures him back in by saying this: Aren't you at all curious about what the revels of the Bacchae look like?  After all, who knows what those ecstatic women are up to, partying alone up on that mountain?  Don't you just want to take a look?  Well, then, you had better dress up as one of them, so as to avoid attracting attention.

And the next thing Pentheus knows, he is dressed in the slightly feminine robes of Dionysus.  He is an exact double of the god. When he goes up to spy on the Bacchae, his own mother leads the women in ripping him limb from limb.  Metatheatre is a perilous thing.

Much is often made of the idea that acting is represented here as a sacrificial act: the root of the word "tragedy" is a Greek word meaning "goat-song," which seems to speak to the ritual qualities of the Festival of Dionysus where the plays were performed.  Chant a choric ode, sacrifice a goat, perform a tragedy: they are all gifts to the gods.  But the tragedy in particular asks the tragic hero, and the actor who plays him (less often her), to sacrifice himself for the community.  They suffer (and, as characters, often die) as the scapegoat for our common guilt.  So Pentheus becomes the first human actor, the first person to dress up and take the place of the god in the sacrifice, and tragic metatheatre is born.

But equally interesting to me (as I said in the conference discussion) is the way that this is a metatheatre of spectatorship; an exploration of the perils of watching, and a warning to the audience of what they are getting themselves into.  Spectatorship is a kind of gateway drug: "Don't you want to see...", Dionysus says to Pentheus.  And he does, he really really does.  When we hear about something alien or unthinkable or extreme, we can't help but want to see it - why else are we watching The Bacchae?  But look what happens to Pentheus next: he is drawn into the spectacle, not as separate as he would like to think a spectator should be, and the next thing he knows he is a Bacchante, he is Dionysus, he is an actor, he is the sacrifice itself.  Never forget that Dionysus was born out of an act of forbidden spectatorship: please, god, show me your true face, so that I can be sure.

There are consequences to looking on the divinity, and on truth.  Acting is the gods' way of protecting us from the pure extremity of the real, the truth.  Revelation is a variety of punishment.

~     ~     ~

Anyhoo.  A bit bleak, that.

Adaptation was really the topic of the day. During a panel on film and theatre (one of my favorite subjects), we got to talking about the nature of adapting material between the two forms.  Is responsible, thoughtful adaptation (I found myself asking the panel) always a meta-act, because it has to justify the creation of a new artistic artifact in a different genre or form?  Does it always have to say "Here is what film, or the graphic novel, or live performance brings to The Producers / Hamlet / Buffy that the original couldn't offer in its form"?

~     ~     ~

During a talk on reinterpreting Shakespeare, I began to contemplate a new course structure.  Normally I try to cram as much material into the semester as I think my students can handle.  I am a syllabus glutton.  But suddenly I began to consider the opposite strategy - a course in which we covered a single canonical play in extreme, microscopic depth.  It would be called something like "Dissecting and Adapting the Canon."

In the first half of the term, we would work our way through the text (something like Measure for Measure or Oedipus) scene by scene, doing close readings and reading secondary sources on historical questions, different theoretical approaches to the text, etc.  At midterm, instead of an exam, we would have a semi-staged reading of the text with "explanatory notes" on various issues of interest interjected by the students.  It would be open to the university community as a whole, with the intention of making this a regular feature of the department's yearly schedule - something friends could attend, teachers could assign as extra credit, etc.  Performance-as-research. 

The second half of the term would be an extended adaptation project.  We would read theories of adaptation, read and view works influenced by our key text, and, finally, theorize and compose a new work of art that rewrites our original text, but lends it a new form based on the concerns of our particular culture moment.  Not a modernization, but a complete rethinking of the text.  What elements in it speak to us most urgently now, and why?  In place of a final exam, students would hold another staged reading, this time of their own creation.

We will see what happens to this idea after a few years of percolation.