Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Playbills from Broadway--Waiting for Godot

A lot of people collect the Playbills from the theater, so much so that there are even special bindings you can buy to preserve them. And opening night Playbills come with a little sticker attesting to that.

I totally understand the urge to keep the program; I always bring mine home, especially from plays I've enjoyed. But mine are never crisp, neat, and well-preserved. Somehow they end up all rumpled and bent from being rolled up, dropped on the floor,
stuffed in a bag. But I keep them nonetheless. They are free souvenirs, easy to pack, and a good way to spark my notoriously bad memory for details long after I think I've forgotten the play.

On our recent trip to New York, we saw three plays, all coincidentally featuring well-known screen celebrities and all featuring a rather bleak outlook on life, although that's not necessarily why we chose the plays. The most memorable was
Waiting for Godot, starring Bill Irwin, John Glover, Nathan Lane, and John Goodman.

I've seen Godot before and have read the play several times.
Waiting for Godot can seem quite despairing, especially on the written page. Full of existential angst and brutality, it's an odd choice for someone like me who trends toward depression. But this production was a revelation -- I had never realized how funny Godot is, in the right hands. Comedy truly is in the timing.The actors in this production hit every note. It was by turns hilarious, profoundly moving, and -- again somewhat unexpectedly-- optimistic. We may not know why we are on this earth or what our lives mean. There may be nothing to do. But we are alive and that is reason enough to keep on living. Or so this production implied.

Lane (Estragon) and Irwin (Vladimir) are excellent, two satellites that circle each other at safe removes, seemingly independent, and yet tethered by the gravity of companionship and need. Glover's Lucky, literally tethered to his master Pozzo by a thick rope around his neck, was an interesting blend of Tim Burton's Jack Skellington from
The Nightmare Before Christmas and the loose-limbed, pontificating Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz (although certainly less cheerful than the latter.)

All the actors were superb, but John Goodman's performance
just blew me away. I've often been impressed and surprised by the depths Goodman reveals in some of his films. It's a mistake to consider him only as the funny fat man he played in Roseanne or movies like the Flintstones. He can tap into something very dark, as evidenced in his scary performances in Barton Fink and O Brother Where Art Thou. Here, he plays Pozzo, a cruel, selfish, aristocrat with a vaguely British, uppercrust accent and an imperious, threatening demeanor. Goodman's immense size and power contributes to his threatening posture and makes the scene when Pozzo falls to the ground and can't get up all the more moving. His Pozzo is at once full of aggrandizing self-assurance, unquestioned privilege, barely contained rage, pathetic neediness, and, at the end, wisdom and insight, if only for a brief moment. It's a stunning performance.

We lucked into a brief after-show discussion featuring Irwin, Glover, and Goodman. They talked about the choice of pronunciation (GOD-oh rather than Go-doh), which I at first found disconcerting. Apparently, it's closer to Beckett's original French, and it resonates better with Pozzo. But the most amusing and interesting exchange was John Goodman's answer to the inevitable question about whether Godot is God and what in the heck it all means. "I don't know or care," said Goodman. "I just try to tell a good story." In this, he seems to be echoing Beckett, who once said, "all I knew about Pozzo was in the text...if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters.” Beckett also once said that "if by Godot I had meant God I would have said God, and not Godot.”

When asked, "how do you handle the humor in such an incessantly pessimistic play," Goodman deadpanned, "with a trowel." He paused, then went on, "What are you going to do? It's an inherently funny play. Samuel Beckett wrote it for Sid Caesar."

I wish I had thought to ask about the obvious blood and bruises on Lane's face. My recollection, reinforced by a quick look at the very interesting
Wikipedia entry on the play, is that there was never any evidence to support Estragon's claim that he is beaten every night. This production erases that ambiguity. It might thus also subtly erase the ambiguity about whether the child who purports to be a messenger from Godot actually has met and talked to the never-seen title character, although, as Frink points out, the child is not exactly a reliable witness, as he cannot remember having met Didi and Gogo the day before. This production also encourages a more hopeful ending by having E and V grasp the other's hand in the final scene.

Here's a link to the
theatre, where Godot is playing through July 12.

I'll post thoughts on the other two plays,
God of Carnage and Exit the King, in the next few days. Read more!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Exposing Art to Our Selves

Human nature baffles and amuses me. This past weekend, we were in New York for a quick vacation. During our visit to the Metropolitan Museum, we noticed signs leading to "Michelangelo's First Work." We followed them, only to find a huge crowd gathered in front of this tiny painting like the monsters clinging to poor Saint Anthony. Now, don't get me wrong: The Tormenting of St. Anthony, attributed to a 12 or 13-year-old Michelangelo, is intriguing and historically significant. But it was interesting that the Renoirs, Vermeers, Monets, and Van Goghs were, in comparison, almost ignored by tourists intent on crowding around this small canvas.

Was it the "first"--that drew in the crowds? The novelty? The sense of seeing something that others haven't seen (despite the fact that the painting is owned by another American museum)? I've experienced the same thing myself -- I had to see the REAL David in Florence, the actual object, not a copy, despite the fact the the cast outside the Palazzo Vecchio is almost identical and is in the exact location where the original once stood. There's something incredibly moving and transformative about seeing the real thing.

And, like the typical American tourist, I, too, bought the souvenir mug. (Mine is of a work I didn't even get to see -- Hokusai's "Great Wave." The Japanese wing was closed the day we were at the Met. Nevertheless, I love this print and will enjoy drinking my coffee out of the mug.)

I also observed another phenomenon that was equally baffling but less amusing than the desire to see the real thing: Drive-by art snapping. At least half the people in the museum seemed to be trotting through the galleries with cameras glued to their faces. They raced up to paintings, especially those by famous artists, snapped a quick photo, checked the photo in the screen of the camera, then quickly moved on, spending virtually no time looking at, much less seeing the actual work of art in front of their eyes.

The drive-by photographers reminded me of a man I once saw at Cape Canaveral videotaping his wife as she bought souvenirs in the gift shop. At what point do these tourists stop framing everything through the lens of their camera and start living the actual experience? Do they need the photo to confirm they were there? Isn't the t-shirt (or mug--mea culpa) confirmation enough? That couple at Cape Canaveral actually led me to stop carrying a camera on my trips, a vow I kept until I visited Iceland and couldn't resist taking pictures of that glorious landscape. Now, too often, I find myself lapsing back into the mindset of seeing something beautiful or remarkable and instantly framing it as a photo, in my mind or in my viewfinder. I do take photos when I travel, but far fewer than I used to.

Watching and thinking about the drive-by art snappers reminded of "The Loss of the Creature," an essay by Walker Percy in which he writes about the difficulty of living an authentic experience in modern society. As summarized on Wikipedia:

"The more or less objective reality of the individual is obscured in and ultimately lost to systems of education and classification. Percy begins by discussing the Grand Canyon--he says that, whereas Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, who discovered the canyon, was amazed and awed by it, the modern-day sightseer can see it only through the lens of "the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer's mind" (47). Because of this, the sightseer does not appreciate the Grand Canyon on its own merits; he appreciates it based on how well or poorly it conforms to his preexisting image of the Grand Canyon, formed by the mythology surrounding it. What is more, instead of approaching the site directly, he approaches it by taking photographs, which, Percy says, is not approaching it at all. By these two processes--judging the site on postcards and taking his own pictures of it instead of confronting it himself--the tourist subjugates the present to the past and to the future, respectively."

That describes the drive-by art snappers to a T. And me, with my mug. If I ever do see an original print of the Great Wave, I wonder, will it live up to the expectations formed by the reproductions I've seen on calendars and coffee mugs?

(Here's an article about the Michelangelo painting.) Read more!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Sunday Book Notes -- Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney

Note to my readers (if you are still there!): I have not blogged in a while. I've been sick with an infection that sapped all my energy. Then we took two short trips, which I'll blog on this week. But first, a day late, is an entry in my new "Sunday Book Notes" feature.

As the oldest poem in English, and as a ripping good yarn, Beowulf has been translated dozens of times. My favorite by far is Seamus Heaney's translation. Although some literature snobs complain that he sacrifices accuracy in the service of poetry, I love his version. It is lyrical, exotic, and gripping.

I first read Beowulf in high school, and again as an English major in college. I enjoyed it but didn't fully appreciate it until I was much older. Or maybe I just appreciated it on different levels than before. (I've certainly lived the truth of that old saying that you never read the same book twice.)

I rediscovered the poem when I was traveling in Scandinavia. The Viking ships and treasure hoards I saw in museums sparked my curiosity about the cultures depicted in Norse sagas. Then I went to Iceland, where I visited the actual sites of some of the sagas, standing on the very ground where Burnt Njal was set on fire and touring other sites that have remained virtually unchanged since the year 1200. These journeys, in turn, led me back to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which I had devoured in high school and college. I didn't know then that Tolkien was a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature, or that he was profoundly influenced by the sagas and Beowulf in creating his mythology. And thus, my circuitous reading saga led me back to Beowulf.

One of Tolkien's most influential essays, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," argued that
Beowulf is too often dismissed as "serious" literature because of its monsters and dragons. Tolkien argued that it is a profoundly significant work, not in spite of its monsters, but because of them. They speak to something deep, even cthonic, that springs from the ground into the very marrow of human experience. He also lamented that the poem was seen only as a repository to be mined for historic facts about 6th century Scandinavia, where it is set, or about the 8th to 11th century period in which it was first written down. (On reflection, I guess there's a bit of irony in my coming back to the book through artifacts and burial mounds.)

Tolkien drew heavily on Beowulf in creating his tales. For me, part of the fun in reading the poem is finding the correspondences to Tolkien's work -- the Riders of Rohan, Sam killing the spider Shelob, the kin-slayer Gollum, Bilbo's theft of the golden cup from Smaug's hoard, the sword that was broken -- all have origins in Beowulf.

But of course, even if you're not a Tolkien fan, Beowulf is a stunning work, a peek into a world of blood oaths and violence, of heroism and faltering humanity.

The action takes place in a Christian world still heavily influenced by Pagan belief and ritual. The poem begins with the aging king Hrothgar, impotent in the face of the murderous Grendel, who night after bloody night wreaks havoc, killing Hrothgar's men. The dashing and boastful Geat prince, Beowulf, comes to the rescue, killing first Grendel and then his distraught and vengeful mother. In seeking vengeance, Grendel's mother is in fact participating in the same moral code that defines the human society. The poem seems almost modern in its shifts in perspective, in its erasure at times of the line between "man" and "monster." We are allowed to feel the mother's loss of her son from her perspective. We sympathize with her for a moment, much as Tolkien encourages our empathy for warped and pitiful Gollum. Later, we see the world through the eyes of the dragon that ultimately kills Beowulf, just as we see through the eyes of the spider Shelob in LOTR.

The battle scenes are what get stressed in the various movie versions of Beowulf. (Probably the most laughable film is the one featuring a nude CGI avatar of Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother. It's been larded with the full Hollywood treatment, losing the essence of story in a morass of overblown action, gratuitous nudity, and technological razzle dazzle. The epic failings of this movie can be summed up by the words of the director,Robert Zemeckis: “Frankly, nothing about the original poem appealed to me....I remember being assigned to read it in junior high school and not being able to understand it because it was in Old English.")

The battles are certainly memorable, but I prefer other sections of the tale. The action is often interrupted with extended scenes in which a singer/poet "unlocks his word-hoard" and recounts the feats of other heroes, like the legendary dragon-slayer Sigemund. The most harrowing story-in-a-story tells of a queen who loses her entire family-- father, husband, sons, -- to the violent imperative of the blood oath. This tale foreshadows what will happen to Hrothgar's sons, who will be killed by their uncle who covets the throne.

Beowulf's end is particularly moving. An aging king himself, Beowulf is beset on all sides by invading tribes. When a rampaging dragon, angered by the theft of a golden cup from his hoard, begins to pick off his people, Beowulf faces a choice. He can battle the dragon alone, risking not only his own life, but also the future of his people, who will be over-run when his enemies learn that the renowned warrior king is dead. Or, he can forego glory and take his men with him to battle the dragon.

Beowulf chooses the path of glory. Perhaps he is recalling the words of Hrothgar, who tells him early in the poem:

It is always better
To avenge dear ones
than to indu
lge in mourning.
For every one of us,
living in this world waiting for our end.
Let whoever can
Win glory before death.
When a warrior is gone,
That will be his best and only bulwark.

Beowulf dies, thus guaranteeing the extinction of his race.

On a height they kindled the hugest of all
Funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke
Billowed darkly up, the blaze roared
And drowned out their weeping, wind died down
And flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,
Burning it to the core. They were disconsolate
And wailed aloud for their lord’s decease.
A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
With hair bound up, she unburdened herself
Of her worst fears, a wild litany
Of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
Enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
Slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed the smoke.

It is a breathtaking, melancholy end-- to the hero and to his people, to the poem and to an age.

Beowulf and The Lord of the Rings are, in the end, profoundly melancholy works, lamentations for lost, idealized worlds of heroic men and deeds. As Tolkien says in his essay, "It is a poem by a learned man writing of old times, who looking back on the heroism and sorrow feels in them something permanent and something symbolical." The poet, writing of an earlier, lost time, knows that "those days were heathen--heathen, noble, and hopeless." He may as well be speaking of The Lord of the Rings, where Aragorn, the last of the heroic peoples of Numenor, ultimately dies and the elves sail into the East and diminish. Or of Tolkien's lost boyhood friends, who all died on the fields of Somme in WWI.

If you're interested in some of the background on Beowulf, I recommend the fabulous Norton Critical Edition. It includes critical commentary, genealogy charts and maps, Tolkien's essay, and loads of pictures from archelogoical sites, like the fantastic buckle from Sutton Hoo pictured below, and the helmet, which has a boar on the crest just like the one described in the poem.

I also highly recommend the CD
with Heaney himself reading the poem...or at least most of it. (The copy on the back refers to "unabridged excerpts," which is not the same thing as unabridged.) Hearing Heaney read the poem in his Irish brogue is a delicious experience. Here are some snippets to whet your appetite.

Here's an informative and fun site on all things Beowulf.

And here's a link t
o some reproductions of Lynd Ward's woodcut illustrations for an edition of Beowulf. (For a previous post of Lynd Ward, click here.)

Rating: Five buckles (out of five).

Read more!