Yesterday, WBAI-FM radio’s Arts Express broadcast part two of my interview with Peter Frase, author of the new book Four Futures.
Frase has an intriguing set of ideas about what the future might look like after capitalism destructs, given the ecological constraints of abundance/scarcity and the political constraints of equality/inequality. In this final segment we talk about what might happen if the world’s resources turn out to be strictly limited.
The once popular radio and television comedian Jack Benny welcomes some unlikely guests to his TV show, the folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary. They prove that you can make a folk song out of anything—even stingy Jack’s home town of Waukegan.
Yesterday, WBAI-FM radio’s Arts Express broadcast part one of my interview with Peter Frase, author of the new book Four Futures. Frase has an intriguing set of ideas about what the future might look like after capitalism destructs, given the ecological constraints of abundance/scarcity and the political constraints of equality/inequality.
After reading my friend Mitchel Cohen’s essay on factors affecting how people change their political views, I was reminded of the scene above from Chaplin’s Modern Times (I’m strange that way). Facts alone, Cohen says, are often not enough to change a person’s political views, because the person’s psychological reaction formation simply dismisses the new facts as false propaganda.
I’m a little less pessimistic concerning facts. Generally, I think that facts that challenge the framework of the conversation, or move the discussion to a wider context, some meta-level, can be very useful.
Well, this isn’t the place for that discussion (but see Mitchel Cohen’s excellent series of essays here: http://www.redballoonbooks.org/books/books.html for really deep imaginative thinking about how political change is effected and affected).
But what that conversation reminded me of was the roller skating scene from Modern Times, as well as reminding me of magic and the technology of deception. If you haven’t watched the video above yet, please take two minutes to watch it. Don’t watch the video link below though yet—it’s a spoiler.
Once you watch the first video, consider your feelings about the scene. Next click the link below. I think you’ll enjoy it. Consider what happens to your mindset about the first video when the frame is broken.
The play as advertised on the title page of its First Quarto publication declares its putative genre: a Pleasant Conceited Comedy. And so it is for four and a half acts. Not only is it based on a simple comedy plot conceit—four royal gents, including the King of Navarre, try to forswear thoughts of women, but give up as soon as four women visitors, including the Princess of France, arrive—but the copious wordplay, wealth of literary allusions, and satirical sallies aimed at the pretensions of the educated classes, indicate the young “upstart crow” of a playwright calling attention to his easy gifts, leaving his calling card with not a little hubris. The play is drunk with puns and verbal sparring, and with parodies of those who would spend so much time twisting words into what they’re not. Shakespeare juggles the words, plot, and characters with due ostentation, like a strolling player with four balls in the air at once. There is no hiding art with art here: his art is all out there on display.
The play at first seems to share a theme that most of Shakespeare’s comedies embody: love makes us all mad and makes us do silly, out of character things. And like many of the other comedies, Love’s Labour’s Lost employs many of the same comic plot devices with its verbal sparring between lovers, disguises, mistaken identities, and maskings and unmaskings.
And this is how the play goes for four and a half acts. The men woo the ladies, the ladies demur, the men disguise themselves and try to trick the ladies, but the women get their own back by swapping identities among themselves during a masked entertainment. Finally the duplicities are uncovered and the women triumph, embarrassing the men, getting the men to admit their faults and their love. It’s just at this juncture in the other comedies where there would be a laughing, a forgiving, and the men and women would conclude by dancing a merry jig, with weddings in the air. That’s what the theatrical clock anyway says should happen here, given the stage time left to wrap up.
But here instead in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare does an extraordinary thing. A messenger delivers the news from France that the Princess’s father has died. The news casts a terrible pall on the proceedings and causes the women to withdraw completely. Even though the men earnestly declare their love for the women as honestly as they can, the women will have none of it; they are too perturbed by sorrow and get ready to go back home to France. It’s a remarkable moment; it’s as if someone had come out and said to the audience, sorry folks, there’s no comedy tonight, one of the actors has died. . .we tried to keep your sorrows at bay for the last few hours, but unhappy reality always creeps in, and so it has again. The women must go home to mourn; they say that they will be back in twelve months, but only if the men can prove they have become better people, and have done genuine social penance in that time. And we are left hanging.
In construction, Love’s Labour’s Lost is unique in the Shakespeare canon. Although other Shakespeare plays shift gears in the final moments as Love’s Labour’s Lost does, those other so-called “problem plays” —Measure for Measure, Cymbeline, and All’s Well that Ends Well, for example—do so in a decidedly different way. Those plays start off as apparent tragedies, and then suddenly by a happy turn of events, often due to an act of bold and generous forgiveness, lovers are reconciled, friendships are repaired, and the world is righted once again. But not so in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Its construction is the very opposite of the problem plays. It seems to have every intention of being a comedy, but in the last moments the play morphs into sadness, snatched from the jaws of happiness. As far as I know, Shakespeare doesn’t do that anywhere else.
In another play, the unhappy turn of events at the end might serve as a plot twist in the middle of the play, only to be merrily overcome by the end. But no such luck in Love’s Labour’s Lost. The time is out of joint. One of the men announces quite openly to the other players (and the audience):
Our wooing doth not end like an old play:
Jack hath not Gill. These ladies’ courtesy
Might well have made our sport a comedy.
Come, sir, it wants a twelvemonth an’ a day,
And then ’twill end.
That’s too long for a play.
The play ends with a song, not by the assembled would-be lovers, but by players representing Spring and Winter, introduced by Armado, a foolish visiting nobleman. The song about spring warns married couples that they are subject to being cuckolded, while the song about winter reminds the assembled of all the chores and drudgery that the cold weather brings, albeit bringing perhaps a kind of small domestic satisfaction. When the songs are over Armado says in a bittersweet curtain speech, “The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.” Mercury traditionally was the deliverer of messages, while Apollo was the God of art, music and poetry. It was as if Shakespeare were saying, as an artist he could ease you with the comforts of art, but he couldn’t close his eyes to what life could bring at any moment. One unfortunate message is enough to turn any happiness upside down. It is an odd, odd ending for a comedy. The curtain comes down as Armado says, “You that way, we this way.”
Who is Armado addressing that line to? Who is the “you” and the “we”? The men and the women of the play? The audience and the actors? Or Shakespeare and everybody else? For community and the very act of storytelling seem to be at root the very essence of comedy, yet Shakespeare insists on ending with a separation.
It was an audacious jump. Shakespeare wanted to go “that way,” differently from the “this way” of others. He could set a plot in motion as well as any other trifling theatrical, he could parry and thrust his wit as sharply as any of his peers. But in the end he wanted something different. By this time, he had already thrown Aristotle out the window—no precious Unities of time and place for him, the world was too encompassing for that—but he now also wanted to do away with false endings that spoke of finality, when the truth was that everything one knows can change in an instant, and happiness can turn into sadness in a heartbeat.
What could have prompted such a desire in the playwright at this time? The Quarto title page may provide a clue. It was printed in 1598, but the notice on the page declares that it had been performed for the Queen the previous Christmas in 1597. So it’s not unlikely that the play was composed around 1596-1597. But in 1596, the successful London playwright got a visit from Mercury himself with the news from Stratford-On-Avon: Shakespeare’s only son, eleven-year-old Hamnet, had died. Was it this awful blow that turned a sunny comedy into a darker meditation on the ephemeral nature of life? I think it must be so.
What must Will’s audiences have thought of the play? It was thought well enough of, that it was published in several Quarto and Folio editions. But perhaps that was for the more literary-minded, because actual productions of the play after its initial performances were few and far between until the 20th century. I think, ultimately, that the play was not a crowd-pleaser. In short order, the practical-minded impresario Shakespeare eventually came to his senses, and never wrote such a bitter comedy again. In truth, the very comedic form which Love’s Labour’s Lost subverts is exactly the kind of comedy that Shakespeare then goes ahead and writes for the next decade. He never seeks to end a comedy in such a melancholy way again. So figuratively he writes with one hand behind his back, and the titles give his contempt away: As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night or What You Will— that’s what you want from Will, that’s what you will get.
He never did write a comedy like Love’s Labour’s Lost again, although certainly he expressed the darker side of his nature in the tragedies and the histories. He retired after 37 plays, a wealthy man, with a newly minted coat-of-arms, to his house in Stratford-on-Avon. But Love’s Labour’s Lost stands as a bold experiment in form by a young playwright near the peak of his powers who once allowed Mercury’s harsh words to interrupt Apollo’s song.
Monday morning, relentless rhyme, and some jabs at would-be folk Messiahs.
“The Hustler is about people who hustle fame. We are most familiar with the money variety. It’s about those who try to rub shoulders with God then sell you a piece of his cloud. It’s about those who hustle cigarettes from Joan Baez even though they know she doesn’t smoke.” — Eric Andersen
Oh, you can try to run me down
But you can’t drive me underground
When you’re not there I’ll be around
To haunt you, I won’t make a sound
To track you, I don’t need a hound
You think you’re lost, I’ve got you found
You’re surrounded, though you think that they can’t see.
Your castle walls, they all will fall
You’ll be surprised that all-in-all
Nobody really cares at all
You won’t believe the beggar’s gall
That can bite your heels when you crawl
That pain can come from those so small
Go cry wolf, or better, you should scream!
Though you’re not on top, you think you’re first
Some surgeon’s scalpel stealin’ nurse
Who can let others feel the hurt
When you’re the driver of the hearse
So you’ll feel bad but they’ll feel worse
Without you what would the doctor be?
I’m watching you, but not quite like before
I will find you, you’re the one I’m a-lookin’ for
And when it’s over don’t say sorry anymore
A brushless painter runnin’ down
Into the night to paint the town
While putting everybody on
Blowing smoke rings for the clowns
You brag of those you’ve been around
They listen to your silly sounds
Disciples pass your bread around
While the cross is hidden in your gown
They think that they’re on holy ground
Not knowing Judas watches from the trees!
While posing as the saint of need
Godfather to the one who’s weak
By using words like “sad defeat”
You laugh that you’ve got losing beat
The girls all giggle at your feet
The squealing people that you meet
You might get made, but be discreet
Don’t take your mask off, trick or treat
As you get the stars down on their knees
But do you really think you have fortune beat?
Believing in the magic noose
That trips the egg, the golden goose
And with it, you can never lose
While fairy tales are still the truth
But don’t let go, hey, don’t let loose
For the goose is flipping off the roof
And without its wings, how can you be free?
I’m watching you, but not quite like before
I will find you, You’re the one I’m a-lookin’ for
And when it’s over don’t say sorry anymore.
Lone Ranger, he just rides along
Protecting those that don’t belong
In the land where there’s no right or wrong
As Tonto, you just load his gun
For killing outlaws one by one
And shooting inlaws just for fun
While the jungle laws are on the run
Step out before you get stepped on
You say this with your war paint on
Afraid if you’re in the dark too long
‘Cause you know the jungle’s no place for the meek!
You say life is absurdity
A carnival for melodies
You eye the big-time bitterly
And set the stage so faithfully
A hawker for Lord Mystery
While marching so religiously
As the army that has paid to see
The choirboy of reality
Laugh at all authority
You smile oh-so-cynically
The sole possessor of his key
But it’s sad to know that’s all you’ll ever be.
You said keep on the sunny side
That life was just a rainbow ride
A silver-studded surfboard glide
On the wine of waves to keep you high
Don’t hit the moon when you fly too wide
It’ll bring you down below the tide
Where no one keeps their tears inside
The waters hide them if you cry
For in the waves, there are no mysteries.
I’m watching you, but not quite like before
I will find you, you’re the one I’m a-lookin’ for
And when it’s over, don’t say sorry anymore.
Theo Annemann was a magician often considered the patron saint of mentalism. He was a prolific inventor of card magic as a young man, something of a prodigy, although he really distinguished himself as the editor and publisher of a weekly magazine devoted to close-up mental effects, started in 1934, called The Jinx. The effects and methods contained therein were foundational for just about every succeeding performer of mental magic afterwards, but the real joy of reading The Jinx now is the light it shines on the New York magic scene of the ’30s contained in Annemann’s editorials and reviews.
Alas, although Annemann was in his early years a dynamic performer, by the end of 1941 the 34-year old’s life was a mess: he was in debt, working on his second divorce, drinking heavily, his gums were seriously infected, and although terrified now of performing in public, a show was coming up. He sought to solve his problems by attaching a hose to his gas oven and inhaling. He was found dead the next day in his pajamas, a bag over his head and the hose still attached. Poor Ted.
This is all by way of repeating one of my favorite anagrams, created by Harry Anderson, magician, raconteur, wise guy, and actor (he was the judge in the popular 1980s TV sitcom, Night Court).
A few days a week I work at a public high school for new immigrants here in New York City, and one of my students, Lamine, asked me to act with him in a scene from a play for the school’s Talent Show. So we worked up the following which you can see in the clip above.
It was a lot of fun to prepare and perform. The student audience last Thursday really appreciated the dynamics of the father-son story: the son has just moved out of his parents’ house to his older brother’s apartment, leaving only a letter behind to announce his decision. He thinks he’s on his way to a hot date–but when the doorbell rings, it’s his father.