For Halloween, something special, an homage to the old-time 1940s suspense radio series Lights Out. I wrote and produced a modern update of the Lights Out episode called “Revolt of The Worms” for the Arts Express radio program, broadcast today over WBAI FM NYC and Pacifica affiliates across the nation.
“We caution you. This story is definitely not for the timid soul. So we tell you, calmly and very sincerely, if you frighten easily, turn off your radio now. And now if you haven’t already done so, turn off your… lights now… and listen to… Revolt of the Worms.”
Starring Mary Murphy, Josh Miccio and Reggie Johnson.
To listen, click on the triangle or image to play.
Here’s the audio version of my commentary on Shakespeare’s King John, which I recorded for Arts Express on WBAI NY radio and Pacifica affiliates across the country..
It’s one of the least known of Shakespeare’s plays, but no less a writer than George Orwell said about it, “When I saw it acted, what with its intrigues and double crossings, non-aggression pacts, quislings, people changing sides in the middle of a battle, and what-not, it seemed to me extraordinarily up to date.”
To listen, click on the triangle or mp3 link above.
Recently, NPR broadcast their audio production of Shakespeare’s Richard II. I‘d like to discuss a less often performed play of Shakespeare’s about another failed English king, Shakespeare’s King John. It resonates as an absolutely modern play in the sense that Machiavelli is modern: with penetrating insights into the hypocrisies and double-dealings of the ruling elites.
The Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro likes to say that in Shakespeare’s plays, the kings are brought down because they don’t understand that the pressures of the time are going to be far more intense than anything they had previously imagined. They don’t grow into their roles to meet the time; instead they are crushed by their inadequacies. They don’t recognize that the old order has lost all legitimacy and the new world is struggling to be born. It’s always a time of great anxiety for both the elites and the underlings. Feel free to draw comparisons to our own time—as you should.
As King John opens, John, the English King, is readying for war with France, with the French declaring their legitimate right over several disputed territories. But King John will have none of it and vociferously defends England’s claim: “Here have we war for war and blood for blood/ Controlment for controlment: so answer France.”
And John is not just defending the legitimacy of England’s ownership of territory—John is also defending the legitimacy of his personal claim to the throne. It’s not a given that John is the legitimate heir. John’s dead older brother, Geoffrey, still has a living heir, a young boy named Arthur, and though John has declared himself King of England (he of the Magna Carta) with the backing of the newly risen landowner class of nobles, there are those pushing the line of the young Arthur, and they ally themselves with the French to stake their own claim to legitimacy.
And Shakespeare really likes to play with this notion of legitimacy and illegitimacy. One character, a military adventurer named Philip, is literally illegitimate, having been secretly fathered by Richard The Lion-Hearted during an adulterous rendezvous. Phillip would rather be known as an illegitimate son, and give up his ancestral rights to his family property, than to disavow his real father. Rather than run from illegitimacy, he embraces it with the title “The Bastard.”
So it’s off to war. The poor citizens of a disputed walled town have to decide which of the bellowing forces, the French or the English, they would rather surrender to. One citizen of the town agreeably says that they would gladly be ruled by the King of England—if they only knew who that legitimately was. So when you decide, let us know. And in an attempt to forestall what they know will be a coming war, the town’s citizens propose a compromise—why not have the son of the French King and the daughter of the English King marry and form a happy alliance between the two forces and establish legitimacy that way?
But not so fast…
Constance, the mother of young Arthur, the Mother of All Tiger Moms, who has aligned with the French forces, bitterly refuses such a compromise—she wants to see her son Arthur on the throne: “War! War! No peace. Peace to me is a war!” So Constance along with the French get their war.
And how ineptly the English King John handles it! John bumbles from one misstep to another. The English, under the military direction of The Bastard, do manage to capture the young Arthur, and take him prisoner. But King John fumbles the ball. Because even King John’s advisors recognize that young Arthur must be treated well in captivity or the public will turn against the King. In a duplicitous world where no one can be trusted, Arthur’s purity and naivete stand out. He is the one totally sympathetic character in the play. But the narcissistic King John, against the advice of his counselors, secretly orders his henchman, Hubert, to murder the beloved boy. And in an excruciatingly horrific and tender scene, the boy pleads with Hubert to spare his life:
Arthur: Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?
Hubert: Young boy, I must.
Arthur: And will you?
Hubert: And I will.
Arthur: Have you the heart? When your head but did ache,
I knit my handkercher about your brows—-
The best I had, a princess wrought it me—
And I never did ask it you again
And with my hand at midnight held your head,[….]
Saying, “What lack you?” and “Where lies your grief?”
Or “What good love may I perform for you?” […]
If heaven please that you must use me ill,
Why then you must.
This is all too much for Hubert to bear. He relents and lets Arthur escape. Meanwhile, King John realizes he’s made a terrible public relations mistake. He fears the public will turn against him for killing the boy. Hubert comes back to John, ready to lie about Arthur’s execution, but before Hubert can get a word out, the King turns on Hubert, outrageously blaming him for Arthur’s death. When Hubert protests that John had ordered him to kill Arthur, John with audacious bluster, disavows all personal blame and accuses Hubert instead. John says to him:
I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death
And thou, to be endeared to a king
Made it no conscience to destroy a prince.
Hubert can’t stand the accusations anymore, so he admits to John that Arthur is actually still alive. John is elated, and with scarcely an apology to Hubert, he’s ready to make war once more. With the beloved Arthur alive but safely imprisoned, John feels he can win the public relations battle and the war.
But in an amazing piece of plotting by Shakespeare, as Arthur escapes from the prison, the boy falls from a high wall and actually dies for real this time. It’s an extraordinary moment. After having been spared—Shakespeare kills him off!
It brings to mind the infamous scene in Hitchcock’s movie, Sabotage. There, a young schoolboy unknowingly boards a bus with a parcel that contains a time bomb. Of course, the audience knows the bomb won’t go off with the boy holding it, because legitimate suspense movies don’t have bombs go off in the arms of little schoolboys. But it does go off, and it’s absolutely shocking. Hitchcock later said that he regretted that scene—it wasn’t a legitimate use of the suspense genre. Well, Shakespeare’s scene is every bit as shocking, but he gets away with it because the whole play is about the fraying of old expectations. Shakespeare is saying that the world is that messed up.
Was Shakespeare grieving about his own little boy Hamnet, who had died sometime around the estimated time of composition of the play? Were the laments of the play’s Constance, Arthur’s mother, the bitter words that Will faced when he came back from London to his wife Anne in Stratford on hearing the earth-shattering news?
The news of Arthur’s death is so awful, even to the English, that two of John’s noble advisors defect to the French side. John is clearly overwhelmed by events: The French seem to be winning battle after battle.
By rights, here we are in Act V, there should be no hope for the English. But we know the history doesn’t end that way; and in one more piece of somersault plotting, the two English advisors who had previously defected to the French side find out the true French policy towards defectors: make nice with them now, but kill them later. So the defectors make a run for it and head back home to join King John. But John meanwhile has been poisoned, which is perhaps a blessing for the English. For now, the new order can take over. The young Prince Henry, son of John, is installed as King, a kind of mirror image of the young dead Arthur; The English under the Bastard’s military direction start winning more battles, and by some miracle, a peace treaty between the French and English has been arranged by the Church. Prince Henry forgives the defector Lords and he prepares to attend his father’s funeral as the play ends.
It’s a decidedly precarious ending. Onstage there is an unspoken pall of anxiety about the future. The new king’s legitimacy is as questionable as his father’s was. The Bastard bravely tries to reassure them that the new time calls for a unity of all English factions including the forgiven wealthy Lords–that’s the only way they can proceed forward safely. But as the play ends, the audience understands that it is not clear whether this new arrangement is really going to work.
Shakespeare himself lived on the cusp of the old and the new, in the transition from a dying feudal order to the rise of the bourgeois capitalist class. The power of kings was being chipped away as rich merchants and landowners bought themselves royal titles with the profits they made from world trade and financial speculation. King John stands at the beginning of that period, and while The Bastard recognizes the inevitability of the capitalist transition, he despises it as well. It’s a system where every person is a commodity, and thus capable of having their honor being bought and corrupted. But even The Bastard doesn’t know whether he can resist the new world’s monetary temptations with its commodities. In an earlier part of the play The Bastard says:
And why rail I on this Commodity?
But for because he hath not woo’d me yet:
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand,
When his fair angels would salute my palm;
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.
Your old road is rapidly aging. You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone. Shakespeare’s King John captures the time when the old legitimate has become illegitimate and no one knows what happens next.
Merri: “The Good die young, But evil is forever.” –John Donne. Hello this is Stale Air, and I’m Merri Boast. Today I’m interviewing our special guest, in this time of coronavirus, an expert in all things diseased and evil, The Devil. Welcome to Stale Air.
Devil: Hi, thank you Merri. Love listening to your show. Big fan of the station. Learned the name of so many different kinds of cheeses from it. And I just never get tired of those Car Talk reruns.
M: Thank you, but before we begin, how are you doing? Is the shelter in place affecting you?
D: Oh, thanks for asking, Merri. It’s tough being confined to the nether realms, 24/7, but I think we’re making do. Can’t complain. Keeping warm. Super busy. I’m very proud of this coronavirus project we’ve been working on. If you don’t mind me tooting my own horn, I think it’s one of the best things we’ve come up with in a long time. People understand now that the world is no longer in a state of limbo, but actually it’s Permanent Hell. And down here we’re pleased as punch to parade our brand–so to speak–parade our brand in front of the population as much as we can. And Oh and speaking of Hell—I want to thank Jeff Bezos , a real buddy, at Amazon for continuing to crack the whip.
M: Good to hear that you are doing well. I’m—I’m not quite sure how to address you. Is Prince of Darkness or Mephistopheles all right?
D: Well, we don’t like to use those names anymore, Merri. They’re kind of stuffy and old-school, and frankly just a wee bit pejorative. Prince of Darkness, really? To tell you the truth, Merri, I prefer Beel-ze-bub. Or for short, just plain Bill is fine. That’s a good Christian name…if you’ll pardon the expression.
M: Bill it is, then. Bill , we all recognize that this has been an unprecedented time—
D: –Thank you–
M: and most of us are wondering if the rest of us are going to make it through this coronavirus epidemic. Do you have any insight into this?
D: Well that’s a great question, Merri. It’s not as simple as it might first appear. Now some may say, what’s the problem, just spread the virus and kill as many people as you can. Clear win for our side. But actually I feel that’s short-sighted. It’s totally forgetting one of the tenets of our side, which is to maximize the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth for the greatest length of time. I’ve brought along a little graph here, cooked up by our art department—thank you Jared and Ivanka—and you’d see on the graph, if my ZOOM connection were better, how the line spikes upwardly very quickly over just a few days. Seems like a clear touchdown, but really, just about anyone can do that. I mean, any of your minor demons could probably have accomplished that. It’s not rocket science. We felt though, that we wanted to go the extra mile to extend the weeping and wailing and particularly the gnashing of teeth as much as possible. And that’s where really we needed to call in our staff, our entire team.
M: So you don’t work alone?
D: Oh, good Lord, no. There’s just too much to be done. I’m basically a hands on guy, and while I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty, I can’t do it all alone. I can’t be everywhere at once. I’m not a miracle worker. It takes a village.
M: I’m wondering, where do you find your staff? Aren’t people horrified when you call on them?
D: Oh no, not at all. We offer a very nice benefits package, 12 vacation days a year, 401K. Cafeteria with a hot foods buffet. Healthcare plan if you choose to buy into it. So we’re very competitive with most non-European enterprises. It’s true, though, that there have been some periods in history, I’ll admit, where it was hard to find people willing to come over to the Dark Side. It was touch and go there for a while during the Garden of Eden thing—and I want to give a shout out to The Snake: Thank you Snake, never gets old. Big Hugs. Now the 60s were tough, finding assistants to insert ourselves into the whole peace, love and anti-war movement was challenging, but we managed, and of course the whole post 9/11 era. Actually, I have to give you guys credit. We borrowed the embedded propaganda approach from you. So well done. And the mass illegal warrantless wiretaps?—really a stroke of genius on the part of your government. We couldn’t have come up with that one ourselves. It’s great to see stuff like that crowd-sourced.
M: This is Merri Boast for Stale Air and I’m talking with Beel-Zee-Bub, Master of Chaos. We’re discussing his plans to cause the maximum of pain and suffering for the greatest length of time. Bill, I was wondering if there was anything in your childhood that might have influenced your present life’s work? Were you an odd child?
D: Ha. Well Merri, that’s funny you should ask that. I was talking with some friends about that the other day, and they were making fun of me because as a child, believe it or not, I didn’t lie. I mean I just could not lie. Every time I thought about lying, I would just get this funny feeling in the pit of my stomach and I would just clam up.
M: Well you certainly seemed to have gotten over that.
D: Thanks, Merri. I say immodestly perhaps, we feel we’ve come a long way. Interning for Mark Zuckerberg did wonders for us. And I want to acknowledge, too, the great work you folks at your station have been doing. We’re just so darn proud of the lies your station has spread. The whole lead up to the Iraq war, the consistent demonizing of the Venezuelan socialists, and the ongoing excuses for the worst depredations of capitalism, all coated with a veneer of hip humanity, really brings joy to my heart. It makes me feel appreciated, and like our work has not been in vain. So kudos to you.
M: Thank you. I’d like, if you don’t mind, to get back to this coronavirus situation. You spoke about maximizing the pain and suffering. Could you tell us a little more about that?
D: Sure. Our team felt that we didn’t want it over in a day or two. So we tossed around the fireball a bit to brainstorm how we could draw this thing out. And I don’t remember who it was, but one of the team members—might have been Mnuchin or Miller, I forget right now—suggested that we have an out. In other words, don’t let people die right away, but hold out the possibility of some hope to extend the timeline.
M: And that’s where you got the idea of social distancing.
D: Exactly, Merri. It is a genius plan, but you see there’s the danger you can go too much the other way, too.
M: Meaning what exactly?
D: Well, meaning our plan to offer up hope might work out too well. What if social distancing actually worked and the virus was completely wiped out?
M: That wouldn’t fit into your plans would it?
D: It certainly wouldn’t, Merri. So we had to figure out a way to provide mitigating circumstances and yet make sure they were not too mitigating.
M: And that’s where the President came in.
D: Yes thank God for him. He really did such yeoman work in sending out mixed messages as to whether social distancing really worked. He made sure that some of the population would quarantine and some wouldn’t. Really perfect to extend things. Oh, and the masks! I don’t mind telling you I LOL’d when I heard him say that he personally would not be wearing a mask. Genius. Keep the people in a state of total confusion as to what works and what doesn’t, and this thing can extend out to the Second Coming.
M: The Second Coming?
D: Slouching towards Bethlehem, Baby, Slouching towards Bethlehem.
M: Thank you, Bill.
D: Thank you, Merri. I’ll be seeing you real soon, okay?
M: I’ve been speaking with Beel-ze-bub, co creator of the coronavirus, The Macarena, and The Ellen Show. Next week we’ll be talking with Vice President Joe Biden about his no-malarkey recipes for grilled cheese. This is Merry Boast …for Stale Air.
(And in a bit, I’ll have the Arts Express audio production posted.)
Corn. After a long war against the Volscians, the hungry Roman peasants demand the release of the captured stores of corn. The victorious general Caius Marcius, later crowned Coriolanus, finds the revolting peasants revolting; he mocks their demands even as they agree to crown him Emperor. All they ask of him in return is that he say a word or two in support of the common people. But the narcissistic Coriolanus refuses to repeat niceties as any usual politician would; finally, all the various political factions find him so intractable and so obstinate that he is exiled. In bitter resentment, Coriolanus offers to lead the opposing Volscian army to victory against Rome, only to fall in crushing defeat.
It’s with some trepidation that I attend a Shakespeare play that I’m not already familiar with, but in Dan Sullivan’s recent excellent Public Theater production of Coriolanus at the Delacorte, the story line was always crystal clear, and each scene unfolded understandably even to these virgin ears.
It’s a play that has an obvious double in Julius Caesar: the Roman setting, the questioning of the godliness of the Emperor, the fickleness of the public, the perfidy and two-faced nature of professional politicians, the arrogance of the powerful, and the persuasive power of words. In terms of language, there are passages in Coriolanus that are the equal to anything in the Shakespeare canon, and characters that are as rich and complex as any that Shakespeare has written. And yet the play is not frequently performed in modern times. The Public Theater’s last production of Coriolanus was forty years ago. What is it about Coriolanus that makes it so … unpopular?
Perhaps because, as Dan Sullivan’s production suggests, the play is a remarkably uneasy and bleakly nihilistic tale. It’s an indictment of society’s glorification and morbid fascination with all things military, including the worship of military heroes, and the fetishization of them as a separate breed. There’s no easy patriotism, no stirring celebration of valor as in Henry V. Here, war is horrible, brutal, thoughtless, and accomplishes nothing; worse, each class in society is more self-serving and deluded than the other. It’s a play with not one hero. No one remains unscathed, the audience can applaud no one.
Which is not to say that the acting ability of some in this production is not heroic. The excellent actor Jonathan Cake’s approach to the role is to treat Coriolanus as an elite, highly trained specialist in the art of war who believes that the rest of society is incapable of understanding him. “You can’t handle the truth!” is always burning inside him, a hair’s breadth away from the surface. Cake reproduces the speech patterns we’ve come to associate with an Oliver North or a Navy SEAL. He could have come from a television ad that extols, “The Few, The Proud, The Marines.” It’s the persona of the man who thinks that in his ability to kill—and therefore to lead—he knows something that the rest of society is afraid to admit to itself: that nothing, nothing at all matters, not corn, not the trappings of power, not royalty, not politics. One thing and one thing only matters: the power of might, the power of the sword, the power of murder and death. It is only from that ability to kill that all other power flows. And it is that knowledge, that absolute certainty, that leads to the contempt of Coriolanus for everyone else.
Coriolanus was written around 1608, in the latter part of Shakespeare’s career. Shakespeare, like Coriolanus, had always been suspicious of the fickle rabble, and as Shakespeare settled more and more into his bourgeois life, it made sense that he would become even more intolerant of them. It’s not surprising that an Elizabethan playwright would have a love-hate relationship with the common folk—he’s got to put bottoms into seats, or stiffs into the standing pit; if he fails to do that, then he’ll have as Hamlet says, a play that was “never acted, or if it was, not above once, for the play I remember pleased not the million…” And the peasants aroused to rebellion in Coriolanus were not just some far-off problem for the Romans; rather, A.L. Rowse reports that contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s later years there had been a peasant uprising in the English Midlands fueled by —wait for it—the price of corn.
And so Coriolanus is exiled. In about five years after Coriolanus‘s opening, Shakespeare, too, will himself become an exile, although in his case, self-imposed, leaving London for the big house, New Place, back in Stratford–Upon–Avon, some 100 miles from his theatre. He was a man of the theater who had gotten his hands dirty in London as playwright, actor, director, producer, financier—a man who had had his hand in all phases of the theater. The old legends had it that he had begun as a stable boy for the theaters; literally someone knee-deep in theater shit since his teen years. But now he must have been beginning to think of retirement. He’s come off a string of hits. He’s tired? Maybe. But I get the feeling of something else. What if this: what if for some reason he is in effect exiled from his own theater company? Maybe he thinks he’s entitled to more money or more shares in the theatre corporation that he and the others founded. Maybe he goes off in a huff because the rest of his company can’t get along with his dictatorial ways anymore. Maybe there are “artistic differences.” Maybe he feels disrespected the way Coriolanus feels disrespected. After all I’ve done for you. In this view, Shakespeare becomes what Coriolanus becomes—a talented bitter man who has done great service and who, betrayed by a fickle public, goes into exile.
This is all speculation of course. But that aspect of Coriolanus’s personality more than anything else stands front and center in this play: the disrespected man of action. What Coriolanus can’t see is that war is a monster that eventually swallows up everyone and everything. The business of making oneself a servant of war, a wager of war, is no guarantee that it won’t destroy everything for all time. Like theater, war is all encompassing.
In the end, in Sullivan’s production, the victorious soldiers of Volscia are as unpredictable as the Roman rabble: with Coriolanus’s dead body in front of them, they unexpectedly disobey their own general, Aufidius. They refuse to take up the body of Coriolanus as a respected fallen enemy general, as Aufidius commands them. Instead, the ragged soldiers seem to realize that Aufidius has more in common with his enemy, Coriolanus, than with themselves. They are sick to death of other people taking their power and using it in the name of war and aggrandizement. No, they will not listen to their general, and if Aufidius looks uneasy at the end of Dan Sullivan’s production, it’s because he knows that he may soon be the next to go.
In many of Shakespeare’s plays you see the old order restored, and the rightful heirs coming back to the throne, or the forces of good becoming the new line of royalty. But in Coriolanus there are no forces of good, and we see no glimmer of redemption. And maybe that’s why Shakespeare had to sell his story as a Roman one, safely distanced from his Jacobean reality: the leaders are no good, the public is no good, your patriotism is no good, your hero generals are no good, it’s all a pile of wreckage and ashes. Better to go back to Stratford, make out your will, and figure out who’s going to get that second-best bed.
Here’s our radio version of the little sketch, Gun Shy, as broadcast yesterday on WBAI, during the Arts Express radio program. Many thanks to The Mighty Arts Express Players, composed of Pearl Shifer and Mary Murphy, and thanks again to Prairie Miller for all the encouragement.
My friend Alan who is a prolific playwright asked me if I’d like to write a very short three-minute curtain raiser for his new play reading. I said yes, having no idea at all what I would write. As it happened, the Parkland school shootings and the government response were still on my mind, so out came this merry little sketch.
Mother in the breakfast room; two children ages seven and eight (should be played by adults) offstage.
Mother: Justin, c’mon you’re going to be late to school.
Justin: (off) I’m coming.
Mother: You, too, Mercy, the school bus is going to be here any moment.
Mercy: (off) I’m coming. Give me a chance. (Justin enters with backpack on hand)
Mother: Look at you. Your hair’s a mess. And what about your sweater?
Justin: Yes, Mom. I have it.
Mother: And did you remember about your homework?
Justin: Really, Mom, you don’t have to remind us about every little thing. (Mercy comes down with her backpack in hand)
Mother: Can’t you get yourself together a little earlier so you don’t have to rush each morning?
Mercy: I’m sorry I was just packing up my backpack. We have a lot of equipment for our new class. And it’s so lame, they make us drag everything back and forth.
Mother: What class is that?
Mercy: Oh, the target class.
Mother: Target class?
Justin: It’s a new required class we have to take in school. We have to be able to kill 65% of potential intruders in order to pass the class, graduate, and go on to middle school.
Mother: How do they know if you’ve done that?
Justin: Well, a wound in one limb counts as a score of 30%, an eye counts for a score of 25%, for a kill you obviously get a 100.
Mercy: Well, unless someone else hits the guy first, in which case you only get 50% for an assist. It’s so unfair. So the thing to do is, if you can’t get a clean kill, try to mix and match so that it adds up to over 65%.
Justin: So two eyes and you pass.
Mercy: No you idiot, that doesn’t add up. That’s only 50—25 and 25.
Justin: I’m not good in math. It’s not my fault. My math teacher only has one eye. She was mistaken for an intruder.
Mother: Well all right, put on your backpacks. Wait a second. What’s that you got in there?
Mercy: Just a gun.
Mother: Oh. Okay. And what’s that?
Mercy: That’s another gun. Hi-powered, semi-automatic.
Mother: All right. (to Justin) You’re looking very guilty young man. And what’s that ?
Justin (ashamed looking down at the floor) Gum.
Mother: Gum? Gun or Gum?
Justin: Uh, Gum.
Mother: Oh my gosh. What is wrong with you? Hand that over young man. You should know by now you’re not allowed to chew gum in school. It’s not allowed. It’s really disrespectful to the teachers and staff. Didn’t I bring you up right?
Justin: I’m sorry. I just couldn’t…
Mercy: Ooh I’m telling.
Justin: Be quiet, you.
Mother: I am really, really so disappointed in you, Justin. Wrigley’s Spearmint. The most deadly flavor. In my day, you know what we did with students who brought gum to school? (pause) We shot them. Of course we were only allowed to graze them in my days. Old-fashioned I suppose, but the world has moved on. I guess you can’t stop progress. I don’t know what we’re going to do with you, Justin.
Mercy: (reluctantly) Ohhh…I guess you can have one of mine. But not the AR-15. Just one of the handguns.
Mother: That’s really kind and unselfish of you, Mercy. Maybe I did bring you kids up right after all. (Sound of bus horn honking) Okay here’s the bus. (kids run off) Don’t forget your lunches. Love ya. And children—No chewing in class! Knock ‘em dead!
In this radio interview broadcast yesterday on WBAI 99.5 FM, I talk with playwright Karen Malpede about her new cli-fi drama, Extreme Whether, a theatrical exploration of the climate change wars. It opens in March at LaMama in New York City. For more information about the play and tickets, go to http://theaterthreecollaborative.org/extreme-whether
Click on the grey triangle above to hear the interview.
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.
A group of friends and I have been recently reading Shakespeare’s delightful comedy, Love’s Labours Lost. My antenna immediately pricked up at the following lines:
Villain, thou shalt fast for thy offenses ere thou be pardoned.
Well, sir, I hope when I do it I shall do it on a full stomach.
Thou shalt be heavily punished.
I am more bound to you than your fellows, for they are but lightly rewarded.
Take away this villain, shut him up.
Come, you transgressing slave, away.
Let me not be pent up, sir; I will fast, being loose.
No, sir, that were fast and loose; thou shalt to prison.
Shakespeare cleverly packs in multiple puns here. First Armando declares that the clown Costard shall have to fast in prison. But Costard replies that, “I will fast, being loose”—that is, he’ll be able to run more quickly, if only he were free. And Moth tops both of them, saying that Costard’s scheme is “fast and loose”: that is, a scam, akin to a contemporaneous con game, commonly called “Fast and Loose.” He’s saying Costard’s proposal is a scam. But with even more complexity, simultaneously, there’s an additional pun on the phrase “fast and loose,” because it also means “in an irresponsible manner,” as in the phrase, “playing fast and loose with the truth.” And indeed, Costard plays fast and loose with the truth.
But what is of interest right now to this blog is the con game. Fast and Loose is a scam that’s been around for a very long time in one form or another. I had the strange pleasure a few weeks ago of seeing one of my immigrant high school students trying to extract money from his classmates using this ruse. I had to intervene and warn the student that I knew exactly what he was up to.
It’s always best to learn from an expert cheat, so you can click on the video above and watch the expert magician and historian of confidence games, Ricky Jay, demonstrate just what the scam looks like to its pigeons.
Yesterday, radio station WBAI’s Arts Express program played my interview with Karl Marx. Well, not Karl Marx exactly, but with actor Jerry Levy who plays Marx in a new one-man play that Levy wrote called The Third Coming.
Click on the grey triangle above to hear Levy talk about Marx, anarchism, Howard Zinn, and how he prepared to act the role of a lifetime.
My friend, Alan, has a monthly theater group at the local library which hosts an event he likes to call “Instant Theater.” One of the games he plays is this: given two phrases, you must write a play using the first phrase as the opening line, and the last phrase as the closing line of the play. You have until the next meeting to write it, and then the actors perform it with no rehearsal, instantly.
Here is the modest contribution to the genre I wrote some time ago. The opening phrase I was given was, “It’s very humid out,” and my closing phrase was, “The annual spring luncheon.”
(PAT and ED are sitting in separate chairs, side by side facing front.)
PAT: (Turning away from ED, peering at something) It’s very humid out.
PAT: Yes, humid.
ED: How can you tell?
PAT: I’m looking out the window.
ED: I know you’re looking out the window, but how can you tell?
PAT: Because it’s wet.
ED: You see water?
PAT: I think so.
ED: You don’t see water.
PAT: I think I see water.
ED: Believe me, you don’t see water.
PAT: It could be water.
ED: Believe me, you don’t see water.
PAT: I thought I saw a drop.
ED: That would be impossible. That would be physically impossible, Isaac Newton impossible.
PAT: So what is it?
ED: I don’t know. A reflection. An artifact. I don’t know.
PAT: Dark out there.
ED: What’s it like?
PAT: The dark?
PAT: It’s pretty chilling. It’s like a blanket covering you, but the dark goes on forever.
ED: No light?
PAT: You can’t see?
PAT: Very far away. Very far away. A pinpoint. You can’t see from there?
PAT: It’s strange how things work out. How are you holding up?
ED: Easier than I thought it would be. I guess that’s the point of the training. When the time comes, it’s relatively easy.
ED: Who was the fourth President?
PAT: Why do you care?
ED: I was arguing with Sharon and I couldn’t remember who it was. It was either Monroe or Madison.
PAT: Monroe, no, I think Madison. No Monroe. Could be Madison. Federalist Papers. Monroe was the short one. I think Madison.
ED: You sure it wasn’t Monroe?
PAT: I don’t know, I get them mixed up. That’s what you talk about with your wife?
ED: Yes. That’s what passes for foreplay.
PAT: Sounds exciting.
ED: You never know what’s going to turn on some women.
PAT: Something to look forward to.
ED: Harder for you when you’re busy or just like this?
PAT: What do you mean?
ED: Well two months is a long time. Do you like to be busy? Or better when we’re on these half hour breaks?
PAT: I don’t know. I suppose busy is good. Although I like the breaks too. I like having the time to just be still and contemplate, thinking about the universe, thinking about how amazing this all is, how lucky we are. I was wondering if there would be a shift in my model of the world being up here for so long. And I think there has been. I think my perspective has changed. Neil said that was the big thing for him, that was the amazing thing for him, more than even the walk, just seeing just how small the Earth really was, how much it was really just one more little infinitesimal speck of the vast overall structure.
ED: How has it changed for you?
PAT: After a month and a half? It’s not so much, for me, about what’s out there, it’s about what’s inside me. Inside my brain. Like Shakespeare. The whole world inside that globe of my head. Even in the vast emptiness of just the two of us, the worlds I imagine, the universes I create. In this strange sort of solitude, I am the god of empires, the ruler of landscapes green, rocky, ocean-lapped. Look there, there’s a shepherd, barefoot in the break of a jagged mountain range calling to his sheep. Now look, armies clashing in the jungle, snipers ducking as bullets try to end their lives. Look, a lover with a rose she no longer knows what to do with, and See! a railroad car heading to the unplanned funeral of the family in the third seat.
ED: They haven’t called.
ED: It’s six thirty eight. They haven’t called.
PAT: It’s not six thirty eight.
ED: It’s six thirty eight, look in front of your nose. It’s been thirty eight minutes. They’re eight minutes late. What is that supposed to mean?
PAT: Look at the clock by the left panel. What does it say, you should be able to read it.
ED: Six thirty nine.
PAT: That’s strange. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything.
ED: Call them. Call them. Call them.
PAT: Right. Ground control, Pat, come in please. Ground control, this is Pat, come in please, over.
PAT: Ground control, this is Pat, come in please, over. Ground control, this is Pat, come in please, over.
ED: Check the mike.
PAT: Ground control, Houston, this is Pat and Ed. Ground Control. Money makes money and the money that money makes, makes more money. Ground control. (Pause) The mike is fine.
ED: We’re off the flight path.
ED: We’re off the flight path.
PAT: Well correct it for heaven’s sake.
ED: There are no position parameters.
PAT: How can there be no—
ED: I don’t know! There are no position parameters!
PAT: What are you nuts, read the freakin’ parameters.
ED: Do you see anything, do you see anything? If I could read the freakin–
PAT: There’s got to be—
ED: There isn’t!
(Pause. They stare at the empty screen)
ED: It’s completely blank.
PAT: It’s completely blank.
ED: Try the mike again.
PAT: Ground control this is Pat, Pat and Ed. Ground control this is Pat and Ed, come in please.
What time is it?
ED: Six forty-four.
PAT: Fourteen minutes.
ED: They should have contacted us.
PAT: Maybe they’re trying to and can’t get through. Maybe that’s what happened. We have–
ED: Nothing happened, nothing happened! It’s six forty-four and they’re supposed to have contacted us. We have epic equipment failure, that’s what we have.
PAT: What do we do? There’s a procedure. There’s a procedure for everything.
ED: There’s no procedure—
PAT: There’s a procedure for everything. The next–
ED: You just did the procedure, I just did the procedure, there’s no more procedure–
PAT: I remember when I was a kid I used to spend the whole car ride to the country with my face against the window, watching the scenery change, trees, telephone poles, cars, farmland, motorcycle with a girl on the back–red hair, holding on to the leather jacket of the guy in front. I used to pretend that we weren’t going anywhere. We were at the drive-in movies and everything outside the window was a movie where I had to guess the story.
ED: We only had two more weeks.
ED: It would’ve been Joanie’s birthday. Three years. (Pause) I think I need to go to the bathroom.
PAT: I love: My mother. I love: My sisters. My brother. Camille, God help me. God.