Shakespeare In A Divided America

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It may seem as if Americans have never been more polarized than they are today. But America has always been full of splits, and Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro has written a new book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, which explores those conflicts in a unique way. He examines how Americans responded to Shakespearean productions at key times in American history, and his investigations are full of insights and surprises.

Click on the triangle above to hear my interview with James Shapiro as broadcast today on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI 99.5FM NYC, WBAI.org, and on Pacifica affiliates across the country.

Fifth Anniversary: Favorite Posts Of The Last Year

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Photo by Natasha Fernandez on Pexels.com

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Yesterday, I put a wrap on the fifth year of this blog (put your favorite emoji here), and in keeping with my annual tradition, here are 25 of my favorite posts of the past year created by the Shalblog Industries® team. In no particular order:

A Child’s Garden of Denial

Three Secrets

Letter To A Principal

I Dream of Genii…

Permanent Record: Edward Snowden

Three Poems

Where Eagles Dare

Coriolanus: The Nihilism of War

“…Followed By The Pound Sign…”

Online Ordering

“I Would . . . Prefer . . . Not To . . .”

Woman At War

Two Schools of Magic

Federico Garcia Lorca And The Duende

You Don’t Look A Day Over 450

How To Produce Interviews For Radio And Podcast

Whoa, Nellie!

Kids These Days: The Making of Millennials, Part One

“Hard Luck”: Sholom Aleichem

The Road Not Taken

The Five Boons of Life

A Hole In The Fabric Of Time And Space

“They All Want To Play Hamlet”

Gerald Deutsch’s Perverse Magic: The First Sixteen Years

“We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges”

Thanks for an enjoyable year and all your comments and support so far!

Hamlet: Spying, Identity, And Eluding the Panopticon

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The first line of Hamlet, like many first lines of Shakespeare, announces the theme: “Who’s there?”  For Denmark, like the countries we inhabit, is a place where no one is sure who is watching whom, who the enemy is, or on a more metaphysical plane, who makes up the person one calls oneself.  Identities are questioned from the outside and the inside. Who and what is real? Can we know others? Can others know us? Can we know ourselves?

Denmark is a prison says Hamlet. It’s a country that seems to be perpetually at War.  In such a world, where the enemy can sneak upon you at any moment, nothing is private. The State dominates through surveillance of actions and thoughts. The dangerous one is the one who keeps to him or herself. The notion of privacy has disappeared.

In No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald’s book concerning the revelation of ongoing, illegal, mass warrantless  surveillance by the American government, he makes a point that is often overlooked: it is not possible for human beings to grow and develop normally in a society where there is no privacy. Privacy is a necessary condition for being able to try out different versions of ourselves, to both invent and to find out just who we are. To keep sane.

But Denmark is a prison.

In a government where the will of the people is feared, the alarm must sound for Hamlet—Claudius warily declares that “madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” Hamlet feigns madness as protection, to save his true self from scrutiny. Madness acts as a protective shell,  the soul’s attempt to keep from being “too much in the sun.”  There is no place for Hamlet to feel his feelings without the glare of the court on him. Even his most intimate conversations with Ophelia are watched. Like the sacred ceremony being recorded by an anthropologist, sacredness evaporates. There is no room for the sacred under such conditions, even though humans must have such a place or go mad. The early Shakespeare commentators asked whether Hamlet was really mad or only feigning it. He is both: he feigns madness and is driven mad by his panopticon society.

Hamlet eludes. He puts on an antic disposition. He play acts. What is a human being that s/he can act? For centuries, actors were reviled and cursed, classified with beggars, thieves and prostitutes. They were shapeshifters, untrustworthy, not what they seemed. Worse, an actor seems to have no center. Indeed, Borges once wrote that that was Shakespeare’s glory and curse—Shakespeare was everything and nothing. Everything because he was nothing.

Denmark is a prison. It’s a prison because there is nowhere to hide. A place becomes a prison when there is nowhere to be alone, no way to find out who you are. You are constantly being defined by others, being told who you are, who you must be, what you must do.

But the actor escapes definition. The actor is subversive of the whole notion of fixed identity; subversive of the notion of control. It’s, paradoxically, in the act of acting that Hamlet finds the truth and frees himself.

When we wonder whether art can be revolutionary, an act of resistance, it serves well to remember that every government in the world throughout history has sought to control its art. Surely that must be a salve to those who are not certain whether their efforts are useful. We don’t always know what kind of art will be effective or not, but the possibility that art can be a strong weapon always exists, even when it may be in ways we don’t always fully understand. The actor on the stage is always the promise that we contain multitudes and have the capacity to transform ourselves and society.

The play’s the thing.

 

Death of A Salesman in Yiddish (with English Super-Titles)

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Death of a Salesman is an American classic. In this new production by the New Yiddish Rep of New York City, Arthur Miller’s play achieves further resonance by being performed entirely in Yiddish, with English supertitles projected onstage. The Yiddish locates the play squarely in the world of the immigrant, and Willy Loman is no longer just the universal white collar worker with a shoe shine and a smile; he is also the universal immigrant, charged to teach the values of his adopted land to his second generation children, with all the urgency that that mission requires.

The supertitles are unobtrusive, and non-Yiddish speaking audiences will understand every single word. The intimate theater space highlights the dramatic tensions in the play. This is a very good production of a very powerful play. Click on the gray triangle above to hear my complete review broadcast on the Arts Express radio program on WBAI.

Update: You can hear my interview with the director of the cast, Moshe Yassur, and actor Avi Hoffman, by clicking here.

Made In China: An Irish Comedian’s Journey Performing Stand-up in China

Imagine you are an Irish kid from Queens, New York thrown out of school in your teens for alcohol. Your parents, who evidently have no sense of irony, send you away to Ireland to punish you for your drinking. You subsequently grow up to become a comedian and a celebrity in Ireland, and you are looking for new venues to conquer. Then it hits you: If you perform in China you’ll have a potential audience of billions. Only two problems: one, you want to perform in Mandarin, but you don’t know the language at all; and two, you want to perform stand-up comedy, but the Chinese don’t know what stand-up is.

Well then you would be Des Bishop, who did exactly that. He went to China, learned Mandarin, and performed a stand-up comedy act for Chinese audiences. What’s more he went on the Chinese equivalent of The Dating Game and conversed with his potential dates in fluent Chinese.

Des tells the story of his Chinese encounters, and his love of the country in his very funny new one man show called Made in China. I interviewed him for the Arts Express program on radio station WBAI 99.5 FM NYC. You can hear the fascinating show by clicking on the gray triangle above.

No One Asked Me

No One Asked Me is a new play about recently arrived undocumented immigrants in NYC. I interviewed the director, actors and writer about the play for radio station WBAI 99.5 FM NYC. The play is not an agitprop presentation of noble golden children, but about real flawed teenagers trying to make their way through life. In the interview we talk about the play, the lives of undocumented immigrant teens, and the process of putting together a piece like this in the tough environment of New York City. You can listen to the interview by clicking on the grey triangle below.

Bodyless Head by Topless Body: Shakespeare’s Cymbeline

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A group of friends and I meet each month to read a Shakespeare play, one act at a time. For the past few months we’ve been working on Cymbeline, one of the more obscure plays in the canon. We’ve finally finished reading it, and what a wild ride it was! We were laughing out loud at all the crazy twists and turns of the story.

It’s unlike anything else I’ve read by Shakespeare. It’s plot, plot, plot, plot, and then more plot. But the plot makes almost no sense. It’s large doses of randomness and chaos. Deceived lovers, pretenders to the throne, headless bodies, bodyless heads, women dressed as men, kings in rags, poison that is not poison; it’s a romance, it’s a tragedy, it’s a comedy, it’s a history, it’s an all-in-one, all-purpose, all-singing, all-dancing, Shakespeare Uberfest. It can be called a truly post-modern play, written centuries before that word post-modern was even a glint in some corduroy-jacketed academic’s vocabulary.

What’s fun is to see how Shakespeare takes his previous plays, and William Burroughs-like, cuts and pastes his way to creating a new work. Our group caught echoes of King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, As You Like It, Titus Andronicus, and The Merchant of Venice in the play. We imagined Shakespeare rummaging through the prop closet and finding different props, fashioning a play as if he were Jonathan Winters improvising with found objects. The apparent method of construction is also very amusing—as soon as one character’s entanglement is depicted, another character gets involved in another improbable subplot and so on, until it seems as if there is no way that all the threads could be unravelled and resolved. Add to that, that almost every character ends up in some sort of disguise, and you have a recipe for total miscommunication. And yet Shakespeare does, in the end, pull it all together. In doing so, however, he violates,—purposely?—every one of Aristotle’s recommendations for the drama.

What are we left with? I think, more than anything, I was strongly left with Shakespeare’s deep belief in reconciliation, repentance, restitution, and redemption. No matter how chaotic the world gets in a Shakespeare play, it does, in the end, return to sanity. And almost always, the return to sanity is made possible by forgiveness on the part of those wronged, and apology by those who did the wrong. Claudius in Hamlet says:

Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
And what’s in prayer but this two-fold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon’d being down?

and:

Try what repentance can: what can it not?

Even Claudius the murderer understands the power of forgiveness and repentance.

At the end of Cymbeline, like so many of the plays, the world is made livable again by  acts of forgiveness, along with the consequent apologies by the wrong-doers. The King and his daughter forgive, the deceivers apologize, and the world is set right again.

Shakespeare is calling us, telling his audience, that in such a dangerous and chaotic world, there is only one strategy for continued survival. Humankind is endlessly fallible; if we want the world to continue, then only continued forgiveness will keep the Globe intact. It’s a fascinating play, and a production of it is slated to play this summer at the Delacorte Theater in NYC. Can’t wait.

Kish Kush

Six oranges; a pocketful of sand; a wall. What might these mean to a person? I went with 25 middle school children to see Kish Kush and find out.

As we entered the theatre space–a square with seating on all four sides–we realized that once seated, because of the three-foot high plastic wall bisecting the space diagonally, we would only be able to see half of the performing space from any particular location. As a natural result, we could see the actions of only one of the two men seated on either side of those walls.

We had only our own point of view, stuck behind a wall.

Isolation. Slowly, slowly, the man becomes aware of something. A sound? From where? Over there? Oh, this is a wall? There’s something on the other side? How could it be? Tentative experiments testing the shadows projected on the wall from the other side. Finally the bold ripping of the wall to reveal: The Other.

Tall and short. Mutt and Jeff. Abbott and Costello. Vladimir and Estragon.

Circling. Who is this Me-Not-Me? Sound. Then the Tower of Babel. One man is speaking English, the other some mix of Hebrew-Arabic. They are attracted and repelled by each other. They see each other’s possessions which they envy and covet. However, they also know if they are to survive with one another in this wall-less universe they must find some way of communicating.

Kish Kush is the creation of two actors from Italy, Daniel Gol and Alessandro Nosetti who call themselves Teatrodistinto. They have been performing this piece all over the world in many languages for over six years. One actor always speaks the language of the locality where they are performing, while the other always speaks a gibberish mixture of Hebrew and Arabic.

The actors play with humor and specificity, enchanting a roomful of young students and myself. When the wall came down in the middle of the 60-minute piece, members of the audience were able to look across the actors’ space so that we could see each other, and so, ourselves. Delight, whoops of laughter, understanding. Two artists engage and the children engage.

It is Samuel Beckett for children, only this time Didi and Gogo, perhaps, have some hope. Godot does not come, but they have found each other. The students later talk of miscommunication, love, difference, oranges, language. I think of Marx, Gaza, imperialism, Plato, loneliness.

Spoiler: the characters do not hang themselves. They do not sit waiting. They pull out crayons. They draw together, filling the empty space with color and connection.

The Actor Who Made Me Gasp

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In 1974, Hume Cronyn was on Broadway in a Noel Coward play called A Song at Twilight. I had standing room way back of the theater. Unlike most of Coward’s plays, this one was not a comedy.

Cronyn’s role was of an older married man. At one point in the play, his wife, played by Jessica Tandy, finds an old letter of her husband’s and reads it to herself. She then runs out of the room, crying. We, the audience, already know from a previous scene, what was in the letter. Curious to know what was in the letter that made his wife react this way, Cronyn picks up the letter.

The letter, in fact, was an old love letter from another man to Mr. Cronyn’s character.   The two had had a deep relationship, but Cronyn’s character had tried to forget about it.

Cronyn, alone on stage, read the letter in silence for a good three, four minutes. An enormous amount of time to be on stage saying nothing. There was not a sound in the audience. And then as he was reading his face turned beet red–I could see it from all the way in the back of the theatre. He was blushing.

I will never forget that. And he did it eight times a week. Pure belief in the truth of what he was doing, thinking, and feeling.