Shakespeare and the poetics of power

Ian Thal reviewed Garry Wills’ new book, Making Make-Believe Real: Politics as Theatre in Shakespeare’s Time, at the Arts Fuse this weekend. Says Ian of the book’s opinion of a New Historicist approach to Shakespeare’s plays and career:

[Wills] admits that [Stephen] Greenblatt’s methods have led to a better appreciation of how Shakespeare reworked the cultural artifacts of his era, and that this has provided valuable insights into Shakespearian texts both in the classroom and on stage. Still, as a historian, Wills is as interested in exploring the past as an alien country as he is in finding contemporary parallels. Noting that few of the political conceptions we moderns take for granted would have been understood by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, he faults the New Historicists (few of whom are actual historians) for projecting their own contemporary values (many of which, Wills, as a liberal and self-identified pacifist, shares) into the Bard’s work. …

[It] is fair to ask if Wills’ history offers assistance to those of us who are less interested in history than in looking for illuminating ways to perform the poetry and plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. It turns out that there is a great deal here that could be of use. To his credit, Wills does not attempt to tell us what Shakespeare or his contemporaries “really meant,” nor does he suggest that there are ways that these plays ought be staged. Instead, he examines how particular symbols, rituals, and tropes shaped Shakespeare’s milieu. Directors often attempt to inject contemporary topicality into these centuries-old plays, and that is fine. But when these changes are made without a proper respect for the historical context, for the bracing antiquity of texts, the results can be arbitrary to the point of chaos.

What reading Wills suggests is that it is not enough to see that Shakespeare is our contemporary (as suggested by Jan Kott a half-century ago). We need to appreciate that he is an anachronism as well — and that his distance from us, perhaps understood in the Brechtian sense of word, can teach us valuable things about the Bard, and ourselves. This kind of historical understanding might lead to productions that are not merely interesting new takes on old favorites, but relevant in startling ways.

An interesting review of a valuable book; the full text can be found here.

Art, life, and compromise

It’s necessary for everyone to compromise, to a greater or lesser degree, between one’s everyday desires and the culture in which one finds oneself, and compromise is an inevitable part of our behavior. But art is the one place where this should not obtain. Every artist wants an audience, but should want that audience on his terms, not those of the spectators. Many so-called artists have already internalized this compromise to the extent that they’re unconscious that they’re compromising: as in life, in art it becomes second nature. This is why it must be consciously resisted, the work examined over and over again for clues that the vision has been compromised. What dies in the activity of compromise is integrity, holding true to one’s individual vision.

Art itself is larger than the artist. In the artistic community, personal animus and history must be set aside, especially among like-minded artists, each of whose work informs the other’s. Ultimately what is damaged through animus is the possibility of unique expression itself, of respect for the work. There are many assholes in life; we should have fewer of them in art.

Richard Foreman’s Pain(t)

Presented at 141 Wooster Street, New York City, April-May 1974. With Kate Manheim (Rhoda), Nora Manheim (Eleanor), Mimi Johnson (Ida), Stuart Sherman (Max), and Hanneke Henket (Sophia). In Richard Foreman: Plays and Manifestos, edited and with an introduction by Kate Davy. New York: New York University Press, 1976, pp. 195-206.

This play concerns itself with a certain kind of energy that is the energy that most people use most of the time. (I.E. the wrong energy).

“Once upon a time a young woman from the Provinces came to the city to try and gain fame as a great artist. Upon meeting the leading paintress of her day, she realized that to replace that talented lady in the public’s eye would be difficult indeed. In the meantime, a man of culture and breeding suggested she fill the time between dream and achievement by helping to give physical form to certain fantasies which in that gentleman’s mind sometimes related to art and sometimes didn’t. She agreed, rationalizing to herself ‘Oh well, it’s all in the mind, isn’t it…?'”
–Ancient French fable

Program note for Pain(t)

Kate Manheim joined the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in December 1971 as an angel in HcOhTiEnLa (or) Hotel China, but with the next production, 1972’s Sophia=(Wisdom) Part 3: The Cliffs, she made her debut as Rhoda, a recurring character who came to serve as an on-stage surrogate for Foreman himself (at least, certain parts of him). Perhaps the most important quality that she brought to Foreman’s work was an intense female erotic energy, an energy that profoundly informed the 1974 play Pain(t), one of Foreman’s first works to foreground artistic creation and the artist-performer-spectator dynamic.

One of the central themes of the play, the tension of distance and intimacy, ecstasy and suffering, in sexual and aesthetic relationships, emerges early on. This tension is implicit in the title of the play; in the first scene, Eleanor visits Rhoda in Rhoda’s studio, where she almost instantly gauges the intensity of artistic experience as both creator and spectator:

ELEANOR (Pause. Shows her arm.) Look. I got some paint on my arm.
RHODA (Shows elbows.) Wash your elbows.
ELEANOR No, I got it on the inside of my arm. (Turns her arm.)
RHODA How come.
ELEANOR That’s where the blood is.

As the play develops, Rhoda is more and more challenged by the effort of approaching her art and Eleanor as a potential lover, frustrated ever more by the impossibility of bridging the distance between intention and creation, telling Ida, “I can match each part of my body to a part of your body … It’s like looking into a mirror”; it’s also paralleled by sexual frustration, a frustration that doesn’t seem to affect Eleanor in the slightest as she takes Max for a lover. Rhoda is jealous, perhaps that she can’t replicate this erotic intensity in her art:

ELEANOR Oh Rhoda, if you came closer.
RHODA If I came closer I’d want to hurt you.
ELEANOR I’d want to hurt you too.
RHODA How come. (Pause.) Correction, we made a mistake including distance in it.

Pain(t), as it transpires, subjects the theatrical experience to the same anxieties as the sexual experience; experience and memory, for both Rhoda and the audience for Pain(t), become unreliable, and the ecstasy of a moment can disappear in the next moment, unrecoverable. The artist experiences a frustrating distance from her work (“There doesn’t seem any longer to be a relation between my paintbrush and the picture that comes out of it,” Rhoda says late in the play), and the audience is also forced away from the characters. In scene five, a “Voice” makes this explicit, noting, “Oh spectator, your relation is different to the body that is amongst you” as “beams extend Ida’s arms into the seating section where spectators are.” Extant photos of the production by Kate Davy and Babette Mangolte depict the extraordinarily sensual and erotic character of the production (a few of Mangolte’s can be found here and here), several of the female characters naked and wearing high heels, but the final moment of the production is a statement from Voice that pushes the audience even farther at arm’s (or beam’s) length, frustrating erotic longing and desire as well as aesthetic interpretation: “The play’s over. You’re left with your own thoughts. Can you really get interested in them or are they just occurring.”

A profoundly erotic and philosophical work, Pain(t) outlines the possibility (or threat?) of sexual and spiritual imagination to merge body and personality among lovers and between the subject and object of aesthetic experience; it may also have been the last of the plays of Foreman’s early minimalist period, before he explored more baroque staging techniques that would serve to emphasize his work’s essential sensuality. In Pain(t), lovers and artists and models alternately caress each other and violently fight with each other, and there is a melancholy resignation that the physical world as it is can’t permit the ecstatic possibilities of that sexual and spiritual imagination; those ecstasies occur on another, perhaps a higher, plane. Pain(t) may be the masterpiece of Foreman’s early career.

Composers Now

Composers-Now-logo-web-1Both young and established American new music composers will be celebrated at the Composers Now Kickoff Event on Friday night, January 30, 2015. The two sessions — one starting at 7.00, the other at 8.30 — will feature short works by 15 composers performed by a variety of artists, all of whom will gather at the cell, A 21st Century Salon, 338 West 23rd Street. Composers Now founder and artistic director Tania León will preside over the evening as host; among the pianists will be my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken, a member of Composers Now’s Board of Directors, who will perform Joshua Fineberg‘s exquisite solo Grisaille.

More information about the program at Composers Now’s Web site; tickets for each of the programs are available here. This is an excellent opportunity to catch up on some of the most important contemporary American composers working today — all in one room, at one time. I’ll be there. Below, a short excerpt from Fineberg’s Grisaille, available in full on Marilyn’s Voix Voilées (though there’s no substitute for hearing it live). Underneath the clip, Fineberg’s own notes on the work.

Fineberg says:

Central to my view of piano music has been viewing the piano as an instrument of resonance with the notes as almost tools for producing the underlying resonance. Yet for Grisaille, I wanted to go beyond this unidirectional relationship between the notes and the resonance. For this piece, I tried to use a complicated choreography of the sostenuto and sustain pedals to be able to mold the resonance somewhat separately from the surface, letting me use the resonance to alter the perception of that surface thus reversing their roles. This was for me reminiscent of the way painters use underpaintings to alter and deepen the surface colors of a painting. The term grisaille refers to a specific type of monochromatic underpainting. In the piece I try to render the role of resonance and its interaction with the surface as an audible part of the music’s movement and meaning.

I wrote this piece for Marilyn Nonken who has a deep history with music that is tremendously virtuosic and complicated, but in much of that music the complexity is the surface. I wanted to use those skills but in a slightly altered context where the virtuosity of the surface melts into an epiphenomenonic surface that is made of the complexity, but no longer feels complex. The music could not exist without the complex virtuosity, but the actual music floats in a space beyond those complex details which like the altered resonances become a musical underpainting for a richer surface that could be made directly.

There’ll always be an England

National Theatre Philips LogoThe National Theatre has announced details of Rufus Norris’ first season as its director, and it’s something of a doozy. Over the next eighteen months, London theatregoers can expect to find there new plays by Caryl Churchill (Here We Go) and Wallace Shawn (Evening at the Talk House), as well as important revivals of Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem, and August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Details on these latter plays can be found here, and more information about the former can be found here. Michael Billington has more here (and I agree with his assessment of Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire). Time to start keeping an eye on New York-London airfares in Expedia, I’m afraid.