Tag Archives: plays

It’s Not Too Late

The snowy cold he knows to flee and every human exigency crackles as he plugs it in every outlet works but one: death stays dark.
– Sophokles, Antigonick, translated by Anne Carson illustrated by Bianca Stone.

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I was recently move to reread Antigone after a discussion with a lovely man over the eponymous character’s attributes. I love Anne Carson’s translations, so I was thrilled to find her version,  Antigonick in my library system. But I had no idea just what a treat it would be. More of an artist’s book than straightforward text with illustrations. The interplay between words, images, pages, and color is magnificent, irreverent, absurd, lovely, and striking.

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The book as a whole, as an object inseparable from the visual and tactile components that it comprises, makes the rash Kreon all the more ridiculous, the sweet Antigone all the more reasonable in her steadfast refusal to be shamed by the capricious laws of a man (or men, writ large). In the collaborative translation, illustration, and design trio of Carson, Stone and Robert Currie, Kreon is shown to be the flibbertigibbit that he is, but to tragic effect. He spews his nouns and verbs, but the black and white words imprison the letter of his laws, shutting his heart to the vitality of wisdom.

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Tangled up, and cornered in, when one can not feel and let love be the ruler of the day the results are bloody awful. And for Sophokles, that is quite literal. The body count is high. Oh! the Greek Tragedians – they didn’t fool around! The Chorus sings, “You’re late to learn what’s what aren’t you” And for Kreon it is a painful realization. Yes, he is late, so late. But, it’s never too late for wisdom. Isn’t that why we continue to revisit these tales of woe and tragedy? – to soften our hearts with what is wise and true.

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Der Grufulde and Passionate Freedom

“I don’t see much difference between our life and the life of the carp in the pond there. They have the fiord close beside them, where the great free shoals of fish sweep out and in. But the poor tame house-fishes know nothing of all that; and they can never join in.” – Henrik Ibsen, The Lady From the Sea (40)

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Catfish sculpture by my son Eric Accardi (2014)

This spring I was deeply engaged in making an impassioned argument for the inclusion of literature in philosophical inquiry. One of the texts that I cited in my final paper used Ibsen’s plays- in particular The Lady From the Sea as a source. I had never read that particular play, but I was intrigued on two accounts. One was that the text that was included in the source described an artist that tries to convince a young girl to bind herself to him, with a promise to  “think of him.” He would go off and develop his art, but her thoughts would be a muse  for him. Callously disregarding what effect this might have on her life- emotionally (as well by antiquated ideas of a betrothal’s fetters) to be pledged to a man that had no intention of fulfilling her desires.

Lyngstrand: She too must live for his art. I should think that must be such happiness for a woman.
Boletta: H’m–I’m not so sure–
(56).

The second account was that it was argued that this play did not entail moral reasoning and therefore could not seriously be considered ‘philosophical.’

I promptly added it to my summer reading list.

Ellida: [looks after him a while] Of my own free will, he said! Think of that – he said that I should go with him of my own free will (56).

While writing the paper, as well as subsequently, I have yet to discover any piece of literature that does not involve moral reasoning – in fact, I enlisted all of my friends in the pursuit, and if you can name one, I would be most interested.

But, meanwhile,   The Lady By the Sea…oh Ibsen…what a wonderful humanitarian, feminist, and writer…

Ellida: You call that my own life! Oh no, my own true life slid into a wrong groove when I joined it to yours (76).

The play, while ever so slightly too neat, is an extraordinary anachronism.  Ibsen was writing, through the telescope of a female perspective the true meaning of ‘freedom.’  An internal state that is stronger than any temporal ‘moral’ strain imposed from an ‘authority.’

The Stranger: Do you not feel as I do, that we two belong to each other?
Ellida: Do you mean because of that promise?
The Stranger: Promises bind no one: neither man nor woman. If I hold to you persistently, it is because I cannot do otherwise (87).

The distortions of subjugation is the theme of this play. No life is complete, fulfilled, or worthy of sharing,  without complete freedom. Ellida must be free, as a woman, as a human, to choose her destiny…it seems a problem of the past, but in fact, it is not. Societal ‘norms’ dictate what is valued, who gets to choose, what is ‘moral.’ But individuals don’t stop feeling just because they ought not, or are perniciously told not to. Ellida insists her husband (a marriage, she feels, that was of mercenary convenience) must release her, just so that she can decide for herself if she must leave him for The Stranger. She can’t know while she is bound.

Wangel: [looks anxiously at her] Ellida! I feel it – there is something behind this.
Ellida: All that allures is behind it.
Wangel: All that allures–?
Ellida: That man is like the sea (53).

Det grufulde: ‘the terrible,’ what frightens and fascinates. Ellida cannot understand her own life until it is truly her own life. Ibsen had a genius for understanding the subtle but very real harm experienced by the lack of freedom women experience.

Ellida: You can never prevent my choosing; neither you nor anyone else. You can forbid me to go away with him– to cast my lot with him – if I should choose that. You can forcibly detain me here, against my will. That you can do. But the choice in my innermost soul–my choice of him not you,–in case I should and must choose so,–that you cannot prevent (75).

Ibsen bravely expresses the force of one’s heart. It never yields, it only buries itself far away from anyone’s touch. Once free to choose, a true love will out. Rather than forced to react like a caged animal, Ellida, as her own woman, can give her whole heart, at last, to the husband she’s come to love, because she is finally free to choose that love for her free heart’s content.

*title from footnote on pg. 70.

*The Eleonora Duse series of plays, translated by Mrs. Frances E. Archer.

 

 

 

 

A Separate Word

Hector:  May I make a suggestion? Why can they not all just tell the truth?
Irwin:  It’s worth trying, provided, of course, you can make it seem like you’re telling the truth.
-Alan Bennett, The History Boys (83)

IMG_1272It seems an obvious point to say that plays are meant to be seen, not read, but we don’t always have the luxury. A woman I met recently suggested that I might like the play, (but not the film) The History Boys. It took me most of the first act to get my eyes to work with my brain so that I could put the scene together in my head. I kept forgetting to READ who was speaking.

Timms:  I don’t see how we can understand it. Most of the stuff poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.


Hector:  But it will Timms. It will. And then you will have the antidote ready! Grief. Happiness. Even when you’re dying.
We’re making your deathbeds here, boys (30).

I recently read an excerpt of the book Space Between Words, by Paul Saenger and I believe it relates to my problem:

Research indicates that English-speaking subjects also have discrete systems within the brain for the aural understanding and the silent visual understanding of language (3). 

The Latin word “to read,” I learned at a lecture in the fall, actually has two root meanings: to read, yes, obviously, but also “to choose.” Ancient languages did not separate words, so one had “to choose” one’s words. According to Saenger, it was Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks who had shaky comprehension of Latin that began to add spaces. This addition is what gave our brains the ability to read silently: without mouthing or voicing the words. Silent reading makes it possible to read at theretofore unknown speed. A child learning to read, (or me trying to read Italian or French) must mouth or say the words, in fact children’s initial writing usually does not have spaces as that is not how they hear it. But once we make the jump (elegantly moving over the spaces) – the literary world is our oyster. With silent reading, we no longer even read strictly right to left, or all the words contained within a sentence, for that matter.

Word separation, by altering the neurophysiological process  of reading, simplified the act of reading, enabling both the Medieval and modern reader to receive silently and simultaneously the text and encoded information that facilitates both comprehension and oral performance (13).

I’m deeply indebted to the Irish monk’s sub par linguistic skill. That being said, I had to get a little remedial in order to “read” something that should really be seen and heard. I was forced to slow down and hear it.

Dakin:  Lecher though one is, or aspires to be, it occurs to me that the lot of women cannot be easy, who must suffer such inexpert male fumblings virtually on a daily basis.
Are we scarred for life, do you think?

Sripps:  We must hope so.
Perhaps it will turn me into Proust (77).

Once my brain cooperated, the life of the play came to be. The stupidity of hypocrisy and academic hollowness, sad fumblings,  defensive cynicism, and disappointed ambitions, live right alongside satisfaction in the small moments of human affection, understanding and connection. The History Boys is poignant, clever, and cautionary.

The words matter. The mental prowess displayed in The History Boys is fun, acerbic, and invigorating, but as Bennett elucidates so smartly, intellect for intellect’s sake is a pyrrhic victory. The war of meaning is won in the spaces and silences.

It ought to renew…the young mind; warm, eager, trusting; instead comes…a kind of coarsening. You start to clown. Plus a fatigue that passes for philosophy but is nearer to indifference (95). 

The Half Truths

“And that’s the boarderline that poetry
Operates on too, always in between
What you would like to happen and what will –
Whether you like it or not” 
-Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy (a version of Sophocle’s Philoctetes)

painting by Eric Ryan

A woman that I work for gave me the play The Cure at Troy to read. It is a version of Sophocles’s play Philoctetes written by Seamus Heaney. The story centers around Odysseus’ attempts to get the bow of Hercules away from the ailing Philoctetes.

Whether it is justifiable to use trickery and lies to meet some end demanded of by the commander in chief or the Gods, this play is the ultimate examination of might makes right and the ramifications, on a personal level, of that sort of thinking and obedience, public morals vs. private morals. Even when (or especially when) it goes against the chord of human feeling and truth.

                                        “Do it my way this once,
All right, you’ll be ashamed
but that won’t last.
And once you’re over it, you’ll have the rest of your life
To be good and true and incorruptible.
Odysseus to Neoptolemus                  

Odysseus, just plows ahead as usual – the man does not lack for stamina when it comes to just getting it done! Don’t think- do! He is the sort of man that makes me especially weary and suspicious of the concept of “public morals.” Is there really such a thing? Why should not an inner truth satisfy a public need, and if it it does not, what sort of moral is it really. He makes a forceful case to Neoptolemus convincing him of the expediency of duty. Ignore your heart and do what your told – you’ll get over it. And most people do- after all it takes time to rot fully from the inside out.

In this clever play, Philoctetes is visibly rotting (stinky foot and what not) as the symbol of the general molder of personal morals, by which I mean the truth within that there is really no escaping.  But I suppose this is the dilemma. Justifications for ignoring a deeper truth within have always been in abundance. Same as it always was apparently.

“With you he does what he is told, with me he did what his nature told him.” –Philoctetes

I suppose the thing I find the most interesting about the plays, histories, and poetry of the ancient world is the consistency of cruelty to ourselves as well as to others. We want to live our lives with our hearts wide open, and the shock of the evident impossibility of that predisposition is one that is very hard to bear. At least for me.

“Suspect too much sweet talk
But never close your mind.
It was a fortunate wind
That blew me here. I leave
Half-ready to believe
That a crippled trust might walk

And the half-truth rhyme is love.”  

– the chorus from The Cure at Troy

I Know That Smell

But you,
                O Humans,
                                   O Human things-
when a man is happy, a shadow could
    overturn it.
When life goes wrong, a wet sponge erases
   the whole picture.
You,
           you,
                       I pity.         –Kassandra speaking in Agamemon by Aiskhylos

The truth is, I don’t like Agamemon, the man, very much. I started to read Richmond Lattimore’s translation and was ready to put it aside- should I squander my time reading about a macho king? Wasting lives: a war of ten years! And for what, pride? Yes, yes, he laments, it was all Helen’s fault, nary a word about Paris- that rankles. And, I have always liked Hector. I’m still quite upset about his death. Just as I had resolved to skip it however, a friend insisted that I would enjoy Klytaimestra – Oh wait for Klytaimestra, he said.

I decided that something would have to go however, and that something was Lattimore. I sat on the floor in between the colossal library shelves and let myself be guided by aesthetics. An Oresteia translated by Anne Carson is a very pretty book. Hardcover, clean, elegant.
The words inside the book are hardcore, clean and elegant:

  By suffering we learn.
Yet there drips in sleep before my heart
a griefremembering pain.
Good sense comes the hard way.
And the grace of the gods
(I’m pretty sure)
is the grace that comes by violence.

I’m pretty sure too. I sympathized with Klytaimestra’s cool reasoning yet was utterly repelled by her bloody violence. I understand Kassandra’s methodology far better. She uses silence as her weapon of mass destruction feigning mute ignorance; it is her divinations that are in fact muted by closed ears. When no one will listen, it’s one’s only defense and weapon.  I read a massive novel of the story of Troy told from the perspective of Cassandra on my honeymoon many, many moons ago: I must now allow that it is perhaps, a faulty methodology. Didn’t turn out too well for Cassandra either.

messenger: Would that I could lie!

chorus: Would the truth were happy!

The manner in which this play is translated is so intense and compelling that when I finished it, I was drawn to the introduction. Carson explains her impetus and inspiration in forming the quality of her tone and language choices: using the words of Francis Bacon she quotes, “work first upon sensation then slowly leak back into fact,”  Upon reading the last lines of the play, all sensation reverberated:  “I know that smell. Evils.” The stupidity, reasoning, recriminations, futile vengeance, pitilessness- who will make it end?

klytaimestra:

Ignore their yelpings.
You and I, as masters of this house, will
   dispose all things as they should be.
Beautifully.

She has the right idea…

Truth be Told

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We have finished reading A Doll House in my literature class. We are watching a movie of the play with Claire Bloom and Anthony Hopkins. I was very distracted watching the film by my inability to remember how I knew of Claire Bloom. Sadly, I knew that it was a husband of hers that I associated her name with, but beyond that, I was at a loss (she was Philip Roth’s wife for five years and Rod Steiger’s for 10, there was another, but I don’t know anything about him and she did not stay married to any of them so…). And then the actor whom played the character of Nils: he was in the movie Indiana Jones– I had to suppress the urge to shout out my joyful recognition when it came to me. Nils is a great character, flawed but essentially sweet, the kind of crushed man you hope someone will save by love.
But, why I have this sort of information in my head is beyond me. Why can I not remember a brilliant line I read recently, but I know most of the names of the Kardashian sisters…well, maybe not their actual names but at least I know that there is a preponderance of ‘k’ sounds in their names. Damn supermarket check out line- literally stealing real estate in my mind.

We didn’t get past the first act. I really would have like to to see Act III. The moment I went back to (while reading) the play was when Nora realizes the gig is up. I was interested in Ibsen’s interpretation of that seminal moment. Some people have said that the action of the third act happens too quickly, but all it takes is a moment, no? Once she knows: she knows. It is that quick. To put a revelation of that order back inside is impossible. Her quiet, stiff truth is, I imagine,  unfathomable to someone whom has not experienced that sort of thing.

I am sorry to admit to the plethora of useless knowledge swirling about my mind, curling around factoids and cheap images; but it is the the startlingly real knowing lurching forward that alters lives. I don’t know how people go back and feign ignorance once they know. That is something Ibsen understood well: The gravity of truth.

Re-reading Life

My Literature teacher mentioned that she had a passion for macaroons. We are reading Ibsen’s A Doll House in class and of course Nora has a forbidden passion for them as well.

Unfortunately I have read both the plays in this section of the class many times (A Doll House and Raisin in the Sun). But actually, I don’t mind too much. I wish I had time to re-read more. It’s just there are so many books to read…will I ever get to re-read Middlemarch? I think I’ll have to read Anna Karenina again because, even though I’ve already read it more than once, I love it.

I wonder how prevalent re-reading is? In my book group we’ve read a few of the books twice (Heart of Darkness because it’s obtuse,  Crime and Punishment because we wanted to see how different translations affected the read- I loved it both times, but the second Norton press translation was superior, maybe that was all: I can’t quite recall). But normally I don’t read a book and then immediately re-read it again (maybe just sections or paragraphs that moved me strongly). There are some I read every few years (Jane Eyre, one of the first books I fell in love with), and of course I love to strum through others periodically, but as I have all but stopped buying books I do this less often. Some books I have that are essays like Meditations or epistolary like Rilke and Andreas Salomé: A Love Story in Letters, or  the wild Gertrude Stein my Step father gave me for Christmas are good to keep on the night stand when you just want a little taste. I like to illuminate all of life’s important questions in the spirit of a character in Wilkie Collin’s Moonstone: whenever he had a question of import he would randomly open and point to a section of Robinson Crusoe to guide him…I’ve always loved that detail, I mean, why not?

I  saw The Doll House performed many years ago, I don’t remember loving it, I think the lead actress was whiney and it bothered me, but of course  my perspective is different now. The nuance and depth of disharmony in Nora and Torvald’s marriage is, read at my age (with my experience) seen in a totally different light. Life is complicated. The layers reveal themselves with age whether you want them to or not. I wish I had understood Ibsen better when I was 16, I really do.

My professor wrote a recommendation for me (as well as my math professor) that contributed to me being awarded a nice little scholarship for next year, so I wanted to make them both cookies. I guess that’s pretty lame on my part. Coincidentally, (or maybe not: maybe I could actually name the cookie of choice of all my female acquaintances, it seems a popular subject) they have both mentioned their favorite cookies (my Stats professor loves chocolate chip- I can do that).  But if I can satiate a jones for macaroons or chocolate chip I will. The questions is, what did she mean by macaroon? Nora must have meant almond, but what if my professor meant coconut? What to do? I’m, again, with Nora here: I love almond macaroons, but I just have this feeling that when most Americans say macaroon they mean coconut. Anyway I found an interesting recipe (involving pineapple) that I will test on my children, if they pass the test (and if you knew my children you would respect the formidable challenge therein) that is what she will get.