Archive for August, 2019

“Macbeth” in performance

Macbeth seems to me particularly difficult to bring off in performance. At least, I have never seen a version on stage that I have found satisfactory – even productions featuring renowned Shakespeareans in the principal roles have disappointed. Of course, I haven’t seen them all, and I am sure there have been many fine productions that I have missed, but limiting myself (as I must) to what I have seen, far from being overwhelmed, as I should be on seeing a great Shakespeare tragedy, I have all too frequently found myself barely whelmed at all. The film versions I have seen haven’t frankly been much better; and the BBC Shakespeare version (from the early 1980s), despite starring eminent actors Nicol Williamson and Jane Lapotaire in the principal roles, was distinctly disappointing.

I have often wondered why this is. After all, it is dramatically very compact (it’s one of Sheakespeare’s shortest plays), and is crammed full of murders and battles and witches and ghosts and all the rest of it. Part of it, I think, is to do with the pacing. The tension builds powerfully and unremittingly over the first two acts, but after that, although we get a series of extremely memorable scenes (the banquet scene, the sleepwalking scene, etc.), the tension can sag quite alarmingly in the scenes in between. (This is particularly true of the long scene in Act 4 set in England.) Of course, Shakespeare was, certainly by this stage of his career, a master of pacing, and the rather awkward pacing of this play rather inclines me to think that what we have is an edited version of a text that had initially been longer. Be that as it may, it does present some problems in performance.

Another problem, I think, lies in the dramatic content being too exciting. This may seem a rather perverse thing to say, but the “greatness” of any drama we think of as “great” (whatever we may mean by that) lies not so much in the plot – i.e. the sequence of events – but in matters that go deeper; but, with this play, the plot itself is so very exciting on the surface, it becomes difficult for a production to peer beneath that surface: all too often, we find ourselves horrified by what the Macbeths do to others, whereas the heart of the tragedy lies, I think, in what they do to themselves. And if a production fails to bring to the fore this particular horror, this terrible damnation of their souls that they inflict upon themselves, then, no matter how exciting the plot may be, I don’t know that the production can count as a total success. But piercing through the excitement of the plot to see the dark horror at the heart of things is not an easy thing to do. And this, I think, is why so many productions of this play have left me unmoved: the horror of what we see on the surface seems all too often to obscure the even greater horror beneath.

Of course, I am sure there have been many very fine productions of Macbeth: it’s just that stagings of this particular play have disappointed me more often than that of any other major work by Shakespeare. It may, of course, be that I have been unlucky in the productions I have seen. But there is one production I have seen (sadly, not on stage) that seems to be one of the finest of any production I have seen, of any play. And this is the 1978 Royal Shakespeare Company production, directed by Trevor Nunn, and featuring Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench in the principal roles. Fortunately, we have a record of this: the production was filmed for television, and broadcast in 1979. And it is available nowadays on DVD. I saw it again a few days ago: and yes, it was every bit as powerful as I had remembered. Suddenly, all the reservations I have had about the pacing of this play seemed to vanish.

Macbeths

Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth

And this was done not through butchering the text: apart from the scene involving Hecate (which is almost certainly a later addition, and not written by Shakespeare), the text presented, a few minor cuts apart, was virtually complete. Even the scene featuring the witches speaking to each other about the latest spells they have cast – a scene all too often excised these days, as modern audiences aren’t taken in by all that superstition – was retained. But what impressed was the way the entire play was conceived.

Although it features battles, witches, murder, a state banquet, and all the rest of it, it eschews spectacle completely. It is staged throughout in a profound darkness, from which the characters emerge at times into a murky kind of light, and into which, their parts done, they vanish again. The lighting is extraordinary. I can but guess at what the effect must have been like live in performance, but, watching it on my television screen, it seemed like a production designed specifically with the screen in mind, rather than a straight filming of a stage production.

Most of the shots are in close-up: some in extreme close-up. The characters, brightly spotlit against a blanket of the dark, are all we can see on screen. Props are kept to a minimum: even in the banquet scene, they appear to be sitting on crates. All this creates a tremendous sense of claustrophobia. (The production was staged in a small theatre, rather in in the main RSC theatre in Stratford, thus ensuring the audience was close to the actors.) After a while, it starts to feel genuinely oppressive, as, indeed, it should.

LadyMacbeth

Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth

None of this would have mattered, of course, if the cast weren’t up to it, but there’s no danger of that. The supporting cast (featuring two actors who were themselves notable Macbeths later in their careers – Bob Peck and Greg Hicks) is uniformly excellent; but in this play, it is the two principals who dominate. And here, Ian MacKellen and Judi Dench give performances that, even on repeated viewings, freeze the soul with terror. We see the most terrible things on stage, of course: at one point, a child is murdered before our very eyes. But at the heart of the tragedy is what these two people do to themselves. In the great banquet scene, Ian MacKellen presents Macbeth as a man who is already mentally unhinged: the sight of him literally foaming at the mouth in sheer terror is not something I’ll forget in a hurry. And in the sleepwalking scene, Judi Dench presents a Lady Macbeth who, while still on this bank and shoal of time, is already a damned soul suffering the torments of Hell. And we can’t but ask ourselves “What have these people done to their immortal souls?”

Ian Mckellen - Macbeth

Ian Mackellen as Macbeth

I saw this production again last weekend, and it remains a nerve-racking experience. Somehow, not even the most frightening of horror films can quite match the intensity of horror projected here.

“Upon such sacrifices…”

The final scene of King Lear starts with Lear and Cordelia, defeated in battle, brought in as prisoners. Cordelia asks whether she can see her sisters, whose wickedness has brought her and her father so low. Lear’s response to this is extraordinary:

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Magnificent though this is, I am not quite sure how I should take it. It is certainly all too easy simply to revel in the beauty of Shakespeare’s blank verse, in that verbal music he produces that is simultaneously both exquisite and sublime. And certainly, if Shakespeare has chosen – as he obviously has here – to burst into such splendour at this point, then clearly he intended dramatic significance of this splendour to register with the audience. And yet, this dramatic significance is troubling. Does Lear really imagine that he and his daughter could live out the rest of their lives happily in prison? Even if that were possible, would it be desirable? For Lear, possibly: he is an old man, has suffered unimaginable agonies, and would like nothing better than to withdraw from life; but it is hardly desirable for someone like Cordelia, who is still young. And indeed, Shakespeare soon confirms that the heaven Lear imagines for himself and his daughter is illusory: far from living happily in prison with Cordelia for the rest of his life, Lear enters towards the end of this same scene in the utmost despair, with Cordelia dead in his arms.

But if Lear’s glorious lyrical outburst here is simply the deluded imaginings of a man who has lost whatever grasp he had once had of reality, why does Shakespeare make the passage so ethereally beautiful? Is it merely to accentuate the horror when these illusions cruelly shattered? That is certainly one way of looking at it, but that has never seemed very satisfactory to me. The presentation of something so beautiful merely to highlight its pointlessness seems to me a sort of gloating cynicism, a scoffing nastiness, that are quite at odds with the very rich and complex emotions I experience when I see or read this play.

Certainly, immediately after Lear delivers this speech, Edmund brings us down to earth with a very curt “take them away” (these three words completing the line that, in terms of metre, Lear had left unfinished). But then, Lear comes out with the most extraordinary lines of all:

Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense.

It is a remarkable idea. In a play that has shown us the extremes of human brutality, Lear now suggests that the gods themselves praise and worship certain aspects of humanity. The implication of this is that humans can rise to a level even higher than that of the gods; and further, that the gods themselves acknowledge this.

Now, if we consider these lines in their specific dramatic context, they are meaningless. It is not possible, even if it were desirable, to detach oneself from life in the manner Lear envisages, to wear out one’s years in a wall’d prison while packs and sects of great ones ebb and flow by the moon. But the very striking nature of these lines seems to me to demand that we also consider them beyond their immediate dramatic context. If regarded solely in the immediate context, the “sacrifices” Lear refers to relates to withdrawing from life; but if we try to see it in a wider context, if we try to see what these sacrifices may be that even the gods themselves acknowledge and worship, we may glimpse, at least, something that may, in some way, mitigate the horror – the horror both of what had happened before, and the horror of what is yet to come. This is not to say that it is wrong to see King Lear as, essentially, a nihilist work; but it is to say, I think, that, despite appearances, there may just be a possibility of redemption.

And if there is such a possibility, it comes not from the gods, but from humanity itself. Lear, earlier in his speech, speaks of being like “God’s spies”. (The play is set in pagan times, but, unless the existing texts are corrupt at this point, it is certainly God rather than the gods Lear refers to here.) There seem to me at least two ways of interpreting this. One is that we must set ourselves the task of spying on God – the implication here being that God is not trustworthy. The other one is that we should spy on God’s behalf, and the implication here is that God himself does not know all that is happening in his creation. Either way, the picture is presented of a God whose capabilities are limited – who is either not wholly good, or not wholly powerful. But when humanity itself can offer up such sacrifices, then the gods themselves (Shakespeare has, rather curiously, switched back to the pagan “gods” now) feel it worthy of worship.

But what are “such sacrifices”? It is clearly not a withdrawal from life that Lear speaks of. But one needn’t look too far. This play depicts, certainly, the most bestial atrocities of which humans are capable; but, in Edgar, in Kent, in Cordelia, and even in Gloucester, it depicts also a human goodness that is equally extraordinary. Are these the sacrifices upon which the gods themselves throw incense? Perhaps. If the gods exist at all, that is. But sadly, we have no assurance of that. This is a play that suggests everything, even redemption; but ultimately, it confirms nothing.

The boring bits

Explaining the rules of test cricket to someone unfamiliar with the game – especially to someone who comes from a country in which cricket isn’t played – is certainly a challenge, but a most entertaining one: one can but relish the look of increasing bewilderment and incredulity on the listener’s face as one expounds not merely the rules, but also the various subtleties and nuances; and little can match the delight when, finally, one sees their jaw drop when you tell them that a match can last for five whole days, and still not end with a decisive result.

I am not, I must admit at the outset, a particularly avid fan of cricket. I enjoy it right enough, and, back in those days I always reminisce about here with a misty eye, I remember enjoying the live broadcasts of entire test matches on BBC. But these live broadcasts of cricket are only available now on subscription channels, and I really am not so keen a fan of sports that I’d be happy to fork out for these: not that I have anything against cricket, and  not that I wouldn’t have watched it if it had still been on BBC, but I frankly have other priorities I’d rather be spending my money on. Of course, I can still see the highlights at the end of each day’s play, but it’s not the same. So, over the years, I have rather got out of the habit of watching cricket (and other sports); and, since one cannot really follow what one does not see, I am fast losing interest in sport altogether. But the five-day test match used, I remember, to be wonderful way to waste a few days.

The attraction, I say as I try to explain, is not really of the excitement of the moment, but, rather, of tension building up over long periods. And over time, this tension is cumulative. This is why a mere hour’s worth of highlights doesn’t quite hit the spot: yes, you see all the wickets, you see the most spectacular shots, the best pieces of fielding, the most brilliant deliveries; but what’s missing is the element of time; what’s missing is the pacing of the game, the shape of the thing, some idea of how all the events unfold over time. The difference between watching a full test match and watching the highlights is like the difference between reading a well-crafted comic novel, and reading a joke book from cover to cover. In the comic novel, not every single line is funny, and nor is it intended to be; but in the end, it is a far more satisfactory read than the joke book.

But surely, I am asked, aren’t there dull patches over the five days of play? Aren’t there “boring bits”? Yes, there certainly are, I say. But – and here’s where I am most certainly courting downright disbelief – it’s part of the package. When you see something unfolding over a stretch of time, there are, almost inevitably, boring bits. But if you try to take those bits out, you end up with something like the “twenty-twenty game”, which is a radically simplified version of cricket, and where the purpose appears to be nothing more subtle or sophisticated than hitting each ball as hard as one possibly can. And, since the batsmen have to play aggressively, there are more wickets. So yes, it’s thrills and spills all the way, and, not surprisingly, it’s a sure-fire money-spinner. But ask any seasoned cricket fan what they prefer, and they’ll tell you with a virtually unanimous voice: it’s the five-day Test match that’s the Real Thing. That’s the form that gives the greatest satisfaction, boring bits and all.

Now, I appreciate I am set myself a hard selling job here in trying to convince readers that cricket actually benefits from having in it some boring patches, but I hope I have carried at least some of my readers so far, for now I’m going to go one step further, and claim that “boring bits” are part of the package not merely in test cricket, but also in works of art – in novels, plays, films, operas … in anything, indeed, that unfolds over time. Now, before you call for the strait-jacket, please let me explain.

By “boring bits”, I do not mean passages that are slow. Some works – comedies, say – generally require a generally fast tempo, while other more contemplative works generally require a slow tempo; but, regardless of whether the underlying tempo is an allegro or an adagio, what makes for boredom is not the pacing in itself, lack of variety in the pacing. A work that is relentlessly fast without variation can be just as tedious as a work that goes to the other extreme. So the problem is not necessarily a slow tempo, as such: the problem is when the chosen tempo isn’t justified by the material. And yes, it may be counted a flaw.  But it can crop up in some of the very greatest works of the human imagination. We do not, after all, judge a work by how free it is from flaws: some of the greatest works, we often find, are flawed. Indeed, given how great the artist’s ambition had been in these works, it is hardly to be expected that they could be executed to perfection: perfection tends to be a quality one finds more often in works where artists have set their sights on more modest ends.

Consider King Lear, for instance. I know of no greater work of art in any medium, and yet, one does not need to take a microscope to it to see that it is riddled with dramatic flaws. But really, does it matter? Similarly with Don Quixote. Once again, it’s one of the great pillars of western culture, but can one honestly say that it doesn’t have flaws?

I really do not know how often I have read or seen King Lear over the decades, and the flaws have frankly never bothered me. And yes, Don Quixote most certainly has its longueurs, but I have read that book from cover to cover four times now, and not once did I consider skipping those “boring bits”. Because when something unfolds over time, I want to get a sense of its pacing, I want to get a sense of the shape of the thing. So a genius like Cervantes misjudged it from time to time: so what? I’m happy to stick with the misjudgements of a genius than with the piddling perfection of some mediocrity. And if that seems like idolatry, so be it. As far as I am concerned, the odd bit of boredom is a small price to pay to get close to the mind of a genius. As in test cricket, it’s all part of the package.

We may look at various other works too of the highest artistic merit. Can even the most ardent Wagnerian, or the most avid Mahlerian, really put their hands on their hearts and say there are no “boring bits” in a Wagner opera or in a Mahler symphony? Can even the keenest fan of Andrei Tarkovsky claim there are no boring bits in, say, Solaris, or in The Sacrifice? Is it reasonable for even the most sympathetic reader to maintain that Moby-Dick is free of all longueurs? Of course not. But here’s the curious paradox: taking those “boring bits” out won’t improve the work. Indeed, I’d go as far as to argue that such an excision would have quite the opposite effect.

The wonder of these great masterpieces is not that they are flawless – they clearly aren’t – but that they exist at all, and that they are so very great that the flaws simply do not matter. In the end, they are all, essentially, “part of the package”.

“The Catcher in the Rye”

  • So you write a blog?

I couldn’t deny it. Yes, I replied. What kind of blog? Oh, I write about whatever comes to mind, really, but it’s mainly about books.

  • So you read a lot?

Not a lot, I explain. Compared to many other book bloggers, I actually read very little. But yes, I do read, and I like thinking about what I read, and putting down my thoughts – such as they are – on paper. Or on a laptop screen, at least.

  • So what do you think of The Catcher in the Rye?

Now, that question came out of the blue, and I wasn’t quite prepared for it. But I said, truthfully, that it has been many decades since I read it, and I remember I rather enjoyed it at the time.

A pause. And then:

  • I hated it. I don’t know why it’s regarded as a classic. It was just this whiny kid going on and on. Irritated the hell out of me. I felt like slapping him.

Oh, I said. Well, never mind. Fancy another drink?

Now, to be frank, I don’t really understand why it’s considered a classic either. Oh, not that it’s a bad novel – it clearly isn’t: but if I were to compile one of those tiresome list of The Greatest Novels I Have Read, I don’t think I’d include The Catcher in the Rye. But I suppose it depends on where exactly you draw the line separating the Great from Nearly-Great-But-Not-Quite, or where exactly you separate that from Very-Good-But-Certainly-Nowhere-Near-Great, and so on. But whatever category you put it in, I don’t think it can be denied that the book is a cultural phenomenon. It’s one of those books that is read even by those who don’t normally read books. The impact it has made is more than literary, and that in itself demands attention.

When it was first published in the early 1950s, it was, perhaps rather quaintly from our contemporary perspective, deemed controversial. Many schools banned it from their reading lists. That in itself gave it the frisson of forbidden goods. It was, seemingly, anti-establishment, a handbook of teenage rebellion. However, nowadays, it is actually required reading in many schools, and that kills off whatever street-cred it might have had. And anyone looking in it for a frisson of that rebellious anti-establishment vibe is likely to come away thinking “Huh?”

For, looking around various comments on the net, I do not get the impression that The Catcher in the Rye is much liked these days – certainly not as much liked as it used to be in my own teenage years, back in the 1970s, when it was considered essential reading. The comments I see now mostly seem to agree that Holden Caulfield really is simply a “whiny kid”, and deeply irritating. Whether I should take these comments as in any way representative of contemporary tastes, and whether the tide really has turned so spectacularly since my teenage years, I do not know. But it seemed intriguing.

Now, even if we were to concede that Holden really is just a “whiny kid”, disliking a character, even the principal character, is, in general, a poor reason for disliking a novel. But I do concede that in this particular novel, we need, if not actually to see the world through Holden’s eyes, to be at least in sympathy with his perspective: otherwise the novel would make little if any emotional impact. In the course of the novel’s action, Holden has what we may describe as a mental breakdown: merely to stand in detached and unsympathetic judgement over this is unlikely to bring us very close to the heart of what the novel is about.

But what is the novel about? The general consensus appears to be that it is about teenage angst, and teenage rebellion. But even when I read it as a teenager I could see that it wasn’t that. Or, rather, the angst it depicts is not something that can reasonably be described as teenage angst.  Something described as “teenage angst” must, by definition, be widespread amongst teenagers: but no other teenager in this novel feels anything like the mental agonies that Holden goes though; and Holden himself is as powerfully alienated from people of his own age group as he is from adults. What we are asked to observe is not, I think, a general condition, but rather, an affliction affecting one particular individual.

And Holden is not really rebellious. His “rebellion” really amounts to no more than walking out of the residential school he attends (he is obviously from a privileged background), and spending a few days by himself in New York. And even in those few days, he doesn’t actually do anything bad, as such: even when he has the opportunity to sleep with a prostitute, he finds he cannot go through with it. Of course, he dislikes all that he sees around him, but, beyond expressing his dislike, he does little to rebel against them.

In many ways, he is very much a product of the society he finds himself disliking. His attitude to homosexuality, for instance: while not openly hostile or malicious, homosexuality is nonetheless something he finds disturbing, and, by modern standards at least, we would certainly deem him “homophobic”. But given the background he has grown up in, it really would have taken a very fearless and independent thinker to hold what we may nowadays consider tolerant and enlightened views on the matter; and Holden as a thinker is neither fearless nor independent. Indeed, he is not much of a thinker at all: his dissatisfaction with life is purely an instinctive, emotional response to what is around him, not an intellectual stance.

So why is he so dissatisfied? Holden himself cannot explain this, for, firstly, he does not analyse himself, and is possibly incapable of doing so; and secondly, neither is he very articulate. His general sense of dissatisfaction is something he feels, but which he cannot understand, or express in words even if he could. So it is up to us, as readers, to try to look beyond his natural inarticulacy. One word he uses frequently is “phoney”. He doesn’t explain what he mans by this, but we can see that he tends to apply this word to describe what he regards (although he would possibly be unable to articulate it thus) as emotional shallowness, or insincerity. And this he sees all around him. People say things, do things, not because they feel it, but simply because that is the form, as it were, simply because this is what everyone does. What appears to dissatisfy him is a lack of feeling, a lack of emotional depth in peoples’ day-to-day lives. But why seems it so particular with him? However, as with Prince Hamlet (in this if little else), he knows not “seems”: for Holden, it is. It is the seeming in others that he deplores.

And the reason for this, though not immediately apparent, emerges slowly over the course of the novel, and takes centre stage in the climactic passage towards the end, where he meets with his sister Phoebe: Holden is still in grieving for the death of his brother Allie, and he cannot understand why the rest of the world isn’t also in grieving with him. How can people – even his own parents – carry on with their lives as before after something so momentous as this? How can they all go inside to take shelter from the rain immediately after his funeral?

This, I think, is at the heart of the matter. The novel is not about teenage angst, or rebellion, or about the difficulties of coming to age: it’s about a sensitive young lad who cannot articulate his grief, nor understand how the rest of the world, his own parents included, could fail to grieve as he does, could carry on living when his own life seems to have come to a halt. And considered as such, it strikes me as a very poignant novel, and not deserving the opprobrium so frequently heaped upon it these days.

I honestly can’t remember how many years it has been since I last read it. And, unlike many other books I have read, it is not one that has been a prominent presence in my mind in those years. But when, prompted by the conversation I reported at the start of this post, I started to think back on it, I was surprised by how vivid it had remained in my mind, by how well I remembered it – even above many other novels that are arguably of a higher literary quality.

A great novel? No, probably not. It probably doesn’t have the artistic scope that one might expect from something labelled “great”. But I think it’s a minor masterpiece, all the same.