February 27, 2013

Tennessee and Papa: my odd couple from Key West

The knockout cultural event of my winter has been the ART production of Tennesee Williams’ first big hit, The Glass Menagerie, from 1944 – with the amazing Cherry Jones as Mama Wingfield and the TV-movie ...

Tennessee TimeThe knockout cultural event of my winter has been the ART production of Tennesee Williams’ first big hit, The Glass Menagerie, from 1944 – with the amazing Cherry Jones as Mama Wingfield and the TV-movie star Zachary Quinto as young Tom, aka Tennessee, who’s desperate to get out of the house and live his life. The play in Cambridge is all compounded now with my first visit to Key West and Ernest Hemingway’s house and reimmersion in the big novels, starting with For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940). I’ve entered a new Hemingway Period in my head, but Tennessee Williams is in there, too – holding his own with Papa around ideas of manhood, masculinity, masculinism and issues that resound in 2013 not least around guns and gun control, drone wars and who we are in the world.

First things first: about both of these men you gotta jump up and cheer the prose mastery of giant American writers of the last mid-century. They keep you gasping. “Yes I have tricks in my pocket. I have things up my sleeve,” says the playwright in the opening moments of The Glass Menagerie. “But I am the opposite of the stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of the truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” Reminded me of Hemingway’s line that the writer’s assignment, his job every day, was to make up “one true sentence.” The flow of language is like Hemingway’s rivers: clear and swiftly moving, embedded with pebbles and boulders, blue in the channels. And it makes your heart pound.

ernie timeSecond thing, of course, is that Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway are iconic opposites in our star culture. Tennessee Tom, originally from Mississippi, was a gay Southerner before you could imagine such a thing, and the stage poet of outcasts. Hairy-chested Hemingway was the doctor’s son from Oak Park, Illinois, recklessly out in the wide world lion-hunting in Africa, hooking giant marlin off Cuba, toting a typewriter in war zones half his life and exulting in all of it.

But then the third thing, for me anyway, watching The Glass Menagerie, is that the contrast turns itself upside down. Hemingway begins to feel like the kinky one, spiraling downward to prove himself as a writer, fighter, fisherman, big-game shooter, hunter and killer — of himself, finally, in 1961. And then in the ART’s Glass Menagerie production that makes the gay subtext almost disappear, you hear Tennessee Williams speaking for every single one of us, I think, trying to pull our grown-up selves out of the webs of family and the broken past.

So I can’t stop thinking about two giant American writers on the “ruin” of manhood, and I’d ask you to join a conversation here – specially if you’ve seen The Glass Menagerie and if you’ve been drawn one way or another to the Hemingway code, his peculiar way with a sentence, his novels, his stories…

 

Podcast • October 2, 2008

What We’re Going Through: Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith: grace notes Anna Deavere Smith works barefoot on stage — the better to walk in the words of the people she’s impersonating; perhaps also to summon Walt Whitman, who said we’d feel ...

Anna Deavere Smith: grace notes

Anna Deavere Smith works barefoot on stage — the better to walk in the words of the people she’s impersonating; perhaps also to summon Walt Whitman, who said we’d feel his spirit “under your bootsoles.”

Actress and documentarian, Anna Deavere Smith is all feeling, no bootsoles.

Her new show is “a play in evolution,” and it’s all over the lot, all over the world… She “does” Jesse Norman on “Amazing Grace”; a Hutu prisoner in Rwanda; preacher Peter Gomes at Harvard; the late governor of Texas, Ann Richards, brave and brassy at the approach of death; and, among others, Gabriel Saez, the unlucky jockey on Eight Belles, the filly who succumbed after her second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. People have found fault with this show, Let Me Down Easy, for its scattered focus, but I liked it better for threading the spooky uncertainty and disbelief of this moment through such an odd lot of anxious minds.

I asked this brilliant sponge what grown-ups are all asking each other: “what are we going through?” What is this work in progress going through? What is Anna Deavere Smith going through?

A theme of this show and our conversation is “grace.” Her subtitle is “Grace in the Dark.” We push and pull some on this subject, this word. Grace to me is divine magic, not a secular virtue; it’s a theological idea, inseparable from the formulations in St. Paul’s Letters. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves,” in Ephesians, for example. “It is the gift of God…” I think of grace as the catalyst of transformed vision. Anna Deavere Smith looks for grace and finds it in the suffering of this world.

I’m looking through the lens of: Is there any grace here? Is there any grace in a tough situation? And trying to define grace at the same time. And finding people who are the exemplars of grace even in places you’d least expect to find it. For example in Rwanda. Who would think that you could go to Rwanda, the site of a genocide, and find grace? And I did in the form of the way people are dealing with the idea of forgiveness. One of the characters talked about giving grace — actually differentiating that from forgiveness, because she said that forgiveness is something you give when someone asked for it; and her awful predicament is that the killers of her family have not come and asked. She says: I’m giving them grace. She’s saying: I’m not holding onto you in my heart anymore…

I think the definition of grace is broader than the religious definition of it. We find it in the world. I visit a garden to find it. We find it in other kindnesses. In a way I’m thinking about it almost like kindness. The other exemplar to me of grace — and I don’t know what her religious background is — is a woman in Johannesburg, South Africa who has an orphanage for children who are dying of AIDS. And she sits with every child who’s dying and talks to them about what’s happening.

Anna Deavere Smith of Let Me Down Easy in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 1, 2008

Anna delivers her most powerful points here in three generous performances from the show, in the voices of Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke at the Charity Hospital in New Orleans; Trudy Howell, director of the Chance Orphanage in Johannesburg; and Ann Richards, in a hospital in Houston. You are invited to listen over and over, and of course to comment on grace, on Anna, on what you and we are going through.

Podcast • January 19, 2008

Backstage with Henry V

King Henry V: Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more… … when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the ...

King Henry V:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…

… when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger;

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage…

… The game’s afoot:

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

Laurence Olivier (1944)

Boy, in Henry’s army:

Would I were in an alehouse in London, I would give all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety.

Pistol:

The King’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold, a lad of life, an imp of fame, of parents good, of fist most valiant: I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heartstring I love the lovely bully.

In order: Sovereign, “grunt” and rowdy commoner on the eve of battle, Acts 3 and 4 of Henry the Fifth

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Coppelia Kahn, Normi Noel and Seth Powers here (44 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Henry the Fifth remains, for many, the familiar favorite among Shakespeare plays. For Lydon kids, it began with my father’s doctrine that Laurence Olivier’s Henry V was the best movie ever made — though we all came to see the sinew-stiffening World War 2 propaganda dimension of the piece, which Winston Churchill had cleansed, for example, of the mass slaugher of French prisoners in Shakespeare’s account. Those magic lines of Henry’s — “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” to his warriors, and his love banter with the French princess Katherine — “take a soldier; take a King” — summon the blood and melt the heart long after we realize that this warlike Harry was bluffing his way through an aggressive and unpopular war of choice, egged on by a corrupt church establishment.

Kenneth Branagh challenged the Everest of Shakespearean movie-making, and got credit for taking the peak, in 1989. Branagh’s battle scenes were hellish, and his Henry was a thug in scenes that Olivier had cut:

Kenneth Branagh (1989)

King Henry:

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,

And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,

In liberty of bloody hand shall range

With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass

Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.

Henry’s ultimatum to the town fathers of Harfleur, in Act 3, Scene 1 in Henry the Fifth

Come now the merry and inventive players of the treasured Actors Shakespeare Project in Boston. Their Henry V is five actors in a garage basement, directed by Normi Noel of Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires, raising profound old riddles anew, in a production worthy of the ASP standard we’ve celebrated before in King Lear and Titus Andronicus.

Just war? Are you kidding? Be reminded that this dramatic site of arguably the greatest, most quotable war speeches in the language is also a mine of anti-war eloquence, not least by Michael Williams, a soldier:

Williams:

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

Soldier-talk, overheard by the king on the eve of Agincourt in Act 4, Scene 1, Henry the Fifth

We will have a conversation any day now with Coppelia Kahn, the Shakespeare scholar at Brown, and with principals in this ASP production: the actor playing Henry, Seth Powers, and the director Normi Noel, who remarked to me today: “Hamlet is a cake-walk after this guy.” In the program notes she raises a fascinating question about one of the most famous lines in the play, spoken in connection with the approaching death of Henry’s cast-off roistering mate, Falstaff: “The king has killed his heart.”

Is it Falstaff’s heart that Henry has killed in becoming a king? Or his own? Might the core of the play be, as Normi Noel suspects, about “what we do to armor the heart against feeling?”

But first I put it to the Open Source crowd: What is Shakespeare saying through Henry the Fifth about honor and heroism, about the earning of kingship and manhood, about nationhood and war, about chivalry and tragic irony? Help me out, please. Are not the questions wide open?