Sunday, December 31, 2006

Historical Questions for New Year's Eve

I was out having drinks with my friend Danyal last night, and I was telling her about how earlier this week a news item had declared that a researcher, after combing through the human bones and litter in the basement of an abandoned Tuscan church and then conducting DNA and chemical tests, had conclusively proven that Francesco Medici (and almost certainly his wife too) died of poisoning in the late 16th century---likely at the hands of his brother, Cardinal Fernando. Thus, a more-than-four-centuries-old rumour was confirmed. This led us into a sort of (admittedly somewhat nerdy) parlour game for while in which we thought of different things we would like to find out from history. I was thinking about this again today, and I occurred to me that, given that New Year's Eve is a time for looking back, I should record some of these for your amusement, gentle reader:

What was said in the fifteen-minute conversation between Charlotte Corday and Jean-Paul Marat between the time she was left alone with him while he sat in his bathtub (v. the famous David painting) and when she actually stabbed him to death?

What was the acting of Richard Burbage, David Garrick, Sarah Siddons, Edmund Kean and others really like?

Did Jane Austen really talk in the way that she wrote?

What were Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed like, as public speakers? Is it blasphemous to wonder if they used notes?

What did Salome's dance look like?

Why, given that Hannibal, the legendary Carthaginian general, spent about sixteen years in Italy with his army, ravaging the country, did he never in all that time build siege equipment so that he could take the city of Rome?

How sexy really was Cleopatra? If the artists who portrayed her were competent and she had to make up for a none-too-prepossessing appearance, how exactly did she do that? A demonstration, please.

Did Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid really die in Bolivia, or did they make it back to the USA?

If we can only see one of all the many lost Greek tragedies, can we please just see the most amazing of them? Is the very best of the Greek tragedies actually one of the extant group?

Was Shakespeare bisexual? Was he Catholic or Protestant?

Who were the dark lady and the fair young man of the sonnets?

What the hell was the book publisher Warburton's cook thinking when she used all those single copies of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays to line her pie pans?

What really did happen to Ambrose Small, the Canadian multi-millionaire owner of the Grand Theatres chain, who one day in Toronto in 1919 simply disappeared off the street in the block or two between his bank (where he had just deposited a check for $1 million) and his office? For that matter, what happened to Ambrose Bierce, the author of "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge" who disappeared in Mexico just a few years earlier? Was someone, after all, just collecting Ambroses?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Moose Marsh

Let’s face it: most of the classic ballet stories seem pretty dumb when you remove all the dancing and just look at the little synopsis they give you in the programme. And, of course, all those old ballets are so terribly Eurocentric, built on corny European folk-tales (Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty), drawing on European stereotypes (beautiful princesses and handsome princes), and featuring Europeanish fauna (swans, fauns and, uh...firebirds?). This past summer, driving along highway two, and with nothing better to occupy my mind, I asked myself: why not early Canadian ballets? Ones with dumb Canadian stories, embarrassing Canadian stereotypes and exclusively Canadian (or, at least North American), fauna? Where, in heaven’s name, were they? Determined to rectify this nationally mortifying cultural lacuna, I set to work, and so it is my pleasure to offer you the synopsis of Moose Marsh:

Act I: The Garrison

Pokinfunatus, a Huron maiden who works in the tavern and household of the sorcerer, Comte Frontenac, is admired for her startling resemblance to a patronizing racial stereotype by all the voyageurs who pass through the garrison on their way upstream; but she is especially beloved by Ti-jean, a French-Canadian trapper who is no slouch in the offensive stereotype department himself, and who supplies venison to the Comte’s kitchen, where it is prepared for the hungry and loutish voyageurs who regularly stop at the Frontenac garrison. Comte Frontenac is engaged to an aristocratic woman named Showerilde (legal disclaimer: any resemblance to Bathilde, from the ballet Giselle, is purely coincidental) but has become bored with her. Having spied Pokinfunatus as she brings large platters of meat from the kitchen, he uses his black magic to disguise himself as one of the voyageurs, and in this guise demands that she dance for the voyageur team. As the tom-toms play an appalling pastiche of “aboriginal music,” she does so, the Comte and the voyageurs shouting their boorish encouragement while Ti-jean looks on anxiously. Pleased with Pokinfunatus’s performance, Comte Frontenac declares that he will marry her. Pokinfunatus raises a pretty eyebrow at this and is about to retort, when suddenly she is interrupted by Ti-jean, who declares the Comte to be a fraud who is already engaged to Showerilde. Pokinfunatus immediately rebuffs the Comte with a withering arm-crossing and tongue-clucking. The red-faced Comte vows vengeance upon them both and when Pokinfunatus snorts contemptuously, saying “talk to the ‘how sign’”, she is suddenly made to vanish in a puff of smoke. Enraged, Ti-jean attempts to attack the Comte, but he is restrained by the other voyageurs who, heavily inebriated and to be frank, somewhat slow on the uptake at the best of times, still believe the Comte to be one of their own. Ti-jean, in hopes of both finding Pokinfunatus and conclusively exposing the Comte’s imposture to the other voyageurs, puts on a tuque and a preposterous beard and as the voyageurs depart he joins the group, slipping unnoticed beneath the large canoe as it is portaged across the stage in the famous “canoe dance” (a challenging piece choreographed for eight males who in a series of dazzling arabesques and pirouettes, create the impression that a 600lb canoe is floating, while being able to see nothing but one another’s feet).

Act II: The Enchanted Marsh

In the event, it has proved unnecessary for Ti-jean to expose the Comte to the voyageurs, because he is quickly expelled from the team because of his incompetent paddling and his maddeningly incessant complaints about the mosquitoes and blackflies and the blisters on his pale aristocratic hands. Fleeing the voyageurs’ brandished paddles, Comte Frontenac escapes into the woods, pursued by Ti-jean. However the Comte eludes Ti-jean, who, now lost and exhausted, comes to the edge of an enchanted marsh where he collapses. As dusk falls, a pack of porcupines (the female corps du ballet) emerge for an evening dance on the shore, a performance that involves a good deal of skill not only in imitating the extremely short-legged gait, but, especially during the linked-armed sequence, in the dexterous avoidance of one another’s spiky tutus. (Perhaps it is needless to remark that any less than fastidious observance of port de bras here will have painful consequences.) After a preliminary dance, a pack of beavers (the male corps du ballet) arrives, and the two rodent choruses pair off for a series of virtuosic displays of waddling. Lurking near the back of the pack of porcupines is one with an improbable long black braid and a jagged-hemmed suede mini-dress (looking a little peculiar, to be sure, draped as it is over all those quills), by means of which clues Ti-jean recognizes Pokinfunatus. She shyly comes forward—although Ti-jean suggests that it might be best if she did not come too close—and explains that they have been bewitched by Comte Frontenac. She says that the many women who have refused the Comte’s embraces have been transformed into porcupines (“My sweet unembraceable you,” he had snarled); the beavers had all been young men whom the Comte had coaxed into clearing tracts of land on which they were promised they could settle, but, when they had finished, he invited them to his tavern and, once they were drunk, transformed them, with his trademark heavy-handed irony (“Come along, you eager beavers! Bwah-ha-ha-ha!”), so that he could seize their farmland for himself. The marsh emerged from all the half-finished glasses of beer that were left at the tavern, most of which, she adds with a certain distaste, were almost certainly corrupted by back-wash. Now each evening, they all gather by the edge of the marsh and wait for the moonlight, when they will briefly resume their human forms. The conversation is interrupted when suddenly the beavers begin slapping their “tails” (danced by means of the highly taxing “rapid-squat” technique) to warn of the approach, through the marsh, of a giant Moose. The Moose boastfully attempts to intimidate the beaver-males by means of a series of giant leaps which they cannot possibly match with their short rodent legs, but Ti-jean, abetted, at least in appearance, by his thigh-high leather boots, surpasses the Moose by leaping back and forth over its back and winning the applause of the chorus. Suddenly the envious and humilated Moose charges Ti-jean, who deftly leaps over a beaver dam which the Moose, in his rage, is tripped up by. Having the Moose at his mercy, Ti-jean declares that, having noticed that the Moose’s antlers are improbably pristine and fuzz-free in a manner with which only an aristocrat would bother himself, he believes the Moose to be the Comte in disguise, and threatens to have the Comte’s head stuffed and mounted back in his own dining-room unless he reveals himself immediately. Comte Frontenac reveals himself at the very moment that the moon rises and the rodent-dancers begin a transformation back to their human shapes, a process which, Comte Frontenac declares, he will allow to be permanent when the dawn comes. A celebratory dance ensues, and the Comte, moved to penitence by the joy of the others, offers to dance with each of the maidens in turn to choose one of them to be his wife. This, alas, proves an imprudent promise, for the maidens have not quite divested themselves of all of their porcupine traits. However, the Comte, nothing if not a man of his word, persists in dancing with one partner after another, until, bristling like a sea-urchin, he falls into the marsh of beer dregs and backwash and drowns disgustingly. Ti-jean and the beaver-men —very carefully— lead Pokinfunatus and the porcupine-maidens on a dance back towards the garrison.

(And listen, before anyone asks: no, I really don't have "a thing" about porcupines, although I will admit to finding it mildly fascinating that something so funny-looking can also be so terrifying, and also to having woken up with nightmares for several nights running about a decade ago, immediately after I was forced to use pliers to remove half-a-dozen quills from my dog's mouth...ONE...AT...A...TIME. Make what you will of that, Dr Freud.)

Friday, December 22, 2006

Hatfields and McCoys

One frequently hears an argument made about the relevance of the theatre in the modern age, even from rather arcane artists like the director Peter Sellars, to this effect: “it is our responsibility, in our contemporary multi-media society, to do more than move audiences to feel (which a well-produced tv commercial can do in 15 seconds). We must instead move them to some kind of change perhaps even some kind of action.”

I take Sellars’ point about the futility of merely concentrating on invoking emotions. Stimulants of that sort can be had terribly cheaply. Furthermore, living in our sophisticated media-savvy world, many of us have become so used to this sort of manipulation that we are, if not altogether inured to it, at least ready to shrug off emotions within moments—a sort of necessary aphasia for minds overwhelmed by a media-saturated world.

On the other hand, I have my serious doubts about the suggestion that we should undertake to move people to action with the theatre. For if we consider this to be the main purpose of theatre, frankly, there are far better vehicles for doing so. The television or the internet, for example, used deftly, will reach far more people more immediately than any theatrical production. Moreover, even more troubling, to me — and perhaps to others — is the question of whether the director (or playwright, perhaps) must then decide ahead of time what action, exactly, she wants to make people take. If she does, isn't that pretty manipulative? And, in these terms, would that mean that the best production was that which was most lucid in its propagandistic intentions? (Anyone for the Soviet “boy-meets-tractor” plays?) And if she doesn’t, isn’t that pretty irresponsible? (“I shifted people out of their apathy: some of them became missionary doctors and others suicide bombers...”)

Having said that, of course, one must accept that there have been many people who felt, or at least have said that they felt, that this was, indeed, the task of theatre. Bertolt Brecht, for example, seems to suggest this in his theories; and who can doubt that he is one of the Twentieth Century’s most important playwrights? At the same time, we see, ladies and gentleman, in the other corner, wearing the black trunks, the number one contender, Samuel Beckett. If we look into Beckett’s plays with the question of what sort of action they are advocating in mind, we are likely to conclude that he wants nothing from us other than complete inertia. Some of us will not be comfortable resting with such a means of measuring the validity of theatrical work, then. Naturally, others are, and it is perhaps this which has led some commentators to conclude that all theatrical scholars or practitioners had to fall into one of two mutually exclusive camps—the Hatfields and McCoys of twentieth-century theatre: Brechtians or Beckettians.

I, however, repudiate that conclusion, happily having a foot in each camp. But that does rather force me to come up with some answer to the dilemma of how to reconcile Brecht’s (apparent) insistence on action-advocacy with Beckett’s (apparent) complete indifference toward anything of the kind (but cf. his Catastrophe). Well, I think the answer lies in this: what theatre does, better than anything else, better than any other art form, better than any other form of communication, is pose questions about the relation between the individual and society. And it is my belief that this is the crucial imperative facing us theatrical practitioners (and scholars): to identify the questions we want to ask —sometimes very old and yet perennially vital, sometimes very new and startling— about what sort of people we are, what sort of people we want to be and what sort of world we want to share.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Favourite Actor

Occasionally I am asked to name my favourite actor, and the question seems to throw me into a mild panic, perhaps because I have never sat back to consider methodically the question: what are the elements that combine to make an actor a favourite? It's difficult to consider the question apart from the characters the actor has played, of course. (Who can tell the dancer from the dance?) But, supposing one can, where a single character has been played by multiple actors...? In the case of the many actors who have played James Bond, for example, I can say confidently that Sean Connery remains my favourite. But why? It obviously doesn't merely have to do with how "realistic" the actor is (that, for better or worse, would probably go to Daniel Craig), and even less, I think, with how physically appealing the actor is (Pierce Brosnan would win out there, I guess, though this may be thought tepid praise in any case, coming as it does from a heterosexual man). Rather, I think it has something to do with rather more abstract qualities which we find compelling. To draw an analogy, I'd say that just as we may find Louis Armstrong's phrasing of a particular song deeply memorable and indeed, compellingly imitable, so do we admire the music an actor brings to certain characters. Considered in these terms---and without even entering into the parallel column of assessment, which would have to do with the physical equivalent of music: the dance of facial features and bodily posture---I am beginning to suspect that my favourite actor of all time may be the late Mel Blanc --- the man who provided the voices of Foghorn Leghorn, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam, Porky Pig, Tweety, Sylvester the Cat, Wile E. Coyote (Genius), the Tasmanian Devil and every other bit character in the Looney Tunes cartoons. The truth is that I remember more of the subtleties of his inflections, delight in the details of more of his deliveries, relish in more of his comic timing, and find more joy in his flamboyance than in the work of pretty much any other actor I can name. Now that's compelling work. So, here's to Mel.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Subsidies and The Supposed Right-Wing Intellectual Deficit

(As will become apparent, there is a sort of pun in the title of this blog which inevitably arises from the complaints made by conservative commentators such as that to which I have provided a link below.)

Every so often, I feel compelled to wearily answer the neo-conservative, pseudo-Darwinist suggestion that the natural way of things demands that theatre should respond to the market economy, and accordingly, if it cannot survive on the free market, it would be better to atrophy and die.

Really, this is tiresome silliness. For example, let's look at the idea that theatre's “natural” state is to be commercially viable. The fact is that, historically, no theatrical activities which posterity has considered “important” have ever been totally self-sustaining. From the time of classical Athens, when the support of wealthy benefactors to pay the costs of the productions along with the Periclean theoric fund (to subsidize playgoers) was necessary, through to Elizabethan England, when Shakespeare's company depended on the patronage of the crown and various wealthy supporters (the equivalent of subsidy rather than corporate sponsorship, because the decision was not made—or at least not entirely—with regard to concerns about whether the support would “enhance profit”), through to any current leading theatre company, the necessity of subsidy to abet the creative communal focus embodied by theatre has been accepted and embraced. Theatre is a communal art form, and its presence always has been vital to the health of any literate community, a point which may be demonstrated by a long string of historical examples.

Now one response to this point is to argue, along the lines suggested by Adam Smith, that it is the “invisible hand of the market” which best expresses the will of the community, and that in such a perspective, arts subsidies must be considered an abomination. Indeed, this reasoning runs, the only real resistance ever offered to the will of the market economy comes at the hands of so-called “elitist intellectuals.” In short, the suggestion is that, protecting any aspect of a culture from the rough and tumble of a free-market economy is inherently elitist, and is a notion fostered purely by “left-wing cabals.” Inevitably, at this point, the finger points toward universities: what are they teaching there, anyway? (And here, of course, is where I feel the two sides of my career moving together to be galvanized into a coherent defence). Along these lines, there have been a number of recent suggestions, in the United States especially, that academia at large has been insufficiently respectful of conservative ideas

For a sterling example, of this sort of argument, CLICK HERE.

But this suggestion of “unfairness” is based on specious reasoning. No natural, nor any other sort of law suggests that there should be any absolute apportionment of right- and left-wing ideas in academia. Rather, plausible ideas are presented for consideration and —here we smile gently at those cherish Adam Smith’s reasoning— must be considered in the rough-and-tumble of free debate. The reason that theories of a flat earth do not have currency nowadays is not because of any conspiracy against such ideas, but simply because they do not stand up to sustained logical scrutiny. Similarly, if neo-conservative ideas have less currency in academia, it is probably because their flaws are more easily exposed upon any deeper consideration.

Now, to be fair in this matter, rather than relying on any biased characterization, let’s turn to an actual advocate of neo-conservative philosophy. For example, consider this quotation from a neo-conservative explication of the free-market philosophy of Frederich von Hayek, one of the central thinkers in the neo-conservative pantheon:

“The price mechanism of the free market serves to convey information about supply and demand that is dispersed among many consumers and producers and which cannot be assembled or coordinated efficiently in any other way. The abysmal failure of command economies, or of command devices in mixed capitalistic economies, vindicated the prediction originally made by Ludwig von Mises in 1920, and later promoted by Hayek, that only a free market could coordinate an efficient allocation of resources into productive industries. Hayek thus shared with Hume a profound conviction that 'we should be sensible of our ignorance.’” (

This is a good example of the half-wittedness (I'm afraid I feel I must choose between that pejorative and “disingenuousness,” which seems to be worse because it implies moral turpitude rather than merely incompetent thinking) of the “free-market” advocates. In this model, the monetary unit (for example, the dollar) is taken to represent a perfect embodiment and expression of the will, the determination of the people. But they aren't thinking things through. Because they need to answer: why, in any realistic ethical model, should the person with more dollars in his wallet have an opinion inherently more valuable than that of the person who has less dollars in his wallet?

This is what I mean by “half-wittedness.” There is, in such neo-conservative assertions, a total refusal or inability to recognize that linking political franchise to buying power entails a momentous ethical problem: that capitalism inevitably ensures an inequitable and insensible distribution of financial means with regard to individual identity, and that this inequity is an abomination in the sight of democratic principles (not to mention any sensible awareness of how the common weal might not be identical to personal profit). Why, for example, should the opinion of Bill Gates inherently matter more than the opinion of, say, Jared Diamond, the writer I alluded to in a previous posting, who wrote Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse? Gates spent most of his career discovering ways of harnessing the current discoveries about computer programming for maximum personal profit; Diamond spent most of his career understanding how the world has found itself in the environmental crisis it is now in, and in trying to recognize what history has to tell us about how to avoid ultimate catastrophe. Gates has his reward for being shrewd and a little ruthless in finding himself a multi-billionaire; but should we also offer him proportionately more say in how our society should be run than Diamond, who, ultimately, has concentrated all his brilliant intellect on just that very question? Who should have more of a say in the future of our civilization? The richer or the more thoughtful person? Those who believe with a faith that seems quasi-religious, in the clarity and purity of the free market, will say Bill Gates. Those who believe that the convictions of individual persons, and not their relative spending powers, should determine social policy, will answer differently, for they are looking for ways for individually non-profitable and yet socially-beneficial ideas to be heard above the roar of commercialism.

In short, there can be no doubt that completely state-controlled economies, such as the Soviet Union, amply have shown their limitations; but so, again and again, have the unfettered activities of free-market economies. The reason that academics tend to favour social-liberalism is not that they believe it to be a perfect answer for our problems, but merely that they believe it to be less bad than any other system heretofore suggested.

I will return to the question of public subsidies for the theatre in a future posting. I bet you can't wait.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Actor Relay

This is a story that I like to tell my acting students, because, as you will see, they get to join in the relay. There are many ways of tracing the relay route, but this one is the most direct that I’ve been able to discover.

When I was a young actor, working on my first theatre job at age twenty-one, as an apprentice actor at the Stratford Festival of Canada, the person who taught me most about acting Shakespeare was an actor whom I had idolized for a number of years already, a leading member of the company, who is now, alas, no longer with us, Nicholas Pennell (1939-1995).

One of Nicholas Pennell’s first jobs as an actor was working in radio in the early 1960s, and it was there that he met a very elderly actress who had appeared at one point in silent films, such as “La Belle Russe” (1914), named Evelyn Russell.

Evelyn Russell told Nicholas that, even before her work in silent films, she had been working as an actress in the theatre. And one of her first jobs ever was taking small roles in the repertory company playing at the Lyceum Theatre in the late 1890s, which was still led at that time by the great actor-manager, Sir Henry Irving (1838-1905), then near the end of his long career.

One evening in June 1864, when Henry Irving was twenty-six, right at the beginning of his career as an actor, just having changed his name from John Brodribb, he met an older actor named William Henry Chippendale (1801-88), who, some years later would play Polonius to Irving’s Hamlet. But on this particular night, Chippendale spent the whole night until dawn, coaching Irving in playing Shakespeare.

Chippendale had worked with many of the great actors of his day, including William Charles Macready, but he based most of his lesson to Irving on an imitation (based on his own experience, nearly forty years earlier, when he had worked with the man himself) of the great Edmund Kean (1787-1833). (Incidentally, it was Chippendale who presented Irving with the sword which Edmund Kean had used as Richard III, a sword which was passed on from Irving through Ellen Terry to Sir John Gielgud and finally to Lord Laurence Olivier, who donated it to the Theatre Museum in London.)

When Edmund Kean was only twenty years old he was working at the Belfast Theatre. Kean had been on the stage on and off since he was four years old, working in various circumstances, including the circus; but at the theatre in Belfast, he was able to improve his work mightily, chiefly it seems because he was working in close contact with the leading tragedienne of her day, Sarah Siddons (1755-1831).

Although she came from a family of actors, Sarah Siddons had not always been a great performer, and this is seen in the record that in her very first job, at the Drury Lane Theatre, at the age of eighteen, she was not judged a success. But this undoubtedly had something to do with the actor with whom she had been matched (out-matched?)--- from whom we can assume that, however harsh the lesson, she learned much that she was gradually able to assimilate --- the actor sometimes called the greatest in history (although how can we know?), David Garrick (1717-1779).

David Garrick had come to London at the age of nineteen with his older friend and tutor, Samuel Johnson; but it was not until he was twenty-four, and appeared on stage as Richard III, that he was recognised as a great actor. In this, he undoubtedly owed something to the older actor who had coached him, Charles Macklin (c. 1699-1797)

Macklin, famous for playing Shylock as a tragic figure, was a volatile and pugnacious man, whose face had been disfigured by boxing, and who once killed another actor in a fight over a wig. But he was once young and green, of course. In his twenties, he got his first important professional work at Lincoln’s Inn Fields and then Drury Lane, then under the last years of the management of the actor-manager, autobiographer and gossip, Colley Cibber (1671-1757).

Colley Cibber’s first job as an actor was in his early twenties when, only a season or two before "the actors' revolt" (which would provide a great break for Cibber) he was invited to join the company led by the most admired actor of the Restoration, the actor-manager Thomas Betterton (1635-1710).

Thomas Betterton had been one of the new young actors to be hired by William Davenant when the theatres had reopened in 1660, after the interregnum. But also acting alongside Betterton was at least one actor who had some years of experience, one of the great actors of the early Restoration years, Charles Hart (1625-1683).

Charles Hart had been a boy player in the King’s Men before the London theatres had closed in 1642; his most famous role had been as the Duchess in The Cardinal by James Shirley. Playing the title role in that play was the most important actor of the later Jacobean era, Joseph Taylor (d. 1652).

Joseph Taylor had joined the King’s Men as a young actor more than thirty years before, in 1619. In the company at that time the actors John Heminges (1566-1630) and Henry Condell (c. 1576-1630), were still working, and Taylor had been hired, it seems, to replace the ailing Richard Burbage (1567-1619), by whom he had supposedly been coached.

These actors had been the partners and the fellow actors of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).

And I don't know about you, but I get a kick out of that.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Going to Disney: A One-Act Play

The office of a reasonably well-informed Hollywood studio film producer with a conscience (hey, it’s just a play) sometime in the late 1990s. The producer is working at his desk when the intercom buzzes.


VOICE (on the intercom). Your three-o’clock appointment is here to see you, Sir.

PRODUCER. Send him in, by all means.

A handsome actor/director in his forties, dazzlingly good looking, with a devil-may-care (or is that a dangerously fanatical?) look in his eyes enters.

DIRECTOR. Hey, how are you, buddy.

PRODUCER. Holding up, thanks. Nice to see you. I understand that you’ve got a couple of projects you’d like to pitch as follow-ups to, uh...that Scottish thing...about the guy with the mullet who cuts a swath through the English and then there's that torture scene where he has his guts pulled out...

DIRECTOR. That’s right. So, I’ve got two new ideas, but I’ll try to pitch em fast, because I’ve got to meet some friends at the bar for a drink or ten, ha! And then I’ve got a lot of driving to do right afterwards.

PRODUCER. I see, well then shoot.

DIRECTOR. Okay, so the first one is about Jesus, okay? But this is the REAL story. This is the way it REALLY happened.

PRODUCER. I see, a story for today’s world: the oppressed beginnings followed by the teachings of love and forgiveness? The plea to transcend all the petty vengeance and violence that afflict society? The sermon on the mount with its exhortation to non-attachment and all that?

DIRECTOR. Yeah, well maybe a bit of that. Not so much, really. Mostly just how the Jews, you know, how they did all that horrible stuff to him.

PRODUCER. Oh, I see, the uh, Jews....

DIRECTOR. Yeah, maybe we even start with them hauling him off for the trial.

PRODUCER. But I thought that the Catholic church had really repudiated that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus in Vatican II...

DIRECTOR. Vatican II! Ha! They're not REAL Catholics! Bunch of wimps. Who cares what they say?

PRODUCER. And I thought too, that it had been demonstrated by historians that it was extremely unlikely that the Jews would even have been permitted to hold a trial during Passover.

DIRECTOR. Oh, so now you want to rewrite the Bible? What, are you an atheist or something?

PRODUCER. Well, no, I just—

DIRECTOR. So, anyway! These Jewish guards haul Jesus off for the trial and they whip him with these chains, right, and then they throw him off a bridge and nearly drown him in the water.

PRODUCER. Is that in the Bible?

DIRECTOR. Hey, artistic licence.

PRODUCER. Okay... Go on.

DIRECTOR. And then, the trial is like a whole bunch of snarling, sneering, yellow-teethed, hook-nosed, powerful, rich Jews in fancy-looking but goofy outfits, Caiaphas and them— and other Jews maybe spitting on him, eh—

PRODUCER. You really want the spitting, do you?

DIRECTOR. Damn straight. And then Caiaphas and them, they want to see him done to by the Roman soldiers, so they go to watch.

PRODUCER. They watch? Do any of the gospels say—?

DIRECTOR. Look, I told you already, artistic licence. And I'll stick Satan in among the Jews, cause, well, you know...

PRODUCER. But what about Jesus's mother Mary, and Magdalene? They'll be Jewish too...

DIRECTOR. Yeah, but we'll dress them up to look sorta like nuns. Not real Jews.


DIRECTOR. So, anyway, then we see them take Jesus and beat him and beat him and beat him and beat him. And maybe some more spitting. And they get a flail—but not just an ordinary one, eh, this one’ll have fish-hooks or something on it—

PRODUCER. Is that in the Bi— ?

DIRECTOR. (Getting carried away.) And then they’ll whip and whip and whip and whip! And his flesh’ll rip and rip and rip and rip! And blood will just come spurting and gushing and spurting and gushing. Splat, splurt, gush! And then maybe some kicking and some more beating, maybe a little more kicking, bit of spitting—

PRODUCER. I see, well—

DIRECTOR. And THEN! Then nailing and nailing and nailing and nailing! Close up you know, so you can really just about feel the nails yourself, slamming right through the palms—

PRODUCER. Okay, I think I kind of—

DIRECTOR. And the feet too!

PRODUCER. Naturally.

DIRECTOR. And then, SLAM! The cross slides into the hole, and up it goes, and there he is! Maybe an eye gouged out, and there’s like flesh hanging off of him everywhere, and blood, blood, blood all OVER the place! Really, really bloody! Real bloody, for sure.

PRODUCER. Uh-hunh. So it seems you want to focus quite a bit on the torture this time out.

DIRECTOR. Well, yeah. I mean that’s basically the whole idea of Christianity, right? The whole thing comes down to that: he suffered for us.

PRODUCER. Just the one idea, you think?

DIRECTOR. What do you mean?

PRODUCER. Well, I mean, there were, after all, lots and lots of people tortured by means of crucifixion, so in that respect, it’s not so unique... You know, Spartacus and all that...


PRODUCER. Well, I’m just asking...I mean, is that really what you want to make a whole movie about? That one thing? I mean, how about some of the other aspects of Jesus?

DIRECTOR. I’m not following you. Look, maybe I should explain this again—

PRODUCER. No, no. That’s fine. I think I get it. Lots of torture and suffering...

DIRECTOR. And blood. Don’t forget LOTS of blood.

PRODUCER. Okay, then. Uh...sounds, um... inspirational.

DIRECTOR. Oh, yeah.

PRODUCER. And what else do you have for me?

DIRECTOR. Well, okay, my other project is a thing about the Maya.

PRODUCER. (Surprised, albeit visibly relieved) The Maya? I see! Mayan civilization! The great classical achievement in the new world, the scientific and artistic advances, inventing the calendar, studying the stars, building astounding works of architecture—

DIRECTOR. Yeah, yeah, them. But I want to focus on a bit later.

PRODUCER. Oh, you mean the period Jared Diamond talks about in Collapse, when their agricultural practices had caused deforestation and destroyed the land and undermined the economy, then all the great cities collapsed, and they started making human sacrifices...Hmmm. Tragic stuff.

DIRECTOR. Well, sort of, except that I’m going to take them at their prime, right, they’ve still got plenty of corn or whatever, but in this picture, they’re making human sacrifices, already! These are really, really nasty people, killing all sorts of Indians for no reason. So it’s this that brings down the hand of God on them. Anyway, who wants to know about forests and agriculture, right?

PRODUCER. Perhaps.

DIRECTOR. Yeah, and so because they are basically devil-worshippers, its pay-back time. They kill and kill and kill and kill—

PRODUCER. Lots of killing, then.

DIRECTOR. Yeah, but in LOTS of different ways. Beheading, disembowelling, stabbing, skull-crushing, impaling, hearts ripped out while they’re still beating— pretty much the whole gamut of entertainment. And then there’s this scene with all these bodies lying in this pit, just dumped in there like firewood, you know?

PRODUCER. God. How awful.

DIRECTOR. Oh yeah.

PRODUCER. It sort of sounds like the Holocaust.

DIRECTOR. The what?

PRODUCER. The Holocaust. You know, in World War II?

DIRECTOR. Whoa! What are you, a Jew?

PRODUCER. I beg your pardon?

DIRECTOR. I just mean, you know, suddenly, you sound Jewish, when you say that stuff. “Holocaust,” and all that.

PRODUCER. What, are you saying it didn’t happen? That six million Jews weren’t murdered?

DIRECTOR. Oh, listen, lots and lots of people were killed in that war. Lots and lots and LOTS. So, a few Jews along the way, maybe, yes. Stuff happens, eh?

PRODUCER. Right. So, uh, how does the movie end?

DIRECTOR. Well, see, suddenly there’s this eclipse—

PRODUCER. So these Mayans actually, literally bring the wrath of God down upon them for their heathen ways.

DIRECTOR. You betcha. But here’s the clincher. Guess who shows up at the very end, to finish the job?

PRODUCER. I guess I’ll go way out on the limb and say the Spaniards?

DIRECTOR. That’s right! Spanish missionaries! CATHOLICS! Pay-back time, boys! Here come the conquistadors!

PRODUCER. And the decimation of the New World civilization.

DIRECTOR. Yup. A little foretaste of the apocalypse.

PRODUCER. You know what? I don’t think we can get behind these projects.

DIRECTOR. Alright, to hell with you, then. I’m going to Disney. Leni Riefenstahl at least got a fair hearing from old Walt.


Afternote: Perhaps it's worth mentioning, lest people should think this an unfair portrait, that everything expressed by The Director in this fictional play, including both the coarseness of the imagination and the historical opinions, is based upon or construed from some sort of documentation: either captured on film or in various interviews. And yes, Walt Disney did screen Leni Riefenstahl's films and grant her an interview in 1938 (after kristallnacht and a few years after she had made her Nazi propaganda films); he was, as far as I know, the only major studio head to do so. She claimed that he told her he admired her work, but that he couldn't hire her without damaging his reputation.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

And, speaking for the opposition...

Coincidentally, a friend sent me a link to this Honda ad today, in which we're offered a vision of the beauty of "making things work" from the perspective of commerce. It easily might have been created as a rebuttal of sorts to what I quoted from Hardwick---though not enough to shake me loose from my agreement with her. At any rate, it certainly does make a good case for the delight of watching pure efficiency in action. The text that follows introduced the link:

"Read the info first, then watch the clip.

And you thought those people that set up roomfuls of Dominos to knock over were amazing. There are no computer graphics Or digital tricks in the film. Everything you see really happened in real time exactly as you see it.

The film took 606 takes. On the first 605 takes, something, usually very minor, didn't work. They would then have to set the whole thing up again.

The crew spent weeks shooting night and day. By the time it was over, they were ready to change professions.

The film cost six million dollars and took three months to complete including full engineering of the sequence. In addition, it's two minutes long so every time Honda airs the film on British television, they're shelling out enough dough to keep any one of us in clover for a lifetime.

However, it is fast becoming the most downloaded advertisement in Internet history. Honda executives figure the ad will soon pay for itself simply in "free viewings" (Honda isn't paying a dime to have you watch this Commercial!)

When the ad was pitched to senior executives, they signed off on it immediately without any hesitation - including the costs.

There are six and only six hand-made Honda Accords in the world. To the horror of Honda engineers, the filmmakers disassembled two of them to make the film.

Everything you see in the film (aside from the walls, floor, ramp, and complete Honda Accord) is parts from those two cars.

The voiceover is Garrison Keillor. When the ad was shown to Honda executives, they liked it and commented on how amazing computer graphics have gotten.

They fell off their chairs when they found out it was for real. Oh, and about those funky windshield wipers. On the new Accords, the windshield wipers have water sensors and are designed to start doing their thing automatically as soon as they become wet."

Click Here to Link to Honda Ad

Making Things Work

Here's a paragraph from the great American critic, and editor of the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Hardwick, which I see as related to the question I was considering in an earlier post, "On Seeing More Than One Knows":

"Perhaps the worst thing our theater has done is to convince everyone that drama is the art of "making things work" on the stage. This is a legacy from commerce: The thing may not sell—that in the end is the Eleusinian mystery before which we are all silent—but it must work. From the top to the bottom, the most lavish to the dustiest little loft, they are all sharpening and shaping, maiming and taming. The disturbing sense we have of repetition, déjà vu, of having been there before: this is the pay for making it work. Things work because they are like other things that work. End Game [sic] and Happy Days by Samuel Beckett cannot be said to work at all, in the sense of our theater. Only a mind free of the obsessions of conventional forms could produce works of such formal beauty."

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Sorry I Laughed

Laura Rocca, Lydia Wilkinson, Jenny Melo and Arianna Pozzuoli in a happier moment in the Queen's Unversity production of Les Belles Soeurs. Photo by Tim Fort.

My favourite response to create in an audience is to make them laugh and then make them sorry that they laughed. Perhaps this sounds sadistic, or manipulative, but in my view, it is where the best possibility lies for audience members to feel that they have grown or been changed in some way as a result of seeing a performance. Laughter usually implies a certain amount of detachment, and apart from the inherent good of how great it feels to laugh (“the best medicine” as I recall Reader’s Digest called their dismally unfunny humour column), it suggests the possibility of an ironic perspective. But, to then see something which makes one reassess one’s initial reaction, to regret the laughter, is, in my view, not to negate or withdraw the initial reaction, but to add another level of perspective to it, to grow inwardly, to achieve a "perspective of perspectives" (which I know was how Kenneth Burke defined irony, but please ignore the confusion). I suspect what I am saying here is comparable to Soren Kierkegaard’s argument about how irony provides a transition from the aesthetic to the ethical (though it’s been so long since I read him that I can’t be sure of that).

But, philosophical analogies aside, it’s really quite thrilling to feel an audience collectively amused and then appalled—the emotional equivalent of feeling your stomach drop or whatever as the roller coaster passes the crest and begins its descent. The first time I can recall encountering this phenomenon was watching Neil Munro perform in Trevor Griffiths’ play Comedians when I was a teenager. I was exhilarated by the experience at the time, and I suppose I’ve always kept my eyes open for genuine opportunities to recreate it. Perhaps the best chance I’ve had —or at least the one I recall most vividly— occurred during the university production of Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles Soeurs, just a few years ago. The character of Rose is loud, crude and somewhat funny, but Tremblay has given her a monologue in which she speaks of the suffering she endures in her marriage. It would be fairly easy to perform the monologue in such a way that the audience continued to laugh, and it would be relatively easy to perform it so that it was serious throughout. But the most powerful approach seemed to be to have Arianna Pozzuoli, the young actress playing the role, begin the monologue almost as if it were stand-up comedy, then, by breaking the timing, break off the laughter of the audience, only to suddenly reveal an inner pain that caused them to fall into a deeply aghast silence, as they found themselves plunging suddenly from amused condescension into nauseous empathy. I think it really was an existentially enlightening moment for many, if not most, of the people who saw it, the full depth of Tremblay’s intentions surging through their hearts and robbing them of breath. God bless Arianna, who nailed this trick perfectly night after night; because, over the last few years, this moment has probably been spoken of to me more than any other single moment in anything else I’ve done.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Ronald Bryden

My mentor and friend, Ron Bryden, died about two years ago last week. He was a great critic, and if you want to get some idea of exactly how great, take a look at Shaw and His Contemporaries: Theatre Essays by Ronald Bryden, ed. Denis Johnston (Mosaic Press/Academy of the Shaw Festival, 2002). Anyway, I came across a letter from him today, which set me thinking and eventually prompted me to to go in search of this piece which I wrote for his memorial service at the invitation of his daughters---two truly lovely women:

I first met Ron more than two decades ago when, as a young undergraduate, I was cast in some of the Drama Centre’s productions at Hart House Theatre. Ron had been teaching at UofT for a few years by then, but he had only just been appointed the Director of the Drama Centre, and naturally, there was a great deal of excitement about his appointment. People always seemed to be talking about what he had done and quoting certain things that he had said and written---probably with more enthusiasm than accuracy—--and the effect was that Ron had assumed a sort of legendary status in my mind before I ever met him.

When I did finally meet him, of course it was immediately clear what it was that people found so fascinating about him. I’m sure we’ve all found ourselves in awe, at one time or another, at that Miltonic mind of his, with its encyclopaedic knowledge not just of the theatre, but (as it sometimes appeared) all of Western Culture. And then there was the way he spoke: so beautifully, in well-formed prose, combining in conversation the same elements that characterized his writing: the raconteur’s gift for telling a story as vividly and succinctly as possible, along with that startling acuity of insight which made him such a brilliant critic.

But I think what most impressed me about Ron at the time—an impression confirmed again and again over the next twenty-odd years—was that, for a man so accomplished, he seemed to be so gentle, so warm, and so utterly lacking in any discernible pretension. It was surprising sometimes to discover over the years just how well acquainted Ron was with this or that famous person, because he gave little hint of this in his conversation. In fact, while he was always happy to speak warmly of his family, I seldom heard him talk of himself—and whenever he did, fleetingly, in any story he told, there was never any hint of self-aggrandizement.

On the other hand, neither was he guilty of false modesty. I recall one occasion, about fifteen years ago, when I was a Junior Fellow at Massey College and was sitting in the common room, alone, reading the newspapers after dinner. Suddenly the door to the Master’s lodging opened and out walked Ann Saddlemyer (then the Master of Massey College, and a distinguished professor), with a group in tow that included Ron, as well as Claude Bissell (the President emeritus of University of Toronto), Pauline McGibbon (the former Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario), Douglas LePan (winner of the Governor General’s Award for fiction and poetry), Robertson Davies and Northrop Frye. The next day I saw Ron in class and said to him: “You certainly were in august company last night!” And Ron looked at me and said (deadpan but with a touch of feigned indignation): “Well, so were they.” Ron was being witty, of course, as he so often was; but I think there was something of principle here too. He was, as they say, “no respecter of persons”; rather, he treated everyone with dignity.

One can see this idea cropping up all over his life. A number of years ago, I came across a piece that Ron had written on Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Eventually, this became a hugely celebrated production, of course, but at first, Ron was one of only a select group of critics who praised it warmly. As I remember, what Ron had loved about it more than anything else was the way the production broke down barriers—between the audience and the actors, among classes, among ages, even among cultures. And this same idea, essentially, was characteristic of Ron’s attitude towards the classroom. I think now of a graduate seminar in post-World War II British drama that I took with Ron, in which I am sure we students said many callow and fatuous things; and yet, notwithstanding that everything Ron said was so wise and so much to the point, there was never the sense that our views were of any less value to him, or that he suspected he would hear little of interest said by us about an area which he knew better, perhaps, than any other person living.

This gentleness and warmth seemed to be present in every other context I encountered him—whether as a writer, a director, a scholar or as a friend. Now, the way I speak of him comes, I know, embarrassingly close to hero-worship, though, naturally, I am aware that Ron was capable of being irascible or forgetful or so on. But those are qualities he shared with all of us. What was exceptional in him—the reason that I always have and always will regard him as my mentor—was his magnanimity of spirit; his immense erudition that always remained uninfected by any snobbery; his generosity and kindness; and his passionate engagement with the world.

I miss him very much, but my life has been immeasurably enriched by having known him.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

The Waist Line

Attife, attife, ute ibe orfe
ouldntce etge oughthre uthre athroombe orde.

— Ezra Tonne

I. The Burial of the Bread.

April is the cruellest month, bringing
Bikinis out of cold storage, filling
The shelves with sun-screen,
Reminders of skimpy beachwear.
Summer exposed us, gut hanging over our speedos.

And the children were frightened . He said Merry
Christmas, and when he was done, he looked
At his mountainous belly, and felt fat.
“I feed much of the time and get stout in winter.”

Doctor Atkins, famous dietician
Died of a stroke, nevertheless
Is known to have the fastest fad diet on the internet.
Here, says he, is your plan:
Avoid the sign of the starch: potatoes, bread and rice
These you are forbidden to eat
Or you will want death when you’re by the water.

Unreal beach!
I had not thought gluttony had betonned so many.

You, hippopotamus manqué — tu resemble une pear!

II. A Pillow Chest.

The chair she sat in, furnished a groan,
collapsed on the marble, where her ass
smacked down, heavy with fruit pies
double the weight of seven average folks: abracadabra
resounding heaviness upon the table too
as the ripple of her flab rose to strike it.
‘Jugs, jugs!’ said those with dirty minds,
as her withered dugs of time
leapt out, leaping, no longer thus blouse-enclosed.

‘My hunger is bad tonight. Yes bad. Eat with me.
Eat with me. Why do you not eat. Eat.
What are you drinking, now? What drinking? What?
I never get offered what you’re drinking. Drinks!’

O O O O that Shake n’ bake bag
It’s so appetizing
so tantalizing.
What shall we do now? What shall I eat?
Shall I rush out as I am to the pub down the street?

If the kitchen’s not closed
we shall order nachos and beer.
I’ll have the buffalo wings
And I the cheesy garlic bread.
Good pies, though... Good pies at the diner
at the twenty-four hour diner, good pies
So, merrily we roll along, towards
Good pies, ladies, good pies.

(I wrote this a while back to amuse my friend Gabrielle, who is a T.S. Eliot scholar.)

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Bilingual Cautionary Note

After watching the Liberal Party leadership convention for most of the day, I've got bilingualism on my mind, I suppose. I suppose, too, that if I were a real grown-up, I would not find this so amusing (although I have the consolation of knowing that my friend Jodi Essery, a woman of substance if there ever was one, does too):


Porky Pig

Friday, December 1, 2006

On Seeing More Than One Knows

For various reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot over the last few years about the difficulty of audiences coming to the theatre prepared to see only what they know already, when all the time what one really wants, if one is serious about making theatre, is to get them to see something which they have never, up to that point, properly considered. This is, I suppose, a problem which confronts every artist of every type to some degree; but I suspect that the problem is tougher for makers of theatre because, being engaged in an ephemeral art-form, and usually requiring, for financial reasons, an audience of some size, theatrical practitioners have to worry more about being immediately apprehensible. It is perhaps easier, in these terms, to be innovative in the sense of providing a startling spectacle of some kind than it is to encourage people to see and ponder an idea which is truly new to them.

Perhaps the most dismal circumstances in which one may encounter this disinclination to see anything other than what one already knows is at the hands of a reviewer. The main job of theatre critics is (or should be) to foster the intellectual climate into which the work enters, and if there is an implicit suggestion that one needn’t disturb one’s preconceptions any more upon entering a theatre than one does in lazily allowing the most conventional sit-com to drift across one’s television screen, then the public discourse remains flat and arid; the theatre-makers are dropping their seed upon stony ground.

I think we (everybody who cares about theatre) need to look for more ways to stimulate public discourse, to insist that theatre matters. In short, I suppose I want more people to share my carping dissatisfaction with productions that are made merely to please the makers’ egos or to pleasantly divert the audience from the tedium of real life. To be sure, those aspects always have to factor into the work, but it would be nice for people to at least want, if not to expect, more. I can think of nothing quite so depressing as that feeling I have when leaving a dully conceived, unimaginatively written, ploddingly directed and indifferently performed production, and I realize that I am in the company of people who are actually incapable of having even wished for something better. All creativity begins, I suppose, with the observation: “this could be better.” And having people leave the theatre thinking creatively is what the art form is all about, isn’t it?