Episode 141: Mixtape #3 (Misadventures in Sobriety)

Episode 141 of the world’s greatest writing podcast is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

In this week’s episode, I talk to myself and share some music.

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Check out Orlando Shakes’ delightful production of Merry Wives, which runs from February 4 to March 7, 2015 (my full review is here),

Photo by Tony Firriolo.

Photo by Tony Firriolo.

and also see its intimate production of Henry V, which runs from February 18 – March 22, 2015 (my full review is here).

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Photo by Tony Firriolo.


Episode 141 of the world’s greatest writing podcast is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

The Curator of Schlock #78: Harry Brown

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The Curator of Schlock #78 by Jeff Shuster

Michael Caine is Harry Brown

Harry4Michael Caine is ABOVE THE LAW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Vigilante Month: International Edition continues with a trip to merry old England, only old England ain’t so merry. It seems like a bunch of hoodlums have taken over the city streets and there’s nothing the coppers can do about it. Druggies take shots at mothers with baby carriages. They beat up guys trying to get to their car. They set bonfires in old mens’ apartments. What is with the setting of fires in people’s apartments? An apartment is not a camping ground. “An apartment is not a camping ground.” That’s the quote they’ll remember me by.

?????????????????????????????????????The title of this movie is Michael Caine is Harry Brown, which is kind of strange. Has Michael Caine led a double life? If he has, he’s a former Royal Marine who was stationed in Northern Ireland back in the day of incidents that U2 songs are based on. Now he lives in a crappy London apartment. I assume that it’s London. I figure if a movie takes place in a city in England that it must be London. They only have the one city, right?

Harry1This movie was awarded lottery money by the UK Film Council. How does that happen? All you need to do to get that money is say you’re going to make a Death Wish 3 remake starring Michael Caine and half the cast of Game of Thrones. It also stars Emily Mortimer as an ineffectual detective who means well, but can’t seem to do anything about all of the murders in Harry’s neighborhood. Of course, once some vigilante action happens, she’ll be right on the case.

Harry2Harry Brown has a friend named Len Atwell (David Bradley) who is being terrorized by the local drug pushers. David Bradley gives a wonderful performance in the sense that I actually feel sorry for him rather than wanting him dead like every other character he plays. Too bad his character gets stabbed to death with his own bayonet by a bunch of hoodlums. Harry gets drunk and stabs a mugger to death on the way home. The police fail to get any of the suspects to fess up so Harry decides he needs to get a gun and shoot some people.

Harry3He buys the gun from the most emaciated drug addicts in the city. Really these guys are disgusting, all grody and veiny, growing pot and shooting up heroin. Harry is an old codger, but he’s evenly matched with these two freaks. He gets real mad when the head freak’s girlfriend is overdosing and the head freak won’t call an ambulance. A stabbing and a shootout occur, Harry sets fire to a forest of marijuana plants, rescues the girlfriend, steals the drug dealer’s van, and drops the girlfriend off at the hospital. He also steals a bag full of drug money from the van and drops it all off at the local church poor box. I don’t know. This movie almost borders on respectable, and the moment that happens, it’s all over for the vigilante genre. Why does Michael Caine have to ruin everything? Except for Interstellar. I liked that movie. Wormholes are weird!

Five Things I Learned from Michael Caine is Harry Brown

  1. Only Bruce Campbell and Michael Caine deserve to have their name in a title of a movie.
  2. You can’t dress down Emily Mortimer.
  3. Don’t record your stabbing of an old, defenseless pensioner on your cell phone. The video may come back to bite you.
  4. Plastic police shields don’t do much good against Molotov cocktails.
  5. You can’t trust bartenders because they’ll protect their murderous nephews and try to shoot you.

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Jeffrey Shuster 4

Photo by Leslie Salas.

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102, episode 124, and episode 131) is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida.

Heroes Never Rust #82: Epilogues: Your Last Shot

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Heroes Never Rust #82 by Sean Ironman

Epilogues: Your Last Shot

The fourth and final issue of Nemesis features a great deal of violence as the police chief eventually overcomes and kills Nemesis. The villain dies with three pages remaining for the comic. These pages fast-forward years after the Nemesis encounter and acts as an epilogue. Like I have mentioned in previous posts, there is not much to Nemesis in terms of story. The comic is filled with beautiful artwork displaying action scene on top of action scene. But, there are no real twist and turns. It is all pretty straightforward. Nemesis wants to kill the Chief. He proceeds with an elaborate plan. In the end, the Chief kills him on the White House Lawn. With the comic being direct, there is not much impact with the ending. The good guy wins. The bad guy dies. In those final few pages, however, the comic offers up, or at least attempts to offer, a greater mystery, something to stay with the reader after the comic is done.

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Epilogues are a tricky thing. At what point does the ending begin to pander to the audience? At what point is the sequel set up, instead of the first story closing? The best epilogues, to me at least, close out a mystery found in the comic. Or if it is not a mystery, at least it calls back to the main story.

Since this is a blog on superhero comics, I will stick to giving examples of epilogues in superhero comics, but the same ideas work in novels, short stories, film, and other genres and mediums. In Watchmen, the reader is given two epilogues. One featuring Silk Spectre and Nite Owl visiting the original Silk Spectre in a nursing home and one closing out Rorschach’s story. In the first, closure is offered by telling readers what Nite Owl and Silk Spectre will do now that the world has been changed by the events of the conclusion, and it even offers a touching last scene for the original Silk Spectre and her love for the Comedian. In the second, an employee at Pioneer Publishing Inc. finds Rorschach’s journal, which he had been writing in throughout the comic from page one. It solves a mystery that the reader did not even realize was a mystery and shows that Rorschach will have succeeded in his mission after death, or at least it offers the possibility. These epilogues work because they give the comic closure after the big finale. The world continues on and new things are afoot, but the epilogues serve to end the comic.

Mark Millar, the writer of Nemesis, had an incredible impactful epilogue in Wanted. In that comic, Wesley Gibson succeeds, and then the final two pages talk directly to the reader about how the reader is killing himself or herself at jobs he or she hates and basically be a sheep. It works well because it continues the theme from the comic and even brings up the idea that the events in the comic take place in our world. Again, the epilogue succeeds because it offers closure to the ideas presented in the comic, like a conclusion paragraph in a research essay.

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Epilogues seem to have trouble, like the one in Nemesis, when they are geared more toward bringing up new ideas. In Nemesis, the epilogue takes place so many years after the events of the rest of the comic and brings up the idea that there is an organization funding the wealthy who are bored and want to play supervillain. It helps explain how Nemesis has access to so much throughout the story, but that never seemed to be a mystery. It seemed more like a plot hole. The final page shows a man, barely shown except for his beard, sitting on a tropical beach as the sun sets (or rises?). The epilogue tries to give something for the reader to think about, and I love the idea of an organization funding bored rich people who think they are better than the rest so they become supervillains. Honestly, I would not be shocked if something like that does not happen in our world.

The problem is that the comic brings up an interesting idea to go nowhere with it. It sets up a sequel, but because the comic takes time to set up a sequel already, I feel as if I am being sold something. I am not given a story to enjoy and think about—I am given a product to purchase. The epilogue is more concerned with making people money than with art. That is why it fails. If the comic wanted to explore the idea of a supervillain’s funding, then it should have used it more throughout the whole story, even if we were never shown the full extent of the organization. Funding should have been brought up a couple of times by the characters in the story. Perhaps have the Chief try to track down Nemesis by bank account. Something like that. Ideas in storytelling should be explored, not just thrown out into the world.

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Epilogues, at least as I think of them at this moment, seem to succeed more the closer in time they take place to the actual events of the story. The epilogues in Watchmen take place soon after (the actual time is left up in the air) the conclusion, as does the epilogue in Wanted. When the epilogue takes place years later, like in Nemesis, it either brings up unnecessary ideas or tries to pander to the audience. I cannot think of one that does it in a comic, but I am thinking of the epilogue for Harry Potter, which takes place many years later to basically give the reader the rest of the characters’ lives or to show them live happily ever after. The writer needs to ask the tough question of whether the reader needs the epilogue or wants the epilogue (or even possibly neither). If the epilogue is needed, go for it. If the story needs another beat, needs a sense of closure, nothing is stopping you. But, if it is an attempt to show the characters all happy to please the reader, or if you feel something in the story is lacking so you need to throw out a curve ball in the end to make the reader think, then maybe you should skip the epilogue, or just revise the main story. I am sure there is an exception to what I have said (when is there not?), but epilogues are tricky (especially multiple epilogues in one story). Remember, as a writer, you came to explore a story, not live out the characters’ lives.

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Photo by John King

Photo by John King

Sean Ironman (Episode 102earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s ChronicleRedivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.

Shakespearing #20.1: Another Interlude, This Time Out of Sequence

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Shakespearing #20.1 by John King

Another Interlude, This Time Out of Sequence

A Review of Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s 2015 production of Henry V

Lowndes Center Red Carpet

One of the ironies of the current season of offerings at Orlando Shakespeare Theater is that in the spacious Margeson Theater, Merry Wives features the hijinks of Falstaff in a 1950s domestic setting, while the epic sweep of Henry V is being enacted in the snug spot of the Goldman Theater, separated from the Margeson only by a soundproofed wall.

If Falstaff shakes the water from his ears and listens really closely, he might be able to hear the gratifying sounds of his friends mourning his death in the history play next door.

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Stephen Lima & John P. Keller (by Tony Firriolo)

Jim Helsinger’s direction takes its cues from Shakespeare’s own meta-theatrics, explicitly drawing on the audience to buy into the make-believe necessary to make “this wooden O” of the little stage hold throne rooms, taverns, the ocean, and the towns and fields of France. Bob Phillip’s set design was made entirely of untreated wooden planks, making one think not only of Shakespeare’s simple stage in the Renaissance, but also the barns of Andy Hardy movies, and that can-do madcap spirit infects the performance with a level of fun one seldom associates with a history play, especially one in which Falstaff dies off stage.

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Stephen Lima, John P. Keller, & Geoffrey Kent (by Tony Firriolo)

Before the play is over, all of the actors will portray the narrators of the chorus, either singly or simultaneously, in ways that demand the audience imaginatively invest in the creation of the artifice. In a crowd scene, the audience is among the “band of brothers.” Adding to the intricate sense of artifice is the fact that the actors use American accents for the chorus, but use appropriate English accents and variants or French for the characters they play, with sometimes a bizarre amount of doubling. For example, John P. Kellar plays both the emotionally overtaxed Henry and the simpering, foolish Dauphin, the latter to comic excess.

I sometimes wondered if perhaps the comic turns this production finds in Henry V might be somehow contrary to the spirit of the text, but ultimately I sincerely found those comic interpretations funny, which almost renders the question moot. I also enjoyed that the major through-line of the production seems to be fun, as a counterbalance to the somber, sublime experience that is too much in the minds of Shakespeare fans due to Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film of Henry V. Enough with the pre-game bravado of the Battle of Agincourt speech. This production gives us Shakespeare in his full bathos, the high and the low, the aspirational and the confessional, the spiritual and the slapstick.

Since Merry Wives finishes its run before Henry V, I do hope Falstaff will conceal himself one night in the Goldman, and enjoy the show as much as I did.

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Henry V runs from February 18 – March 22, 2015. Get tickets here.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.

Shakespearing #29: King Lear

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Shakespearing #29 by David Foley

Photo & cocktail (The Vile Jelly) by Susan Lilley.

Photo & cocktail (The Vile Jelly) by Susan Lilley.

King Lear

I’ve had a mental block about my Lear posting. I finished reading the play a few weeks ago, wrote two paragraphs, and stalled. It may be because I’ve already written about Lear in this series, or it may be because I began with the claim, “King Lear is Shakespeare’s masterpiece,” and feared living up to so unhedged a bet. Or perhaps, having scaled Shakespeare’s plays to their pinnacle, it was daunting to describe the view.

It’s a famously barren view where “for many miles about / There’s scarce a bush.” It’s a shelterless, comfortless place. “Man’s nature cannot carry / The affliction nor the fear” of it. “The first time that we smell [its] air / We wawl and cry,” and from that moment on we make “sport” for the pitiless gods.

It makes me think that pity is the great Shakespearean virtue, and pitilessness the moral void his plays keep trying to expose and fill. Pity is an exacting virtue. Empathy, by comparison, seems comfortable and twee, tinged with self-regard. Pity keeps company with brutal fact, “the thing itself,” as Lear calls the disguised Edgar. It marks the great difference between Cordelia and her sisters. When Regan sends Lear out into the storm, her justification might be pity’s opposite: “O sir, to willful men, / The injuries that they themselves procure / Must be their schoolmasters.” Cordelia tells Lear, “Had you not been their father, these white flakes / Did challenge pity of them… Mine enemy’s dog, / Though he had bit me, should have stood that night / Against my fire.”

Lear’s transformation is an awakening to pity. Moments after he rages madly in the storm, he tells his Fool, “I have one part in my heart / That’s sorry yet for thee,” and he is so struck by Poor Tom, who “answer[s] with [his] uncover’d body this extremity of the skies,” that he tears his own clothes off.

This suggest that pity has a leveling power, and indeed Gloucester later says, “Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man… that will not see / Because he does not feel, feel [heaven’s] power quickly; / So distribution should undo excess / And each man have enough.” At moments like these, we recognize that we still live in Shakespeare’s world and guess that pity, that great corrective to the pitilessness of God and nature, still lies at the heart of our debates.

All this by itself would not make a masterpiece, though it does form part of something I noticed in Othello and I expect is evident in Macbeth: that these are plays of the Unified Effect. I’m not entirely sure what I mean by that, except that Shakespeare’s bent towards multiplicity, to looseness, to shifts of tone and territory, is in abeyance in these plays. Everything points relentlessly towards a central image.

Even this would not be enough, if Shakespeare weren’t also at the height of his artistry. And perhaps it is an artistry of pity. Certainly it’s one of psychological immediacy. His great subject is the mind at war with itself, riding the rough waters of mental and emotional upheaval. Here’s Lear:

                    No, you unnatural hags,

I will have such revenges on you both

That all the world shall—I will do such things—

What they are yet I know not, but they shall be

The terrors of the earth! You think I’ll weep:

No, I’ll not weep.

I have full cause for weeping, but this heart

Shall break into a hundred flaws

Or ere I’ll weep. O Fool, I shall go mad!

This is more than psychological acuity. It’s psychological transposition. It pushes us past empathy and forces us to ride the storm with Lear.

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David FoleyDavid Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the GreeksParadiseNance O’NeilThe Murders at ArgosA Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.

Episode 140: Marya Hornbacher!

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Episode 140 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

In this week’s episode, I talk to the memoirist and novelist Marya Honrbacher,

Photo © Mark Trockman, trockstock.com

Photo © Mark Trockman (trockstock.com)

plus J.J. Anselmi reads his personal essay, “Atrophy,”

JJ Anselmiand I offer a tribute to the late Philip Levine.

philip-levineTEXTS DISCUSSED

Madness

WaitingRead Marya Hornbacher’s wonderful Smithsonian profile of Oscar Peterson here.

Coming CloseNOTES

J.J. Anselmi’s “Atrophy” first appeared online in Cleaver Magazine.

Check out Chelsey Clammer’s essay about Marya Hornbacher’s Madness back on episode 49!

Rest in peace, Philip Levine.

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Abe Chang with Phil Levine.

Read Aaron Belz’s discussion of his correspondence with Philip Levine here.

Check out Orlando Shakes’ wonderfully colorful production of Merry Wives, which runs from February 4 to March 7, 2015.

Photo by Tony Firriolo.

Photo by Tony Firriolo.

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Episode 140 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on iTunes, or right click here to download.

The Curator of Schlock #77: Street Law

The Curator of Schlock #77 by Jeff Shuster

Street Law

Franco Nero is ABOVE THE LAW!!!

Street Law PosterOkay. Back to Vigilante Month: International Edition. This week our journey around the world brings us to Italy, a country that was plagued with more street crime in the 1970s than New York City, if the cinema has anything to say about it. 1974’s Street Law from director Enzo Castellari begins with a bunch street punks breaking into some guy’s apartment. They steal some trinkets, break some lamps and picture frames, start a bonfire in his living room. They start a bonfire in his living room! What is wrong with people? What’s next? Tear the plumbing out and write obscenities on the walls with feces?

The credits come on and we’re treated to various scenes of mayhem and maliciousness. Some dude’s purse gets snatched by a couple of bikers. A guy smashes a department store window with a tire iron and steals a mink coat in broad daylight. He runs away to his getaway car only to be pursued by the store manager who tries to stop the car by standing in front of it. A couple of guys get robbed and shot in the street. Another couple of guys get shot in the street, but they don’t get robbed. It’s all a very bloody affair, and we’re not even at the 5-minute mark.

Street_LawBEnter Carlo Antonelli (Franco Nero), an average Italian citizen ready to deposit a few million lira at the local bank. No sooner does he start forking over the money to the teller that group of violent bank robbers enters the premises.

street-law-bankThey start hitting patrons with the butts of their sawed-offs, knocking down Catholic monks and guys with crutches. Carlo decides to grab his money, which leads to some punching and kicking, the teller sounds the alarms, and off the robbers go with Carlo in tow. They get to their getaway car, remove their ski masks, and start beating up poor Carlo as they evade the police and run over random pedestrians. One of the robbers yells,  “What the shit were you trying to do, be a hero?”

We get a Lupin style chase scene with police car after police car crashing as they try to catch up to the robbers. The robbers make their way to the docks, open a crate, and drive away in another car they had stored in a crate. I’m impressed!

The police arrive to find a bruised a battered Carlo. They yell at him for provoking the robbers, and explain that robberies happen all of the time so he’d better get used to it. Carlo has a girlfriend named Barbara played by Barbara Bach (of Island of the Fisherman fame).

Street LawCarlo explains to her that he’s going to find those robbers and kill them. One might say he has a death wish.

Director Enzo Castellari insists that Street Law was created before Death Wish. It’s difficult to tell since both movies came out in 1974. Maybe Enzo Castellari and Michael Winner were both tapping the zeitgeist. I’m not going to argue as to which is the better film. Actually, Franco Nero sports a boss mustache that puts Bronson’s to shame. Street Law wins!

7 Things I Learned from Street Law

  1. Don’t start a bonfire in someone’s apartment. It’s kind of a dick move.
  2. Italian automobiles in the 70s look like they were assembled from model kits.
  3. Italian fashion from the 1970s is second to none.
  4. Paying off the bartender for information can get you killed if the bartender belongs to the mafia!
  5. Italian gangs revel in toilet humor.
  6. When you find your mob informant, make sure he doesn’t betray you to the mob.
  7. Don’t take it like everyone else. Take it like Franco Nero.

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Photo by Leslie Salas

Photo by Leslie Salas

Jeffrey Shuster (episode 47episode 102, episode 124, and episode 131) is an MFA candidate at the University of Central Florida.

The Lists #17: Reasons to Watch Fifty Shades of Gray

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The Lists #17 by John King

Reasons to Watch Fifty Shades of Gray

  1. You have a personal grudge against one of the cast members.
  2. You like to masturbate to Architectural Digest.
  3. You hate women. You really hate women.
  4. You are really drunk, and bought a ticket to Selma, but ended up in the wrong theater and couldn’t make your feet navigate to the right theater. You may end up soiling your seat.
  5. You are of an alien race and sick of watching movies like BirdmanPaddington, and Jupiter Ascending because of the prominence of totally believable human behavior in them.
  6. You are sexually stimulated by the classy storytelling of an English major who graduated with a C- average.
  7. You were too young when The Notebook or The Bridges of Madison Country or Love Story or The Valley of the Dolls or Peyton Place came out.
  8. You were struck in the head by a low-flying goose.
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Poster created by The Sixth Siren of Pandora.

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1flipJohn King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.

Heroes Never Rust #81: Personal Taste, or Bad Craft?

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Heroes Never Rust #81 by Sean Ironman

Personal Taste, or Bad Craft?

If it has been unclear in my last two posts, I’ll come right out and say it here—I dislike Nemesis. I think it represents everything wrong with comics in the last ten years. It’s a comic consisting of shock after shock. So many shocks that nothing is shocking. Or important. Or cool. Or dangerous. Or interesting.

Every scene fights to be the scene that is memorable. Nothing has lasting effect. Nemesis reads quickly because there is no depth beyond the death and explosions and violence. There is some talk of the personal life of the good guy and, at the end, apparently there has been a mystery as to the identity of Nemesis that seems like it comes from nowhere. To me, this is terrible. I would not suggest this comic to anyone. But, does that make it a bad comic?

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The more I read and write, the more I come to believe that work should be judged by authorial intent. Though the literary community likes to make fun of books like Twilight, that book cannot be judged under the same criteria as The Scarlet Letter or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I tell my students Dumb and Dumber cannot be judged under similar rules as Schindler’s List. While that is an extreme example, I think the reasoning is sound. Even an author’s own new work cannot be judged against the old work. I enjoy Frederick Barthelme’s work, but I feel it would be wrong to judge Bob the Gambler with the same rules as Tracer. The novels are trying to do different things. In a way, I am trying to play fair in an unfair world.

If we should judge storytelling by authorial intent, then what makes a bad novel, essay, poem, or in this case, comic? How can we judge what the author intended with the piece, without reading an interview? Leo Tolstoy wrote, “The presence in various degrees of these three conditions — individuality, clearness, and sincerity — decides the merit of a work of art as art, apart from subject matter. All works of art take rank of merit according to the degree in which they fulfill the first, the second, and the third of these conditions.” So, a work of art could be clear and sincere, but in terms of individuality, be lacking. But, a great work of art would have all three. Of course, this is only Tolstoy’s view, but I agree with him.

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People tend to create rules for how or what a piece of writing is supposed to be. For example, many people seem to think that a character has to be likeable for a story to be good. Some people think foul language makes a story bad. But, there are always exceptions to these rules.

For example, I have been told a few times that I should not begin a piece of creative nonfiction with something shocking. Yet, Darin Strauss’ Half a Life begins this way: “Half my life ago, I killed a girl.” That’s pretty shocking, and it works well for that memoir.

Half A Life

The critic Robert McCrum wrote, “You’ll rarely get a better first line.” Were the people who told me I should not begin with something shocking wrong? Many people tend to take the attitude that there are exceptions that prove the rule, but I always take that as someone who has been proven wrong and no longer wants to take part in the argument. To me, there are no rules for good or bad, and writers (and readers) would do well to remember that. One of my favorite things to do with students in a beginner’s class is to discuss a story or essay, come up with why it works well, and then assign a reading that does something completely different and contradicts what we just discussed.

NemesisViolence

Nemesis is a comic. It follows the rules of comics, or sequential art. It features a series of images with text to tell a story. The sequences are easy to follow. The art is well drawn. The panels are laid out to not cause confusion for the reader. Characters are distinct. A lot happens and characters have to deal with real conflict. I could not care less about any of the characters, or the mystery of Nemesis’ plan, or the good guy’s family issues presented in the third issue, or even who wins or who dies.

But, I believe that is what the creators are going for here. Maybe they want the reader to be a bit more invested than I am, but I believe the story is meant for a different audience than myself. At no point is there a scene that slows the story down to get the reader to care for the characters or to explore the mystery of Nemesis. Characters move from action scene to action scene. From violent encounter to violent encounter. The comic is meant for an audience that prefers those summer blockbusters that require no thought. It is meant for an audience that wants realistic, detailed drawings and incredibly drawn fight scenes. It is not a thinking man’s comic.

Should it be? Does that make Nemesis bad? I think not. It is not for me, and I can understand that. More readers should understand the difference between bad craftsmanship and their personal taste. I feel art is held back by people who have egocentric, rigid aesthetics. Perhaps if more people could say, “This isn’t meant for me,” instead of, “This sucks,” artists would be freer to explore. Perhaps artists would not be so afraid of their work being judged.

Maybe. Maybe not. But, I find myself unable to judge work based on anything other than authorial intent and the execution geared toward that intent. I cannot judge a steak poorly because it does not taste like swordfish.

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Photo by John King

Photo by John King

Sean Ironman (Episode 102earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s ChronicleRedivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.

Shakespearing #28.1: Four Observations About Othello

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Shakespearing #28.1 by John King

Four Observations About Othello

28 Othello1. In Shakespeare is Hard, But So is Life, the Irish theater critic Fintan O’Toole says,

If you look at the character of Othello in isolation, and in particular if you look at him through the notion of the “tragic flaw’, then he is not, for all his facility with words, very bright. He can talk up a storm, but he’s not much for thinking. His tragic flaw is jealousy and he carries it around like a crutch, just waiting for someone to kick it from under him. He is manipulated by Iago, a man he didn’t enough trust enough in the first place to make him his lieutenant, without ever attempting to ascertain facts for himself. Suspecting his wife, he fails to confront her with her supposed infidelity, or to question her alleged lover, or to ask any of the other people who could tell him what’s going on. He is driven demented by a handkerchief. (69)

Now O’Toole is setting up a discussion of the chaotic Elizabethan context of the social construction of social status and political power, but if we look at Michael Cassio as being the hero of the play, then his tragic flaw is that he cannot hold his liquor. Sad, really.

Shakes is Hard2. Othello is about race, or more particularly, it is like a litmus test about race. We out ourselves in how we react to the race and racism of the play.

O’Toole remarks on how icky 19th century scholarship was about the interracial couple at the core of the play (76-77). O’Toole is so keen to show how progressive he is that he misreads A.C. Bradley entirely.

Shakespearean TragedyIn a lengthy endnote in his Shakespearean Tragedy, Bradley chronicles the ridiculous debate over whether or not Shakespeare actually intended Othello to be a black man because, you know, Othello would have kissed Desdemona, which means that our beloved bard has perhaps accidentally almost wanted people to consider interracial love. This dimwitted denial among otherwise intelligent people so enervated Bradley that he writes wearily in the first person plural, in this endnote, “We do not like the real Shakespeare” (416). Bradley’s dry sarcasm was lost on O’Toole.

I once got to hear James Earl Jones discuss his career, and on the subject of Shakespeare, he said that he preferred the part of Michael Cassio to Othello.

When portraying Othello for the Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival, Kevin Crawford forewent any pigmented make up at all so as to avoid the stench of blackface, and considering the emotional and political climate post-9/11, made Othello a converted Muslim.

White actors are still drawn to this perplexing role in Shakespearean tragedy, but have stopped using blackface since at least the 1990s. There are so many black actors that the grotesquerie of blackface is easily avoided, and while this has long been true, we are now at least two generations into being fully aware that this is true.

If many audience of previous ages have found the color of Othello’s skin disgusting to contemplate, when that skin color is the bizarre co-optation of blackface, I must confess that the spectacle does make me queasy, as in Olivier’s turn as the Moor.

othello

3. From Olivier’s perspective, the convention of using make up to render him black was an established stage convention, and the connection to Step and Fetchit perhaps seemed especially remote to him.

I have, over the years, shrugged off my aversion to Olivier and his seemingly old-fashioned acting. In his own ways, he was bold, and funny, and worthy of some indulgence (not that the blackface thing in Othello is tolerable). Olivier was a term used throughout my childhood to indicate an absurdly perfect actor, when in fact he was a human actor devoted to Shakespeare. The Shakespeare thing is why, for so many people, he wasn’t quite real.

OlivierFor Olivier, the challenge of Othello was finding an appropriate voice for the Moor. In his autobiography, he writes,

I decided to have a bash at that voice. I have always felt nervous about roaring and screaming at home, but feel no self-consciousness if I can get out into the hills. I remember once screaming King Lear at a group of cows that had formed a ring of curiosity around me. “God,” I thought, ‘I hope the audience is as patient as they are.’

4. In 2009, I got to see Philip Seymour Hoffman portray Iago in Peter Sellars’ production  of Othello in the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at NYU. Very little of that experience stands out to me, although I may have been a little drunk and certainly gastrointestinally encumbered by too much Arturo’s pizza.

Othello and Desdemona’s bed was plexiglas and filled with television images, a tableau that looked stupid rather than expressionistic or meaningfully postmodern, since sleeping on plexiglas seems like a non-starter no matter what such weird behavior is supposed to mean.

But what I do remember is the strangeness of Iago himself–the play seemed to be about Iago’s attempts at having human relationships with his wife, with Othello, with Desdemona, and his transgressions ways of breaking some unspoken barrier between human loneliness and the emptiness of convention to the secret authentic core of other people’s lives. Hoffman’s Iago seemed, in his soliloquy, to be having a hard time having a relationship to himself, an outsider, even when he is all alone.

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1flipJohn King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.

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