Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Alas, Poor Mick. I Knew Him When His Name Was Al.

My wife has always said I am a terrible Shakespeare snob, which I know I have no right to be since my expertise extends no further than yours; that is, I've had a couple courses, read most of the plays at least once and seen some productions or films of the better known plays -- seen more than a few productions or films but less than a lot.

Oh oh oh: I played Peter the servant in a college production of Romeo and Juliet.

She said I was a snob when I said something like "You should read the play before going to see it." She said if Shakespeare was not a good enough man of the theater so that the plays worked without a cheat sheet, to hell with him. But this harsh judgment, she said, was not necessary because he was a man of the theater, and the plays play if the production is done with a modern audience in mind.

But god help that audience if some snob lays his hands on the plays.

I conceded her point and have felt pretty much hoi polloi for years now. But then I read something in Mick LaSalle's review in the San Francisco Chronicle of what I will call Al Pacino's Merchant of Venice! since he plays Shylock and he is the Name, given the fact Jeremy Irons has been coasting on that serendipitous baritone for a decade or more.

This is what Mick said:

Shakespeare's comedies are different from his tragedies in one all- important way. In a tragedy, the hero ultimately understands the full import of his story and, in that way, speaks for the playwright. But in Shakespeare's comedies no one ever has the big picture. No one is in possession of the playwright's wisdom, or even ours. Instead, every character goes through life understanding only his own part in the story and, in the end, even if our favorite characters are happy, we wonder if they should be. Shakespeare almost invariably leaves us with something to worry about -- some wrong we can't forget, some sign of future trouble, some unignorable evidence of a world bigger than the happy ending.

My first reaction was What! Mick LaSalle telling me what to think about Shakespeare? I mean "speaks for the playwright"? My dear boy. We are long past assuming that we can know what the writer intended, much less that it would be useful to our deconstructing the text if we did know. We are very goddamn smart now.

critics up writers down

Also, I was at the Chronicle when Mick showed up, just a kid, the hobbit version of Jimmy Breslin. I'm not saying I changed his diapers, metaphorically or otherwise, but my god he looked about 12.

Bitter old man? I was always a bitter old man.

Anyway, I try to keep an open mind about Mick as a movie critic. I have friends who hate him because they say he doesn't know much about movies, but on the other hand he consistently comes up with a nice turn of comic phrase, and I don't read newspaper movie reviews for any great wisdom about movies, and my favorite movie reviewer is Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, and I'm not sure he knows all that much about movies either but he says funny -- when it comes to movies can he say funny!

But I really don't want Mick to tell me about Shakespeare. I felt this deeply, possibly irrationally, when I read his review. I am that much of a snob. Generally, I just toss this little blog out into the air aware that it is not the first place people go for wit and wisdom. It's like there's my unconscious, but one row down just before you walk into that ugly void is this blog, last exit to self-awareness, last row of the balcony as it were. I'm not even sure I want people to notice it. It's like I'm up there in the last row of the balcony making out with myself. But this post I am promoting, I am sending to people to get some reaction to Mick on the Bard.

Personally, I'm thinking that Shakespeare's tragic heroes don't necessarily figure it out. They understand they made one or more serious tactical, even strategic, misjudgments. But do they understand the "full import" of their story? Lear might. Hamlet doesn't -- and I understand you may disagree, but that's because you're the kind of person who wants to put Ophelia in the shower and go after her with a knife. Othello? Nah. He just gets some of the facts straight. Macbeth. You're kidding me. Romeo and Juliet are idiots, but so would you and I be if we were made up by a guy with his eye on the day's take just to be a pair of teen suicides. The tragedies are big, bombastic, neat and unlikely. Not Hamlet, of course. Not neat at all. (If you want to talk about the rest of the tragedies, you have my number.) The comedies come closer to life as it is lived in that, like mice in the elephant's cage, we must scurry and dodge, marry and breed. If Shakespeare had a gift for giving some of his foils a chance to express their humanity, doesn't that help keep the conclusion in balance rather than knocking it off center? Aren't some of his heroines ferocious realists -- hard, smart, cagey?

At this point I concede I'm not talking about the sour or late pieces where a nip here and tuck there, and you have, well, tragedy. And I don't think Mick is. I think he's talking about the comedies that are played by the colleges, revived in repertory and made into films -- As You Like It, Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, All's Well That Ends Well -- memory's starting to get a little shaky -- The Boys from Syracuse and .... Annie Hall.

And The Merchant of Venice. Though, you know, I've only seen The Merchant of Venice once and that was on educational TV a very long time ago. Part of the reason we were supposed to feel good about that production, I recall, is that the production was turned into an indictment of antiSemitism. Nice production. I guess I see Mick's point. Any of Shakespeare's comedies can be turned inside out -- you notice my phrasing -- and you aren't going to enjoy The Merchant of Venice unless it is turned inside. But they can also, and more easily, be produced in such a way that the final unity and harmony -- yo! we're married here; we're dancing here -- do not seem false, sentimental and bourgeois enough to make us wish someone really would break a leg.

Still, that Mick -- he had his usual nice phrase: "Even if our favorite characters are happy, we wonder if they should be."

Pretty good, right? I just don't want to take a lesson in critical analysis of Shakespeare from Mick. (Of James Joyce, sure; always be needin' help there.)

Comments anyone?


Anonymous said...

I don't like Shakespeare. There, I've said it, and let ignominy rain down as it may. Tolstoy said it first, however.

Anonymous said...

And alas, Eydie is wrong. It IS quite helpful if one is able to read before seeing Shakespeare. Her assertion would be correct, of course, were the language current enough for it to be readily understood in even a lousy production -- which the vast majority most certainly are. As it is, in most cases one must put up with incompetent -- and arrogantly "insightful" -- re-imaginings of Shakespeare made to fit a trite and pedantic (I mean Important And Relevant) directoral conceit. Add to that the regular lack of understanding of what the hell is being spoken by both actors AND director -- and even when understood by them the recognition that just because they may have figured it out the audience didn't have similar benefit of anotated texts, rehearsals and advance study -- and what is presented at best embodies theatrical ignorance and at worst elitist contempt for the audience's unfamiliarity.
So yes, arm yourself before entering if you can....


Anonymous said...

Mick's -- rather "Mick"'s? (what is his real name anyway?) -- girlfriend (or is it wife?) wrote the play "The Beard of Avon", the connceit of which was that all the plays were actually written by a woman. Produced at ACT and a few other places, to from lukewarm to mildly enthusiastic reception. Presumably he has gained some knowledge whereof he writes from the Li'l Lady chez lui.
As for his film or other commentary, I don't waste much time with it. What little of his I've read has utterly failed to impress....

Anonymous said...

Measure for Measure fits the "wonder if they should be" mold mentioned by Mick (I'm finding his reviews fun to read lately, but still don't think much of his opinions). A very unhappy ending for a comedy. Comedy? Aye, there's the rub. The Merchant of Venice is not especially jolly either. It is a play where the characters think a lot about their respective fates. For the more playful comedies - the delightful 12th Night has Malvolio's mistreatment mucking up the works. Is this fun and games, like bear-baiting? Is this a lesson from the Bard? Back to Merchant - Richard and I went to see it Monday. We both thought it was okay, but not great. The acting is excellent (plus, everyone knows what they are saying and makes it understandable), but the direction just doesn't bring the play to life - something in the pacing, I think. And I think in cutting the play they also pulled some teeth. It's all very grey and gloomy, and doesn't make near enough use of Venice, though I was pleased for what there was.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know him when he was Al, but knew him when he still admitted he'd been Al. Like Tim Goodman, he's there for style, not substance, although substance is perfectly permissible. You
could say pretty much the same for the whole damn paper. As for Shakespeare, the first play I read was Merchant, in the 8th grade, and was so taken that I memorized both Portia's (The quality of mercy is not strained...) and Shylock's (If you prick us, do we not bleed?) soliloquys. The second and last play I read was Macbeth, in the 10th grade. Didn't memorize squat. Can't be of any goddam help to you at all, really.

Robert (Bob) Wieder

G Pabst said...

I read a ton and a half of Shakespeare as an English Lit undergrad at SF State, and here's my bottom line: it get's better as you get older.

The stuff flew by me at 22 (tho I was trying to toilet train my eldest son and listen to the plays at the same time). Unsuccessfully, I might add. But I did a nice piece of scholarship my senior year tracing the balanced-scale rise/fall of Edgar/Edmund in "Lear."

But, slowly, it was the language that bagged me.

Youu spend time working at it. Then you rejoice that it's not so much work. And then it show's itself to be something even more.

Shakespeare is experienced the same way as is a great ad headline: the only three reactions he planned were
- that's new, or
- I've never thought of it that way, or
- I've always thought of it that way.

And I almost never see where he's going until the last moment.

Anonymous said...

And another problem with "trusting Shakespeare" -- so to speak -- is the entire matter of excisions.
Shakespeare's plays run much longher than present audiences and producers want, so they are almost always -- ALMOST ALWAYS -- cut, pasted back together, "edited" -- with sections, speeches, whole scenes dropped, etc, etc.
Do you simply trust the intelligence and talent of the ones DOING making these decisions for you?
Or does one go in with as much knowledge as posisble and hope for the best?
(Text-book examples? Howzabout "Tamingy of the Shrew" and "Merchant of Venice"? -- there you get WHOLESALE juggling! Re-writes, essentially -- smug, achronistic re-writes. UNDERSTANDABLE yes. Definitely. But truly justifiable? And -- key question -- done capably?....


Anonymous said...

I don't read the critical literature about my favorite authors (except yours, of course): it gets in the way of them. I'd rather make my own mistakes than someone else's. Now that's a snob.


Anonymous said...

Critical literature is one thing -- and I can see the (essentially mutually-exclusive) benefits in either approach: reading it or not.
But actually becoming familiar with THE MATERIAL is quite another matter, I persist. For trusting the production of Shakespeare -- with all the excisions, editings, and pretzel-bendings plastered on to get the desired "result" (and the usual train-wreck of line readings oscuring so much) -- in fact DOESN'T allow one to be independently critical or appreciative of the source: the author's actual work.
-- M

Anonymous said...

Seeing and reading Shakespeare are mutually exclusive?