We saw the theatrical streaming of the Globe Theatre’s The Merchant of Venice recently, as that’s Liz’s favorite Shakespeare play. It’s a play that always raises more questions than it answers. There is no catharsis. The tragedies may be littered with bodies by their bloody ends, but there is the sense of an ending, of finality. Momentous things have happened, the world has changed. But in Merchant – a play where no one dies – the story stops, the world remains frustratingly unchanged, and the emotions that have been churned up have nowhere to settle. Jonathan Munby’s direction was swift and vigorous, the comic stuff was energetic and well-sold by sharp actors, the romantic moments well-paced. But we watch it for Shylock’s story, don’t we? To see what this production adds to the discussion, to see that tremendous courtroom scene, those glorious speeches.
Shylock is only in five scenes, but for modern viewers the character dominates The Merchant of Venice and its afterlife. There are damn few ways you can jazz up or reconceive the casket scenes, usually the most turgid scenes for me. Lancelot is Lancelot – what can be done? But there are seemingly endless variations on showing Shylock’s humiliation, and the hateful behavior of the Christians to the Jews.
On this viewing, Merchant struck me as a lumpy stew. Individual bits were strong but they didn’t blend well into a balanced whole. I view it as a characteristic of the play rather than the production. The play isn’t as poetic and language drunk as Romeo and Juliet, it doesn’t have the piercing personality of a Richard III. Merchant seems instead a mash-up by Shakespeare of old stories designed to give his repertory actors some good scenes to play – romance, comedy, high melodrama – while giving the audience something to keep their interest.
But Shakespeare being Shakespeare, I think that as he started working the plots to motivate the characters’ decisions, he could not help but introduce nuance, colors, and character details that likely had nothing to do with the original stories.
He also found motifs and themes that provide interesting rhyme and counterpoint throughout and help bond these disparate stories. There is the theme of fathers and daughters. Portia is as trapped by her father’s will as Jessica is physically by hers; Portia adheres to her father’s rules while Jessica doesn’t; both are rescued and rewarded by true love (perhaps); but Munby’s sharp view of wealth and Christian society make the point that Jessica dwells on the island at Portia’s pleasure.
Then, of course, the outsider theme. Shylock, obviously, but Antonio also. The young men buzz and fawn around Antonio, but it’s clear he has people who are indebted to him rather than friends. He begins the play melancholy (so he says) and ends it alive (yay) but melancholy still, one feels. He enabled Bassanio’s happiness at the potential cost of his life, but Bassanio’s happiness is for his life with Portia – Antonio remains on the outside.
Antonio is gracious and forgiving whenever Bassanio or his friends are around, but an arrogant SOB when dealing with Shylock. Antonio’s self-loathing finds release when he must deal with those lower on the social scale – someone to whom he is now indebted.
Shylock, of course, is the play’s ultimate outsider. John Barton, in the “Playing Shakespeare” episode where Patrick Stewart and David Suchet discuss their takes on Shylock, reminds us that – had Portia not intervened – Shylock would in fact have murdered Antonio. Even given what he’s suffered, can we excuse or sympathize with a murderer? Barton’s opinion is that Shylock is a bad human being and a bad Jew. I will add to this my unsupported theory, which is that Shakespeare by chance created a more human character whose actions and attitudes could not transcend a melodramatic and highly theatrical plot constructed to contain the two-dimensional characters that populate the rest of the play.
Shakespeare’s dialogue does not refer to any other Jews in the courtroom, so Shylock appears to be on his own. That interested me. The practical-theatre side of me says this is because all the members of the company are on stage for the Big Scene and so no one else was left to don the costume and makeup. So why not make a virtue of that absence? The in-play answer to this situation could then be that Shylock’s fellow Jews wanted no part of his bloody bargain and so left him to fend for himself. Their absence from the courtroom could emphasize just how far outside the pale Shylock has placed himself, even by the standards of his own community. (Tubal, depending on how he’s played, does not encourage or join in with Shylock on his tirades against the Christians.)
[Aside: when I saw the courtroom scene where the Christians turn the tables on Shylock, my mind flashed to the scene in “Oklahoma” where Judd bids on Laurie’s picnic basket. All the other cowboys come to Curly’s aid to help him outbid Judd. Even though Judd is playing by their rules, the community excludes him and refuses to let him win. Shylock had too much faith in the law to look after his interests when he sought revenge on Antonio, and didn’t calculate just how far the community would go to protect itself from him.]
Shakespeare and this production don’t make it easy to sympathize with any character. Shylock may see himself as protecting his daughter, yet he treats her shabbily. One is sympathetic to Jessica’s plight, but she also steals her father’s money and the ring given to him by Jessica’s mother – a keepsake and memory he appears to hold dear. What makes Portia think she’s a better lawyer than a lawyer? Portia puts Bassanio through the ethical wringer – why? Does she think he loves Antonio more than her? He reasoned his way to the correct casket – why does he need to be tested again? Bassanio wins Portia’s hand fair and square with his humble perspective, yet he is always in debt, changeable, and tries the patience of those who love him. Will Portia be covering his debts in future?
Patrick Stewart said that Barton’s first words to him about Shylock were, “Think of how you’ll get off stage.” Shylock’s exit can be slow, fast, defeated, dignified – it’s a way actors can stamp the part as theirs. Olivier’s offstage scream was said to be chilling. Stewart’s demonstration of his exit showed a scarily manic figure who has lost his mind. Pryce leaves the courtroom humiliated, yet Munby adds a final scene of Shylock’s baptism, with Jessica off to the side singing a Jewish lament. It’s thrillingly theatrical while its formal restraint makes the emotions underneath threaten to burst and overflow the stage. The pomp and spectacle, the Latin ritual, Pryce’s devastation – can the play really support this? I respect the scene’s power, but it is so unlike any other scene or moment in this play it seems to belong elsewhere. I think this play, hobbled by its melodramatic roots, cannot help an audience process the emotion that the director and cast fan into a righteous flame.
But…Liz and I left the screening staggered and could not stop talking about it for hours. Show me the last movie where we were able to do that.
She once said Picasso gave her the “best lesson in composition” she ever received when he told her to “constantly renew yourself; avoid using the recipes that you have already found.” This counsel she took to heart.
More Fool Me is Fry’s third book of memoirs, and covers roughly the years 1986-2001, when he was professionally and personally flying high, not least due to incredible quantities of cocaine and vodka that fueled his addictive, rather needy personality. I listened to the audiobook version, as read by Fry, and it’s a far better experience than reading it would have been, I’m sad to say.
The recording starts with an hour of him recapping the events of his first two memoirs (and mock-apologizing for it frequently) and ends with almost three hours of him reading his daily diary entries from three typically busy months in 1993. Had I read this on paper, I’d have been furious about reading a book that seemed assembled from parts rather than written. But hearing it performed took a bit of the sting out of it. When he tells his stories, he acts out the characters, takes on the voices (his impersonation of John Cleese, if impersonation it was, was spot on), and it feels as if one is sitting across from him as he expertly paces and tells his stories.
That said, three months of daily diary entries is asking a bit much of the casual reader.1 Fry includes the passages as an example of how fast and frenetic his life had become and how, looking back, he could see that a breakdown was inevitable. But it does not avoid becoming a long recitation of name-dropping, self-indulgence, and snobbery. Trey Graham’s NPR.org reviewsums it up this way:
In barely three months of diary entries, from August to November of 1993, Bad Stephen writes a novel; sits for a portrait; attends the London premiere of The Fugitive and is embarrassed to be seated with the B-list celebs; attempts [writing] the book for an Elton John jukebox musical; races about England benevolently signing books and meeting blushingly with personal bankers; does a speechy thing or two for Prince Charles; tries out a new bespoke tailor; dines with Dennis (aka Mr. Margaret) Thatcher at the Garrick Club and pronounces him, with a blithe arrogance worthy of any Cambridge grad, “better read than I had ever imagined.” Eventually he purchases at auction two letters in Oscar Wilde’s hand — but not without both citing and complaining of the price, and not before dropping roughly as many names, familiar and obscure, as he does pounds sterling. Fear not, he footnotes the obscure ones so as to evoke suitable awe.
Graham concludes: “A misguided, misspent early midlife is one thing to recount and repent. The blithe snobbery, the casual cruelty, the condescension to those less gifted that’s on such vulgar display in this all-too-dense diary of excess — they all demand more examination, more reflection, more humanity than Fry provides.”
During the period described in this book, Fry was enjoying immense visibility from appearing in “Blackadder,” “Jeeves and Wooster,” “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” and the movie Peter’s Friends. It was entirely unforeseen for the schoolboy described in his first memoir, Moab is My Washpot. There, Fry felt like an outsider due to his increasing awareness of his homosexuality, being Jewish, and whatever other unknowable demons drove him to skip school, steal from fellow students to feed his cravings for sweets and cigarettes, take advantage of everyone around him, attempt suicide, and otherwise transgress shamelessly.
His second memoir, The Fry Chronicles, sees him begin to explore relationships, act, write and perform, and become addicted to applause and attention. Though clearly an intelligent and self-aware man, that knowledge doesn’t stop him getting addicted to cocaine as chronicled in More Fool Me and indulging himself by snorting the stuff not just in the private clubs that became his second home but also in the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and Buckingham Palace. Though he never snorted at Hugh Laurie’s house, knowing Laurie and his wife disapproved; even Fry’s inner demons respected Laurie and his friendship too much to transgress there.
Fry makes no bones about it: he enjoyed himself tremendously and did not see himself as an addict. He details the little kit he assembled to carry and snort 3-5 grams of coke with him whenever he went and is pleased to describe in detail its compact stylishness. (When I smoked a pipe in my 20s, I also happily indulged in all the paraphernalia that goes with that pastime. There is pleasure in the fetish of the ritual.)
Fry throughout feels himself to be the outsider still, even when the evidence of being a tremendous insider explodes all around him – the private clubs, the celebrities, the parties, Lady Di telling him a secret: he loves every drop of it. Cocaine is the thick icing atop a very yummy cake, the soundtrack to the exclusive A-list parties.
Moab is My Washpot remains his best book-length narrative to date because he was able to see young Stephen in toto, forgive him, see him from his childhood into young adulthood and a new beginning, and thus shape the story into a satisfying whole. It’s a touching and affectionate book.
A key reason for the weakness of More Fool Me is that Fry’s larger story has yet to come to an ending. The book is reportorial, brimming with surface details, bright anecdotes, and, as said, an entertaining vocal performance. But not enough time has passed for Fry to really understand who he was and what happened so that he could shape the material into a story that could stand on its own. Fry begins the story bewildered and beleaguered, and ends the same way; there is no change or transformation, just incident after incident.
Much waits in Fry’s future after this book ends: a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, a continued and apparently unquenchable thirst for vodka, and several suicide attempts, including a very close call from 2012. Fry’s demons are still in there. Maybe one day, Fry (if he is still in there as well) will be able to tell the whole story.
To his credit, he doesn’t ask for forgiveness or understanding, just a chance to tell his side of the story. I don’t demand an answer to the mystery of his behavior but I do need more than a raconteur’s dinner stories.
(originally posted 2016-10-29, updated for micro.blog)
Liz presented at the AMWA conference, so I tagged along and cavorted at will. From the mental grab-bag:
I traveled with Liz to Denver CO for a few days while she attended a conference while I cavorted. For this brief trip, I carried a Chromebook, a Kindle Paperwhite, an iPod Touch 5g, a retro Tracfone-powered flip phone, a digital camera, multiple chargers, and 2 paperbacks.
This agglomeration of tech accumulated bit by bit over the years. It all works, it doesn't take up much room in the suitcase, it all does what I need it to do. I wish I didn't need a separate checklist to help me remember whether I've packed everything!
Am I on the road to being one of those old duffers who has drawers and closets full of perfectly good stuff that all sensible consumers have discarded? If this blog is still trundling on in 20 years, I hope to let you know.
I was cleaning out my Evernote inbox and saw two topics side by side: "The Lost Art of Memorizing Poetry" and the "The Lost Art of Illustrating Your Favorite Books." How many Lost Arts could there be? Are they really lost, were they superseded, or are they underground? Have the practitioners and teachers died out? Did that many people really practice it? And when we say "art" we really mean "skill," right? Or do we mean a craft that elevated both the user and the practice? There's a rather weary head-shake and heavy sigh of regret that seems to go with the phrase "lost art."
As always, when faced with an odd little eyeworm like that, I feed it into Google to see what other pages out there are using, re-using, and wearing out those specific words in that specific order. I tweaked this search a bit and decided dropping the quotation marks netted a few good articles I missed otherwise; I also removed lyrics from the search. Try it yourself.
What do we learn from this? I have no idea. I just find it interesting to see what others consider a necessary skill or behavior that no one in their self-identified peer group seems to find relevant anymore.
From a AAA.com GO magazine article on what to expect at this year's state fairs in the Carolinas:
North Carolina's lineup never fails with offerings like Fry Me to the Moon -- a deep-fried chocolate Moon Pie stuffed with Ho Hos, peanut butter cups, and Oreos, topped with cream cheese, chocolate syrup, and powdered sugar. Need more energy? Try the Bacon S'more -- a quarter-pound of maple-syrup grilled bacon on a stick dipped in chocolate, marshmallow fluff, and graham cracker crumbles...
The mind, the mouth, the gut flora tremble, as if on a knife's edge...
Two people with languages unknown to each other met, and tried to communicate.
One said, “I want to do but cannot for some reason” and then did not, while the second said “do” and did for any reason and many reasons.
There was little to say between them. After all was said and done. Or not done.
The two people went their ways.
In museums, libraries, concert halls and theaters, markets and all across the land there was that which those who did had done. Those who could not fathom how all this had been done shook their heads, thinking they would like to have done what these had done. And then they went their ways, as before not doing as they had not done.
Time passed, as it does. As it will do. People pass as they do, and none don’t.
In 1911, Delafield was accepted as a postulant by a French religious order established in Belgium. Her account of the experience, The Brides of Heaven, was written in 1931 and eventually published in her biography. “The motives which led me, as soon as I was 21, to enter a French Religious Order are worthy of little discussion, and less respect” she begins. This account includes being told by the Superior that if a doctor advised a surgical operation “your Superiors will decide whether your life is of sufficient value to the community to justify the expense. If it is not, you will either get better without the operation or die. In either case you will be doing the will of God and nothing else matters.”