Monday, October 7, 2019

Tyrant, Shakespeare On Politics (book)

Angela Merkel, on vacation, reading "Tyrant."
Stephen Greenblatt, American author of the acclaimed Will In the World, was apparently so entirely disturbed by the election of Donald J, Trump that he swiftly produced a brief examination of Shakespeare’s villains (189 pages) and how they each compare to the current occupant of the White House.

Tyrant, Shakespeare on Politics, was released on May 8, 2018, and even at that point it was easy to see what kind of President Trump was going to be, as if that were not previously evident. Though he never names the President, his thesis is clear, with every chapter and every would-be emperor described, accurately for the most part, with precisely the same language many have used to describe Trump.

He calls Jack Cade, leader of a populist uprising in Henry VI Part 2, a “loud-mouthed demagogue” possessing an “indifference to the truth, shamelessness, and hyperinflated self-confidence.”

Shakespeare's Richard III “divides the world into winners and losers” and “is not merely indifferent to the law; he hates it … because it gets in his way.”

Macbeth has “a compulsive need to prove his manhood, dread of impotence … a fear of failure.” These psychological cues explain his “penchant for bullying, the vicious misogyny” and “explosive violence.”

Surprisingly, Greenblatt spends few words on the character of Julius Caesar, who, of all of Shakespeare’s monarchs, has been the one most often directly compared to Trump, for all of each man's vanity, poor health, and weakness for flattery at the same time ferociously protesting their own god-like inability to be manipulated.

Instead, this author focuses, as the play does, on the character of Brutus, and his desire to preempt disaster and assassinate Caesar before he attains absolute rule. Shakespeare’s lesson, it is clear, is that violent overthrow, no matter how pure the intent, is never pure, and impossible by design; an oxymoron in action.

“Real-world actions grounded on noble ideals,” Greenblatt suggests, “may have unforeseen and ironic consequences.”

Carole Healey as Julius Caesar
Photo: Roger Mastroianni
(Great Lakes Theater, 2019)
Published almost a year before the release of the Mueller Report, Greenblatt also provides a warning; that, though investigation and the possibility of impeachment is not a violent act, subverting the will of the electorate will always be suspect, and probably futile, even if you believe it would be the poorer choice to do nothing at all.
“The attempt to avert a possible Constitutional crisis, were Caesar to decide to assume tyrannical powers, precipitates the collapse of the state. The very act that was meant to save the republic turns out to destroy it. Caesar is dead, but by the end of the play Caesarism is triumphant.”
As it happened, the Mueller investigation came to a close without touching Trump nearer, finding that while a foreign power certainly offered Citizen Trump political assistance during the 2016 election, there was not definitive proof that he accepted it.

It should surprise no one who has been paying attention that we are now mired in a nearly identical circumstance, with definitive proof that President Trump himself has solicited political assistance from (at least) one foreign power for the 2020 election.

Impeachment now increasingly likely, looking into the works of Shakespeare may be a direful predictor of future events.

Great Lakes Theater presents "Julius Caesar" directed by Sara Bruner at the Hanna Theatre through November 3, 2019

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

"I'm Alive You Bastards And I Always Will Be" produced by Nightbloom Theatre Company

Photo: Steve Wagner
Tonight I am going to see the premiere production of a new Cleveland theater company, I’m Alive You Bastards And I Always Will Be, written by Roxie Perkins and presented by Nightbloom Theatre Company. And I’m scared. And I’m thrilled.

The company promises risk-taking work but doesn’t everyone promise risk-taking work? However, this production promises adult themes, strong language, violence, and references to sexual violence.

Most stage violence I have experienced of late is either cartoon gore (your B-movie musicals, for example) or a couple of dickheads punching each other stupid in this month’s toxically masculine, “kick ass” play. None of them inspire anything close to actual fear. Neither, for that matter, does Sleep No More.

The most popular example of shock theatre is the Grand Guignol. Before the advent of splatter films (also, World War II) middle class French audiences got a kick out Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Paris, where on any given evening they could expect to see half a dozen short plays utilizing grotesque and realistic stage effects to portray short dramas of torture, crime, and madness -- there were comedies, too, primarily on the subject of cuckolding.

It has been a long time since I have experienced anything truly creepy, weird or startling. I witnessed Die Hanswurst Klown present Prick Us And We'll Burst in Chicago almost twenty-five years ago, an evil clown show developed by a troupe of improvisers. The program was designed in such a way as to make you believe this was a real troupe of East German clowns, only the very last sentence of the performer bios suggested who the actor actually was.

From my journal, July 9, 1995:
Unbelievable. Helmut Voelker, with the big forehead, unwavering, glassy-eyed stare and gaped mouth, piercing high laugh, he couldn’t break eggs except on his head, he was so frightening and pitiful, REMEMBER HIM … like a wild animal. He frightened me. And when his hand was hit by a mallet or his penis was cut off, or his gift of a rose was refused, he howled and cried so pitifully, it made me feel terrible ...
Die Hanswurst Klown
Yeah, one of the other clowns severed Helmut’s penis ... while he was having sexual relations with a pumpkin. Blood spurted into the air.
Standing on a ladder, he made a solo, mournful, articulate soliloquy to the moon. This one expression of love was the only time he spoke during the entire show.

And it was in German.
Late during the history of Guerrilla, I had proposed reconfiguring the entire concept. In spite of our “game show” structure of introducing short plays, the whole endeavor still felt (to me) like a Too Much Light knock-off. What if we made an actual set, evoking a demented cabaret, with each of us developing alter-egos which we would maintain week after week, and that it would be these performers presenting the short plays?

From my proposal, June 1993:
“Maison de Foux” ... I picture a dinner theater trying to stay open after the city has been carpet bombed. Charred doorways, curtains askew, a big sign of lights proclaiming the name of the show, with a few bulbs missing or burned out … walls adorned with water damaged posters of rock stars, politicians and movies ...

While the audience is still meant to feel as though they are an integral part of what goes on, they are no longer encouraged to believe they own the place.
Nothing came of that idea, at least not at Guerrilla. The concept was revived in a somewhat different form for Night Kitchen.

Backstage with "The Gaslight Guignol"
Erin Meyers, Mike Schmidt, self
Jenna Weiss, Toni K. Thayer
This Vicious Cabaret was my attempt at an evil clown show, a post-apocalyptic comic nightmare in which a band of roving performers acted danced and sang for their supper (we literally accepted non-perishable food items in lieu of payment). Global warming had led to massive water shortages and the collapse of civilization as we know it.

The evening culminated with an audience member being chosen to join the company, but also having to choose which member of the original company would have to be killed to maintain balance. My character, Serious George, the most horrible of our quintet, was prepared with a knife to slit the throat of whoever was chosen. In case it was me, Mister Alfred (Mike Schmidt) would sneak up behind, grab my knife hand and do the deed.

I had palmed a blood packet, so the knife wound was particularly ghastly, a fine conclusion to a dark evening. Sometimes the packet would “pop” and blood would shoot across the stage.

Tonight, Nightbloom Theatre Co. has promised such effects as extreme, prolonged stage violence, punching, kicking, head trauma, eye gouging and gouts of blood. The play I’m Alive You Bastards is a feminist warning or threat: What will happen when the lid finally blows off of women’s collective efforts to suppress rage and anger? What happens when women transform into their monsters they have held inside?

The wake of the #meToo Movement has brought to the fore a new genre of unapologetically and aggressively feminist plays, like Mathile Dratwa’s A Play about David Mamet Writing a Play about Harvey Weinstein and Sharai Bohannon’s Punching Neil LaBute project. These are exciting creative developments.

So when I say I am scared to attend this show, it’s not really the stage violence I am afraid of. We know that’s fake. A surprise is titillating, that’s why we go to haunted houses. It’s the ideas, and the expression of those ideas which fill me with anticipatory dread.

Nightbloom Theatre Co. presents "I'm Alive You Bastards And I Always Will Be" at Maelstrom Collective Arts through Sunday, October 6, 2019



Happy birthday, Alice Bluegown. We remember.

Source: Crash Course Theatre #35: The Horrors of the Grand Guignol