Friday, July 24, 2015

Watch "Ubu Roi" live online

Four years ago, Amateur Reader hosted an Anything Ubu readalong, focusing on Alfred Jarry's plays. I just discovered that the UK theatre company Cheek by Jowl will be livestreaming a performance of Ubu Roi Sunday, 11am PDT. Click here to watch the performance. There's a handy countdown clock so you know exactly when it will start. More information can be found on their production page.

Check it out and let me know what you think!

Thanks to The Collected Works for publicizing this event.

Update (26 Jul 2015):
Well, that was different. The staging was extremely fun to watch. It starts off as a simple dinner party, then segues back and forth between dinner and the play. It was a challenge to watch, and I mean that in a good way. After the initial post I found this interview with actor Sylvain Levitte, which provides some more insight into the production. I highly recommend going to the Cheek by Jowl website, where the production will be available to view until August 2nd.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Next week: Thucydides on BBC 4 Radio

Starting Monday on BBC 4 Radio's "Book at Bedtime" series, the book will be Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, read by David Horovitch and abridged by Tom Holland. And what an abridgment, since the total air time will be an hour and fifteen minutes. I have no idea what it will be like, but I'm looking forward to finding out!


Monday, April 20, 2015

Poetry and Literature recordings from The Library of Congress

Asymptote Journal had passed along an article about The Library of Congress Is Uploading 75 Years of Poetry and Literature Recordings. I've had fun listening to a few of the recordings, especially the ones with Joseph Brodsky, Czesław Miłosz, and James Merrill, and plan on listening to many more.

Since I'm more of a "scroll" type of guy, the link I prefer to go to when searching through the recordings is this one. Enjoy!

From the article:
Yesterday selections from the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature at the Library of Congress became available to stream online for the first time — the launch of a project digitizing some of their 2,000 recordings from the past 75 years of literature. “I think that reading poetry and prose on the page is important, but there’s nothing that can replace listening to literature read aloud, especially when it is read by the creator of the work,” Catalina Gomez, project manager for the process of putting the archive online, told Hyperallergic.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Stratford Festival film: King John

Details on the screening

Written up at midnight after seeing the Stratford Festival's screening of King John, while a few thoughts I actually had during the viewing are with me. Forgive the hasty nature of this post.

Philip Faulconbridge, the Bastard, is a marvelous character, and not just in the sense he's a "type" that Shakespeare will later develop into even greater characters. This was the first time I saw his strength and resolve in the face of adversity as a foil to the waffling nature of his uncle, John. Graham Abbey did a great job in the role, bringing out the playful nature of the character but also accounting for the bitter residue in feeling cheated at what is due. He is every bit as mercurial as King John since he is willing to forsake his claim to his father's lands and income for the potential that lies with Eleanor. Most things I have read about the role laughs at his playfulness without recognizing the darkness underlying many of his lines. To me, this darkness shows up immediately, leaving a bitter taste in his joking from the start. The "commodity speech" isn't an outlier. Abbey's performance was definitely one of the strong points of the play.

King John...what do we do with a character like King John? Tom McCamus did a lot with the role, demonstrating strength, weakness, resolve, expediency, not to mention his flawed calculations, all of which lies in Shakespeare's creation. It's not exactly how I would have portrayed John, but then again you have to live within the constraints of the role. Despite the advertised mercurial and narcissistic nature of John, I'm not sure I fully got that from the performance. There are touches of that nature here and there. But John seems a bit of an enigma outside of the text. Don't get me wrong. I think Tom McCamus did a wonderful job in a difficult role. I think it boils down to how a director wants to portray John, and it's not an easy decision to make. A too-strong John (consistently) goes outside of character, while a too-weak portrayal lends no credibility to his rule and the battle scenes. Shakespeare shows John as willingly handing away major holdings based on an alliance based on calculation instead of the actual losses that occured. In that calculating sense, in figuring out what everyone's price is, McCamus did a great job. He emphasizes a desire for peace and harmony at a calculated cost (albeit frivolously at times), which runs through the text.

If I had to pick one performance that made me love this screening, though, it would be Wayne Best as Hubert, the Angers citizen tasked to kill young Arthur. That task comes with a contrived dose of deniability from King John, and Best wears the troubles of this irrevocable job on his face and in his voice. The dungeon scene was without a doubt the highlight for me.

Cardinal Pandulph's role in the carnage from the battles definitely stood out, too. Eager to call religious might on his side when it comes to enlisting soldiers against heresy, he also shows his impotence at stopping the forces he has called forth. Like most everything else, it's a double-edged sword that Shakespeare calls into play in making parallels between Plantagenet and Elizabethan events.

Other, minor issues:

I guess I'm going to have to get used to the screenings I see having crappy sound, coming out in simple stereo from behind the screen. Despite touting there would be "128 tracks of sound to create a lush, surround-sound experience," I got none of that. You know you sound like a weary snob when one of the dozen other patrons in the theater asks if you can tell someone in charge that the previews have no audio, and your reply is, "Yeah, Lear was like that, too."

Forget what you do with a character like John. What do you do with a character like Constance? Sean McKenna's performance as Constance was strong, yet leaving me disliking her character even more. When is too much too much?

The staging was simple, which I found to be a strong point of the play. Almost everything is left to the imagination, which is fine by me, not to mention it comes closer to the original Elizabethan/Jacobean staging. I liked the simplicity of the scenery, which causes the staging of certain scenes to be well planned and thought out. I thought the choreography of the scenes to be extremely well done.

The casting of Arthur poses a difficult question: how old do you want to portray and cast this character? Fortunately, they seemed to have gone with a slightly older actor, or at least a more experienced one, Noah Jalava. Jalava demonstrates the innocence of a young boy but is also able to express the deeper issues he raises, especially in his scenes with Hubert.

All in all, I though it was an admirable performance. I'm obviously upset with a theater that can take advantage of high definition video (and trust me, it looked great on a huge screen), but isn't able to do the same with the sound.

Coming back to what the Stratford Festival is trying to do with these films, though, I'm a huge fan after only two of them. I'm looking forward to more.

Monday, April 06, 2015

King John by William Shakespeare

I have been looking forward to the upcoming Stratford Festival screening of King John for several reasons, but especially since I've only seen it once. The play can be described as erratic, but there are some wonderful moments in it. The selection of incidents Shakespeare includes in the play brings home the parallels between the reigns of John and Elizabeth I, which was an edgy move, if not dangerous. In the Introduction to the second Arden series, E.A.J. Honigmann summarizes the similarities in an extended sentence:
An English sovereign, said to be a usurper, and perhaps a bastard, defies the pope, becomes "supreme head," is excommunicated, imprisons his rival, who was barred from the crown by a will; the pope promises his murderer canonization, invites another king to invade England, the English sovereign darkly urges the murder of the rival "pretender," then needs a scapegoat, a foreign invasion is attempted, the invaders intending to kill the Englishmen who help them, their navy is providentially wrecked off the English coast, English unity being finally achieved through the failure of the invasion:—frequent "Armada idiom" hammering home the topicality of the play. (xxix, line references corresponding to the events/incidents omitted)

Some of John's history had to be "adapted" to fit into this framework, leading to an often-made claim that King John is Shakespeare's most unhistorical play." By adding ahistorical events and rearranging things that did happen to fashion a coherent, compressed play, Shakespeare highlights Elizabethan experiences. There's an interesting question Shakespeare seems to address when writing the play: should he attempt to make King John appealing?

For a few short moments here and there, Shakespeare succeeds in making a likable (but definitely not a lovable) King John. Sure, he's self-absorbed and mercurial. (When I get around to posting on the 13th-century work Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, as promised here, these features of the monarch shine through quite well.) And the John that appears in Holinshed's Chronicles, one of Shakespeare's sources and clearly echoed here, has a king of impetuous desires and unceasing lies. In the play John attempts to buy off everyone, providing a backdrop for the "commodity" speech. His schemes may succeed in the short term but bankrupt him, and nearly the country, in the long run. He attempts to hide from the results of his disastrous commands. But there are flashes, brief though they may be, where it's fun to watch John work. His judging of the family matter at the beginning of the play and the brief moment when things are looking up for him at the center of the play (in III. ii where the French have been stopped, he escapes from his mother's smothering care, and he has Arthur in his control) provide shining moments for the king. But only moments. Immediately after his apparent successes he attempts to talk Hubert into killing Arthur. Then Randolph, in a "prophetic spirit," lays out the destruction that awaits John.

The only time I've seen this play is the 1984 performance from the BBC series of Shakespeare's plays. Leonard Rossiter, in one of his last performances, does a good turn at King John while George Costigan brings out the playfulness of The Bastard/Philip. My major complaint about this version is the shortening of the dungeon scene, one of the best parts of the play.

Details of the upcoming screening of last year's Stratford Festival can be found here. Folks outside the U.S. may want to go to the Stratford Festival's website, too. According to this write-up, the sound should be just as good as the picture, one of my complaints about the screening of King Lear I saw, which did not take advantage of the theater's sound system. I'm hoping that's fixed...I'm going to the same theater as Lear, so we'll see. Anyway, I hope you're able to see it!

Details on the screening

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss

The Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss
Simon & Schuster, 323 pages, $27

I'm rushing through this post since I want to post it on the Ides of March (and I just finished the book)...

Barry Strauss, professor of history and classics at Cornell University, has provided an insightful study of the actions, motivations, and fallout of the murder of Julius Caesar, "history's most famous assassination," as the book's subtitle puts it. One of the most intriguing features of Julius Caesar's assassination that Strauss investigates is how so many people around the ruler with varying backgrounds—friends and enemies, beneficiaries and slighted, and family members—formed an alliance to commit such a high-profile murder. The plotters may have provided heroic rationales and excuses but it becomes clear there were plenty of self-interested reasons. Strauss stresses the importance of Decimus (Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus) as one of the principle conspirators along with Brutus and Cassius. In addition to persuading Caesar to attend the Senate meeting on the Ides of March 44 B.C., Decimus provided gladiators as (apparent) guards for Caesar, but would in reality prove to be the assassins' bodyguards. Decimus was quickly demonized and then largely dismissed or forgotten by later generations of history writers. The allegiances between the principle characters, including Caesar, his supporters, and his detractors, tends to be extremely fluid. As becomes abundantly clear, "For the Romans, as for most people, principle and profit were inseparable." For many of the principle characters, you could add the importance of dignity as well. What motivated the conspirators will remain conjecture, but Strauss delves into many aspects of their lives and the political climate in Rome, finding interesting tidbit feeding into a broad, swirling pattern. Interestingly enough, as Seneca would later put it, there were more friends of Caesar conspiring to kill him than enemies.

While covering earlier and later events, the book focuses on the time period starting with the return of Julius Caesar to Rome in August 45 B.C. after the Battle of Munda in Hispania and goes through the deaths of the main conspirators, ending with the suicide of Antony and the ascension of Octavian to Augustus. There were major changes in Rome between August 45 and February 44 B.C., when the assassination plot probably began. These events affected both the conspirators personal beliefs, reacting to what they were seeing unfolding, as well as the overall political outlook of the public. Several changes would highlight contradictions in what Romans professed and how they acted, while other events coincided with the claims of protecting the Roman Republic from a tyrant.

Many of the conspirators seemed to truly want peace, hoping that things would quickly return to normal (or at least what they hoped to be a new normal) after the assassination, acknowledging they would need to wage a public relations battle in addition to the actual murder. Many of their actions seem to bank on the public's desire for peace, or at least their weariness over the (mostly) finished civil war. One of the strong points of the book is the almost hour-by-hour recounting of the events during the Ides of March, covering many topics to make the events come alive: what type of daggers were used, what it would take to drive them into the body of a man, the palpable fear present in Rome at the time, the confusion in the close-quartered commotion following the murder, and the assassins' trek afterwards.

The Death of Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Picture source at Wikipedia
(Strauss goes into detail about some items Gérôme got right and what he got wrong)

Once Caesar was dead, the conspirators hoped to rally support for their cause and have the Senate take control of the Republic. One important consideration that the conspirators didn't fully appreciate was the presence of numerous soldiers and veterans inside and just outside Rome. Most of them were about to head out to assignments or their new properties, but their loyalty would be a major issue. The misreading by some of the conspirators of what it would take to earn/buy the soldiers' loyalty closed a brief window of opportunity, although to win such support was paradoxical to their stated aims. Buying off the soldiers for their support would raise the specter of a military dictatorship they claimed to be fighting.
Caesar was dead but Caesarism lived on. That was the secret of Roman politics that was revealed in the third week of March 44 B.C. The Senate still met and issued decrees. The people still commanded enough respect that the magistrates courted them in public speeches. Yet, in the final analysis, it was Caesar's veterans converging on Rome with their weapons who had the last say. They might have forgotten their loyalty to Caesar if the assassins had paid them a bonus or increased their land allotments, but the assassins offered too little to win their trust.
Killing Caesar would have only been the first step in defeating Caesarism. But in order to defend the Republic an army was needed, a paradox that may have doomed the conspirators' stated goals from the start. The conspirators started a revolution, whether they realized it or not, and (as Strauss puts it) moderation has no practical place in such a situation. Caesar had his finger on the pulse of Rome, understanding its violent nature and harnessed it for a while. The winner of the fallout from Caesar's murder, as Strauss shows so well, would be those that could likewise harness or tame that violent nature as needed.

I enjoyed the book and how Strauss presented and paced the story, alternating between different points of view and introducing characters, relationships, events, etc. as appropriate. I found myself unable to put it down at times, wanting to see what would happen even though I already knew exactly what was coming. The book has several things I find useful in such historical recounting, notably a cast of characters section and several well-done maps. Something I look forward to delving into more is the "Notes on the Sources" section, particularly the "ancient sources" notes. During the book Strauss does a wonderful job of laying out these sources, discussing their biases, and lining up where they agree with or differ from one another. One source Strauss stresses is that of Nicolaus of Damascus,
who sometimes offers Augusts's version of event. As [Mark] Toher argues, Nicolaus was a student of the writings of Aristotle and Thucydides, two of the ancient world's finest minds when it comes to political analysis. I am convinced that Nicolaus offers information essential to making sense of the assassination.
The story of Caesar's assassination turns out to be a fantastical epic, and Strauss removes much of the fog from later presentations (including Shakespeare's play) to try and understand what exactly happened and why things happened as they did. He provides a short section musing on whether or not the Republic could have been saved. Strauss believes it could have, but what would have had to happen seems like a long, improbable list contradicting much of what he presented earlier. But then these were monumental, improbable times with events unfolding on a grand scale. Who could put a limit on what was and wasn't possible during these events? Extremely well done and thoroughly enjoyable. Very highly recommended.


Silver denarius of Marcus Junius Brutus
Picture source at The British Museum

About the coin shown above:
Writing centuries later, Dio offers an identification of the two military daggers, making this one of the few coins mentioned by an ancient writer:
In addition to these activities, Brutus stamped upon the coins which were being minted in his own likeness with a cap and two daggers, indicating by this and by the inscription that he and Cassius had liberated the fatherland."
In short, the two military daggers are meant to represent the weapons used by the two leaders of the anti-Caesar movement on the Ides of March. Even for a gathering of soldiers, this was blunt.

... [T]hrough imagery this coin argues that the Ides of March was an honorable act carried out by the tools of Roman soldiers, as the military daggers show. It was an act not of murder but of liberation, as the freed-slave's cap shows.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Wolf Hall on PBS premiers April 5

I wish I could say I've read Hilary Mantel's books Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I want to say that...I really do. But I've been knee-deep in readings about the Plantagenets lately. I'll get to Mantel's books soon, I know I will.

In the meantime I just found out about PBS' upcoming series Wolf Hall, the first episode airing April 5. I wanted to pass this on in case anyone is like I am on usually finding out about events at the last moment. Finally...a little lead time! The fact that I know so few of the actors in the series (Jonathan Pryce and Mark Rylance exempted) says more about me than their achievements and reputation.

The trailer looks like it will be fun, and Hilary Mantel has commented that she liked the adaptation.

On a sidetone: if they really wanted to dominate the ratings, it's not too late to add my visionary adaptation of "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am" with a Bollywood approach. Have your people contact my people...

Friday, March 06, 2015

Steve Rogers' bookshelf

Adding to the continuing series of books in movies...

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Steve Rogers' climbs in through the window of his apartment when he realizes someone has broken in. There are two shelves you see him pass by on his way to see who's in his apartment. He passes by the second one so fast the titles are illegible (although I hope to one day get a good screen-capture of it). The lighting on the first shelf is bad, but I've played with it some to make out the titles better. Here's what I can discern. If you can fill in any of the books or correct what I have, let me know in the comments!

Standing books, left:

Never Surrender: A Soldier’s Journey to the Crossroads of Faith and Freedom by Lieutenant General William G. Boykin

The Art of War by Sun Tzu

(Not completely certain on this) A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

All The President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

Three books I can't identify, although one may be Dispatches by Michael Herr

Stacked books:

Madam President: Shattering the Last Glass Ceiling by Eleanor Clift and Tom Brazaitis

George H.W. Bush by Timothy Naftali

Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss

The Night Stalkers: Top Secret Missions of the US Army’s Special Operations Aviation Regiment by Michael J. Durant, Steven Hartov, and Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Johnson

Standing books, right:

The Second World War: An Illustrated History of WWII, Sir John Hammerton (editor)—two volumes out of the ten-volume series published by Trident Press (1999-2000)—I'm not sure which two volumes, though

What I like about the book choices is that it fits in with one of the running gags in the movie about Rogers trying to catch up on everything he missed from World War II to when he was discovered. These books show he was definitely focusing on history (which is why I'm uncertain on the Hemingway), at least on this shelf.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

The Firemen’s Ball (1967 movie: Czechoslovakia)

The Firemen’s Ball. 1967. Czechoslovakia. Directed by Milos Forman
Picture source

First a few links, since they provide useful information and background:

Miloš Forman is a favorite director of mine. I realized I had not seen any of the early movies he made while still in Czechoslovakia, and I thought it time to correct that, especially since a few of them are easily available. I started with The Firemen's Ball, his last movie in Czechoslovakia before his exile and often called the funniest one he filmed there. I can't comment on the last judgment, but I found it extremely funny (although very tongue in cheek at times).

The film covers an evening where a local fire department holds a ball in honor of their chief. Of course, everything goes wrong. The prizes for a raffle tend to disappear. The organizers have trouble finding contestants for the beauty contest. The alarm for a fire interrupts the ball, but the firemen are so drunk they are ineffective in fighting it. The evening ends with no raffle prizes, no guests, and no present for the fire chief.

It's a simple tale, deceptively sly. OK, not always deceptively. Forman got the idea for the movie from an actual local fire brigade:

“[Co-screenwriter Jaroslav] Papousek and I headed to the Krkonose Mountains, where we started to write a screenplay about an army deserter living in the bowels of Prague’s Lucerna. [Co-screenwriter] Ivan Passer came to help us, but even he couldn’t get us out of our writer´s block. The three of us decided to forget about the script and go to a ball the local fire brigade was throwing that Saturday. We could watch people, get drunk, talk to some girls, and just relax. The Vrchlabi Fire Department was staffed by volunteers. The men mostly worked factory jobs. They came to have a great time. They held a beauty contest for their homely daughters. They ran a raffle. They drank and they argued with their wives. We were completely astonished. The next day Papousek, Ivan, and I just couldn’t stop talking about the previous evening. On Monday, we were developing our impressions into “what-ifs?”. Then on Tuesday, we began writing. The script nearly wrote itself. When any questions came up, we just headed back to Vrchlabi and checked with the firemen. We found the tavern where they drank, played cards and shot pool. They got to know us and talked to us openly. And six weeks later, we had the first draft of “The Firemen’s Ball”.” Source

Not only were the firemen the inspiration, but many of them were in the movie, too.

Forman said he didn’t intend to shoot a political allegory since he didn't like them, but that's disingenuous. It may have not been his main intent but the movie clearly satirizes the Communist system in place at the time. Fortunately he does it at a low level compared to the heavy-handed messages of some of his other films (which would have benefited from the same treatment). The commentary on Communism comes from many different directions. The fire brigade has found out the chief has cancer but don't know if he knows, since the doctor won't tell him. They comment on how messed up the system is, but they promise that they won't tell, either.

The disappearance of the raffle prizes is a major theme in the movie. It starts with a cake, then a bottle of cognac, then a headcheese going missing. The fireman responsible for guarding the table of prizes realizes his wife has taken the headcheese. She scolds him, "Everyone is stealing here and you only watch, you honest idiot." As Forman expresses it in his interview, stealing was so widespread there was a saying: "Who doesn't steal, steals from his family." By the end of the evening everything has been stolen from the table and everyone is under suspicion. The fireman tries to surreptitiously return the headcheese his wife stole, but is seen by the entire crowd. The other firemen chide him, saying he has hurt the reputation of the brigade by trying to be honest—a sad commentary on it (and all bureaucracy).

Not only are the firemen inept at holding the ball, but they aren't too good at their jobs, either. During the fire the men are too drunk to be of any use. The people of the town don't appear better than the firemen, though. Nobody pays their bill at the ball when they rush out to be spectators at the fire, then lie about what they've had when forced to settle their tab. Their idea of helping the poor man whose house is burning is to place him nearer the fire so he stays warm. Someone decides to gather up the raffle tickets to give to the fire's victim, but there are no prizes to hand out and the victim notes "I need money...what good do these [raffle tickets] do me? Of course, the people are behind most of the raffle-prize thefts, too.

The attempt at a beauty contest provides painful humor. Few of the girls want to participate and are very awkward when they do. Some of the townspeople try to bribe the fire brigade judges, who aren't very sure on how the contest is to be run. Several of them spend most of their time looking at an old newspaper clipping of a beauty contest, more subtle commentary on how poorly things work under the current system.

The communist censors declared the movie ridiculed the common man, and they aren't completely wrong. But the bigger target of the movie, which they obviously knew, was the Communist system. Forman was in danger of being sued for "sabotaging the economy" and producer Carlo Ponti demanded his money back. Thanks to backers and fortuitous timing, the film was released and shown in the West just before the Soviet crackdown in 1968. Forman notes the pressure he received was ideological, not commercial. Under the ideological model he could release flop after flop and still receive medals. While he notes he prefers commercial to ideological pressure, skimming through his official website reveals concern that he didn't do things well enough on certain films because of poor commercial success and critical reviews.

That isn't the case with The Firemen's Ball. It received critical praise and enough commercial success to justify a nice DVD release. I mean it to be a compliment to Forman and the movie when I say that my first thoughts when it finished was both "That was cute" and "How subversive!" To be able to walk that fine line, incorporating a light-hearted touch in a political allegory, highlights how well a job Forman, his co-writers, and the cast did in this film. Very highly recommended.

Sidenote: While Bohumil Hrabal's short stories collected in Rambling on: An Apprentice's Guide to the Gift of the Gab and Jiří Menzel's movie based on those stories, The Snowdrop Festival are independent of Forman's movie, there are many similarities. Each has a lightness of touch allowing the satire to shine through, a quirkiness and sadness of the characters, their dependence on alcohol, and the ineffectual nature of bureaucracy. They are all delights, touching on similar subjects in similar ways, but with different emphases. In addition to any coincidences, several of Hrabal's short stories in the collection would have been written around the time that The Fireman's Ball was filmed and released.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Leonard Nimoy in "The Balcony"

The Collected Works posted a link earlier today to a YouTube video of Leonard Nimoy as Roger in the 1963 movie version of Jean Genet's The Balcony.  I have not watched the movie, but I was happy to watch these short clips. It highlights the absurdity of the play while providing Nimoy a great role. Here are three of the clips:

Yes, that's Peter Falk as the Police Chief and Shelley Winters as Madame Irma. See here for the movie's cast list. Almost as fun as the clips is their comments. Enjoy!