Sunday, November 12, 2006
I have to disagree with something you wrote. You said that in real life, the fact that people can't know intent (your mind will never truly touch another mind) is shocking and tragic. I agree that it's never possible to know another person's intent with certainty, but I don't see that as a flaw. So much of human interaction is made difficult by this fact, which leads to all the false assumptions, empty accusations and unspoken suspicions that cause pain in the world. But, like most other aspects of the world, this down side is more than made up for in the moments when the impossibility of knowing intent is surpassed, is irrelevant. I have been in situations where I have felt closer to another person than I even knew possible, and when I am experiencing a incredibly unique rush of emotion as the mundane, everyday workings of the world suddenly appear new and beautiful, in every way. It's called love, but that word gets used so much it dilutes this one particular aspect of it.
Of course, not every moment that you love someone is quite like that. There are disputes, there are irritations, there can be those assumptions and suspicions. In those rare moments though, there is something special to be found. I don't think you are knowing their intent any more than you can normally, because the same barriers are in place. But you don't need to know their intent. You don't need to have this false reinforcement of your belief because that belief, in itself, is perfect. There is something in the very fact that you cannot know if it is reciprocated that makes it better. Instead of a flawed human emotion where you need support and constantly doubt yourself, this is the one moment where you transcend that anxiety, because the sheer power of the moment takes you beyond concerns. I think a similar thing happens with very religious people, which is why any amount of argument about the lack of a God will, in the end, be futile. The moment of pure love doesn't listen to evidence or reason, or care about knowing intent. It is, in itself, perfect.
Perhaps in 20 years I'll look back and think that this is just me trying to 'flee from the truth' about intent, and that it is truly terrifying that we can't know another's intent. But until then, I'll happily see it as something that is an obstacle to human interaction, but that it can be overcome (not in the sense that you can know another's intent, but in the sense that it doesn't matter to you) in those rare and wonderful situations.
Here is my reply:
We're actually in agreement about love, but you expressed it better than I ever could. I agree that whatever shortcomings love may have, it's enough. Which really means, for all practical purposes, it doesn't have any shortcomings. Enough is enough.
My point wasn't that we can't feel connection, but rather that we're scared of not feeling connection. And that this fear causes people's knee-jerk reaction to my statements about intent. If I can't know an author's intent, then his mind isn't really touching my mind. And if his mind can't touch mine, can anyone's?
Let's not discuss whether or not we can truly connect with other minds. That opens up a gigantic philosophical can of worms. It's an interesting can, but I think there's a can on the other shelf which is much more relevant to everyday human existence: do we FEEL that we can connect with other human minds?
Well, there's no "we" when it comes to things like this. You and I might feel entirely different things, but I'd wager that the general answer -- the answer for most people -- is "yes and no" or "sometimes yes, sometimes no."
Whether it's illusory or not, we sometimes fell amazingly close to other minds. This is the feeling called "love," and it's the best feeling there is. At other times, we feel completely cut off from any mind except our own. This is called ... what?... loneliness? being alone? It's the worst feeling there is. We're not always pushed to these extremes. Often, we feel somewhat connected or somewhat alone. But we know that the extremes exist, and we fear one as much as we long for the other. Sometimes it's surprising which one we fear and which one we long for.
In a way, all stories are about these two feelings. Stories are about people striving to connect and succeeding -- or failing. Obviously, this is true about love stories, but it's true about other stories, too. Ghost stories, for instance (can we connect with the dead?). And sci-fi stories (can we connect with alien minds?). There are also stories about people trying to disconnect ("The Misanthrope"). There are stories about people who are tormented by other people's too-strong desire to connect ("Fatal Attraction").
Naturally my statements cause anger: I'm toying with the most important aspect of the human animal -- the fact that we're a social animal! I may be right (naturally, I think I am), but it doesn't matter. For me to casually say, "you can't know intent" is like someone casually saying, six million Jews died in the Holocaust. It's true, but it shouldn't be casually uttered. (And I try not to be casual about it.)
I know that in my most intimate relationship -- my relationship with my wife -- pretty much every moment is about trying to connect (and very occasionally about trying to disconnect, as in "I need some space, honey!") and terror of losing the connection. Sure, I'm terrified that my wife will die, but this terror reveals itself in more mundane ways, too. Because I'm so close with her (or feel like I am) it's horribly frustrating when we have a misunderstanding -- when I try to connect with her and fail.
The whole "battle between the sexes" is about this conflict. It's summed up in the trite saying "Can't Live With Them; can't Live without them."
So I think you're right that we can touch other minds (or that it feels so much like we can that we might as well say that we can). And I think I'm right that we can't (since it often feels this way, too). Which is the true feeling? Which one is more valid? I think those are silly questions. Or maybe they are religious questions. If there's a God, maybe we're created for a purpose and so there's some truth about the way we really are.
But I believed that we evolved through the accident of a Darwinian process. We evolved to be -- more than anything else -- social. So naturally we're going to care about other minds and fear losing connection with them. Evolution is a cold, unintelligent process. It's not trying to be fair (it's not trying to be anything). So I'd say we simply have these feelings -- for no real reason other than as a result of being what we are. And we'll always have them. There's no way to resolve them or to make one of them trump the other.
Sunday, November 05, 2006
Artists have always complained about the state of the Arts, but (partly based on introspection), I suspect that these complaints are, in reality, one of four things (and usually all these things at once):
1) Anger that the government doesn't give more money to the Arts. This is a legitimate reason to be angry, but it's not the same problem as concern that the Arts will cease to exist or become "less artistic." If the government stops funding the Arts, some artists will quit making art, because they will need -- or want -- to jump into more lucrative fields. But the loss of some artists -- no matter how unfortunate -- is not the same as the loss of Art.
2) Anger and fear that I -- the artist -- will not be able to support myself by making art. Again, this is a natural concern, but my personal finances have much more to do with my life and comfort than they do with Art.
3) Anger, sadness and frustration that so many people I know don't care about art. This is horrible, but "people I know" aren't necessarily representative of all people. Maybe my "concern about the Arts" is really a concern about my social life.
4) Fear, anger and confusion about aging. Is it true that the Arts are declining? Or is it "just" that the the artists I grew up with -- the ones I'm most comfortable with -- are declining? Am I transferring my fears of aging to less-scary fears about "art" because aging (and dying) is too scary to think about? I grew up reading Raymond Carver's short stories. When Carver died, I pretty much quit reading short stories. But tempting as it is, I can't deduce from this that the craft of short fiction is dead. I'm sure it's alive and well. Rather it's me (or part of me) that is dead.
You could read my list, agree with it (not that you necessarily should) and still be depressed. "Okay, maybe I'm not depressed about the Arts, but I AM depressed about the government, my finances, my philistine friends and growing older." Fair enough, but the good news is that if you DO care about the Arts, you can be assured they will survive and thrive.
I am 100% convinced that making and caring about art is natural to the human animal. It's no more likely to decline than eating or sex is likely to decline. All cultures throughout history have made art. All cultures will continue to make art -- despite the fortunes of individual artists or the whims of particular administrations. Sure, there may be historical blips -- a few decades now and then when the art scene becomes less vibrant -- but then things will bounce back and the arts will be important again.
I often have a fantasy -- and I never admit this to my artistic friends -- that the government will pull ALL support for the Arts. Not only that: in my fantasy, there will be no paid artists. No one will buy art, and artists will never be paid for what they produce. I know this sounds terrible, especially coming from someone who toils in the Arts. Please remember: it's just a fantasy. But I think it would prove to everyone that the Arts are in no danger. Art would continue because it has to. And it would stop the ugly linkage between art and money that does way more harm than good.
Yes, it is VERY sad that people give up making art because they can't make a living while making it. But -- and this is really harsh to say -- I think such people are not truly devoted to the Arts. The best artists I've met make art because they HAVE to. It's that way with me. I often feel that I'm a lousy artist. It doesn't matter. It also doesn't matter that I hate going to rehearsal about half the time. It doesn't matter that my theatre loses money. I'm compelled to do it. It's like sex. Or eating. And if it ever stops feeling that way for me -- and sometimes I hope it will -- it WILL feel that way for someone else. So I might not continue, but the Arts will continue. I may or may not be an artist. But I am not Art.
And I don't know about you, but the plays I most want to see, the novels I most want to read, the paintings I most want to view ... are the ones made by people to HAVE to make them. The ones made by people who will burst if they don't vomit their demons out onto the canvas, the paper or the stage.
I DO think certain art FORMS are dying. Theatre is dying. That is very sad, but it's just Darwinism. Vaudeville is dead; Silent films are dead; Mime is dead; Medicine Shows are dead... but Art continues. Storytelling continues. As it always will, because people are storytellers. And I don't think the sad stare of Theatre has much to do with the government or a decline of culture. Forms just die. It's the same with languages. People get depressed because Yiddish is dying, and I totally understand that, but Etruscan is already dead; so is Ancient Egyptian, Aramaic, etc. But LANGUAGE goes on. It will always endure and it will always morph.
I am sad because so many of the artists I loved as a child are dying, dead or very old: Stanley Kubrick, Stephen Sondheim, Arthur Miller... And I SHOULD be sad. But if I'm feeling up to it, I can put things in proportion. Those losses are personal tragedies for me, but they are not losses to the Arts -- any more than losing Shakespeare or Tolstoy is a loss. People die. New artists -- great artists -- will always emerge. If you think they won't, they you have to explain how the human animal could possibly have changed all of the sudden. When I'm at my most cynical, I think all of this "the Arts are dying" is a way of making ourselves feel like our generation is special and not just the blip in history that it is: I was THERE when the Arts died!
I am in trouble, because I'm moving into middle age. And that's when people make The Great Decision: which is whether to ossify or move forward. Yes, Arthur Miller is dead and Harold Pinter is an old man. But there are NEW artists. And there are many great new artists. And (many of you may disagree, but I mean this with all my soul) this is a GREAT time for the Arts.
The Arts are very vibrant right now: ask a 20-year old who is passionate about the Arts. The trouble is with me. There's a truth about aging that people don't like to admit: it's scary and exhausting to embrace new things. This isn't true when you're younger, but it's true when you're older. Hence the urge to ossify. Most people feel a reluctance to start reading a new novel. Those first few pages are daunting. But if you push yourself past them, you quickly get hooked. If you go out in search of new artists -- if you read the "New York Times Book Review" -- it will seem daunting at first, but you will get hooked, and you'll discover that you could spend the rest of your life, every waking moment, reading great NEW books and watching great NEW movies and tv-shows and you'd die without getting through an eighth of them. So how can the Arts be dying? It's we who are dying. And the Arts don't care. They proudly march on.
I suspect that TV will dominate the next 100 years -- TV seen on an old-fashioned set and TV seen on the Internet. Our generation was told that TV was evil. Of course it's not. It's just a box that displays pictures and sounds, and it's as good or as bad as the particular show that's on it right now. And we're currently in a Golden Age of television. No one is saying this, but it's true. TV artists have finally figured out how to craft stories for their medium. (They didn't get it during our formative years -- the 70s and 80s were horrible for television, so naturally we tend to think it's a bad medium). HBO figured it out. They have crafted quite a few shows that are great art by any standards. And due to HBO, the traditional networks have learned that -- surprise, surprise -- people respond to good writing. So there are now great shows on mainstream TV. And sure, there's also a lot of crap. It's mostly crap. But that's always true in all mediums. Why -- out of a vibrant Elizabethan theatre -- do we now only produce Shakespeare, Marlowe and a few others? Because most Elizabethan theatre was shit. It's hard to make great art. It always will be. 80% of it will always be shit. We need to be thankful for the other 20%.
One day, maybe 100 years from now, TV will die, and people will lament. They will look on TV the way we look on live Theatre. But waiting in the wings will be something else -- some new form to take TV's place. And sometimes the new form is a rediscovered old form. Maybe there will be a live-theatre revival. Whatever. Art marches on.
And if our friends don't care about art, that's sad. But those are just our friends. There are art lovers all over the world. The "masses" will never care about art on the level that we do. But they didn't in Shakespeare's time, either. Most people are too busy surviving to care deeply about art. That's horrible. But that's always been the state of the world. But there will also always be pockets of people, all over the world, who do care. There are tons of people who still go to the theatre, read literary novels, visit museums and listen to classical music. One great thing about the Internet is that it lets such people -- who formally would have lived in isolation, thinking they are the only people who care about Mozart or whatever -- meet each other.
Here are some hopeful signs for the future:
TV: Deadwood, Studio 60, The Sopranos, Freaks and Geeks, Lost (not as good as the others, but descent genre work)
Filmmakers: Ang Lee, Wes Anderson, Sophia Coppola, Paul Thomas Anderson
Novelists: Jonathan Ames, Curtis Sittenfeld, Mark Haddon, Michael Chabon
Theatre: Adam Guettel (grandson of Richard Rogers, mentored by Sondheim -- have you heard his achingly beautiful musical, "Floyd Collins"?) and Conor McPherson. I'm sure there are other gifted you writers for the theatre, but my head is in the sand -- I pretty much only read/watch classics.
You asked whether it's important that, when I direct plays, audience understand my intent. I assume you're asking whether or not it's important to me -- not whether or not it's important to various audience members. I'm sure it is important to some of them, because many people care about intent. If I felt like confronting them, I'd say, "I'm sorry it's important to you, because you can never know my real intent. Not even if I tell it to you, because I might be lying (or, more likely, I might be mistaken)." Of course, I would never actually say this, because I want people to enjoy themselves. If someone cares about intent and thinks they know what mine is then more power to them!
One of the reasons why I mistrust the idea of mining intent from other people's work is that when I direct plays, I'm not always aware of my own intent. If someone pinned me down and demanded to know my intent, I might tell them something, and it would probably be an approximation of the truth, but I can't really read myself well enough to tell the whole truth. And -- who knows? -- I might just try to say something witty or smart, something that would make me look good, perhaps, but wouldn't help anyone understand what my actual intent was while I was directing. Also, all this talk about intent assumes that the artist has one fixed intent. But during a long rehearsal period, my intent might change from Monday to Tuesday to Wednesday (to later in the day on Wednesday).
Maybe people cling to intent is a desire to simplify human psychology. People really want to believe that they can pack someone's motivations into a nutshell or boil them down to a simple sentence. I fall prey to that desire. It's one of the reasons I direct. You can do that -- to some extent -- with characters in plays, but I think characters (even really complex ones, like Hamlet) are sort of toy people: simplistic models of real human beings. That's not a criticism. I think it's a major reason why we find fictional characters appealing. (It's also why we like plots: even the most tangled ones are never as tangled as real-life plots.)
If an actor takes a character and boils his psychology down to some simple statement of intent, that will help the actor grasp the character and be able to make decisions on stage. But since the actor is a real human being, his creation will necessarily be more complex than his decision. Little random bits of the actor's behavior and psyche will creep into the character. Paradoxically, I think this is another reason we like enacted stories. We like seeing the actor's personality clash a little with the character. What pops out the other end is often very interesting and nuanced. (Though if either side wins, the result is boring.)
Years ago, I read about frustrated hackers who created a calligraphy program. They spent hours analyzing letter-forms and came up with an application that spat out perfectly-rendered letters. Trouble was, they were too perfect. They were so perfect, they looked fake (like much computer animation). To "fix" the program, they made it introduce tiny errors: they type made by even the best human calligraphers. This made the output more aesthetically pleasing, and more seemingly the work of a human. I've heard that the same problem plagues computer-generated music. Programmers have to add auditory glitches, the type that real musicians make (even super-talented ones), or the result sounds cold and mechanical. I'm not musically gifted, but I once heard a sax player say something really interesting. He said that unlike older instruments -- the French horn, say, or the trumpet -- the saxophone was never really perfected. So part of what you hear, when you listen to a musician playing the sax, is the sound of him wrestling with the instrument, trying (and failing to some extent) to get the sax to do what he wants it to do. And it's this struggle that arouses us when we hear a sax. True or not, this is an apt metaphor for what actors do: they struggle with their characters, in real time, in front of us, on stage. We may not be aware of this consciously -- and in fact, I think it's much better if we're not -- but it's what makes great acting seem complex, conflicted, nuanced and endowed with hidden depths.)
Anyway, back to your question. Is it important to me that the audience gets my intent? Well, to avoid your question for one moment longer, I'd say -- given my view that it's impossible to really know someone's intent -- if it is important to me, I'm out of luck. Important or not, it ain't gonna happen.
Now I'm a human being, and humans like to communicate, and when we do, we often are trying to communicate our intent. Directing is a form of communication, so -- yes -- if I think a scene is about revenge, and the audience watches it and afterwards several people tell me they loved the "revenge scene" ... sure: I'm pleased.
I'm also a little disappointed. It's been so many years since I embraced the notion that people can't know intent. And whereas I find this really shocking and tragic in real-life interaction (my mind can never truly touch your mind), I find it liberating in art. My real goal is to plop something very interesting in front of an audience and let them mine whatever they want -- or whatever their mind wants -- out of it. If they mine exactly what I intended ... well … that's a little boring. What's really exciting, and what often happens, is that people come up to me and tell me things about my own show that I didn't know. That's awesome!
And note that some of these audience interpretations are better and more profound than my thoughts were, while I was crafting the play. Hopefully, I am better at directing plays than the average play-goer, otherwise I should hand the reins over to someone else. But assuming I am a good director, that doesn't mean I'm necessarily an insightful critic (especially of my own work). It doesn't mean that what I have to say about my own work is better -- more interesting or more meaningful -- than what someone else says. Often, it's not. So that's another reason I don't care about artists' intents. Other people may -- and often do -- have much more interesting things to say about the work than the artist himself (though hopefully the artist is the best person at creating the art). I think people confuse brilliant artistry with brilliant insights about art, but these are two very different talents.
I also think that, just as people want to simplify psychology, they often want to simplify art. If we can't trust the author's statements about his intent -- or our own notions of what his intend might have been -- what can we trust? Where can we look for the ultimate, definitive guide that will tell us what a work of art means? I'd say, "no where." Art is interesting only when it can't be pinned down in this way. But perhaps this elusiveness makes art frightening (or frustrating) too.
The reason I put months into a production, and the reason I go over a scene over and over again, is NOT because I want to be sure some point flows across the footlights. It's because I'm trying to "polish the machine." I'm trying to craft something so perfect, nuanced, entertaining, provoking and sensual that the various people in the audience will all react in some way (maybe each in a different way). I don't care how they react. I just want them to react.
I take that back. I don't care how they react, as-long-as they're reacting TO THE STORY. I'm disappointed if they're reacting to ME. I don't want them to think, "Interesting choice. What a brilliant director!" (And, of course, I don't want them to think "Terrible choice. What a horrible director!) I don't want them to think about the director at all, because I want them to be totally immersed in the story. And the director is not part of the story. Stanley Kubrick isn't a character in "Full Metal Jacket" (though an "authorial voice" may be a character) and Alfred Hitchcock isn't a character in "Vertigo."
(Oops. Yes he is. Even though most people think they're great fun, I hate those Hitchcock cameos. I revere Hitchcock, because he was such an immersive storyteller. Everything he did seemed an attempt to get you to believe in his storyworlds and to forget that they were fake -- except for those damn cameos. They are glitches -- maybe fun glitches, but glitches all the same -- in otherwise perfect worlds. I suspect he left them in because they were so much fun for him (and for his audiences), but as Hemmingway (or Falkner or whoever) said, "You have to kill all your darlings." Darlings are those fun, clever things that are, nonetheless, gratuitous. They don't further the story. In fact, they detract from the story or highlight the fact that it is a story.
A more complex example is the red-coated girl in Spielberg's "Schindler's List." Though I'm not generally a Spielberg fan, I love "Schindler's List." I think it's a brilliant, almost perfect film. It's shot in black and white, but in one scene, there's a little girl wearing a red coat. She moves around all the black-and-white people, and she's impossible to miss, because she's the only one in color. In her scene, the Nazi's are massacring a Jewish ghetto. There's much violence and confusion, but the red coat lets you follow the little girl and see her fate. It's a clever (and even poetic) device, and I think I'm the only person on Earth who hated it.
I hated it, because up until that point, I was totally immersed in the movie. I was feeling the storyworld so intently that it might as well have been the real world. Then all of the sudden, the red coat appeared, and I thought, "How clever. Spielberg made a really interesting choice!" And at that point, I was thinking about Spielberg the director (and his choices), which means I was suddenly very aware that I was watching artifice. I could talk about how well-meaning and "artistic" the artifice was, but the truth is it was no longer affecting me as strongly as it did before I became aware of the artifice. I was now less immersed. A dream is more powerful when you don't realize it's a dream.)
That's the closest I'll get to a statement of intent: I love the story of whatever play I'm working on, and I want to share that love with the audience. I want them to love it too. I don't care how they love it or what they get out of it, but I DO want them to love it. I can't make them love it, but I can do whatever is in my power to make it compelling, and my slight grasp of human psychology tells me that people usually like compelling things.
You're right: there's a danger that the audience will mistake character stutters for actor stutters. I've actually seen that happen, and if it happens, it's a problem. But it's a very rare occurrence. If the audience thinks, "that actor just made a mistake," then it means they're thinking -- to some extent -- about the actor, and not the character. It means they realize that what they are watching isn't real. And it's probably a sign that there's a deeper problem. There's something profoundly wrong with the production -- something that's not allowing people to engage in it fully.
(It also might be a flaw in the audience member. Some people -- for whatever reason -- can't (or don't want to) really engage with a story. But as a director, I can't control that. So I ignore it. If my story doesn't engage someone, I find it useful to take responsibility for their lack of engagement, even if it's "not my fault." If I take responsibility for it and try harder next time, I will mature as an artist.)
I know what I've written sounds a little nuts. Surely, people always know that what they're watching isn't real. Well, that may be so (though, I think, at least for short periods, people do tend to forget that fiction is fiction: think about when you've been really scared by a horror film). But I'm not chiefly concerned by "knowing" on an intellectual level. Whether or not people know they are watching fiction, I want them to FEEL like they're watching real life. I want them to be emotionally engaged with the characters as-much-as they would be if the characters were real people. I try to stamp out anything that will keep them from this state. That -- as I see it -- is my job.
This is another reason why I rehearse for so long. Step one is to get the actor to really feel he is the character (I don't care whether or not he "knows" he's not the character). He has to get deeply inside his character's skin. He has to know his character intimately. This sometimes leads to confusion in rehearsal. We'll be talking about some tiny bit of psychological nuance, and the actor will say, "But how will the audience know that I'm feeling this?" (Actors are just as wrapped up with intent as anyone else.) I have to explain that the audience may not know, and it's fine if they don't know. The point isn't to get them to know. The point is to create a rich characterization. If you think about the really great performances you've seen, I'm sure you don't know what's going on in the character's head in each moment. But you know that SOMETHING is going on. You know that there's LIFE IN THERE. And that's what compels you. And you're free to read whatever you want into it.
Too many artists are egoists. They want to convey some idea to their audience and that's all they care about. But I don't think that's why people like art. I think people like art because art helps them learn about THEMSELVES. It helps them feel their OWN feelings -- not the artist's feelings -- and have their own ideas. It helps them sense! As an artist, what I most want to do is to help people engage with their own sensuality. Not with mine
Sunday, October 22, 2006
Dear Mr. Rosenbaum:
I'm the Artistic Director of Folding Chair Classical Theatre, a small company in NYC. I greatly enjoyed your book. It continually provoked me, sometimes to kiss the pages; other times to hurl the book across the room -- never because the book itself was bad; rather, because the various scholarly and artistic theories so affected me. At least one chapter in your book profoundly changed the way I will rehearse plays from now on (see this link). Your book also inspired this and this.
You chose the most important theme for your book (and stated it clearly, colloquially and concisely): what's all the fuss about? What makes Shakespeare Shakespeare? With the greatest respect, I'd like to suggest that you dodged one very important aspect of this question: the issue of intent.
I know that you mention "The Intentional Fallacy" a couple of times. Strikingly, in the preface you quote Edward Pechter's phrase "Shakespeare the Writer," which you define as "the voice, the mind we can find in the work." I like this, but feel more comfortable calling this voice "Shakespeare the character," though I'm not completely comfortable even with that. I do know that the plays and poems conjure a storyteller in my brain -- one that has certain views and an extraordinary facility with words. This storyteller -- this authorial voice -- is a sort of extra character. It's very easy to confuse him with Shakespeare the writer, and this can be a useful (in the sense of conversational "shorthand") and harmless confusion. But it a book like yours, which is all about "what is Shakespearean?", it's a dangerous confusion. Your book is more about questions than answers, and that's no fault. But, in your book, intent rarely coalesces into a question. Instead, it's a specter that haunts many of your pages.
You ask "Can we imagine Lear without 'Look her lips...' merely because we cannot be absolutely sure it is an addition by Shakespeare?" I find the word "absolutely" interesting. It's as if you're saying, "maybe if we're reasonably sure that Shakespeare wrote those words, that should be good enough." As if there are two camps: the camp that wants to delete text if there's any doubt as to authorship and the camp that is happy as long as the author is fairly likely to be Shakespeare.
You leave out another camp: the people who don't care whether or not Shakespeare wrote the words. The key question is this: what if Shakespeare came back to life and told us definitively that he didn't write "Look her lips..."? The first two camps would delete the lines. The third wouldn't. The third would say, "they're good lines, so who cares who wrote them?" And this third camp would be just as devoted to (just as in love with) the authorial voice as the other two camps. The question "what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare?" is deeply important to this third camp, even though it ignores the risen-from-the-dead author. This group doesn't care about the author. They care about the storyteller character. (Maybe "they don't care about the author" is too strong. Rather, they separate the historical person from the effect of his words.)
I fear you'll read this and cry, "But I do raise the intent issue all the time. I began my book by separating myself from the biographical school of criticism!" I agree that you raise the issue, which is why I suggested that it hovers like a specter. But many sentences in your book imply that you do care about biography -- at least to some extent. How much to you care and why?
"I'm undecided about whether a playwright would wield his most powerful dramatic gifts over the course of a three- to four-hour production mainly to leave the audience ... undecided." Isn't that you worrying about Shakespeare's intent? Fine if that's your bent. But you don't explain to me why I should care what he intended (as opposed to what I experience when I read or watch his plays).
There's a very interesting section in your chapter on Paul Werstine. At first, you ask, "... was Hand D 'Shakespearean'?" Your quotation marks around "Shakespearean" lead me to believe that you were making a distinction between the historical person and the authorial character. But then you go on to say, "... the truth is [not] relative here: Shakespeare either wrote or didn't write it. Some passages are 'Shakespearean,' some are not." This sounds like a clear statement to the effect that, if Shakespeare didn't pen the lines, they aren't Shakespearean. Whereas I would say say that a line can be Shakespearean even if Shakespeare didn't write it -- just as a novel can be "truthful," even if though it isn't true. (This works because stories are sensual, provoking the emotions, and the emotions don't care whether something is true -- true in the sense of "it happened in history" -- or not.)
In that same passage, after a seeming admission that if Shakespeare didn't write it, it ain't Shakespearean, you go on to say, "But the fragmentary historical record does not afford ... certainty ... Ultimately ... what we call Shakespearean will at times depend on the idea of 'the Shakespearean' we project upon it." To me, this implies that you're closer to the 'biographers' than first meets the eye. You and they both wish for historical proof. Only they are foolish enough to pretend that proof exists when in fact it doesn't. You are clear headed enough to see that, alas, the proof doesn't exist, and to admit that -- in the absence of such proof -- we are forced to rely on less satisfying techniques (like subjective response based on close reading). Naturally, it's fine (and good) for your to have your views, but I wish you'd explored them more fully. Why do you long for historical proof? Why (as far as I could tell) would the "what is Shakespearean?" question be answered for you once and for all, if only Shakespeare's diary would turn up? Why is my view -- that Shakespeare's diary would settle nothing (other than interesting biographical riddles) -- not represented in your book? It's not a crackpot view. It's reasoned and passionately felt.
Yes, like most anti-intentists, I am wary of intent-based discussions because we can never know the author's intent. In the case of Shakespeare (or Homer) we really can't know, because they're long dead and have left such a paltry trail behind themselves (other than their works, of course). But even with living authors who give interviews and state their intents, we can't know for sure that they're not lying. Or, if that sounds too oddly paranoid, we can't know for sure that they have the ability to talk objectively about their intentions. Few of us can! I'm no Shakespeare, but in my own humble way, I am a creator. I write, draw pictures and direct plays. Many times, people have pointed out aspects of my work that I hadn't seen myself. Many times, people have made comments about my intent that might be true -- even though I wasn't aware of having this intent. I grant that I might not always be the best judge of my own intent. And I don't think there's any reasonable evidences that the really great writers and artists are especially reliable self-psychoanalysts.
But all of that is secondary to my main reason for rejecting intent. Even if Shakespeare came back from the dead, explained his intent, and somehow proved that what he said really was his intent, it still wouldn't matter to me.
I feel I must pause here and state that I'm not a proponent of "the author function." I do believe that works are created by authors -- authors who make artistic choices. I do believe that these authors have intents. It's just that I don't think their intents matter (though I think the results of their intents -- their work -- matter deeply.)
My view is this: I read (or watch) a play. I have a feeling. That feeling is what it is. It "is what it is" because I have very little control over my feelings. If someone close to me dies, I'm going to feel sad, even if I try not to. In the same vein, I'm going to feel what I feel when I read King Lear. Those feelings are going to be hard to budge, no matter what anyone says. As I said above, I think fiction attacks the senses and feelings much more profoundly than it attacks the intellect. So naturally, given this view, I'm going to be chiefly concerned with the feelings I get from Lear.
So what if Shakespeare comes back from the dead and tells me that though some particular line makes me cry, he intended it to be funny. My tears may be horribly distressing to poor old Shakespeare -- I can't blame him for caring about his own intentions -- but they are just my honest response. He can spend hours convincing me of his intention, and I can agree with him, but that's not going to stop me from feeling sad. So why -- other than for biographical interest -- should I care about his intent? (I'm actually passionately interested in biography; I just feel it's a separate domain. Discussions get muddled when biographical details get entwined with aesthetics.) And since "Shakespearean" is that feeling I get of a storyteller, what if the risen Shakespeare tells me that he didn't actually write one of the lines that most gives me that storyteller feeling? Once again, I must respectfully tell him that I don't care. It's still Shakespearean.
There is a point where one's personality comes into play. There are some people -- people who deeply respect authority or writers or Shakespeare -- who might be so moved by the risen man's explanations, that a change-of-feeling is triggered within them. I didn't say that feelings are immutable, just that they are very hard to budge and that there's no sure-fire way of budging them. But anything might change one's feelings: something a teacher says, getting older, experiencing more, a dream... So I can imagine someone saying, "I used to love that line, but then the author told me he didn't write it, and now I don't like it any more." Fair enough if that person is being honest about his feelings, but what touches that particular person (huge regard for authors as opposed to their works?) needn't necessarily touch all readers.
By the way, I'm not a total relativist. I do believe that there are distinct stylistic and thematic elements that -- for most people -- trigger the "Shakespearean" feeling, and I think it's a worthy endeavor to try to figure out what those elements are. But I fear we'll get further from the truth -- not closer -- as-long-as we worry about intent, and as-long-as we don't frame the issue of intent clearly.
As you might guess, you've stepped on "one of my favorite corns" (as Chekhov puts it). I've spent decades discussing and arguing intent (I found it confused most discussions throughout my academic career), and the result has rarely been pretty. For some reason (I have a guess why: see below) the subject -- or my take on it -- really upsets people. I'm not so arrogant as to suppose I'm infallible, but a number of people who started out by disagreeing with me, wound up (after long debate) agreeing with me but mad at me. A few have (thankfully) been articulate enough to explain why. They have said, "I think you're right, but I don't like the fact that you're right. I don't want the world to be like that. I'm going to cling to the idea that intent matters, even if I'm clinging to a fiction." (Naturally, if it matters to them, it does matter -- to them.)
Here's my armchair-psychoanalytical view about this response: in day-to-day life we must constantly deduce intent. My wife talks to me (fights with me, whatever) and I'm not just concerned with her on-the-surface meanings. I'm not even mostly concerned with her on-the-surface meanings. I'm concerned with her intent. But if you take my view to its logical conclusion, it means that I can never know her intent (the thing that's most important to me!)
There was a time when I would have protested that this isn't true (even I didn't want it to be true!), and that I was taking purely about aesthetic judgment, not interpersonal communication with loved ones. But of course it is true. One never knows what's in the mind of another. Perhaps that's the worst aspect of being human: the fact that my mind can never directly touch yours. I think this fact is so terrifying that we do anything we can to flee from it. So naturally my "message" isn't welcome.
Assuming that other minds do exist and that they work in a similar way to mine, my theories about my wife's intent are probably right. But there comes a point in all relationships, if they are to endure, that one must accept (generally good) intent on faith. My wife says she loves me; she acts like she loves me; I must assume that she does. (It's ironic that this same impulse, which is the glue that binds people together, often tears them apart. So many bitter fights are fought over what I assume you meant and what you can't convince me that you didn't mean! The need to divine intent -- to feel an intimate, psychic connection with other minds -- is extremely powerful.)
So we're (genetically?) programmed to make certain assumptions when we encounter something that seems like another mind. And that storyteller voice seems like another mind. Just as I love my wife, many of us fall in love with Shakespeare -- with the Shakespeare voice. It seems like a mind, so we naturally endow it with intent. So for me to say "intent doesn't matter" is like telling a man that he can't believe anything his wife says.
True. Still. When I read Shakespeare, I feel what I feel.
The crazy thing is that my theatre company is based around close reading. We rehearse for two months (I wish it could be five), spending most of the time around the table. We rarely cut. We perform on a bare stage with no scenery or lighting cues, hoping to make the text shine. Due to this aesthetic, my productions are most loved by those people who want to see Shakespeare "the way it was intended!" It's very hard for me to explain to people how I could care so deeply about the text on a word-for-word level, without caring about Shakespeare's intent. So I rarely try. I don't care about Shakespeare the man (maybe I would if I knew him). But I'm in love with Shakespeare the character. And he only exists as a voice in the plays and poems. So the best way to know him -- the only way -- is through close reading.
It was a great pleasure reading your book. I look forward to the next one.
Marcus Geduld, Artistic Director
Folding Chair Classical Theatre, Inc.
New York, NY
Monday, October 16, 2006
Nine changes of the wat'ry-star hath been
The shepherd's note since we have left our throne
Without a burthen: time as long again
Would be filled up, my brother, with our Thanks...
The character is Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, and he's speaking to his friend Leontes, the King of Sicilia. Polixenes has been staying in Sicilia for nine months (nice changes of the wat'ry-star -- the moon), and now he needs to get back to his own kingdom. Translated into rough, modern-day English, the passage means, "According to the shepherd's calculations (shepherds, being outdoorsmen, watch the sky), it's been nine months since I've left my peaceful kingdom. And it would take me another nine months to thank you, Leontes, for your hospitality."
In early rehearsals, the actor playing Polixenes (I'll call him Dave) was punctuating the speech like this:
Nine changes of the wat'ry-star hath been. [Period.]
The shepherd's note since we have left our throne. [Period.]
Without a burthen: time as long again. [Period.]
Would be filled up, my brother, with our Thanks. [Period.]
Nine changes of the wat're-star hath been? Hath been what? The shepherd's note since we have left our throne? The shepherds note what? (Anyway, it's shepherd's not shepherds, so that's like saying "the fireman's hose", which is an acceptable phrase, but not a complete sentence.
Other actors started pulling me aside. "He's pausing at the end of each line," they told me, worrying that I hadn't noticed. I didn't say anything to him for a few days. I remembered, back when I first started reading poetry, that I used to do the same thing. Then my fifth-grade teacher explained that the end of a poetic line isn't the same as the end of a sentence, and that I should keep reading until I got to a period. I though maybe Dave didn't know this basic rule, and I wasn't sure how to tell him about it without embarrassing him. I also thought it was possible that he was just getting used to the verse, and that after a few rehearsals, the problem might solve itself.
It didn't. After a few more days, I pulled him aside and said, "Dave, do you know you're stopping at then end of every line?"
He said, "Oh yes. I'm doing it on purpose."
I was stunned. Why would anyone do that on purpose?
He explained: "The punctuation in the script isn't Shakespeare's. It was added by later editors. We don't know what sort of punctuation Shakespeare intended, but we do know where his lines end. So that's the best punctuation guide we have."
I tried to reason with him that speaking this way didn't make sense, but he made it clear that he was going to do it his way or he'd quit. I should have let him quit. I should have fired him. Our styles were incompatible. But this was one of my first plays in New York, and I felt lucky to have the actors that I had. Other than this (huge) problem, he was a good actor. I sort of went into denial about things and just hoped the problem would go away. Naturally it didn't, and Dave became hated by the rest of the cast. I learned a valuable lesson about not letting problems fester.
"End-stopping" has now become an in joke in my company. Each time we do a new play, the actors who have been with the company for a while tell the new actors the story of Dave and his quirky punctuation. And the new actors always groan and many of them say, "I worked with someone who did that. It's horrible!" I've learned that end-stopping is an actual "school of thought", made popular by Sir Peter Hall, one of the great Shakespearian directors. I used to admire Hall, but when I heard he had started this silly ritual, I wrote him off as a dangerous loon.
Recently though, I read Ron Rosenbaum's book, "The Shakespeare Wars," a terrific exploration of contemporary Shakespeare scholarship. It's a thought-provoking, delightful and -- sometimes -- aggravating book, and I will post about it later. But what interests me now is a chapter about Peter Hall. Rosenbaum interviews Hall and asks him about end stopping. I never thought this would happen, but having read this chapter, I have changed my mind about the issue. I've gone from viewing it as an insane theory to realizing it's an incredibly useful tool -- one that I'll definitely incorporate into rehearsals next time I direct a Shakespeare play.
I should clarify here that I still think Dave was misguided. He wasn't using Hall's version of end stopping. He was using his own perverted version. Where did he learn it? Somebody out there -- some bad teacher (or some group of bad teachers) -- is teaching a corrupted version of Hall's idea, and this bad version is getting around. (Hence all the stories from actors about horrible end stoppers that they've worked with.)
As Rosenbaum explains, Hall learned end-stopping from his mentor, William Poel. Poel, who died in 1934, believed that Shakespeare worked best on a bare stage (as it was originally performed). This interested me, because my company performs on a bare stage. In general, Poel advocated the sort of production that I love -- minimalist in design and based around close, careful study of the text. And, of course, the verse endings are a major part of the text. You can see them clearly on the page, but they're generally lost in performance. To Hall, this is like playing a song on the piano without keeping to its tempo. Grudgingly, I had to admit that there's something to this. Shakespeare's writing -- most of it, anyway -- is verse, not prose. Is Hall wrong to want to preserve this vital feature on stage?
But Hall doesn't believe that the end of the line necessarily marks the end of a sentence. As he explains to Rosenbaum, it's not so much a pause as "a tiny sense break (not a stop)."
All well and good, but how should I translate that into a rehearsal technique? I can't just say to the actors, "Make sure you take a tiny sense break at the end of each line." Actors craft their performances around psychology. They think of their characters as people pursuing some goal -- to take over the kingdom, to have sex with the lady, to steal the money. How would pausing at the end of a line help them achieve these goals? One actress suggested to me that then end of the line is where she should take a breath. Maybe, but that's an awfully technical approach, and one that isn't remotely tied to psychology. I can't tie everything to psychology (sometimes I just have to tell actors to speak louder), but I wouldn't want to force a non-psychological rule on something as basic -- and as psychologically-meaningful-- as punctuation.
But then, reading further in the chapter, I encountered Barry Edelstein. Edelstein is the artistic director of Classic Stage Company, and he's discovered a way to make Hall's theory playable. (Hall surely has too, but Rosembaum doesn't explain Hall's rehearsal techniques). Rosembaum says that, to Edelstein, the pause at the end of the line is "the moment that the actor, as the character, takes to think up the next line." This is brilliant, because it has nothing to do with punctuation. In real life, we often have to pause and think mid-sentence: for instance "Back in the seventies, when I was living in ... Indiana..." (This technique is best when used subtly. If pushed over-the-top, you get William Shatner.)
A huge problem in rehearsal is to get actors to sound like they're saying something for the first time. Their characters are supposed to be thinking on-the-fly, but of course the actors, having (hopefully) memorized their lines, know everything they're going to say. If they're not careful, their performance will sound more like a recital than a conversation. What I love about Edelstein's idea is that it gives actors a rule to follow -- a place to insert the coming-up-with-a-new-thought or the finding-the-right-word (an activity heavily rooted in psychology). It's not a haphazard, arbitrary rule; it's connected to the verse!
Once you learn this technique, it's fun to try it out with random bits of Shakespeare. For instance, here's a snipped from "King Lear" (Lear is banishing Kent):
Hear me, on they allegiance hear me!Using Edelstein's technique, we -- as Lear -- mean to say, "Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow, and with strayed pride to come between our sentence and our power," but, after the word vow, a parenthetical thought occurs to us: we've never broken our vow before! So the speech becomes...
Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow,
Which we durst never yet and with strayed pride
To come between our sentence and our power,
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear,
Our potency made good, take thy reward:
Four days we do allot thee for provision
To shield thee from diseases of the world,
And on the fifth to turn thy hated back
Upon our kingdom. If on the tenth day following
Thy banished trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death...
Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow, (thought pops into our head)
Which we durst never yet (back on track) and with strayed pride
To come between our sentence and our power,
Maybe because we're struck a little off balance by the parenthetical thought, we have a little trouble regaining our footing when we try to return to our main point:
Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow, (thought pops into our head)For years, I've called this type of thought-process a "What? Oh yeah!" moment. It's very powerful on stage, when an actor plays it well, because -- as an audience member -- you momentarily fear the character is losing control, but then when he snaps back ("Oh yeah!") you're impressed with his newfound confidence: the type of confidence we all feel when we search for the perfect word and it pops into our head.
Which we durst never yet (back on track) and with strayed pride (what?)
(Oh yeah!) To come between our sentence and our power,
We then intend to say, "Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow ... and ... to come between our sentence and our power, our potency made good, take thy reward!" But, again, halfway through the thought, a "sub-thought" intrudes: "Which nor our nature nor our place can bear" (this is an insult that I can't pass over as either a man or a monarch).
Since thou hast sought to make us break our vow, (thought pops into our head)Moving forward, we then mean to say, "Four days we do allot thee for provision, and on the fifth to turn thy hated back upon our kingdom," but a sub-thought, a mini refinement of our main point, occurs to us after the word "provision."
Which we durst never yet (back on track) and with strayed pride (what?)
(Oh yeah!) To come between our sentence and our power, (and this makes me so MAD!)
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear, (Oops. Getting back on track...)
Our potency made good, take thy reward:
Four days we do allot thee for provision (You're wondering why I'm granting you four days?)Again, I think the min-thought destabilized us, and we came back a bit shaky but then regained our footing:
To shield thee from diseases of the world, (Got it? Okay. Going on...)
And on the fifth to turn thy hated back
Upon our kingdom.
And on the fifth to turn thy hated back (um... turn thy back on what?)
(Oh, yeah!) Upon our kingdom.
Finally, we intend to tell Kent what will happen to us if he disobeys: "If on the tenth day following thy ... thy... thy... thy what? What's a good insult?"
If on the tenth day following (What should I call your body?)
(Oh yeah!) Thy banished trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death...
This approach, while fun, can quickly dissolve into parody. So I would never tell an actor to pause for each one of these new thoughts. Often we have new thoughts without (noticeably) pausing. So forget the pause, and instead return to Hall's "tiny sense break." It's up to an actor how the sense break manifests itself. It could just be in his head. But if an actor does think of his speech this way, the speech will necessarily become a living mental process -- which is the most exciting thing about watching Shakespeare done well: seeing characters wrestle with their own thoughts, right here, right now, on stage, in front of you. (Hamlet trying to decide whether to be or not to be.) And if the audience follows the thought process, and if the thought-process follows the verse lines, the audience will also be hearing the music of the verse.
I am not dogmatic about this approach. There are times when it should be avoided -- when the thought process will be more dynamic if the actor plows right through the line-break. But it's a great tool. It's worth going through the play, line-by-line, and trying it out on each line ending, seeing what happens.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
There are special ways you can relate to both films and plays if you see a particular film -- or a particular play -- multiple times: films are static. The hundredth time you see "Citizen Kane", it will not have changed. It will contain exactly the same frames as the first time you saw it. This is film's great strength. It will not have changed but you will have. So a movie (like a novel) becomes a sort of benchmark against which you can measure yourself. When I was younger, I identified more with the young Charles Foster Kane. Now I identify more with the older one. The movie is the same, yet it's utterly different to me because I am different.
Plays change each time you see them. This is their great strength. You can go see the same production of "King Lear" ten times, and it will be different each time. This is appropriate, because you can't see the same production a hundred times as you can with films. Runs end. Actors move on. You can't want until you're older and different and then re-watch the same production. So it's lucky that you can -- during a short period of time in your life -- watch the same production and watch it change. I don't understand directors who try to fix their plays in stone, who try to ensure that the actors perform exactly the same way each night. If this is what they want, why don't they direct films instead of plays?
Whether I'm seeing a play or a film, I'm most strongly affected by what isn't on the screen or on the stage. Films and plays make suggestions, and then my brain fills in the blanks. I'm confused by people who claim that watching films and plays is a passive experience. It's not. It's highly active. When they're good, films and plays will hand me A and B but compel me to deduce C. And my C won't be exactly the same as your C, because C is a combination of data from the story and data from my life. So it's vital that plays and films leave things out.
Films should leave out psychology; plays should leave out scenery. Cameras can go anywhere and show me anything, so that's what they should do. The only place they can't go is inside someone's head. So they shouldn't try. They should plop me down in an environment -- and really make me sense that environment -- but they should leave some blanks as to how the main characters feel about this environment. I love the way Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" thrusts me into Vietnam and makes sniper bullets whiz past my head. I'm less thrilled with the voice-overs, which try to get inside the main character's head. This seems so un-cinematic and weak, an effect better left for a novel or a play.
But I love Hamlet's "To be or not to be." I love eavesdropping on his thought processes. I'm not completely sure why I buy this more on stage than in a film. After all, I can't really ever hear someone's thought processes. If this happens in a story, it's always an artifice. And maybe that's the key. By it's nature, theatre is always more artificial than film. Film can take me on location or fool me with special effects; theatre can't. And it shouldn't try. It will never succeed as well as film, so it should admit that hyper-realism isn't its strength.
When I'm sitting in the theatre, I'm primed for stage conventions. These conventions could be almost anything (a simple chair is a throne, a beam from a spotlight is a ray from the sun), but the strongest convention is that of an actor speaking his character's thoughts. It's strong because as a human, I long to connect with other humans this way. I know that I never really can, but in the theatre -- because I'm primed for a different sort of reality -- I can temporarily believe in brain-to-brain communication.
Omit the scenery: "Henry V" contains the most overt example of a play leaving blanks for me to fill in. At the very beginning of the play, the narrator says,
Suppose within the girdle of these walls.And if he says this with enough conviction -- enough command of the language -- I do imagine the monarchies and horses.
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings...
On the other hand, in a recent film adaptation of "Henry V", I was nonplussed when the narrator said, "Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege..." when I didn't have to work my thoughts at all to see the siege. There were clearly armies and cannons and explosions, right there on the screen.
As someone who who has come to realize ... after a lifetime of hoping to find something ... electrifying ... on stage ... very little approaches it. I don't think people realize it's rarely their fault if they don't "get" Shakespeare. Shakespeare done right is supposed to get you.
As much as I love the quote, to me it's more of a general note about theatre than a specific note about Shakespeare. Good theatre should "get" you. Good Shakespeare should too, but that assumes something about "you" -- that "you" understand the language. When you think about it, it's really simple. It's my responsibility, as a director, to craft plays that grip people. If people aren't gripped, that's my fault. But I'm talking about people who speak English. If my plays don't grip (non-English speaking) French people, that's not my fault. And I would never call a German play "bad," just because I don't understand it.
All average-Joes know that Shakespeare plays are in a foreign language, but theatre people tend to deny it. Maybe this is because they've spent so much time studying Shakespeare that it doesn't seem foreign to them. But when they casually say, "Anyone can understand Shakespeare," they come across as disingenuous. Anyone CAN understand it, but not without some work.
I've thought about writing a Shakepeare "appreciation" book, for people who want to get into his plays but don't know how. Only I don't think anyone will publish my book, because my message would be too unpopular: in order to understand the plays, you need to do a considerable amount of homework (most actors don't notice this "homework," because they do it while working on characters in rehearsal). Except for a few people who are into this sort of thing, the homework won't be fun. But it has a great payoff: getting in touch with some of the most beautiful creations of the human race.
Most Shakespeare books and teachers claim that in order to "get" Shakespeare, you should just rent some really good film adaptations and/or go see some really good stage productions. "Shakespeare was meant to be seen and heard -- not read." This is bullshit. If you don't get charged up when you read Shakespeare, you don't really "get" Shakespeare. And I mean "get" on a simplistic level: get = understand. I don't mean you're lacking in soul or intelligence. I just mean that you haven't yet fully grasped Shakespeare's language, which you can only do through study, so there's no way you can really get what he's saying. And if you don't get what he's saying (and how he's saying it), you can't grasp the beauty of the plays. (I'm operating under the assumption -- maybe false -- that most people who really do get the language will be wowed when the read the plays. There have been a few people, like Tolstoy, who hate Shakespeare despite understanding his language, but such people are rare.)
Usually, when people who don't understand Shakespeare see a great production and love it, they're not really loving Shakespeare. They're not really loving what's unique about Shakespeare. They're loving the production in spite of Shakespeare. They're loving the theatrics of that specific production. Maybe this will prompt them to learn more about Shakespeare on their own; maybe not.
One problem is that people want to get Shakespeare for at least two different reasons: (1) because they really want to connect with his writing, (2) because they want to look smart (or feel like they are cultured). Ron Rosenbaum calls this gaining "cultural currency." I don't think there's anything wrong with cultural currency, but it's worth disentangling it from the first reason. One can appear smart (and maybe feel cultured) by going to see a lot of Shakespeare plays, even without really understanding them. And if that's what one wants, fine. But let's not call an apple and orange. (Except that for culturally ambitious people, they must call an apple and orange. Who are they going to impress if they say, "I went to see MacBeth, but I didn't understand it."?
I'm always amazed by the hyper-educated, upper-middle class people who come see my shows and, afterwards, say something like, "Thank you for making Shakespeare fun." It's flattering but sad. Shakespeare is a chore for them, and they're grateful for a "spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down." I want to pull them aside and say, "You're a grownup now, and you're not in school. You don't have to see Shakespeare plays if you don't want to. There's no test on Friday." But of course, for them, there is a test. It's a cultural test. To pass the test, they need to fit in with a whole group of "cultured" people.
In my darkest moments, I imagine huge bands of people, all of them wearily forcing themselves to attend event after event that they loath. If just one of them would admit that the emperor has no clothes, they could all relax.
And then -- maybe -- a few of them, those who want to, could do some homework and meet Shakespeare on his own turf: Elizabethan English, which is a language one has to learn, just like French and Italian are languages one has to learn. You can't magically know Italian, just by watching a few Fellini films.
In order to learn Elizabethan -- or to want to learn it -- you have to take on trust that there's gold at the other end of the rainbow. You're not going to appreciate the gold until you DO learn it. So you just have to take the gold on faith.
We who have already reached the pot should emphasize the beauty. Sometimes, we make it sound like it's one's cultural duty to reach the pot, and that the only payoff will be to have fulfilled that duty -- and maybe to seem a little smarter. Which makes it seem like yet another burden, like getting a diploma in order to get a job. The diploma itself is worthless, except maybe that it makes one feel smarter. It's a hazing ritual. And I fear that's how many people see Shakespeare. He's the hot coals you have to walk over in order to be let into the culture club. We need to emphasize that there's great personal benefit, beyond seeming smart, of entering the club.
I remember they first time I really got Shakespeare. I had just finished the pre-production work on Winter's Tale, the first Shakespeare play I ever directed. I had gone through the whole play, word by word, and looked up each word that I didn't understand. I had about ten editions of the play, and I had read all of the editorial notes in all of them. Shakespeare had clicked, I was in love, and I knew my life would never be the same. But I also knew that Shakespeare never would have clicked for me if I hadn't put in that effort, and I probably wouldn't have done so if I didn't have a first-rehearsal deadline looming. It just didn't seem reasonable to expect other people to put in this same effort (which wasn't always fun). But without the effort, they will never really fall in love with Shakespeare the way I have -- the way other scholars and experienced actors have. And the falling-in-love is so worth it. But how can one communicate that?
Perhaps the best way is to find a difficult passage of great beauty, and to walk someone through it, explaining each word until they understand it, pointing out levels of meaning, poetic and rhetorical devices, complex metaphors and humor. It should be a short passage, and a self-contained one, so that the neophyte can -- within a reasonably short period of time -- feel the beauty without an agonizing amount of work. Maybe that's chapter one of my book.
Friday, October 06, 2006
We can't ever know for sure whether anyone else is conscious, but as social animals, we've evolved to read conscious into other humans (as-well-as animals, puppets and other human-like entities). And we're vitally concerned with how other consciousnesses view us. I like and dislike people, so I assume Kate likes and dislikes people. If she likes me, she'll share food with me (or sex or something else). Since we're often around big groups of people, we tend to be concerned about how the group sees us.
Human Networks are the ultimate class-ranking systems. Almost all human interactions can be boiled down to attempts to gain more acceptance (and sometimes more distancing) from a human network -- or to bring someone else into a network (or kick him out). I want to be a cheerleader; I wish that guy would go away; I want to work in that office; I want to be left alone...
Most of us have two opposing drives: connection and disconnection. It's obvious why we want to connect: other people can meet our needs (for companionship, sex, paychecks, etc.). Why do we want to disconnect? Sometimes that's obvious too: Charlie is going to hit me, so I want to get away from him. But sometimes we want to disconnect from "nice" people. I think this is because social processing is expensive, complicated and ultimately exhausting. After hours of reading tiny nuances and trying to figure out what they mean, we need time to recharge.
Some people rarely need time to recharge. They are social athletes -- extroverts. Others have a harder time reading cues, and the social mechanisms in their brains get overloaded very quickly. They are introverts. Most people aren't pure introverts or extroverts, so they experience tension between wanting to connect and wanting to disconnect -- or they flip-flop between the two.
One can manage this tension -- sometimes -- by constraining one's network: I will only stay out until 10pm; I will only hang out with a small group; I will only hang out with people I know. Bounded networking.
Technology confuses traditional boundaries. On the Internet -- and in other new mechanisms for networking -- I may be unsure how to control the tension between my desire to connect and my desire to disconnect. How can I join such-and-such a message board and only talk to the people I want to talk to? But since this tension is pretty stable -- all people feel it and are used to feeling it and know they will always feel it -- most of us find ways to placate it, even in new social situations. New networks are confusing (and sometimes scary) at first, but we have such strong drives to carve out a comfortable (and simulating) social space for ourselves, that we throw all of our resources into making them work. And in the end, it usually does -- although we are rarely able to completely avoid tension. We can control networks, but we can't control other people. We can set up rules, but we can't always make people follow them.
Friday, September 01, 2006
But I generally discover the story during the rehearsal process. In other words, I read a play, and I get a vague sense that I can "tell my story" with it. But I'm not sure, when I start, how the play's story interacts with mine. I just feel that, somehow, it does. It's during rehearsals that I learn get to know the play deeply. So it doesn't make sense to cut before they start.
This generally results in minimal (or no) cuts. Scenes that seem pointless at first become important once I explore them. And, of course, Shakespeare was such a damn good writer that he rarely includes moments that are gratuitous. If a moment seems pointless, I probably haven't studied it enough yet. In any case, I made few cuts -- not for any grand reason, but just because that's my working method. In the end, the play was 2 hours and 45 minutes long.
We got the usual gratifying comments: "It flew by!", "I can't believe that was uncut!", "I never understand Shakespeare, but I understood everything!" (I love that one, because I don't let actors use gestures or any other 'hints' to help the audience.) But the most interesting comment was, "I've seen this play before, but somehow I never knew it was so serious. I mean, it's comic, too, but there are really serious, weighty parts." Many people said this. The general feeling was that my production was more "profound" than the typical "Much Ado."
Since I didn't try to create a profound production, I started wondering what I had done -- by accident -- to achieve this effect. Having thought about it, I'm pretty sure it happened by not cutting. In the second half of the play, there are some LONG serious (anguished) speeches by Leonato and the Friar (scroll halfway down the page). I played the Friar, and I used to warm up, before performances, by going through those speeches at double the speed I actually played them during the show. Even at double speed, they still seemed very long. And the actor who played Leonato begged me (unsuccessfully) to cut some of his three-page-long speeches.
In the end, I think we delivered these speeches well -- so that they were exciting and not boring. But I do think one's initial reaction, when reading them, is that they can be pruned way back without a problem. And so that's exactly what happens in most productions (since most directors cut before rehearsals start). So the play becomes 80% comic and 20% serious -- instead of what it is on paper (and in our version), about a 50 - 50 split between comedy and drama. The sheer length of those speeches -- if they aren't cut -- adds gravitas to the story. I really think it's as simple as that.
People remember the play as being a light romp about Beatrice and Benedick. Lisa, who played Beatrice, pointed out that she had one of the smallest roles in the play. It's clearly a pivotal role -- and a memorable one -- but she actually doesn't have much stage time. In fact, the whole Beatrice/Benedick story is a sub-plot. It's a big sub-plot (and it threatens to upstage the main plot), but it's still a subplot.
Again, I'm not anti-cutting. I pro-storytelling. And when you tell a story, you should really TELL it. Which means that you delve into every nook and cranny of it. Sometimes you have to cut, because the play contains gratuitous elements. By "gratuitous elements", I mean events or speeches that don't move the story forward. These elements DON'T help tell the story, so they need to go. On the other hand, if you cut an element that DOES move the story forward, then you're short-changing the story.
Sometimes external forces compel you to cut: producers refuse to let your play extend over two hours; you've only rented the theatre for certain span of hours each night; etc. Each director needs to find his own path through such swamps. But it's worth remembering that there's no law requiring you to tell certain stories. Given a choice between a cut "King Lear" and no "King Lear" at all, the latter is always a possibility. There will be other opportunities to produce the play in the future. And even if there isn't (for you), would you rather honor the story by not telling it in a bastardized form -- or wound it by stripping it of much of its richness?
Monday, July 03, 2006
A confused writer might think he's being specific by referring to a "yellow bird," but yellow is another abstraction. You can see yellow, true, but what exactly IS it? What is a color? Can you grasp one
"Red car" doesn't tell me much -- it doesn't engage my senses. Same with sweet drink (though sweet is somewhat less abstract), loud noise, smooth table and a stinky smell. Those "mirror neurons" don't fire when I read "stinky smell." I get the idea, but nothing happens in my nose. "a gross-tasting sausage" doesn't disgust anyone, but how would you like some of George Orwell's sausages? The taste like "bombs of filth bursting inside your mouth."
You can get away with abstract modifiers when they're used in surprising ways, such as with a blue apple. I am forced to play an interesting mental game with my concept of apple when I read that. I actually have to paint it blue in my mind. As Robert Wilson says, "A Baroque candelabra on a piano is one thing; a Baroque candelabra on a rock is something else!"
Teachers tell beginning writers to avoid adjectives, not because they are intrinsically bad. It's just that there are so many weak and vague ones. But there are great ones, too: Think about greasy hair, dung-tinted walls and rasping voices. Notice in these instances, the modifiers are tied to specific sense-words or real-world objects and the words they are modifying are more generic. If the subject itself is specific, e.g. saxophone, it probably doesn't need a modifier.
After the bike, I start the coffee maker and jump into the shower. I'm one of those idiots who sings in the shower: usually old standards. This morning it's Me and My Shadow. I tapdance in the shower and make little splashes. I also like to shave after letting my beard grow for a few days. I experiment with wild facial-hair designs -- excursions into grooming that I'd never let escape the bathroom: Mephistophelian goatees, Wild West sideburns, archaic muttonchops. Then, like shaking an etchasketch, I clean my face. No one but me the wiser to my antics.
I remember it's Friday, casual day at the office. Yes! I can wear jeans and my Converse high tops, a great ensemble for the Spring weather.
Dressed and back in the kitchen, I make the perfect cup of coffee. Nowadays, I only use the coffee maker to heat water. I then pour the water into my Aeropress. It's an amazing device. It looks like a giant injection syringe, without the needle. You put coffee grounds in the base, pour in the hot water, and then push down the plunger. This magical, smooth coffee squirts out the bottom. I like the small amount of effort this requires -- not enough to be an annoying task, but just the right amount to trigger a feeling of accomplishment, which makes the coffee taste all the better for being earned.
I sit in front of the computer screen and sip my coffee. Poor Lisa, being a girl, still has half an hour of prep before she'll be ready to go. But since I don't have to curl my hair or apply makeup, I'm set. I can relax and visit some of my favorite sites. I also keep half an eye on the TV, watching the Today Show, absorbing just the right amount of the news.
Once Lisa is ready, we head for the Subway. We're both dog lovers, so this journey of a few blocks is safari for us. We ooh, ahh and aww at all the puppies out for walks. Like kids, we giggle when we see one pooing.
Usually, there are funny characters on the train and we whisper about them: the Hasidic Jew with a girlie magazine peeking out from behind his prayer book; Or the smartly-dressed business woman with toilet paper stuck to her shoe.
I have to leave Lisa in lower Manhattan. She prepares for my exit by pulling the crossword from her handbag. She can sometimes complete them in ten minutes. It's been really cool watching her improve. When she started doing them, about five years ago, a single puzzle might take her a few days. Now she can finish while I eat a sandwich.
She has her activity; I have mine. While I walk the few blocks from the Subway to work, I listen to my iPod. Sometimes I listen to music -- Bach, The Beatles, Sinatra -- but nowadays it's mostly books on "tape." I'm currently listening to a fascinating history of the English Language. Did you know that Noah Webster is partly responsible for making American English sound different from British English? He wrote primers that taught kids to spell by sounding out each syl-a-ble. These books were incredibly popular, and they prompted a generation of American kids to reject the clipped vowels of their contemporaries across the pond. We say sec-re-tar-y, while they say secret'ry. I'm so into the book that I slow my pace so that I can listen a bit longer. There's still ten minutes before I have be at the office.
Today at work, I'm teaching a programming class. I love to teach programming. Most of my students are designers, and they're afraid of code. But I've taught this class for long enough -- and worked out enough techniques -- that I know I'll win them over in the end. It's exciting to watch their eyes light up as they master concepts that formerly intimidated them. I really feel like I'm changing their lives. It's a high!
Lunch time is Big Salad time. I go to this deli that makes custom salads with yummy, fresh ingredients. I start with a base of (healthy) dark greens and request grilled chicken, cucumber, peas, corn, red onions, carrots and kidney beans. I'm proud that I don't ask for dressing, and that I've learned not to miss it. But I do ask for a topping of parmesan cheese. Occasionally, if I'm feeling naughty, I get a rice-crispy treat for dessert.
Once work is done, I walk downtown a few blocks to rehearsal. My theatre company is working on "Much Ado About Nothing," and tonight we're staging some scenes in Act III. I love flipping my brain from programming to theatre. Somehow, the two very different disciplines feed each other. The precision of code tightens my directing skills. The improvisation of rehearsal pushes me to experiment more as a programmer and as a teacher.
After rehearsal, I have to ride the train home by myself. Which means I get to read! Since my iPod is being scholarly at the moment, I'm veering the other way with print: a P.D. James mystery. I get so into it, I almost miss my stop.
On the way home, I stop at The Islands, my favorite restaurant, to pick up dinner: jerk chicken, rice-and-peas, and curried vegetables for Lisa. We'll eat in front of the TV, tonight, watching "Deadwood" on the TiVo.
After the show, we're both sleepy, so we head upstairs to bed. But not before I end the day the way I started it: coffee -- decaff this time, thank you very much Aeropress! In bed, I strap on my sleeptracker and snuggle with Lisa. She falls asleep first. I plug in my headphones and listen to twenty minutes more of my audio book. Then I feel my starting to doze. So turn off the iPod and roll over.
My last thought: tomorrow is Saturday!
Programming has helped me adjust my focus in other areas of life. In an argument, I am better able to gain some distance and cool off. But I can also zoom way in and point out a specific flaw in my opponent's reasoning. When I direct plays, I can see that if the current scene doesn't speed up, the entire evening will run too long. But I can also finesse the placement of a chair so that an actor can ease into after he crosses the stage. When I draw, I can see how the line I'm finishing affects the entire composition.
2) A refusal to cut corners. On a mundane level, this means naming a variable totalNumberOfSharksInTheTank instead of S. But programming is full of these sorts of decisions on large and small scales. Decisions that involve choosing between something that works and is easy to type and something that works and is more difficult to type -- but that will be easier to understand later.
Pretty much everything that makes your program easier to understand and debug is a pain to set up in the short-term. Long, descriptive variable names, comments, etc. It's so tempting to be penny wise and pound foolish. But the good programmers I know EMBRACE this extra work. They get pleasure out of going the long way around to make things clear. They love the beauty of transparent code.
I struggle to apply this tip to my non-programming life. I'm gradually improving. I try to go the extra mile, do all the dishes, clean the tub thoroughly -- not just good enough so that the grime doesn't show. When I'm directing a Shakespeare play, I look up ALL the words I don't know, and even the words I sort of know. If I only understand a word from its context, I don't really know it. So I look it up. When I teach or give someone directions, I explain everything clearly and in detail. Sometimes I'm tedious. Maybe I go overboard. But I'd rather bore people than confuse them.
3) Good programmers, like good writers, make multiple drafts. They go back over their code many times, optimizing and clarifying. Some people don't like making multiple drafts. If you're going to be a good programmer, you can't be the type of person who likes to go over something once and then be done with it.
Here, I'm a natural. Though it's undiagnosed, I may have some sort of OCD. I tend to go-over everything several times. When I go to bed, I set my alarm clock, check it to make sure I set it accurately, and then -- after I've put my head down -- sit up and check it again. I'm always stunned by the errors people make via carelessness. Friends think I'm careful. I'm not, but I check my work. When I do, I find tons of foolish errors. I EXPECT the errors. I think some people assume they're better first-drafters than they actually are.
4) Good programmers work to allow themselves to selectively forget information. The goal is to make parts of your program become "black boxes." You try to perfect functions, classes and the like so that you don't need to remember how they work any more. They are self-contained tools that you can just use. Programming needn't involve holding a zillion things in your head at once if you work this way.
The flip side of this is my item 2, a refusal to cut corners. Once you have forgotten the guts of function, there will come that inevitable day when you'll need to revisit it. On that day, you'll be ecstatic about the breadcrumbs you left yourself -- the comments, identifier names, and organization -- when you originally built the function.
This is the opposite of multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is a curse. I try to avoid it in all aspects of life ("try" being the operative word). When you multi-task, you have to keep several balls in the air at the same time, and chances are your split focus won't let any of them fly as high as they could if you threw them up one at a time. People mistakenly think that they get more work done when they multi-task. It's a lie. The trick is to finish task A -- really finish it, so that it's wrapped up and put away -- before going on to task B. You will save time by not having to return to task A again.
5) Good programmers learn from other good programmers. People have spend DECADES theorizing and experimenting, and they've learned a lot. There are all sorts of programming structures and practices that have been well worked out: design patterns, data structures, etc. These aren't things you're likely to come up with on you're own. You have to read, study and practice.
I'm saddened by the number of people who don't know how to use reference materials. This is a vital life skill. I rarely know what to do, but I know how to find out what to do. As with item 4 (above), that allows me to free up large parts of my brain. I don't have to remember how to bake sourdough bread. I have a recipe book that I can refer to.
The greatest thinkers and craftsmen know how to rely on others. Shakespeare stole plots; Stephen Sondheim uses a rhyming dictionary.
6) Good programmers (like good people in any field) work to improve themselves. I keep a personal "Syntax Error List." I tend to make the same mistakes over and over. For instance, I tend to write single equals in a conditional statement instead of double equals (accidentally making it an assignment instead of a test of equality). When my program doesn't work, instead of staring at it blankly, I go down my list and check for my common errors.
I've started using the same trick to improve my spelling. I'm an atrocious speller, and though I get by using spellcheckers, I also rely on them, so my spelling doesn't improve. It's embarrassing when I have to fill out a form and can't use MS Word. One day, I realized that spellcheckers could actually help me improve my spelling -- if I thought of them as data-collectors. I started writing down a list of words I continually misspell (I wouldn't know about these words if the spellcheckers didn't catch them) and I've begun memorizing their correct spellings.
7) Good programmers learn to debug. Debugging shouldn't be an afterthought that you do in a haphazard way. It's a specific and necessary skill that must be learned and applied. (Again, don't re-invent the wheel. Learn from people who have gone before!) You need to learn to think the way a good electrician thinks: the light doesn't come on. Is it the bulb, the socket, the switch, the wiring...? You need to test each component part to see where exactly the problem lies. Once again, it's about stepping in and stepping back.
Problem solving is a distinct mode. I must remember to click into it. I don't keep my problem-solving skills "online" all the time, because often they're not needed. When a problem arises, it's easy to forget about them and not use them. If face a problem without my problem-solving skills, I can only panic or throw up my hands. I need to step back (see item 1, above) and switch toolbelts.
Nowadays, if problem solving requires information, the web is key -- but you have to use it aggressively. Google is great, but do you know how to use ALL of it's search engines? Google Images? Google Maps? Google Groups? Google Video? Did you know that you can use Google as a calculator and a measurement converter (try entering "22 miles in furlongs")? What do you do when Google fails? Don't give up on the web yet! Use it to connect you with a person. Find the site of an expert and email him. Most people are surprisingly willing and happy to help. As a final straw, place an ad on Craigslist. Offer fifty bucks to anyone who can solve your problem.
8) Good programmers run tests. Test everything on the computer, not in your head. Unless you've coded the exact same thing 1000 times, don't assume something will work or won't work. Try it and see.
I drive actors crazy by trying everything out in rehearsal. They come to me and say, "Do you think my character is happy or sad in this scene?" I answer, "Let's try in once with you happy, and then go back and do it again with you sad." I refuse to make a decision in my head when it's possible to do it outside of my head. The world in my head is just a map of reality, and it's imperfect. If I assume anything, I might miss something. So I assume as little as possible. Over and over, this method has helped me strike gold and avoid potholes. I'm addicted to it.