Monday, May 02, 2005

Of the 28 theater companies selected to receive funding from the NEA’s Shakespeare in American Communities program, one – People’s Light – happens to be based within 15 minutes of my house. People’s Light is a good regional theater group, with usually solid acting & crisp direction but – as is the case everywhere with regional theater – a bad case of going for the predictably safe shows. In the ten years that we’ve lived here, the best single production we’ve seen was the first – a staging of The Gospel at Colonus directed by Lee Breuer, the play’s co-creator, and utilizing singers from several of the black Baptist congregations in Coatesville, a black community in still moderately rural Chester County. The NEA funding was fortuitous, since the company produces one Shakespeare production almost every season – I think there may have been one exception in the last decade – just as it does Christmas Carol nearly every damn December.

This year’s Shakespeare was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Nick Olcutt, his first production with People’s Light. It was a good, tho not great, staging – well timed & generally well acted (only one performer audibly struggled with the 16th century dialog), tho presenting the frame fable – the story of two men in love with the beautiful Hermia, whose father wishes her to marry Demetrius, and whose will the state, in the form of the Duke of Athens, will enforce at the penalty of death, but who instead loves Lysander & thus absconds with him into the forest, followed by Demetrius, who in turn is followed by Helena, who pines only for him – as a physical farce, so that the play-within-the-play, enacted by the “mechanicals,” town craftspeople offering amateur theater, led notably by Bottom the weaver, loses a good deal of its contrast with the more earnest problems of the star-crossed lovers, who become enmeshed in yet a third layer of plot, a dispute between Oberon, king of the fairies, & his queen, Titania. For awhile Bottom is turned into an ass, an experience that later seems like a dream, only to have Titania become enchanted with him. Lysander & Demetrius both are made to fall in love with Helena, to Hermia’s frustration, leaving it to Puck to undo most (tho not all) spells before the play’s end.

Mark Lazar, the best physical comedian in the People’s Light company, plays Bottom divinely, braying his lines when transformed & “dying” in the mechanical’s performance of Pyramus & Thisbe for a good five over-the-top minutes (brilliantly contrasted, I must say, by Ahren Potratz’ Flute, who, in drag as Thisbe, plays the role straight, underscoring, however inadvertently, just what has been lost by making the two pair of lovers in the forest into buffoons of romance).

It was the first Shakespeare play my boys had seen in person, tho they’ve been to a number of plays over the years. They were engrossed & the slapstick versions went over just fine with them. When we got home, it was Colin who noted that through his entire life we have had a print on the dining room that I’ve always described as having to do with Bottom: On Shakespeare, Louis & Celia Zukofsky’s response – that’s probably the best word – to the impetus of Shakespeare. The print is a blown up notebook page – the original was just five by nine inches – containing Zukofsky original plan for the third section of the book, “An Alphabet of Subjects.” Though it is printed maybe four times the page’s original size, the penmanship – the black is still quite legible, even given the crabbed hand, tho the red has faded in the 20 years since I first bought the print in Vancouver – is minuscule. Celia had the print made up the year after Louis died, an edition of 226 copies, of which ours in number 60. I’ve always thought of it as a talisman of Zukofsky’s thoroughness of vision – the alphabet he sketches out is remarkably close to the one finally published in a boxed hardbound two-volume edition by the Ark Press for the Humanities Research Center of the University of Texas. But it is one of the wonders of parenting that one gets, on occasion, to watch a child suddenly connect the dots that join together that almost invisible family iconography of what Mom & Dad put up on the wall in the dining room and how that joins to the world(s) outside our home.

So I went down to my office in the basement & brought up my copy of Bottom. I’ve read around in it a fair amount over the years, since I first bought my copy from Peter Howard’s Serendipity Books (back in the days when Small Press Distribution was just one part of the operation, so maybe 1970, maybe earlier). At the time, Bottom was certainly the most expensive book I had ever bought – I probably paid $20, back when Howl still cost 75¢. I remember that my copy of the OED, which I acquired in ’73, cost less. Yet tho I’ve read around in Bottom every year now for some 35 years, I’ve never read it front to back – and since I don’t read music, I’ll never be able to fully fathom (even partly fathom) what Celia is doing with & to Pericles in her setting of that play to music. This year, I thought, when I finish reading the Greenblatt biography & Lear (I’m alternating a chapter in the former with an act in the latter), I’ll set forth. This seems obviously to be the year for which I’ve been waiting.

Louis’ volume, after all, is really straightforward, just three chapters. The first is an attempt to define love – right on the first full page Zukofsky characterizes it as “the desire to project the mind’s peace” – as the central philosophical dimension in Shakespeare. The second, more wide-ranging, carries this forward & brings in everything from Bottom (hence the title) to healthy doses of early Wittgenstein. The third, literally, is an alphabet of subjects, beginning with A-Bomb and H-. “What does Shakespeare have to do with the A bomb?” Jesse asked. Shakespeare has to do with everything I replied, but a part of me felt that that answer was a dodge. I really need to focus on the book before I try to respond to that question again.

All of which reminded me that Zukofsky & Olson are our two great “Shakespearean poets” of the past 75 or so years, so radically at odds with the doting bourgeois everyman that the NEA hopes to insinuate into the hearts of the masses. Further, as both Creeley & Duncan made a point of noting, these two poets could barely read one another. There is an opacity from each to each that is worth contemplating. They did not share their Shakespeare, nor did they draw from the bard’s work the same conclusions. Yet they ensured, however indirectly, that an entire line of American poetry would carry it as a deep – even unconscious – resource. Time perhaps to think about bringing that aspect forward.