English literature and composition

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Date Announced: 
Tue, 06/24/2008

McLemee on Shakespeare

We spent the past weekend immersed in the world of Titus Andronicus -- also known as “Shakespeare’s batshit crazy play,” at least around here. Most dramatic performances fade into the background within a short time, but my wife and I have been discussing Titus for several days. Popular in its own time, it is seldom performed now, though there is an excellent version from 1999 available on film, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role. The production currently being staged at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington is spellbinding and horrific -- though I’m not at all sure that I agree with the effort of Gale Edwards, the director, to lend the play some hint of morally redeeming value.

Arguably, it has none. The case can be made that Titus Andronicus is an Elizabethan equivalent of Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a bigger budget, better actors, and more eloquent language. It has often been called Shakespeare’s worst play (which I must admit piqued my interest in seeing it). Titus was probably one of his first efforts as a playwright, maybe even the very first. It has long been speculated that it was the product of a collaboration, or that Shakespeare served as a “script doctor” improving someone else’s working draft.

In a public discussion at the theater on Sunday afternoon, Denise Albanese, an associate professor of English and cultural studies at George Mason University, sketched out some of the sources and context of the play. Unlike Shakespeare’s other Roman plays, Titus is more pastiche than historical drama. Its account of honor and revenge during the reign of the (imaginary) Roman emperor Saturninus is filled with allusions to Seneca, Ovid, and the Aeneid. No matter how you draw the lines, it occupies a unique and eccentric place in the canon. Even the extremity of its violence made it somewhat anachronistic. In some ways, Albanese pointed out, it anticipated the Jacobean revenge tragedies that only became popular decades later.

All interesting to know. But questions of context and literary intertextuality are one thing, while the experience of watching the work itself performed is quite another. For Titus Andronicus is, to repeat, one batshit crazy play. It is surreal, nightmarish. It is also, to a surprising degree, rather vile. Some members of the audience weep, which is understandable; but I can testify that at least one patron wanted to take a shower afterwards.

The word “obscene” was originally a dramatic reference to something so shocking that it had to take place off-stage. But most of the horrors in Titus occur right out in the open. True, we don’t actually watch Lavinia, daughter of the noble general Titus, being raped by the sons of Tamora, the Goth queen turned Roman empress. But we are shown the two men taunting her later, after they have cut off her hands and her tongue. Eventually Titus exacts revenge by killing them and cooking their flesh into a large pie, which he tricks the queen into eating.

The queen’s lover, a Moor named Aaron, is a villain who announces that his soul is as black as his skin. In the final moments of the play, he is condemned to be buried up to his neck and starved to death. Meanwhile, the newborn child he has fathered with Tamora is sentenced to execution – for otherwise, the baby is destined by nature to grow up to be evil. So at least there’s a happy ending....

You don’t have to see that many plays by Shakespeare to know that his universe can be violent. Think of the children slaughtered in Macbeth, the pile of corpses at the end of Hamlet, the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes in Lear.

But the mayhem in Titus is more extensive and far more concentrated. Apart from the high points covered in the abbreviated sketch above, there are two decapitated heads, several murders and one scene of dismemberment. The sight of Lavinia following her attack -- unable to communicate at all, her mouth opening only to scream and to spit blood -- has a visceral power that is overwhelming.

At the same time, once the violence begins escalating, a strain of very dark humor emerges. Titus appears onstage dressed as a cook, per the original directions in the play – a wink at the audience, which has just heard him plot his ultimate act of vengeance. And when the emperor demands to know where Tamora’s sons are, Titus responds with lines that are funny, albeit in a sick way:

Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.

Neither the bloodshed nor the transgressive joking, in themselves, are quite as disconcerting as what Shakespeare doesn’t do in this play. For we never see or hear anything like doubt, introspection, or inner conflict.

True, there are a few declarations of motive. Titus can deliver the occasional direct and rather simplistic proclamation about his own sense of honor. Yet he proves incapable of questioning that code – even after it has led him to kill one son in the heat of anger. Aaron the Moor gets to gloat aloud about just how evil his own plans are. Still, he seems a much flatter villain than, say, Iago or Richard III. Nearly everyone in Titus ends up dead, but even while alive they never display evidence of complex interiority.

It probably betrays some old-fashioned humanist sensibility to say so, but I found this disconcerting. Harold Bloom overstated things by calling his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverhead, 1998). But it is an exaggeration of something recognizable -- the sense that language and dramatic situation in Shakespeare are creating a new space of depth and conflict. Not so with Titus Andronicus. It is a very busy piece of theater -- but one with all of the action taking place on the surface.

Blooms calls it a play in which Shakespeare tries to throw off the influence of Christopher Marlowe through satire. He calls it “exploitive parody” rather than “authentic tragedy.” For if you took it seriously, he says, it would be impossible not to agree with Samuel Johnson’s judgment: “The barbarity of the spectacle, and the general massacre here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience.”

By contrast, Marjorie Garber, a professor of English at Harvard University, writes in Shakespeare After All (Anchor, 2004) that Titus contains “ the root or radical form of all Shakespearean tragedy.” It contains “the dreamscape or nightmare world laid out for all to see, not disguised by a retreat into metaphor....In many ways, from its almost Brechtian mode of staging physicality to its unrelenting pileup of horrors, Titus is the most modern play of Shakespeare’s that we have.”

During the forum at the Shakespeare Theatre over the weekend, Denise Albanese mentioned that she frequently teaches Titus at George Mason. I gave her a call to ask about that. And also, frankly, just because I wanted to discuss about the play with somebody who had lived with it for a while. (Exposure to its surrealistic overload does leave you wanting to "talk it off," as it were.)

“It’s almost always the first play I teach,” she said. “I do that because very often students have only encountered Shakespeare in high school and have a misunderstanding of him as safe, moral, and dull. This one really dislodges the idea that Shakespeare is full of eternal moral truths. It takes place in a different world from what they expect.”

And how does Titus go over with her students?  

“Many of them have a very hard time with it,” she told me. “They expect to be able to like somebody in a piece of literature, to find somebody they can identify with, and that is quite difficult in this case. It’s hard to identify with Titus, who kills his own son for dishonoring him. The moral ambiguity of the play is very, very difficult for some of them.”

Such confusion seems appropriate, in a way. Yet I suspect that there is a certain moral ambiguity about experiencing Titus Andronicus as containing moral ambiguity.

To put it another way: It may well be that this play contains all the moral complexity of a scenario in the world of  professional wrestling.

The audience that greeted the play with such enthusiasm would have had little trouble knowing who to cheer. Titus is a simple man. He makes some bad choices, but he is brave and a man of honor. And the people who hurt him are, after all, rather sinister foreigners – one an arriviste woman, the other an atheistic black man who delights in his own villainy.

Nor does it follow that Aaron’s expression of love for his infant son would have necessarily made him a sympathetic character. On the contrary, it could well have made the destruction of the baby called for at the end of the play that much more pleasurable to imagine. Since the villainous Moor both fathered the child and tried to protect him, the boy’s death would, in effect, be a final reckoning with evil.

That interpretation is depressing – but then, so is the play. It also seems compatible with Northrop Frye’s comment in Anatomy of Criticism that melodrama is the genre that closest approximates the propaganda of a police state. (You want uplift? Read Joyce Kilmer, not Shakespeare.)  

Professor Albanese listened politely to my speculations and conceded that there might be something to them. And then she made a remark that seems to cut to the heart of the matter. “Nothing else in Shakespeare,” she said, “prepares you for this play.”

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs each week. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

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Starting Out in the Evening

If you love a book, there is a special thrill that comes from seeing the phrase "soon to be a major motion picture." It is a thrill of dread. In the case of Brian Morton's novel Starting Out in the Evening, though, my initial reaction was disbelief. Starting Out, first published in 1998 and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award that year, is one the best things I've ever read -- possibly the best -- about being a writer. But that makes it seem unfilmable almost by definition.

At its center is the relationship between an elderly novelist and the young woman who is writing a thesis on him. The most important and difficult truth Morton portrays about the life of an author is that so much of it must be spent alone. It can color a writer's dealings with other people in various ways, some of them quite complicated -- but that's not always the same thing as being dramatic. So how would this be portrayed in a movie? For that matter, could it be?

Well, in any case it has been, in a film that opens in a few days. "Starting Out in the Evening" already has some critics mentioning an Academy Award nominaton for Frank Langella's performance as a novelist in the final season of his career. Earlier this week, Langella was named Best Actor at the Boston Film Critics Awards and runner-up (to Daniel Day-Lewis) at the LA Film Critics Awards. Lili Taylor plays his daughter Ariel; as ever, the fact that Taylor is in the film is itself a recommendation.

Hurl all the accusations of phallocratic ocularocentrism you want but I do enjoy looking at Lauren Ambrose. She plays Heather, the graduate student who hopes to edit The Leonard Schiller Reader for the University of Chicago Press. Unfortunately the screenplay leaves her character rather thin -- as it does that of Casey, played by Adrian Lester. As Brian Morton originally portrayed him, Casey seemed very much to be one of the young African-American public intellectuals who were assuming the cultural role played by Jewish writers of an earlier generation. Despite a fine performance by Lester, that very mid-1990s dimension of the novel does not make it to the screen.

It is difficult to picture Brian Morton himself -- a wry and quiet man who teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College -- walking down the red carpet during the Oscars. But who knows; the experience might make for another novel. At the very least, Starting Out in the Evening should now reach a new audience. The author answered some questions by e-mail, from which the following interview was assembled.

Q:I read "Starting Out" right after it appeared and identified most with Heather: the young person going to New York and trying to find her way, driven by admiration for literary heroes, but also by a good bit of raw ambition. About two years later, I reread the book and found that it was actually Schiller whose life felt most familiar, this time. His reputation, never huge, is fading, but he keeps on working, because persevering is the best a writer can manage, most of the time.

You somehow conveyed both of those kinds of experience without simply playing one of them off the other as superior -- the younger person treated as full of illusion, for example, or the older as being just bitter, or out of touch. There is a graceful acceptance of both phases of life as necessary and, in their way, right about things. At the same time, they have their limits. Heather really is a bit callow, and Schiller has armored himself against life in ways that he comes to regret. The balance is extraordinary. How did you do it? Where did the novel come from?

A: First of all, thank you. If I did portray both of these characters persuasively, I guess it was because I identified with them both.

In answer to where the novel came from—to a large extent it came from my attempt to work through my disappointment about the fate of my first novel, The Dylanist. The Dylanist was published in the summer of 1991, and went out of print less than six months later. Before it came out, I was aware that it might not live forever in the annals of literature, but I didn't really anticipate that it might have approximately the shelf life of milk. I was already 36 by the time the book was published; I'd spent thirteen years writing as seriously as I knew how; and it was devastating to see the book go instantly out of print.

Schiller, the main character in Starting Out in the Evening, is a 71 year old novelist who has written four books, all of which are out of print. So, although I'm not sure I was perfectly conscious of this when I was actually writing the book, I think that by writing about him, I was asking myself what it would be like if I spent the rest of my life writing novels that didn't do any better than The Dylanist had. I was trying to ask myself whether a writing life that came to nothing in terms of external recognition would be worth living.

Photo: Roadside Attractions


I used different parts of my own experience in writing about Heather. Her initial love for Schiller's work, her feeling that reading him was such a profound communion that it almost felt as if he was somehow interested in her as deeply as she was interested in him, seemed like an an experience that any reader has from time to time. (Schiller's nothing like Raymond Williams, but I kept having this experience as a reader of Raymond Williams's work all through my twenties and thirties.) After she meets him and grows disillusioned with him, starting to suspect that his monomaniacal focus on writing had drained his later work of vitality—well, the questions she was asking about him are questions I've asked about myself.

Q: Interesting to think of Raymond Williams as a source for Schiller. You edited the review section of Dissent when Irving Howe, one of its founders, was alive. I always figured he there in the novel, too, somewhere. Is that wrong?

A: No, it's right. I worked with Irving for 10 years, and learned from him, and loved him. My mental picture of Schiller's body -- his height and weight and the way he held himself and moved -- is drawn almost completely from Irving, or rather, from the way Irving appeared near the end of his life. And you could say that Schiller's attitude toward his own writing had something in common with Irving's attitude toward democratic socialism.

By the end of his life, I sometimes thought that Irving's fidelity to democratic socialism might be summed up in T.S. Eliot's line: "Sometimes we must fight for something not in the belief that it will triumph, but in order to keep the idea of it alive." (I can't remember exactly how it goes, but it's something like that.) Schiller was completely uncertain about the strength of his own gifts; he kept writing not because of any faith that his work would live on, but simply in order to pay tribute to his own conception of beauty, whether or not anything he wrote would ever fulfill it.

Also, Ilana Howe, Irving's widow, thinks that Schiller's nearly empty refrigerator was based on hers and Irving's, but I think I was just describing my own.

Q:Some scenes in your novel are not so much satirical as sharply observed. There's a bit about how all the up-and-coming literary editors in New York have exactly the same editions of the same authors on their shelves, for example, and how someone could sneak into their apartments late at night and exchange their libraries without anyone noticing. In another scene, you describe how a young writer who is on-the-make is just a little too amused at the jokes of a magazine bigwig. Did anybody reading the book protest? When I first read it, the part about the guy laughing too hard gave me a brief, paranoid flashback to my 20s.

A: No, nobody's ever complained. In some of my books I've had characters who were too obviously based on people I knew, and who were portrayed very unkindly -- caricatured -- and I've hurt a few people that way, which is something I'm not proud of. But that's a different story. I can't remember anyone feeling personally insulted by any of the scenes from literary life.

About the time we met in 1990 -- are you implying that the things I said that day weren't really that amusing?

Q:Let me plead the Fifth on that one..... Some novels -- even works of "literary fiction," as the expression goes -- feel destined to end up on screen. The possibility of adaption for film now often seems to condition the writing of a novel, or the experience of reading it, or both. But I've never thought that was the case with your work. How did it come to pass that Starting Out in the Evening turned into a movie?

A: I never imagined it as a movie either. There's so much interiority in the book -- so much "Was she thinking I was thinking what she was thinking I was thinking?" Kind of hard to film.

It became a movie because Fred Parnes thought he could see a movie in it. Fred is the kid brother of one of my best friends from high school, and he'd already made two movies -- a documentary about the a capella group The Persuasions called "Spread the Word," and an indie comedy called "A Man Is Mostly Water." Fred wrote a screenplay along with his writing partner, Andrew Wagner, who ended up directing the movie. They put it through many, many drafts, none of which I saw. They asked me if I wanted to look at it, but I didn't. I understood that in order to turn the book into a movie, they'd have to change a lot of things around.

I knew Fred well enough to respect his integrity -- I knew that whatever changes he made, he wouldn't turn Schiller into an elderly New York Intellectual who had a little business selling skag on the side. We wouldn't have a scene where Schiller, sick and tired of years of critical neglect, sticks a Beretta under his belt and goes out to gun down James Wood. So, since I trusted Fred's integrity, I didn't want to be standing there breathing down his neck, saying "Schiller would never do that! Heather would never say that!"

Q:What's it like to see your characters on screen, in the shape of famous actors?

A: When they were shooting the movie, Fred told me that it was remarkable to see Langella arrive on the set each day, a strapping Italian in a leather jacket, and then, after putting on a button-down shirt and a tie and a pair of glasses, transforming himself into an infirm Jewish intellectual. I only visited the set for one afternoon, but I instantly saw what he meant.

They were preparing a scene; people were bustling around and making a lot of noise; and Langella was sitting in a corner, buried in Leonard Schiller's overcoat, looking down, reading something from an index card he was holding in his hands. Looking at him, solitary in the midst of all that activity, it seemed as if he'd somehow managed to create a zone of quiet around himself. You could almost touch it. As I watched him, I thought, "He's got it."

John le Carré had a character named George Smiley in many of his books; after Alec Guinness played Smiley in two miniseries -- played him brilliantly -- le Carré said that he couldn't write about Smiley anymore. He said that Guinness took the character away from him. I'd never had any plans to write about Schiller again, but if I had -- well, I won't say that Langella's performance would have made it impossible. But it was so damn good that I would have had to work hard to wrestle him back.

Q:Langella's performance really makes the film. It's no surprise that the expression "Oscar-worthy" has come up in describing it. I found the final scene overwhelming -- lump in my throat, tears in my eyes, a sense that the whole course of Schiller's life was concentrated there in the expression on Langella's face.

But.... how to put this.... An awful lot of your novel isn't on screen. Most of the characters and incidents are there, but only a very small part of the spectrum of tone. As a movie, "Starting Out in the Evening" is pretty solemn, while one of the things I love about the novel is how it moves between serious and comic perspectives. How do you feel about that? Was it something you just accepted as inevitable?

A: Well, if you have a song and somebody does a cover version, you have to expect that they're going to interpret it in their own way. Mostly, I'm flattered that Fred and Andrew made a movie of it, and I'm glad that it's led a few people to discover the book.

Q:You teach writing at Sarah Lawrence. Have you had students who know you as the author of Starting Out in the Evening? Who imagine themselves as the Heather to your Schiller, perhaps? Do you expect a rush of people trying to audit your classes and show you their screenplays?

A: The student community at Sarah Lawrence has somehow intuited that I shun the limelight, and has tactfully conspired to help me feel as if I'm working in obscurity, a condition in which I thrive.

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