Tuesday, September 20, 2005

A Quality Shylock

Reading Shakespeare’s plays is like studying a blueprint of a house. The framework is there along with rooms and windows, but nothing is on the walls, no finishing nor furnishings give the life to the house. That’s what the actors do.

For over twenty years, I taught Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to high school freshmen, so I was interested in seeing the current production at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Seeing the production offered some new insights and creative additions while showing me some new things about the play.

“In sooth, I know not why I am so sad…”

The play begins with Antonio coming on stage and crying. That simple addition was riveting. Yes, the whole first scene talks about Antonio being sad, but to see him actually weep made it so much more forceful than just discussing it.

“Mislike me not for my complexion…”

The hatred of all groups of people, not just Jews, is an inherent theme of the play. Many powerful moments in this production reinforce both the global racism and the anti-Semitism of the characters. Mike Nussbaum’s Shylock—the best characterization I’ve ever seen of the part-- not only talks about being spit upon and hit, but we actually see the violence he describes. During Shylock’s pivital speech, beginning “Hath not a Jew eyes…,” Salerio and Salanio attack Shylock, knocking him to ground, spitting on him and in his yamulke, setting up a powerful reading of the rest of the speech:

…and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong
a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what
should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

Almost immediately after this scene comes the intermission. As the act finishes, all the characters of the play form a gauntlet through which Shylock must pass—and all the actors spit on him as he exits. I was moved to tears.

In Act V, when Jessica (showing signs of disappointment in her elopement with Lorenzo) learns that her father has bequeathed all his goods to her husband Lorenzo and herself, she cries—and all the characters laugh at her—showing their non-acceptance of the “gentle” convert.

Throughout the production, the actors sit at tables out of the acting area, but clearly visible to the audience. When asked why that directorial decision had been made, Jay Whittaker, who plays Salanio, told a group of high school attendees, “One of the problems with racism is that people watch it happen and don’t do anything to stop it.” According to Whittaker, the cast bears witness and blame for all the racism shown.

One of the complexities of the play is there is no "hook character" who pulls us in and allows us to interpret through their eyes (think Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird). All the characters, especially the Christians, are racially bigotted, self-centered, and nasty. In seeing the production the person we find ourselves identifying with is the victim, Shylock... and Shylock spends the play plotting a murder.

For one of my students, one of the galvanizing moments of societal hatred was Launcelot Gobbo's first appearance, bringing bags of trash. When the garbage truck (a sound effect) leaves before he is ready, he calls after them, "Faggot." The majority of the audience found it funny or even ignored it. But one of my gay/straight alliance students felt under attack by his and their response.

In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues...

While Chicago’s Portia (Kate Fry) gains power in the courtroom scene, she ultimately suffers from the same problem I’ve seen with all women I’ve seen playing the part. She’s too old. Listening to the lines with a fresh ear, I now think Shakespeare intended Portia as younger, more impetuous, more a teenager willing to risk and hazard to get what she wants. A more mature Portia becomes merely willful and conniving and nasty. Her attempt to convince Shylock that “the quality of mercy is not strained” becomes totally planned and callous. What if instead she is younger, more na├»ve? What if she finds herself in a courtroom among men where the closest person to her husband is about to be murdered—in the name of justice? [One of the jewel moments in this production is Antonio being tied to his chair with his breast exposed, weeping like a condemned man and Shylock moving toward him like the vengeful Christians we’ve seen in the production.] What if her epiphany comes as she realizes she must stop Shylock from the murdering? In Chicago’s production, she literally steps between the two men. Is this the ultimate “good deed” of the play: saving Antonio’s life at the cost of “killing” Shylock?

Say how I loved you, speak me fair in death;
And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge
Whether Bassanio had not once a love.

I have read some critics and actors who see Antonio and Bassanio as lovers. [One goes as far as saying that Antonio is gay while Bassanio is bisexual.] Although this production didn’t take that approach, I realized watching the play how logical that choice seems. Bassanio is a Jason out to steal the golden fleece. He goes after Portia because she is rich, not because he is in love with her. Chicago’s Bassanio (Timothy Edward Kane) is handsome, charismatic, romantic… but ultimately we realize that the “love” the characters claim is merely the reflection of themselves in each other’s eyes. Were I to direct the play, I would have no problem approaching the “kin” as more “kissing” than “kind.”

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

Lorenzo states one of the direct themes of the play in the last act. We see in the play that Shylock cannot abide music while Portia welcomes it. In Chicago’s production, however, that contrast is not played up as much as I felt it needs to be. The solitary silence of Shylock has to be emphasized and Portia’s Belmont must be filled with music to help contrast the two worlds. Otherwise you lose the power of Lorenzo’s speech.

Unfortunately the most effective use of sound is in the car horns and garbage trucks in the street scenes of Venice. Portia and Nerissa sing the song while Bassanio ponders the caskets, but the song is used to blatantly have Portia tell Bassanio which is the right chest. A decision which totally weakens his character.

That light we see is burning in my hall.
How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

The Chicago production begins with a lighted candle on a stand which is blown out at the beginning. At the end, it is brought back in. This is an obvious reference to Portia’s comment about Belmont’s candle. But there are no good deeds in this production. And when the play ends with Antonio sitting looking pensively down, one wishes he would begin to cry as we saw him earlier. The world has not changed for him… and he is still not sure why he is so sad. Is that what hatred does to us?

The production runs until November 12.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

A 1920s Cleopatre

One of my finds on Ebay was this very 1920s Cleopatre by Herouard. The colored postcard was printed in Paris. The Egyptian craze of the 1920s, stimulated by the discovery in 1924 of Tutankhamon's tomb, blends in this picture with a very modern boudior portrait of a "bright young thing."

Friday, September 16, 2005

NOLA Architecture

Every year when I went to Mardi Gras, I had to get souvenirs to commemorate the event. Usually that consisted of a mask and a poster. In 1993 and 1994, I bought these great watercolors of NOLA architecture. I really like the clean graphic style. These would make great miniatures. The artist, Arelene Centohie, sold her pictures on the fence by Jackson Square, across from Cafe DuMonde. I hope she's still around and there for the next Mardi Gras.

A Mardi Gras Tale

My friend Jay in New Orleans is a great storyteller. He once told about a close friend who had lived in the city for years before moving out of state with his partner. When the man became ill, he asked his partner to take his ashes back to NOLA for burial. On the following Mardi Gras, the partner brought the ashes to the Jackson Square Cathedral and asked that his partner be buried there. Since he wasn’t Catholic and not from that parish, the priest refused. Distressed at what to do with the ashes, he had a brainstorm. He bought purple, green, and gold glitter and mixed it into the ashes. He then proceeded walking around the French Quarter throwing the ashes and glitter on the revelers. “It was wonderful,” laughed Jay. “Our friend loved Mardi Gras and got to participate one last time.”

"You don't bring me flowers." The photograph shows a Mardi Gras reveler costumed as Van Gogh, complete with sunflower bouquet. Photo copyright 1995 David Claudon

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Cleaning the Silver

A year ago I used to dread cleaning the silver plate items. But watching a home remedy show last fall changed all that.

To 1 quart hot water, add 1 T Calgon water softener, 1 T salt, 1 T 20-Mule Team Borax, and a sheet of aluminum foil. It’s amazing how easily this cleans silver without having to do a lot of rubbing. I had a garage sale piece that was black with age. I let it sit for awhile and had a whole new piece. It also cleans in those little crevices. Wash it with hot water, dry, and you have clean silver.

Monday, September 05, 2005

A Philosopher Novelist

What a delight to find a detective novelist who ponders philosophy in modern settings. This summer, I devoured Alexander McCall Smith’s series, beginning with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, where he follows the adventures of Precious Ramotswe in Botswana, Africa. It was a charming series and I throughly enjoyed McCall Smith's gentle viewpoint.

This week, I’ve discovered another of McCall Smith’s heroine’s, Isabel Dalhousie. In The Sunday Philosophy Club, we follow his philosopher amateur detective in Edinburgh as she tries to understand the death of a young man who fell from a balcony in a concert hall. In the midst of her adventure, Isabel has time to ponder such things as good manners and truth:

Good manners depended upon paying moral attention to others; it required one to treat them with complete moral seriousness, to understand their feelings and their needs. Some people, the selfish, had no inclination to do this, and it always showed. They were impatient with those whom they thought did not count: the old, the inarticulate, the disadvantaged. The person with good manners, however, would always listen to such people and treat them with respect.

How utterly shortsighted we had been to listen to those who thought that manners were a bourgeois affection, an irrelevance, which need no longer be valued. A moral disaster had ensued, (140) because manners were the basic building block of civil society. They were the method of transmitting the message of moral consideration. In this way an entire generation had lost a vital piece of the moral jigsaw, and now we saw the results: a society in which nobody would help, nobody would feel for others; a society in which aggressive language and insensitivity were the norm. (141)

The world, it seemed, was based on lies and half-truths of one sort or another, and one of the tasks of morality was to help us negotiate our way round these. Yes, there were so many lies, and yet the sheer power of truth was in no sense dimmed. Had Alexksandr Solzhenitsyn not said, in his Nobel address, “One word of truth will conquer the whole world.” Was this wishful thinking on the part of one who had lived in an entanglement of Orwellian state-sponsored lies, or was it a justifiable faith in the ability of truth to shine through the darkness? It had to be the latter; if it was the former, then life would be too bleak to continue. (164)

Sunday, September 04, 2005

In Katrina's Wake

This miniature of a New Orleans Shotgun House was designed by Braxton Payne and painted by David Claudon, 1998. It was based on the Harmony Street house of my friends. All photographs copyright 2005 David Claudon

My friends lived on Harmony Street. The shotgun house is close to New Orleans’ Garden District and they’d spent years fixing it up into a beautiful home on one side and a bed and breakfast apartment on the other. For seven years during the 1990s, my wife, friends and I stayed at our friends’ home for Mardi Gras and seasonal visits. I fell in love with New Orleans and Mardi Gras and the people’s “live and let live” response to life. I found it important that whether I lived there or not, the idea of New Orleans counterbalanced the straight-laced other half of the world I live in. My NOLA friends taught me that “It’s not my business what other people think of me.”

Divorce separated me from my previous life and my NOLA friends. Eventually I learned that one of my friends had passed. But NOLA remains alive in my heart; and the house on Harmony still retains favorite memories. Katrina brought those memories into sharp focus. Everyday has brought new horrors and reactions, to the point of making it difficult to process all the information coming in. It’s like watching the heart attack of a close friend, where you want to help but you don’t know what to do.

This Friday, as my cardiac rehab session was finishing, Billy, a middle-aged African American male whom I haven't had occasion to speak to, sat beside me and began a conversation about New Orleans.

"You know why it happened, don't you?" he began. I looked at him rather cautiously and said, "No, why?"

"Because God is punishing all those people who live down there."

"I beg your pardon?"

"He got tired of all that sinning... New Orleans and all those places down there allowed the gambling... All the prostitutes and drinking... All that HOMO-SEX-U-ALITY... God decided to wipe them out just like Sodom and Gommorrah. You know about Sodom and Gommorah, don't you? That's where he wiped out all those HOMO-SEX-U-ALS by burning them with pitch. Served them right."

I just kept staring. "Why do you suppose, then," I asked, "did He punish all those innocent children?"

"Because they were the children of sinners and would become just like their parents."

At which point the nurse said, "David, why is your blood pressure not going down? ... Billy you need to stop talking with David so he can get his blood pressure down."

And there I was trying to deal with the overload of information about the horrors of the aftermath of Katrina and finding myself inarticulate in defending my friends and NOLA and the whole Gulf Coast from Billy’s pronouncements.

All I could think was, “Billy, I don’t know what God you pray to, but I don’t think we pray to the same God.”