The Play’s the Thing…

…wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

Shakespeare in the Park is doing Julius Caesar this summer, not Hamlet, but the reference is an apt one nonetheless.

Somebody’s conscience (or self-love, or something) has definitely been caught by this year’s modern-dress, Trump-inflected production of Julius Caesar, and they’ve unleashed the flying monkeys roused far-right protesters to disrupt the performance.

Shakespeare himself would have no doubt at all about what’s going on here.  The twin questions of what makes a good ruler, and what can or should be done when the realm is suffering under a bad or unjust ruler, run like a streak of red through all his plays, from early ones like Richard III to later ones like Hamlet and The Tempest.  He never comes up with any definitive answers – he was a playwright, not a political philosopher – but he certainly gives the matter a thorough inspection from all sides.

Make no mistake, what he was doing was Serious Business.  The Elizabethan censors didn’t worry about bawdry†; they worried about sedition.  Fretting too obviously about, for example, whether or not it could ever be a good and necessary thing to overthrow a reigning monarch could definitely be regarded as seditious if there wasn’t a convincing enough veil of “this all happened a long time ago, or in foreign parts, or both” thrown over things.

Art mattered.  Shakespeare knew it.  The lords and the groundlings at the Globe Theatre knew it.  The Elizabethan censors knew it.

Furthermore, art still matters.  The people who put on Shakespeare in the Park know it.  The audience knows it.  And the alt-right protesters and those who egg them on sure as hell know it, or this production wouldn’t worry them so.


The general rule for reading Shakespeare, as articulated by Elizabeth Bear: “If it looks like a dick joke, it’s a dick joke. If it doesn’t look like a dick joke – it’s probably a dick joke.”

Photographic Evidence

Or, Robert Frost gets it right again.

Falling Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall….

Tree roots and the freeze-thaw cycle, to be specific.

The freeze-thaw cycle is also responsible for frost heaves, which can give the roads up here a corrugated appearance in late winter and early spring, and likewise for the epic potholes that show up a little later.

Me and Walt Whitman and Alfred Noyes

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d….”

Come down to Kew in lilac-time . . . .”

Lilac

Walt Whitman lived somewhat south of here, and his lilacs bloomed in April, the same month that Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter, and that four years afterward saw the end of war and the funeral procession of an assassinated president:

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d
women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces
and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices
rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around
the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs — where
amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

American lilacs, at least of the poetic variety, have carried that freight of connotation ever since. British lilacs, on the other hand, lead a more upbeat poetic life:

Go down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
  Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer’s wonderland;
  Go down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
The cherry-trees are seas of bloom and soft perfume and sweet perfume,
  The cherry-trees are seas of bloom (and oh, so near to London!)
And there they say, when dawn is high and all the world’s a blaze of sky
  The cuckoo, though he’s very shy, will sing a song for London.
The nightingale is rather rare and yet they say you’ll hear him there
  At Kew, at Kew in lilac-time (and oh, so near to London!)
The linnet and the throstle, too, and after dark the long halloo
  And golden-eyed tu-whit, tu-whoo of owls that ogle London.
For Noah hardly knew a bird of any kind that isn’t heard
  At Kew, at Kew in lilac-time (and oh, so near to London!)
And when the rose begins to pout and all the chestnut spires are out
  You’ll hear the rest without a doubt, all chorusing for London:–
Come down to Kew in lilac-time, in lilac-time, in lilac-time;
  Come down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)
And you shall wander hand in hand with love in summer’s wonderland;
  Come down to Kew in lilac-time (it isn’t far from London!)

The lilacs in the yard next door are blooming as intensely and fragrantly as any of Alfred Noyes’s, as are the ones in front of half the other houses in town, not to mention the ones by the Congregational Church and the Civil War Memorial. Which comes back around to Whitman again, and the funeral train heading west from Washington to Springfield.

More items of cultural metaphor taking up space in my local reality.

Once Again, Robert Frost Was Right About New England

“Nature’s first green is gold….”

In other words, the trees have finally leafed out.

When I was a cheerful young undergrad going to school in Arkansas, I thought that mud-time was something that Frost made up for poetic purposes; likewise, the birches bending “to left and right/Across the lines of straighter darker trees.” Then I moved up here, and realized that he’d been making his poetry out of sober observation all along.

As do we all, even if we’re writing stories set in worlds completely of our own imagining.

A Movie For The Rest of Us

The other day, for reasons having more to do with a desire to get out of town than anything else, I found myself watching Bad Moms at the Rialto Theatre in Lancaster, New Hampshire.  And I am here to tell you that this is a movie that is far better than it needed to be.  (My expectations going in were low, mostly because it was billed as coming from the team that gave us the – in my opinion – entirely unnecessary bro-comedy The Hangover.)

The second screen at the Rialto used to be the storefront next door, until the theatre acquired it and retrofitted it with a screen and modern theatre seating for about 45 people – a much smaller venue than the main theatre (which has old-school seats that date from the Fifties, or possibly even the Thirties, and also has the largest screen north of Franconia Notch), but a cozy one.  When I was there, the house was sold out, and the theatre operator said afterward that it had been selling out every night.

Counting my husband/co-author, I think there were three male persons in the audience.  The rest of us were female, with all age ranges represented (somewhere, the Triple Goddess must have been laughing with delight), arriving not just as singletons, but in whole gaggles.

And make no mistake – we, and not the guys, were the film’s target audience.

If most movie critics are dissing this movie . . . well, I think it’s pretty fair to say that they are not this film’s target audience.  After all, it doesn’t serve any of their usual purposes: There’s none of the explosions-and-excitement of an action flick; it doesn’t get you seriousness-and-sensitivity points like the cinematic equivalent of a literary novel; and it’s definitely not most guys’ idea of a date movie.

Bad Moms is, in fact, the distaff equivalent of a bro-flick (sis-flick? maybe.)  If the narrative arc of your typical bro-flick involves one last wild irresponsible fling before settling down into respectable-but-boring adulthood, the narrative arc of a sis-flick would appear to feature a breakout from respectable adulthood into a wild irresponsible fling.

(This trope is older than you’d think.  In the 1700s, the lord’s wife ran off with the raggle-taggle gypsies,O,  and if in some of the earliest versions she and the gypsies all met a bad end, it wasn’t long before the story took on a more cheerful configuration.)

What makes Bad Moms more than just a funny movie, though, is the hard truth at its core:  The modern world does its best to set moms up to fail.  It’s not acceptable for a mother to be adequate at the job, getting the maternal equivalent of a “gentleman’s C” if at the end of the day the kids are fed, washed, healthy, and out of jail; it’s not even enough to finish with a solid B+.  In the school of modern motherhood, it’s straight A’s or nothing.

Obligatory writing reference:  The funniest humor almost always has a piece of hard truth at its heart.  That’s what gives the humor its weight and striking power, like a snowball with a rock in the middle.

Bad Moms knows a true thing about modern motherhood, and calls it out for the rigged game that it is – and that is why all us moms at the Rialto laughed out loud and kept on laughing.

So We Saw the New Ghostbusters Today

Short verdict: Haters to the rear. It’s a good movie.

It’s not just a good movie, it’s a good genderflip AU, in that it doesn’t just paste the guys’ names and roles onto some female bodies actors and call it a day, it actually asks itself things like, “If this basic character type had been born, raised, and socialized female, what would she be like?” and “What sort of public reception would these people doing these things get if they were four women and not four men?”

So the Venkman character as played by Melissa McCarthy is not the at-least-50%-charlatan that Bill Murray’s version was; and the four ghostbusters, instead of getting citywide acclaim after their initial successes, are treated in the media (with the connivance of City Hall and Homeland Security) as being either frauds or delusional or both.

An all-male remake would have just been putting a new coat of paint onto the chassis of an old classic; by going with a true genderflipped version, the creative minds involved managed to take their inspiration from the old classic and use it to say some new things. And the haters were right to be scared of it, because – in its lightshow-with-explosions kind of way – it’s pointing a mocking finger at the very sort of male privilege that they’re so obnoxiously, and anxiously, defending.

So yeah, go see it. And stay through the credits.

Sir Walter Scott’s Aunt Meets the Suck Fairy

Once upon a time there was a Scottish lawyer (and poet and novelist and, eventually, a baronet) who had an elderly aunt.  She was an avid reader, and had been for all her life, and as happens with avid readers, one day she took it in mind to revisit a remembered favorite author of her youth.  Because she was having trouble finding copies of the lady’s work, she wrote to her nephew requesting that he procure for her some of the writings of Aphra Behn.

Her nephew was somewhat take aback by the request, since Behn’s literary star had undergone considerable eclipse since the days of the Restoration, and her personal reputation along with it.  (She wrote for money.  She wrote about sex.  She had no visible husband, and possibly never did have one.  She had Catholic sympathies.  She worked as a spy for Charles II, who never did pay her for it – which is where the writing for money comes in.  Which was all to the good – except for the “not getting paid” part, of course – during the rock-and-roll years of the Stuart Restoration, but didn’t play quite as well under the House of Hanover.)

But young Walter Scott (for it was he) was a good nephew, and sent his aunt the books she had been looking for.  Not long after, she sent them back to him with a note requesting that he get rid of them:

 But is it not, she said, a very odd thing that I, an old woman of eighty and upwards, sitting alone, feel myself ashamed to read a book which, sixty years ago, I have heard read aloud for the amusement of large circles, consisting of the first and most creditable society in London!

What she hadn’t known was that in the intervening years, the works of her old favorite author had been visited by the Suck Fairy, that malevolent sprite who sneaks into the pages of fondly remembered texts and sprinkles them with (these days) racism and sexism and other problematic isms (or, for Sir Walter Scott’s elderly aunt, rude language and sexual content.)

The good news about the Suck Fairy, though, is that she doesn’t necessarily stick around forever.  It’s too late now for Sir Walter’s aunt to recover her fondness for the works of Aphra Behn, but present-day literary scholarship has recovered somewhat of Behn’s reputation, and no less a writer than Virginia Woolf said of her, in A Room of One’s Own:

All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds… Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind but was of practical importance.

As for what writers of our own time will have their works visited by the Suck Fairy in twenty years, or fifty, or a hundred, and what writers whose works are now regarded as irrecoverably visited by suck will be rehabilitated by readers and scholars of a future age—

All I can say is, like so much about this business, it’s a crap shoot.