Thursday, August 10, 2006

attica-ruth magazine 10

scribendi cacoethes

Urbanity in the Jungle

“Goans are different”, said Artemisia, “Goans are special”.

She looked at her visitor expectantly. Gravely that lady fed her her line: “How are they different?”

Artemisia was pleased. “I will tell you a story. Two stories.”

The visitor settled deeper into her armchair.

“Last summer”, said Artemisia, “I was in Bangalore, you remember?” The visitor nodded. “I was standing at Asirvatham Circle, waiting to cross Residency Road below the traffic island. It was during the lunch-hour rush, on such a hot day that the tar on the road had melted. When the policeman signalled, traffic surged up the slope. Except one car. It would not budge.” She paused.

“And then”, the visitor prodded, fending off an exigent puppy demanding attention.

“And then, naturally, there was a traffic jam. But what a noise! Car horns, policeman’s whistle, abuse, jeering. Every passing cyclist – they were the only ones who could pass – had some useless advice for the driver, who soon lost his temper. Pedestrians crowded round to watch the fun.

“Anyway, I had better things to do, so I picked my way across the road and left. I looked back once, and saw that the policeman had abandoned his post – with what result you can imagine – and was standing by the stalled car. He and the driver were bawling at each other … Terrible!” Artemisia fanned herself vigorously. Panjim can be hot even in December.

“What a waste of energy”, the visitor remarked. “But that’s the urban jungle for you; selfishness, mindlessness …”

“Excuse me”, Artemisia interrupted, “Not all cities are like that. Let me tell you the second story.

“Two days ago I had some urgent business in Margao. Pedro always goes there for the weekend, so I asked him for a lift. I didn’t expect him to load his car with all three boys and two large aunts before stopping at my door. You’ve seen his car?”

The visitor’s headshake signalled “No”.

“It’s an ancient Fiat 600, much repaired. I would have excused myself when I saw how full it was, but it would be a long wait before the next bus. So I squeezed in.

“At the old Patto bridge the signal was against us. It changed and the fun began. You know how humped that bridge is; quite a gradient. Pedro’s car would not climb – could not climb, I should say. Just behind us was a Kadamba bus and heaven knows how many other vehicles. When Pedro tried again to start it up, the wretched car began to slip backwards.

“In a flash several men surrounded us, steadying the car, shoving stones against the wheels until they worked out what to do. Then they gave us a mighty push that did the trick. We were climbing and then we were over the bridge.

“All this was done with some good-humoured joking at our expense, but no loss of temper. Even the policeman on the bridge was amused. No traffic jam, no fuss and noise, only a little well-deserved loss of dignity for Pedro. As for me, it’s always satisfying to see the triumph of commonsense and goodwill … But then”, she concluded, “Goans are different. They are special.”

“They certainly are”, said the visitor, smiling at Artemisia.

[a talk on the enduring magic of Shakespeare's plays]

Shakespeare's plays were performed in all sorts of theatres, including galleried halls, but they are most closely associated with the theatre proper called The Globe. Perhaps it was so named for its almost round building, perhaps again because its actors and playwrights knew their art well enough to give their theatre the motto: Totus mundus agit histrionem. It is only a coincidence, though a happy one, that within the Globe were met on play afternoons a microcosm of Elizabethan society; just as on its stage were played dramas that represented the Elizabethan world view in the variety of characters they portrayed, and in the thoughts about an individual's relation to society that they embodied.

Music was a very important ingredient of Shakespeare's plays and it was available to him on his stage, wherever that might be. But music was almost the only device he enjoyed the use of, other than some comparatively elementary scenery and stage effects. For the rest one might assume, from one's twentieth-century vantage, that his stage and his theatre imposed more limitations than they provided facilities. And one would be wrong; most of all about Shakespeare's plays. Strangely, the supposed handicaps of playing in a largely unroofed theatre in broad daylight, without benefit of artificial lighting effects, and nothing like the production facilities currently available to create such illusions as a dramatist desires, were no handicaps to Shakespeare. They were liberating and stimulating factors.

As Shakespeare saw his plays performed at the Globe, there was no interruption to the subtly charged flow of the action on its way to an often electrifying climax; no artificial division of his drama by fall of cloth or of darkness while busy stagehands changed the setting of a scene as they do now. His plays moved with unselfconscious ease from location to location, making nothing of distance or of time; any country or no country that ever was, time past, time present, time that never was or that could, alternatively, be anytime. A throne room, a prison cell, a highway, a tavern of ill repute, a battlefield, a bedchamber, a forest; today, tomorrow, months later, twenty years after - the action encompassed them all without those illusion endangering factors the set change and the curtain drop, or the idle distraction of elaborate scenery, 'props' and stage machinery. So much for the liberating effect. There is also the stimulating effect.

Later generations saw ever more 'realistic' productions of Shakespeare's plays until there were staged some astonishing ones, fascinating in their devices and therefore tending to overwhelm the play itself. Today there is a greater tendency to revert to the simplicity with which the plays were staged (as we believe) when first presented. In part this has to do with scholarship, with sophisticated awareness of the power of theatre, and with taste. In part it has to do with the cost of staging an elaborately realistic production. Few have the money for such enterprises any more. The most interesting consequence of this change is that we are in a better position to appreciate the stimulating effect I spoke of.

Since Shakespeare's plays were performed at the Globe in daylight under the open sky, he had only one means of convincing his audience of thick darkness in an ancient keep, of a torchlit masquerade in an Italian palazzo, of moonlight in a forest glade, of elemental storm on a blasted heath. He had language - and with it he succeeded supremely well. What is more, he knew exactly what he was doing (and, one suspects, how well he was doing it) because that awareness lies behind the apologies of his Chorus in Henry V. Those apologies for the limitations of his stage are only a device of Shakespeare the Magus to stimulate the imaginations of his audience. Boldly revealing by the plain terms of his invitations to “suppose“, to “think”, to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts”, the means by which his audience must suspend disbelief, Shakespeare achieves his object precisely while he appears to be giving away his secret, for while the Chorus affects to deplore the deficiencies of the stage, he is actually conjuring up those very illusions that he declares he wished the stage could have sustained, or else what is the value of such lines as these:

Play with your fancies, and in them behold
Upon the hempen tackle shipboys climbing;
Hear the shrill whistle which doth order give
To sounds confused; behold the threaden sails,
Borne with th'invisible and creeping wind,
Draw the huge bottoms through the furrowed sea,
Breasting the lofty surge. O, do but think
You stand upon the rivage, and behold
A city on th'inconstant billows dancing;
For so appears this fleet majestical,
Holding due course to Harfleur. Follow, follow!
Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege:
Behold the ordinance on their carriages,
With fatal mouths gaping on girded Harfleur.
the nimble gunner
With linstock now the devilish cannon touches,
And down goes all before them.
and these:
Now entertain conjecture of a time
When creeping murmur and the poring dark
Fills the wide vessel of the universe.
From camp to camp, through the foul womb of night,
The hum of either army stilly sounds;
That the fixed sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other's watch.
Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
Each battle sees th’other's umbered face.
Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
Piercing the night's dull ear; and from the tents
Th’armourers accomplishing the knights,
With busy hammers closing rivets up,
Give dreadful note of preparation.

A reader of the plays misses much of the excitement generated by a live performance. Part of this excitement originates in the tension we feel between the reality of the actor who is 'inhabiting' a character, and the 'reality' of his acting that part. But much more excitement is generated by the irresistible and unstoppable forward rush of the play, every moment poised "on the razor's edge between the past and the future", word obliterating word, impression overlaying impression. Something of the kind happens when we listen to a live performance of music: like Faustus we would hold out our hands and cry, "Ah stay, thou art so beautiful!" But neither the sounds of music nor the magical words will pause for us. We can be sure that this at least is an experience we share with every audience of Shakespeare’s from his time to our own.

[to be continued]


A Better Resurrection

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numbed too much for hopes or fears.
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimmed with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.
My life is like a faded leaf,

My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall - the sap of spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perished thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.
~ Christina Rossetti

Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.