Rachel Corrie

We saw My Name is Rachel Corrie at the matinee yesterday afternoon in the Seattle Rep’s Leo K theater. My wife had wanted to go during previews, but it was The Stranger’s review that finally got me to consent with its intriguing observation, “funny thing for a play—to try to de-fictionalize a person.”

After seeing Rachel Corrie I agree that, rather than fictionalizing historically existing people as is more usual in the theater, this play does indeed succeed in de-fictionalizing a figure whose tragic death has been swept up in political controversy, and restoring some sense of her quirky, individual, actual humanity to her. As someone said in the post-play Q&A, it was more like a memorial service to the real Rachel, than a play about her brief life and scandalous death beneath an Israeli bulldozer in the occupied territories.

And it was especially so this Sunday afternoon, with her parents and a sister in attendance, as we found out after.

They were also part of the Humanities Forum that followed hard on the Q&A in the Seattle Rep lobby. How to talk about this play as theater with the actual grieving family in attendance was a question for which I had no answer, and so refrained from making any contribution myself.

Others had no such compunctions. The first person called on after the panel’s presentation was an Arab American who said the case of Rachel Corrie was not complicated at all, it was just a simple murder. Among the last was one of the Jewish-American leafleteers who circulated before the show, objecting to the aid and comfort Rachel gave to Palestinian suicide bombers. Both wanted nothing more than to reclaim Rachel for propaganda purposes.

All the more impressive, then, the theatrical work this performance does so well, as evidenced by the responses of some people who had actually seen and paid attention to the play. One woman spoke up to say that the play didn’t seem to be primarily about the Palestinian issue at all, but rather about the issue of our common humanity, and how Rachel’s deep appreciation for it drove her to the activism she embraced.

A University of Washington student activist spoke up last, praising the play’s many resonances for her, and its celebration of the impulses that lead some to take direct action for social justice, whatever the cause.

What I would have wanted to discuss, if there had been the opportunity, was how My Name is Rachel Corrie seems a throwback to the most ancient form of drama, back to when Thespis legendarily first detached an actor from the chorus to speak in the character’s own voice – or even before that, to when the chorus told the story alone. Except that in this case, as befits our more individualistic age, it’s all Rachel – she speaks in her own name, and serves as her own chorus, except for the brief voice over at the end that tells the one thing she could not say for herself, the manner of her death.

And when all is said and done, the drama made from her letters, journal entries, emails, and a final video of her at age 10 or perhaps 11 reading from what must have been a prizewinning essay on social activism, does indeed play very much like an Aristotelian tragedy, albeit with other resonances that would be better theorized by a Rene Girard or Bertold Brecht. Rachel’s noble example inspires much pity in all of us, and doubtless even some real fear in audience members who can most easily identify with her, like the UW activist: a young woman swept up by her activist sympathies, studies and commitment into an action that, tragically, results in her death, through no real fault of her own.

True, she does make some crucial errors that lead up to it – first in going to Israel on a bit of a whim, then, after the reality of the situation confronts her, in thinking her privileged white internationalist status will still probably keep her, unlike the Palestinians she tries to protect, safe from the Israelis. Alas, it probably would have, if a government could control all its solidiers actions, which it can’t. Rachel’s final error lies in thinking that the best way to regain her footing and prevent the tractor driver from running her over is to hop up on the mound of dirt he’s creating to get his attention – since as a fellow moral human actor, he of course wouldn’t run her over if he could avoid it, right? – when that seems only to have put her in the immediate path of a violence that by that point had gotten out of even his own control.

Rachel also estranges our ideas of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, turning it from the quotidian headlines we ignore into a situation we agree is intolerable, and should be made to stop before it claims another victim as blameless as Rachel, if not as recognizably American – someone actually, in fact, stateless – before it claims another dispossessed Palestinian like those Rachel was trying to protect.

As such, perhaps the pro-Israeli leafleteers are right to protest this play – it will do much to discredit the tactics they’ve used against innocent Palestinian settlers, out of frustration at not being able to stop the suicide intifadaists who, pari passu, are busy making innocent victims of some poor Israelis on the other side of the conflict.

Yet even so, I think they are wrong to. This play could just as well inspire another Rachel Corrie to mount some kind of non-violent direct action against those very suicide bombers – or, more likely, given the difficulty of getting close enough to that kind of bulldozer in time to have any effect, against those that organize and fund them. Rachel Corrie is just that even-handed in its humanity.

After all, it was the Israeli government’s error – or at least its bulldozing representative’s – that transformed the now-historical Rachel Corrie into that kind of thing from which anti-Israeli – and even anti-Semitic – propaganda is made.

Those who support Israel – maybe not precisely as it is, but as it could be – should be happy that, finally, here’s a play that restores Rachel to her common humanity – in all its precocious, exhuberant, naive, conflicted, committed glory – and makes all who see the play glad we share our own little bit of it with someone like her.

Such a character, properly considered, is almost by definition useless for propaganda.

And that’s a start.

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Intiman annual meeting

My wife and I went to the Intiman theater’s annual meeting after work last night, out of curiosity to see how a nonprofit organization like this is managed. It was a strange experience.

The vast majority of people there seemed to be either current, former, or pending board of trustees members. The audience was asked to vote on new and renewal board members, and a number of other things.

My wife and I dutifully joined in ratifying all the motions. But we were puzzled: were we actually eligible to vote? What was our role in this meeting as invited donors – but not trustees? Not being familiar with the business end of nonprofits – this is the first annual meeting of any we ever attended – we were somewhat confused.

Apparently annual meetings are really just for board of trustees members, even if ordinary donors like us are also invited. The evening seemed dedicated to celebrating their history and accomplishments in supporting the Intiman, and in inducting new members into the clan.

Judging by appearances and a few overheard conversations, members are recruited from a certain class of people of which my wife and I have little or no experience – wealthy, well-connected people who sit on multiple non-profit boards, and probably several for-profit ones too, and spend some of their time hosting house parties to raise money to meet the cash flow needs of their favorite theater – and since 2000 with the establishment of the Intiman Foundation, to grow its interest-bearing endowment as well.

Besides raising money from others of their class and contributing some of their own, certain individuals assume leadership positions on the board and serve as mentors and colleagues of sorts to their staff liaison, the managing director Laura Penn. They supervise the elaboration of mission statements, attend conferences and hit Broadway with the managing director, call her up to discuss specific parts of plays after showing up unannounced to catch them at odd times during the run, and of course oversee the hiring of a new artistic director from time to time – currently Bart Sher – when the position comes open.

It all seemed slightly out of character with the kinds of productions the Intiman prides itself on staging – Nickeled and Dimed, Native Son, The Grapes of Wrath (my account of which began this blog), and the annual Black Nativity. The Intiman is a theater that prides itself on its social conscience, yets its board feels like any other board, as I suppose them to be – clubby, eager, corporate, smug. While nobody mingles at the Happy Hour nights the Intiman stages before one performance per run for the more plebian of their patron – people quickly hit the buffet and the drink line, then go corral a table for private confabulations – these board members are like a moveable cocktail party, buttonholing each other and mingling not only with drinks and snacks after, but drinkless before.

I even seemed to detect a slight softening in Bart Sher’s account of all they’ve accomplished together leading up to the regional theater Tony last year, a lack of specificity what precisely their most successful local productions have brought, moving beyond Seattle’s borders, to the world – so that he reduced Nickeled and Dimed to the “living wage” movement, Cymbeline to a Shakespeare that impressed even the Brits, and Light in the Piazza to the best Broadway musical since he first became aware of them himself 40 years ago. Perhaps to be more specific would risk alienating some of these benefactors, raising issues they would prefer not to recognize in the very plays they support: the greed and exploitation of bosses both big and small, the nobility of the disenfranchised and lost, the sanctity of seemingly inappropriate marriages – perhaps, allegorically, even those between gay partners.

Or maybe not – maybe Bart is just not that good a critic of his own impressive and ever more successful work. And after Googling the board’s president, Susan Leavitt, this morning, maybe I misjudged the character of the Intiman’s board members overall: while last night she seemed merely a somewhat officious member of the ruling class a little too fond of organizing her peers, this morning I come to find she’s a social worker by trade, working for Swedish hospital, and her husband Bill Block recently quit his lucrative real estate law practice to direct projects for a local homeless organization.

True, he does draw a salary of $86,000 a year… – a mere pittance I suppose among these people, which he may very well dedicate entirely to charity or other worthy nonprofit causes – indeed, perhaps to the Intiman itself, given his wife’s leadership role.

But that’s just the problem, it seems to me: the kind of people who oversee the business end – and to certain extent the artistic side – even of left-leaning theater like the Intiman make more money annually than most of their audience members make – and make it even when they’ve left their formerly lucrative careers to take up charity work.

And when they invite ordinary donors to their annual meetings – but do not really expect them to appear – and ask them to ratify without consultation the continuing hegemony of their own class over the operations even of a left-leaning theater like the Intiman – controlled by the most liberal of rich people one could ever hope to find – well, they don’t even have the courtesy to explain what we’re doing there to us.

Do I have a second? All in favor?


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enigma variations

My wife and I heard Elgar’s Enigma Variations at the Seattle Symphony last night. Before the end I was humming Rule Brittania to myself, and flashing on Queen blasting out the last four notes of God Save the Queen – with no prior schooling in the controversy and little formal training in music.

There’s really no enigma here, even if music critics apparently can’t agree on the obvious. The stated theme begins with the same notes as “never, never, nev-” from Britannia’s refrain, and through all the variations they keep calling out for their completion, whether with Britannia’s “ne-ver shall be slaves,” or with “Go-od save the Queen” – they are precisely the same notes. Abetted by the similar pomp and circumstance of the piece, they practically induce the enigma’s solution through aural hallucination partway through the piece – as they did in fact with me.

Then again, I suppose I am a special case. My university training was in literary criticism and theory – where every recorded utterance is taken to be an enigma in need of interpretation and explanation – and my PhD dissertation and one published article before I left the profession resolved historical and political enigmas central to More’s Utopia, Shakespeare’s Pericles, and Milton’s Areopagitica. (links to follow)

I was good enough at it that my solution for the Pericles enigma – that Antiochus’ riddle in the play refers to no less a person than King James and his project to unite England and Scotland after succeeding to Elizabeth’s throne – while almost as obvious as the Elgar solution for anyone at all schooled in the history of the period, was even at this late date scandalous enough to cost me my main dissertation advisor at the time, and to help ruin my once promising career the longer I continued to pursue it.

(Alas, I must admit I started going down the same road recently when I took advantage of an email opening to suggest to Bart Sher that he tackle the play in Seattle with my input, for which he probably put me down as a crank – but he’s off for New York soon anyway, I suppose.)

I expected the thesis would win me some measure of fame and respect, and help earn me a tenure track job. Instead, I found Shakespeare scholars generally as tone deaf as Elgar ones in entertaining even the most obvious interpretive innovations – as this one continues to seem to be.

And I’ve cultivated the role of something of an enigma myself ever since leaving academia. I’ve finally decided it’s about time I stopped wrapping myself up in so much obscurity, and began revealing a bit more of where I’m coming from, both on this blog and in other web publication projects – in particular some new things I’m planning, after leasing out my old domain shakespeare.com (I did secure that consolation prize at least from the ruins of my professional career), on my new one shakespeareandme.com.

At least, that’s my New Year’s resolution. We’ll see if this year I can follow through.

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bigger is better

Native Son is the best play yet in the Intiman’s annual American Cycle.

I started this blog criticizing the last installment, Grapes of Wrath, for its lack of passion and immediacy. Native Son is the opposite – in your face and up your alley from opening to duplicate close of an entirely naked Bigger Thomas on stage, staring you down with a crazed look in his eye.

Never mind that there’s little call for so much nakedness – based on my theatrical experience in Seattle and elsewhere, it seems to be something actors and actresses enjoy doing. You’ve got to be a bit of an exhibitionist to enter the profession in the first place, after all.

Here it betokens the naked revelation of this character’s interior life we’ll be privy too throughout, via vocalized interior monologue and extreme examples of acting out.

(time for a shower – to be continued later)

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I won the Wicked lottery

My wife and I saw three very different musicals in the past several weeks, only one of which truly succeeded.

The worst of the bunch was Bombay Dreams, which we caught at the 5th Avenue. I’d picked up our usual seats – upper side balcony, the cheapest in the house – at lunch one day. But since balcony center never sells out, we didn’t have to sit there – we purloined seats that cost three times as much before we even made it up the stairs.

It’s hard to say why Bombay Dreams was so disappointing – it just was. The sets weren’t spectacular enough, they just looked confused and trashy. The story was trite overall, yet bizzarely offputting in details: why make unexplained eunuch transvestites the hero’s childhood companions, and then have his hypocritical rival just kill one of them off onstage in an open and shut crime whose only justification is to clear the way for a more conventional relationship with the rival’s fiancee at the end? It was just weird.

Or maybe a little more than that – maybe Bombay Dreams is fighting a rear guard action against progressive attitudes, introducing transvestite eunuchs as central, fundamentally good characters – but only to eliminate them – and exposing the public interest lawyer fighting on behalf of slum residents as a monster – a shill for developers, and a murderous bigot in his actual opinions of the lower castes.

It also didn’t help that the actor playing the hero was a bit of a wash – tinny voice, dancing a little on the dorky side, unable to muster enough manly sex appeal to make the story convincing.

On the other hand, Bombay Dreams did have the most memorable new song of all the musicals we saw – Chakalaka Baby, which my wife and have both kept in singing in and out of the shower ever since (though it did finally degenerate into the tune of If I were a rich man from Fiddler on the Roof). No other new song had the gift for jingle of this – an index of the sharp decline in American musical theater since the advent of Lloyd Weber and Disney in the 80s and 90s. The jingle part is just nonsense, though.

Wicked was better. Yes, as indicated in this post’s title I did indeed win the Wicked lottery: 2 very fine seats in row P center orchestra for only $25 apiece, along with lime green “I won the Wicked lottery!” buttons for each of us. We showed up just before 5:30pm the first performance night, put our names in a hat – and I was drawn 3rd, my wife 5th. Since we only needed two tickets, she declined to purchase hers.

Actually, we already had seats to sell that night – two in the first balcony that we bought for cost from a subscriber via Craig’s List. And we’d already sold two we’d bought ourselves for Thursday afternoon in the 2nd balcony – thanks to subscribers and scalpers, who we found trying to sell seats we’d passed up during the internet presale for outrageous markups on Ebay, the best we’d been able to buy ourselves on Ticketmaster – at cost to the hostess at Jillian’s, who responded to our own Craig’s List ad: her mother came for an unexpected visit, and she wanted to take her to Wicked. After eating at Bambooza, we managed to sell our balcony seats just before the show to a daughter who was trying to take her parents to the show, but only one of them had got the last ticket. Fortunately a lone woman showed up wanting a ticket, so she took theirs, and they took ours – all at cost, of course. We hate scalpers, they just make life hard for people who really want to go – when as it turns out, getting really good seats at the last minute can be absurdly easy, if you’re lucky – and there are almost always good enough seats available if you hit the box office early the day of the show.

Apparently Wicked is very popular with young women, who come in groups or with their mothers to see the show. And that’s both the show’s strength and weakness: the story and the songs are catnip to young women just finishing or just out of high school, validating their construction of the world as a scary place best navigated though close, if conflictual, relationships with other girls, the more different from themselves the better – along with romantic attachments to boys, the cuter, the richer and the more misunderstood the better.

The songs were too Disneyfied for my taste, overwordy tomes set into overamped ballads that reminded me of the Alladin show we saw a year or two ago at the Backlot section of Disneyland’s California Adventure. Yet I could see how young women would lap them up: they were either direct expressions of the most intimate recesses of the female characters’ inexhaustible subjectivity, or romantic duets with the male love-object character. They certainly had a lot more going for them than the stagey and forgettable Lloyd Webberisms of Bombay Dreams.

Wicked was also more up front about its politics, and they were of a more progressive character than Bombay Dreams: the Wizard here is a parody of Bush the Anti-Terrorist in Chief, magnifying the importance of a mostly imaginary enemy in order to attentuate opposition to his policies at home. Only here the enemies are talking animals, imprisoned and tortured into losing their voices – not supposed terrorists waterboarded in Guantanamo.

What was the best musical show we saw? Cirque de Soleil’s Love, presented in the renovated Siegfried and Roy theater at the Mirage in Las Vegas, hands down.

While there were no new songs in Love, there were all the best and most psychedelic riffs from the entire Beatles catalog, expertly remixed into a total immersion wall-of-sound by Sir George Martin himself. Marching ranks of clouds and other Magritte-style surrealisms are projected on screen on all sides without you, while within their mutable confines an articulated stage discloses ever-changing assortments of the most picturesque and colorful characters manipulating, and being manipulated by, the most amazing props in a 90 minute homage to the transformation of consciousness we all thought was being wrought during the 60s and early 70s. Cirque’s usual, almost inconceivably spectacular acrobatic antics were here almost entirely subordinated to doing something really trippy with the song, so much so that by the end of the performance you felt like you’d participated in a strange kind of acid test, which had left you completely exhilirated, but with only the foggiest memory of some of the most impressive things you’d witnessed there.

They shouldn’t serve drinks and beer in the Love theater, which they do, providing cupholders in the arm of each seat. Instead, there should be hookah hoses for everyone, dispensing quick hits of a new designer hallucinogen that wears off too quickly to cause any bad trips – but supplies more than enough to keep you tripping nearly constantly thoughout.

My wife took her own parents to this one. I think they enjoyed it only slightly less than we did.

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mon cher Richard III

My wife and I fondled a Tony award for the first time Friday night courtesy of Bart Sher, who passed the Intiman’s for best regional theater around the audience of his Richard III after-play Conversation. It was smaller and cheesier looking than I expected, though heavy for its size.

The same might be said of Sher’s Richard III, its length cut by a third, presided over by a silent character added to many a scene – King Edward’s Mistress Shore, gaudily dressed like a high-class saloon girl, a refuge from the HBO series Deadwood – typically looking abashed and somewhat confused as to what she was doing here.

Sher adds color through lots of cheesy fight and groping scenes, too, as if this were Deadwood indeed, not Deadwood’s original Shakespeare. After becoming king, Richard doesn’t just verbally abuse the allies of whom he’s become suspicious, but actually beats them up on stage. The women, he doesn’t just seduce and threaten, but grab and grope – most notably Queen Elizabeth, whom he practically molests onstage after she bluffs that she’ll marry her daughter off to him.

And speaking of cheesy, Richard’s finally adversary and successor Richmond, the future Henry VII, comes across as a showy near-psychotic himself, and is made to indulge in a knock-down, drag-out mano-a-mano with Richard outfitter like Captain Hook – who like some kind of Transformer catches him on his hook in risible fashion for a time, until Richmond pulls it off his hand and brains him with it.

What Bart thinks he’s doing with these embellishments is anyone’s guess. They don’t seem to add anything interesting to the play – they’re just odd and off-putting, initially intriguing but finally simply distracting. As is the addition of some lines from the last Henry VI play where Richard compares himself to Machiavelli, right in the middle of the opening monologue, ruining the much admired perfection of its tone and flow.

Finally Sher sends us away into the night with the Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want blaring from the PA system, a weak recollection of the more successfully flip, if also flippant, Happy Trails that came on at the end of his cowboy Cymbeline several years ago.

On the other hand, Sher’s RIII is weighty stuff. We’re not allowed to relish Richard as a cartoon villain, “like Vice in the old Morality,” allowed to struct his stuff for awhile until the morality-play structures of drama and the Tudor outcome of history restore order by giving him what he deserves.

Instead, this Richard is portrayed too realistically, too pathetically, too much like a man whose evil’s moral dimensions we must ponder – instead of simply enjoying his agency as the scourge of God set loose on deserving prey.

Apparently Sher decided, after a Shakespeare hiatus of a couple of years at the Intiman, to bring RIII back onstage because he feels some resonance between it and the contemporary political scene – hence the weightiness. Something to do with having to make the moral choice of whether to follow a hypocritical leader (read Bush) into morally suspect situations, or to resist him and suffer the consequences.

But we Shakespeare lovers know Richard, Richard is a friend of ours – and Bush, whatever his failings (and they are manifold), is no Richard. Instead, as the play progressed after the intermission Richard began to seem more like a Sadaam Hussein, a man who increasingly exposes himself as a totally self-centered, unconscionably murderous tyrant, placing his subordinates in the ticklish situation of hating to obey him, but knowing the alternative is their death – or if they have the balls to flee, the death of those they most love, yet must leave behind.

And unfortunately, that kind of undercuts any Bush parallel, doesn’t it – especially when it wasn’t really there to begin with.

It might sound like I’m panning the play. I’m not – it was definitely a well-done, interesting RIII, if a bit peculiar. But I did have issues with it, and could only wonder why Sher chose this moment to produce it – instead of play like, say, Pericles, which might actually have more resonance with the contemporary political situation than RIII, especially since while the Intiman lacked for Shakespeare, he advanced his New York reputation by directing it at BAM a year or so ago – and chose to give it these strange deformities.

And so during the Conversations with Bart period, where I usually keep my own counsel, this time I actually sought out chairs for me and my wife, instead of hitting the buffet line first as usual, and took the opportunity to ask a couple of questions of Bart and the cast.

First, in response to Sher saying he thought the play resonated well with the Bush regime, I offered my observation that in this production Richard actually reminded me more of Sadaam. I further observed that while Shakespeare’s play flattered Queen Elizabeth by portraying her grandfather Richmond/Henry VII as the hero of the piece, Sher makes him indulge in an undignified mano-a-mano combat with Richard, and also makes him seem kinda crazy himself. Was that intentional?

Bart replied that it was, and he was aiming as usual for ambiguity and complexity, and wanted to suggest that you become like the thing you oppose.

Okay, now, I’m sorry, but that’s not this play, which recalls medieval morality play forms to promote a very defined value structure: Richard evil, Richmond blessed – which might have been clearer if Sher hadn’t cut the part where the ghosts of Richard’s victims, after cursing him, bless Richmond.

Not wanting to make a pain of myself like the RIII Society looney that kicked of the night’s questioning with a distribe in defense of the historical Richard, I didn’t of course say as much. Hopefully my question itself implied it.

Later, after someone else had inquired about the omission of the Richard’s coronation scene, I asked about the additions Sher made – the conflated opening soliloquy, the dumbshow Shore, and a third thing I can’t remember anymore. What was up with these?

Strangely, at first Sher denied the opening soliloquywas altered – but the actor who played Richard contradicted him, and admitted the Machiavel lines from 3 Henry VI were added. Then seconded by rueful noises from his wife – in my favorite scene of the play, she tears Shore away from King Edward’s corpse and throws her headlong on the ground, as if she’s pissed off not only in character, but in her own right that Shore intrudes on the scene – Sher admitted he’d added Shore, because just like historically Queen Margaret was actually dead at the time of the events portrayed, yet haunted Shakepeare’s scene, so he thought Shore should – though again, precisely why seemed obscure.

And again, out of courtesy I didn’t press my case – but merely ventured the observation that according to contemporary evidence, the most popular plays of Shakespeare’s later career were Pericles and a play called, and about, Shore – for which information Sher gave me thanks.

And so I too would give Sher thanks – I really like the jaunty risks he takes with Shakespeare’s plays – if he did a bit more research before rehearsing, and didn’t rely so much on catch as catch can for his technique, but thought a little more deeply about how the theatrical work Shakespeare’s plays performed in their original context might be replicated today.

Don’t try this with RIII: the only work it could perform would be to validate Bush as Sadaam’s scourge. Bring Pericles to Seattle instead: not the way Sher’s probably done it before, unaware of the original mockery it mustered against James and his Bush-like regime, but the way I’d do it – if, like Sher, I only could.

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My wife and I took a vacation in Maui last week. We stayed at Marriott’s Maui Ocean Club. It was just going to be a week on the beach – Ka’anapali beach, to be exact.

That’s why we booked the vacation as fall was setting in last year, after we hadn’t made it to any beaches in the summer – we went to Manhattan to catch The Pillowman, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Doubt in June, and Washington DC in September to celebrate my mother’s 70th birthday, instead. United’s frequent flyer club sent us an offer that looked almost too good to be true – less than half what you’d typically pay per night for a 5-night stay. So I said to myself what I usually say to her after we’ve discussed the latest travel deal she’s found online, “book ‘em Dano.” And after the months had finally rolled around we went, even though, given my recently extracted tooth, we weren’t in the best mood for travel – but not so bad to warrant paying a rebooking fee.

Also as bad luck would have it the Oscars were on the first night of our stay, a special double episode of 24 the night after, and the end of Project Runway the final night of our stay. We watched all but the last, Bravo not being available on the Marriott’s system – though we fell asleep for most of the Oscars, since we’d gotten up at 3am to make our 6am flight, and in Hawaii they show them tape delayed during prime time, not live in the middle of the afternoon as we’d hoped.

So neither of us actually saw Jack Nicholson announce Crash was Best Picture, until it was replayed on the Today Show the next morning. We went to bed disappointed, not because we’d missed Nicholson but because Crash – Grand Canyon with a fatal dose of bogus racist discourse that you can’t imagine anyone today saying, together with an equally unbelievable scene of shocking sexual violence, thrown in for good measure, inventing controversy for controversy’s sake, instead of discovering some real ones to depict – had won over the much better Brokeback Mountain – and also because Reese Witherspoon had won for her similarly unbelievable, personality-plus depiction of June Carter Cash, over the much more accomplished – though also somewhat perky, appropriately to her character – performance Keira Knightly had given in Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet.

As for Brokeback, we saw it the day after Christmas and were suitably impressed – though the Friday before Easter would have suited its subject more. It wasn’t a great movie – Cassablanca will remain my favorite romantic picture – but it hit most of the bases, even if the pacing was slow, and the overall effect was just way too sad. My wife was saying “I wish I could quit you” to me for weeks – to which I’d always replay, “If you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it,” in our best Wyoming accents. And the Canadian scenery was spectacular, and enough like Wyoming to remind us of the drives to Medicine Bow mountain we used to take during the year I taught Shakespeare and Renaissance literature as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University in Laramie – my last posting before I gave up on an academic career.

Matthew Shepard happened 7 years later in 1998 – the year after Annie Proulx’s story appeared in the New Yorker, making it seem prophetic. Alas, the one part of the movie that didn’t ring true is the scene where Ang Lee takes this reputation literally, and makes Ennis’s passing conjecture that maybe Jack’s death wasn’t an accident – “No, he thought, they got him with the tire iron” – into a too vividly realized replay of a scene very much like Shepard’s murder. We looked the passage up the next day to confirm our suspicions – the one place where Brokeback itself goes overboard into the sensationalistic territory Crash wallows in throughout. It also distracts from reasonances the understatement in the story must originally have had, pre-Shepard: Ennis justifying his choice not to settle down with Jack through this conjecture, conflating present-day Texas with the Wyoming of his father, who made him look at a murdered gay rancher’s body when he was a boy – the very scene that convinced him he could never come out. And the wish fulfillment involved in making this into something other than an automobile-related accident – just as Ennis must have wished throughout his life that his parents hadn’t left him an orphan through a car crash of their own, driving “off the only curve on Dead Horse Road.” Sometimes tragedy just doesn’t make sense; if you can’t fix it, you gotta stand it.

But then it’s no longer tragic, just really, really sad – passionate youth realizing its ultimate destiny in played out, rueful middle age, the misfortune of playing it safe.

(to be continued)

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Life has been so hectic since just before Christmas that I’ve fallen far behind on blogging – which I’ve also been taking too seriously, as if I have to write a polished essay each time, instead of just a journal entry, from which a book of essays might later be quarried. So I guess it’s about time to start catching up – a process which will take several entries over several weeks, I’m afraid.

I had a tooth pulled and an implant inserted in its place on Tuesday. The tooth – third from the back molar on the top left – had been bothering me ever since I’d bit down hard on an olive pit a few years ago in my favorite locally baked bread – Dahlia Bakery’s Kalamata Olive Ciabatta, the only artisan bread in Seattle with a thin delicate crust. All the rest, except for the baguettes at the authentic French place in Pike Market, are horrible thick chewy affairs, which make me miss the Acme bread I’d eaten in the Bay Area terribly. Alas, all this delicacy merely serves to hide the treachery of the pits that somehow slip past their bakers with alarming regularity.

I’d thought of complaining at the time, maybe asking for restitution; but like most of us, I’d no doubt weakened the tooth well before the pit encounter through years of crunching on those delicious half-popped kernels of popcorn – which sometimes turn out to be not quite half popped. Or the unpopped kernels that sometime attach to the most addictive of supposedly healthy, but actually quite unhealthy, snack foods – SmartFood cheddar-coated popcorn, which as I recall I first discovered working long hours in the Yale computer center on graduate school essays, before the advent of the home PC.

So when I bit down on a partly cooked grain of Spanish rice at Cactus in Kirkland last Saturday, heard a crack and felt a sharp pain, I wasn’t really surprised – though I was pissed off at my continuing bad luck with teeth at the beginning of holiday weekends, in this case Presidents’ Day weekend, when dentists are increasingly hard to come by. The first time this happened was Memorial Day weekend my second or third year in graduate school, when I bit down on a bone chip in a burger I’d just barbecued, but had the good fortune to find a dentist willing to come into the office that very afternoon to do an emergency root canal (my first) on it.

The last time was again on Memorial Day weekend, but just two years ago, when a crowned molar started aching and I discovered that my own dentist did not even offer an emergency number. I called my wife’s dentist, who prescribed codeine – but the pain was so intense, even the codeine didn’t succeed in fully blocking it, though it did finally diminish. On Tuesday I went to my dentist, who informed me I’d endured the death of the tooth, after which the pain of course diminished, since the nerve was gone, and sent me to the endontist – they’re quite high tech these days, shoving microscopes in your mouth, drilling right through the existing crown, sucking the pulp out and filling the root canal with whatever it is they use in record time, about a half hour. We were on our way to celebrate our anniversary at the Sooke Harbour House on Victoria Island – my dentist had said we’d be able to make it, and should, he still remembered the meal he’d had in their dining room himself – by the early afternoon.

After this I decided to switch dentists, of course – you never know when an emergency might arise – or would inevitably, as I learned again last weekend. Plus when a little inflammation continued to bother me the next week, he offered to prescribe antiobics – and told me I need only take half the course of them, and could save the rest as an emergency supply for another time – bad advice, and the surest way to contribute to the emergence of supergerms resistant to all antiobiotics. Now if only I could find a dental office that’s staffed on an emergency basis 24/7 – fat chance in 21st century America, despite all our progress – though something you probably could count on 19th century Deadwood America, judging by the TV series created by and typically written by an ex-drug addict who was once Cleanth Brooks’s – or was it Robert Penn Warren’s? – New Critical protege at Yale, to whose signature brand of elevated Shakespearean obscenity we’ve become addicted ourselves, so long as the dentist was in town.

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radio golf

We saw August Wilson’s final play Radio Golf at the Seattle Rep on its second “pay what you can” night Tuesday.

I wasn’t expecting to like it all that much. We’ve gone to several Wilson plays over the years since we were lucky enough to catch a then-unknown Charles Dutton in the Yale Rep premiere of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom while I was in graduate school, and Dutton in drama school, at Yale in 1984.

The real fire of Ma Rainey came from recent ex-con Dutton’s performance. The play, like all August Wilson plays I’ve seen since, was amusing in parts, full of conflict in others, and entertaining throughout – but seemed of historical interest merely, speaking little to the concerns of the present day. It was like going to a museum, or attending a lecture, or listening to a Wynton Marsalis concert – a fine representation of the past, but of limited moment now. It was like seeing Raisin in the Sun…today, not when it first hit the stage. The passions it presented, once so vital, had long since dried up.

Or in other worlds, for me Wilson’s “Pittsburgh,” “African-American,” or “20th-Century” Cycle (the name is still in flux) has always been a lot like the Intiman’s American Cycle – whose flaccid presentation of the Grapes of Wrath goaded me to begin this blog – the antithesis of an engaged theater, too historicist to be downright political. The kind of stuff that would set Brecht rolling in his grave – if it didn’t put him to sleep again first.

But boy, was I wrong. Radio Golf turned out to be the most activist play I’ve seen in many a moon. Wilson seems to have been patiently setting the scene for its political fireworks all these years – and emboldened by his own impending doom (he found out he was dying of liver cancer while developing it) – or by his Cycle’s arrival (at last) at the near-contemporary late 1990s – decided to let his arrows fly at his present-day enemies at last.

So who’s the villain of the piece? Hold onto your hats: not so much whitey as the upper-middle class black guys who conspire with rich and powerful white guys to become their junior, affirmative-action-friendly cohorts, even if it means betraying the black community that spawned them and their own upper-middle class black friends and partners.

Wilson here embodies this type in Roosevelt Hicks, the partner in a condo redevelopment with our hero Harmond Wilks. Hicks at first engages our sympathies complaining about how boss at the bank resents being forced by the board to promote him over his own candidate to Vice President – we at first think the boss must be prejudiced, and only later realize Hicks must have been exploiting the board’s desire to appear progressive. Hicks quits to become the black front man in a rich white golf partner’s takeover of a black radio station – even here we are rooting for him, he has such fun hosting his own program on his and Wilks’s favorite passtime, the rich white man’s game of golf.

But Hicks finally loses all sympathy when he conspires with said rich white golf partner to push Wilks out of the condo development and illegally raze a house that was once the pillar of the black Hill community to please Barnes & Noble. Wilks opts out to join the resistance.

(Starbucks, thankfully, comes out smelling like a rose: they thought Wilks’s plan to preserve the house and build the condos round it was just fine – Wilson’s final farewell to his adopted city’s biggest cultural landmark, I suppose.)

In retrospect, I guess I should have seen this coming. I haven’t seen or read it again in two decades, but as I recall the moment of greatest conflict in Ma Rainey comes when trumpet player Dutton confronts the title character about the compromises she’s made with white men to become a success – and she bests him with her defense that without her, he’d never have had the opportunity to make a name for himself as an artist, and be in a position to think about rejecting her and striking out on his own. She did what she had to in unpromising circumstances not only to succeed herself, but to bring admiration to the black community through her artistry, and give her band members a measure of success as well.

Today the case has changed. For talented people of every color, circumstances are much more promising. But do they only seek their own success – or to raise the boat of everyone in their community? Sadly – like rich white people have for centuries – mainly the former.

The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer – so much so, that today it’s reached the tipping point last attained in the late 1920s. The ship of state must soon founder – or so we can only hope. Whose side are you on?

August Wilson with his dying breath lent his voice to the only logical choice for the most of us. It’s a pity he could not live on to make more of his last, most dramatic initiative.

We’ll just have to take care of that for ourselves, I guess.

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tax the rich

Before it closed December 5 I finally got around to submitting an idea to the SinceSlicedBread.com contest for the best idea to improve the life of working Americans. The idea was simple: Tax the Rich.

Hardly original, yet clearly an idea that would vastly benefit your average working American – but so out of vogue after a decade or two of what used to be called “voodoo economics” and “read my lips: no new taxes” politics that when I searched the 10,000 previous entries I could find nothing like it.

Instead, the closest match I could find was something about eliminating taxes on the rich to stimulate the economy and so make jobs for working people – confirmation, as if any were needed, that voodoo economics has now become the reigning ideology in America, if not the world.

The details of my idea were equally straightforward: take 99% of all income that would put someone among the top 0.1% of incomes – a group that pulls in 10% of all income earned in America these days – and 90% of income that would put you among the top 1%. After that’s done you can start taxing the rest of us.

Did I really expect to win with this entry? Of course not – though as with entering any lottery, you always have hope. Especially since the top prize was $100,000 – and my chances 1 in 10,000, all other things being equal. At least I might be one of the 21 finalists chosen by a committee of eminent Americans (the usual suspects – ex-politicians, corporate and non-profit board members, establishment academics, etc.) – my chances were better than 1 in 500 of that. And judging by the few I looked at, the quality of the other entries was generally poor.

But I did hope to make people think, and maybe get an honorable mention out of it to help repropagate the idea. And failing that, I could always blog about it here.

Just before the deadline arrived, I logged back on once or twice to submit a few other unusual ideas – Eliminate the Need for Unions, Found a “99% of Americans” Movement, Award Jobs by Lot, Hire Kids Right Out of High School, and Test All Promising Drugs. Someone else had already submitted another pet idea before I got around to it – Nationalize Health Care – so I just submitted a glowing review of it. And I forgot to submit another pet idea I’ve long meditated – Treat Corporations Even More Like Individuals – which would have involved giving them a finite life span similar to ours, and making them liable to such criminal penalities as being put in prison (i.e., out of operation for a term), or even death for the most egregious malefactors.

Did I intend any of these ideas seriously? Well, yes, I must admit – but I also intended them in the utopian vein I learned from Thomas More, when I wrote a chapter of my Yale Ph.D. chapter on his The Best State of a Commonwealth, and the New Found Island of Utopia; I’ll have to post a link here sometime so anyone who’s interested can see what this means precisely to me. For now, I’ll just have to say – I also intended them to shock people a little, into an awareness of how unjust and indefensible current economic arrangements actually are. Kind of like saying – Wake Up! Don’t you realize you’re getting screwed?

And unlike More’s situation under an absolute king like Henry VIII – we live in a democracy, and could easily do something about it, if only we could shake off the fog of all that received wisdom the apoligists for the rich have fed us over the years – and the slave mentality we’ve internalized, licking our wounds. Why don’t we?

Beats me.

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