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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (12/1/08) 8:59pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Ugh.  Beaten up by Thanksgiving this time.]

Movies:  <none>
TV:  <none>
Books:  Titus Andronicus [Arden, 3rd ed.], Secret Societies

Titus Andronicus [Arden, 3rd ed.]
I continue my slow meander through Shakespeare with Titus Andronicus, which is sort of the redheaded stepchild of the canon.  For the last several hundred years, students of literature have gleefully used Titus as a punching bag -- the play filled with gore, rape, cannibalism, *and* enough godawful puns about gore, rape, and cannibalism to ensure that absolutely nobody would take it seriously.  I have seen only one theatrical production of this play:  my dorm put it on as a comedy.  The front row was provided a large plastic sheet so that theatergoers could protect their clothes from the squirting stage blood that coated the stage floor by the end of the show.[1]

If you want to be a unique voice among the critical establishment, you say, "C'mon, you guys!  Titus isn't *that* bad!"  If you want to establish yourself as a cineaste of refinement and taste, you talk up the Julie Taymor production of Titus, which does about as well as one could hope with the source material.  And if you want to prove you know useless trivia, you trot out the fact that it was far and away the greatest financial and public success of Shakespeare's career.  Then, as now, squirty blood gets bums in the seats.

So how did this play strike me upon reading it again?

Well, first off, the introduction was pretty bad.  It's still better than any of the godawful second-edition introductions, but nowhere near as understandable as the other third-edition introductions.  Editor Jonathan Bate does a good job of getting scross the structure of his arguments, but he assumes a breadth of context on the part of the reader that I just didn't have.  He alludes to (say) the difference between Ovidian and Senecan poetry in passing, and I have no idea where he's coming from.  My eyes would pass over a paragraph of that sort of thing, and I'd have to start again from the beginning because I registered none of it.

Most of the introduction is a heartfelt argument for the value of the play.  Apparently part of the problem is one of historical context; these days things like making fun of a woman who's been raped are strictly taboo, whereas apparently such things were comedy gold for a contemporary audience.  And the editor alluded to all sorts of subtle structural effects that Shakespeare really is deploying to dazzling effect, if you as a viewer take pains to appreciate everything on a symbolic level.  Sure, the play seems to cobble together its conception of Roman government from all different periods of Roman history -- but that's not a mistake, that's how Shakespeare attempts to grapple with the entire history of Rome all at once.  That and similarly-tenuous arguments struck me as intriguing, but did little to convince me that Titus is a good play to put on these days.  Brilliant people can make it not completely suck, and everyone commends them for such efforts, but this play simply does not want to be done well.

I went on from the introduction to the play proper.

And no, the play itself does little to convince me it's any good.  I got through the first act, and I'd already hit a half-dozen points where the characters' actions made anti-sense to me.  Again, a director and actor could really work at it and hammer out objectives that made sense of those actions, and clarify all the intricate plotty stuff that's crammed into act one, but... I dunno.  After a while, isn't it just stone soup?  The stuff you add seems to exceed the stuff you started with.

And yes, it has all these signs of things Shakespeare would explore and refine in the rest of his career.  And yes, that's interesting -- but mostly it just reminded me how I'd rather be reading those other plays from the rest of his career.

For example, you can argue that Aaron the Moor is a dry run for cunning Machiavels like Iago.  But the problem here is that arch-villains is only as strong as the heroes they outwit.  Iago isn't dealing with idiots.  To even come up with his plots in the first place, he has to be absolutely brilliant at reading people in power and recognizing their weaknesses -- and then after that, to bring the plot off, he has to improvise quickly to accommodate his targets' behavior.  You get the idea that, regardless of how the details played out, Iago would have wrecked Othello one way or another.

In Titus, it's different.  In Titus, evil wins because good is dumb.[2]  Aaron creates insipid schemes that just shouldn't work, but lucky for Aaron, if his idiot-maneuvers fail there's no play, so Shakespeare helpfully tips the scales in Aaron's favor.  Suddenly all the people in charge of Rome are gullible.  Apparently, all it takes to get a Roman to fall into an inescapable pit is to ask, "I wonder what's over there?" and then point towards it.  And if even that isn't enough, Shakespeare ensures that stupid coincidences break Aaron's way, and (if worse comes to worst) characters act in mind-bendingly arbitrary ways just so they can play out Aaron's latest scheme as intended.

Thus, I'm not afraid of Aaron, and I certainly don't respect him.  Anybody can get the better of moronic marionettes.

As for the other characters?  I'm sure most critics see depths to those figures, but I just see two-dimensional plot vectors.  Sure, there are hints of the amazing work to come.  There are deft poetic images in attractive monologs.  There are hints of subtlety, though not in the broad eeeevil of Tamor and Aaron or the blustery nobility of Titus or Saturninus.  And frankly, some characters are just blanks.  Is (say) Lucius really there on the page?  Do you finish reading this play feeling like you know Lucius?  I don't.  I see a play that puts it firmly on the actor to create a Lucius that's worth knowing.

And then there are stretches where the logic of the play just. doesn't. work.  Yeah, you can argue that the theater can... I dunno, create a ritual space that operates by magical-fairy-logic or something.  In that case maybe the audience would believe that the de-tongued and de-handed Lavinia couldn't find *any* way to communicate until she stumbled on a pile of schoolbooks and then pointed at relevant passages.[3]  Or that Titus would kill his son Mutius at the drop of a hat.  Or that nobody sees the mixed-race baby that Tamora delivers.  Or... meh.

Yeah, a brilliant group of artists could deal with all that.  While you're at it, hey, maybe they could make the play's rape jokes funny.

Again:  not saying it's impossible to put on a passable production of this play.  But lord, oh lord, this is not a play that *wants* to be done well.

Secret Societies by Michael Howard
"Peter, why did you end up reading a book about wacky conspiracy theories?"

Oh, don't ask.  I didn't read this one very closely, but read it closely enough to see what utter bilge it was.  Let's take a moment and dissect its very first sentence:
To understand the origins of the occult conspiracy as it first openly manifested in medieval Europe through the secret societies of the period, it is advisable to examine their ancient roots, which can be traced back to ancient Egypt and the classical civilizations of Rome and Greece
Okay, why is this a godawful sentence to start with?

First, let me digress and talk about an improv game.  The game is called "Color/Advance".  One improvisor tells a story.  The other improvisor occasionally commands "color" or "advance".  "Advance" means "move the story along" or "move the plot forward".  "Color" means "fill in details".

Why do I mention this game?  Because the start of a chapter, barring a cute & clever prose gambit, is the time for "advance", not "color".  At the very start of a big structural chunk, you just want to concisely lay out what you're going to talk about before filling in the details.  Mr. Howard's sentence, at the first sentence of the first chapter, is full of "color" where it's unwanted.  At this point, he should simply tell us that we're going to start by looking at the origins of occult societies.  He shouldn't squeeze in information about the nature of their appearance in Europe; perhaps he shouldn't even mention the specific ancient cultures in question yet.  Save the details for later in the chapter, and just tell us which way we're going.

Also, look at that awkward, quasi-passive phrasing:  "it is advisable to examine..."  Who is doing the advising?  And more importantly, what is their rationale for advising it?  When somebody reads your essay, they're always thinking, "Why the hell are you telling me this?"  The start of a chapter is a great time to not only tell the audience where we're going, but also to tell them why we're going there.  Mr. Howard never nails down why this chapter matters.

Finally, look at how the sentence is constructed.  Somewhere in this monstrosity is a neat parallel construction dying to come out -- "If we want to learn about <x>, we must first learn about <y>."  Mr. Howard does everything he can do bury this structure.  His <x> is "the origins of the occult conspiracy as it first openly manifested in medieval Europe through the secret societies of the period", an ungainly pile of phrases that we barely recognize as the object of the verb.  Then there's the limp, vague, "it is advisable" bit that we discussed before.  His <y> is "their ancient roots," which is nice and concise -- but then he ruins it by adding that extra clause, "which can be traced..." and so on.  Not only does Mr. Howard use passive voice, he keeps tacking on phrases:  oh, right, Egypt; oh, and there are classical civilizations, too; oh, right, the Roman and Grecian ones (as opposed to all those *other* classical civilizations?).

It feels like the repeated endings of Lord of the Rings, only without the awesomeness.

Sadly, the problems you see in chapter one, sentence one recur through the rest of the text.  There is not one elegantly-constructed sentence in the whole book.  Mr. Howard never imposes any clear structure on his constant blather of data, and he never clarifies how the individual chunks fit into any kind of larger argument.

Oh, and there's also the fact that he's a wacky, dismissable conspiracy nut.  Even to my quick read-through, his thinking is sloppy as hell.  Mr. Howard keeps going to the "it is said" well.  Instead of adducing a fact and backing it up with some kind of evidence, he'll say (for example) "It is said that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a Freemason".  Said by whom, Mike?  By you?  By a historian?  By the guy who runs the taco stand down the street?

Please to be footnoting and referencing?

So he throws out these piles of pseudofacts and follows it up with something like, "then perhaps it's not too far to conclude that <z>."

Note:  any time a writer tells you, "it's not too far to conclude that <z>," it's, like, *way* too far to conclude that <z>.

So anyway, that was that book.  Risible logic, execrably written.

For next time:  no travel, no dance exchanges, and I'm back to my usual diet of books and DVDs.  I'll get further through that audiocourse about the Bill of Rights.  I'll watch more of Dead Like Me and The Wire, and finish off a Harold Lloyd film.  And finally I'll start in on a Henry Jenkins book about modern media.

Didn't listen to anything at work this week.  Nothing new to report in the world of podcasts, either.  *le sigh*

[1] They also had a "Death Girl" who stood Vanna-White-like beside a chalkboard and added a hatch mark for every character that met an untimely end.

[2] ... with all due apologies to Spaceballs.

[3] If I recall correctly, the college production solved the Lavinia-communication problem by having Lavinia desperately waving her arms, painting things out in blood on the ground, and pointing out the wrongdoers while her oblivious family waxed rhapsodic with their ornate, showoffy classical allusions.  It was actually really funny.

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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (12/2/08) 12:46pm
[1] Courtney was Vanna, right?
[3] I thought the bit with Lavinia was truly inspired, I would heartily recommend it to anyone looking to stage titus. IMO it would also work if you were trying to play it straight...
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (12/2/08) 1:00pm
[1] Courtney was Vanna, right?

Yeah -- can't recall her last name, though.
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