Monday, April 16, 2012
pulling down the roofby Douglas Messerli
The Brechtian-like work, complete with songs (music by Dudley Moore), is a cry for passivism in a time when British and American society were moving full-blown into more and more international conflicts. The incidents which sparked Arden's play occurred in 1958 when British soldiers killed five innocent people in Cypress. By placing his play in a period of pre-Kipling redcoat soldiery, however, Arden shifted the theme of Serjeant Musgrave's Dance into a timeless statement of anti-war sentiment.
The four soldiers—murderers, robbers, and deserters—descend upon a small Northern English town with vague motives. The locals, none too happy for their appearance, are in the midst of a mine strike, and are fearful that the soldiers have been placed in their town to keep order should their negotiations break down into riot. The local authorities (The Parson, The Constable, and The Mayor) see their arrival as a chance to get rid of the mining agitators, if only Musgrave and his men are able to get them to volunteer into the army.
The first half of the play is taken up with the local's suspicions and the military men's attempt to allay them. But Musgrave is not at all easy with his own intentions at creating anarchy. A highly religious man, he believes still in duty—even if that sense of duty has shifted to disobedience. Most importantly, he is man of conscience, horrified by the death of a young friend from the very town which they are visiting, a soldier whose skeleton is among their processions.
In this atmosphere of suspicion and opportunism, things do not at all go right. The soldiers waver in their obedience to the man they have nicknamed "God." And their own desires, particularly their admiration for a local "soldiers whore," Annie, get in the way of Musgrave's mission. Although Hurst and Attercliffe spurn Annie's sexual attentions, the younger Private Sparky lusts after her, and is even willing, so it appears, to desert the deserters, asking Annie to hide him until they might run off together. The other two, overhearing his intentions, try to prevent him, accidently killing him on the point of his own bayonet.
Hanging the local boy Billy's skeleton from a plinth, Musgrave tries, with weapons at the ready, to find volunteers for his anti-army. Annie, however, reveals the murder of one of their own, as Musgrave's lofty intentions begin to crumble, Hurst shouting at him: "You've pulled your own roof down!" Suddenly loyal dragoons, called for in case of a riot, appear, arresting the deserters.
The last scene reveals the imprisoned men, scolded by the innkeeper Mrs. Hitchcock for their lack of understanding. The men's only hope is that when they are hung, a seed from their actions may begin an orchard, that something might grow out of their ineffective but well-meaning words.
In many respects, Arden's play is a brilliant statement locked away in its own level-minded cynicism. The values it declares are perhaps admirable—a complete shake-up of the militarist British world—but its hero, Serjeant Musgrave, still a product of that world, is not strong enough in intelligence and will to transform it. Arden may argue for a revolt against the class system, but such a revolt can never occur, he reveals, through the principles on which that system was based—God, duty, honor. Musgrave presents himself only as another kind of God, not a true alternative to the system which destroyed his own faith.
Los Angeles, April 14, 2012
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
living in the detailsby Douglas Messerli
Samuel Beckett Waiting for Godot / Los Angeles, Mark Taper Forum (the production I saw was on April 7, 2012)
Yet, for the first time in this moving production, I became aware of just how spare Beckett's great work truly is. My companion Howard, enjoying the first act, however commented on the obvious: "Beckett seems to have presented all his themes in the first few minutes. I can't imagine what he might have to say in the second act."
Well, I mused, "That's true. But his themes are really not what matter most. The fact that we live in a universe promising the return of a missing God, that some men, like Pozzo, are entirely about themselves, mean men of power who do nothing but to rule over other lives—while those themes are certainly there in Beckett's work, they are not central of the play at all. Suffering, despair, pain, boredom, yes, these are the givens of Beckett's universe, but they are not what makes his work so remarkable. It is the various ways, the numerous things we do each day to get through the suffering, despair, pain, boredom, loneliness, etc. that are at the center his plays and fictions. And that is everything, isn't it?"
By the end of the 2nd act, Howard, who had never before seen a production of the play, understood what I was talking about. Beckett, more than nearly any other playwright, takes chances in Waiting for Godot by so pruning down the play's large themes that the work almost mocks itself. Particularly Estragon, who is always about to or, at least, declaring himself ready to do so—even though his time apart from his long-time companion, Vladimir, results in endless beatings in a ditch—is reminded again and again by his friend that their existence on this bleak plateau with only a tree and a rock is to wait, to wait for Godot. That is their only purpose, despite the seeming meaninglessness of that. Whoever this Godot is, whether he is the personal God of vengeance (if they don't wait, Vladimir suggests at one point, they will be punished) or a New Testament God of love, it is clear that Godot may never come, may never return their patient and often impatient waiting on earth. He may not even be a loving God; after all, so we are told by the messenger boy, he beats the boy's brother. What kind of deity is that?
Such a structure, wherein the author reveals the creative act itself, is a dangerous one, particularly for an audience which may desire to be told everything, to be led forward by the author himself. In Waiting for Godot, however, the audience is put on edge, wondering what these two fools will come up with next, how will the plot move forward, how will they get through yet another day? But in that wonderment, the audience members are forced to reimagine their own lives. Even the theater piece they are attending is a kind of way to pass the time, to move forward through the day. They too must go home, eat a carrot, chew on a piece of radish, crawl into the ditch of their beds to be pummeled in lonely dreams throughout the night. Some may even contemplate bringing it all to an end. But most will arise to meet again, to work, to talk and haggle, cry and laugh, just like the two clowns of Beckett's play do through the two days we witness of their lives.
Monday, April 9, 2012
a dance play:
MONOLOGUES FOR ORPHEUS
FOR THE PERFORMERS
Every time anyone says ‘I’ or uses any first person singular pronoun, it is Orpheus speaking, and the actor who is Orpheus must say those lines as far as they seem to carry the impulse of that first-person saying…
Orpheus, who spoke it is said for the gods, or for God, curiously disguised the source of what-is-being-said by pretending that he himself was saying it.
This guise is the source of the power and confusion of all poetry—it rouses without settling, illuminates without being clear. At its best, it brings the hearers to a resting place, a calm desert where they have never been before. In their ears resound the whining, boasting, wheedling, pleading, smug, delighted, innocent, corrupt personality that calls itself “I”. But already they know better.
So this Orpheus speaks. All round his lines are passages of text that can be, must be, spoken by other voices. I do not think any of them are Eurydice’s voice, though a few of them might be spoken by a woman who, in sorrow or bitterness or rebuke, thinks for a moment of herself as Eurydice.
The rest of the voices are who you are. The director will decide how many voices are needed, and will assign to each voice the passages chosen for it to speak.
It seems to me that among these texts are voices of scholars, psychiatrists, historians of life and art, young men of no fixed persuasion, experienced urgent women, each saying what comes to mind. I leave it to the director to find which actor best embodies each text, both invoice and visual seeming.
And they must move or stand as the director tells. What (I ask with humility) I’d like is for the actors to do what their bodies want to do as their voices speak the words.
One thing I do know is that Eurydice herself is always present, always in motion –you decide, actor who plays her, director who moves her, how and how fast she moves. She has no lines because traditionally and ignorantly poetry construes the beloved as an object, out of earshot, a fantasy of the poet’s wishing. This silent figure recurs in all love poetry, even, it seems to me, in poetry written by women. The ferne Geliebte, and she must be far off to be so vocally, wordily, yearningly, gorgeously, loved.
So here I offer a tumult of voices, some words for actors to speak, finding their way in space and body to what poetry has aimed at for four thousand years—the end of saying.
PROLOGUE IN THE THEATER
ORPHEUS was the poet, the emblem of his art, not the first but for the Greeks the greatest. By the power of his words in music, or the music in his words, or maybe his words as music, he was able to make trees dance, they say, and boulders skip around in meadows. The usual myth (and what other myth is worth the name but the myth that everybody knows?) tells us that his wife, Eurydice, was bitten by a snake and died. Orpheus went down to the Underworld to fetch her back, and by the power of his song charmed (song as charm, magic spell, Latin carmen = poem), charmed the beasts and bosses of Hell enough that they let Eurydice return to life, up here, as long as Orpheus did not look at her as she followed him uphill. Or ever again But he looked. And lost her. The first opera ever composed (another lost art?) was about Orpheus, and the greatest 18th century opera Mozart never wrote, was Gluck's Orfeo—
later, in the middle of the play, you’ll hear a tenor sing the most famous line from it. And Rilke, purest of poets, composed his final cycle to Orpheus, song singing to song. In the play,I've tried to understand something about the dynamic of the man and woman in the story.
[The first public performances were done in the workshop context of a staged reading on 24th and 25th February 2012, at Bard College, directed by Marjorie Folkman, who also moved as Eurydice. The speaking roles were acted by Thomas Bartscherer (Orpheus), Florian Becker (C), Lynn Behrendt (B), Mikhail Horowitz (A), and Paul La Farge (D). On that occasion, The prologue continued, adding what follows:
But first, to lead us in, we are to hear the music of music, the one that leads, teaches, any other kind. David Adam Nagy will play an allemande by Bach, human breath strumming the lyre, impossible, the wood of the bassoon is the tree, dancing. Then Péter Laki will sing three Hellenistic Songs by Adrienne Elisha, songs to texts from the last centuries of that Greek world into which Orpheus, like Apollo, had come from the north. And finally we go to the outskirts of hell, to hear the voices Orpheus sometimes hears, and how he sometimes answers.]
TELL US ABOUT the part they leave out—
what (or who)
is the snake that bit … or was it killed. . .
or was it carried off Eurydice?
For a poet, so much comes from insecurity,
poetry is the song of insecurity,
litigious Shakespeare—poets own everything—
as persons they’re not entitled to anything, baseborn every one of them,
only by dint of their calling
they feel entitled to all.
For poets, all times are the same time,
so they are poor students of causality,
they don’t know what comes after what
they “count, but not in numbers”
they speak, but too many words, too many words.
But still too many.
Try to feel from his writing—what is Orpheus. Or who?
He had no son—that is of the essence
of his story—no sons, a hundred
He is himself the snake that bit her foot
He is himself the snake that bit her foot
Jealousy is not the truth of it—
fear and insecurity gnawed at him
he snapped at her, she died.
he snapped at her, she died.
And of me, what shall be spoken?
Am I a dead man already?
That patch of sunlight
I keep studying on the grass,
is it under me or over me.
I know certain things—memory’s
make-believe, a crow calling
me to now. If this you hear
you’re living still. A crow.
Information of all kinds
from the realms around me
I have never entered.
I have never been born—
that is the poet’s ailment,
constantly picking up this leaf,
stone, touching that hand,
yearning for his own incarnation,
and who can give it to them?
Give it to me.
are leaving me now
like the gods who shuffle away from Antony
under the streets of the city
and I have no streets anymore.
They leave me, and that’s why
I stupidly reach out—
because all I know of life is wanting her,
and now when she, the one,
moves away from me
I lose the clue to going on.
He is not fond of these confessions—
that’s not what writing is for.
He is always talking
as if talk had nothing to do
with all that music
they keep calling it,
‘lyric’ of the lyre, words
spun from tones,
tones primed by words,
no one knows which comes first—
in the museum there’s a marble statue of him naked
playing a violin,
and the violin has no strings,
his lips are beautiful
no sound comes out—
no song? word or tone?
He looks out over the summer lawn
quiet as stone.
As if talk had nothing to do with poetry
and poetry nothing to do with going on.
And while he’s pondering and muttering
(hearing himself think, is what we call it)
this voice-over murmurs its commentary,
a nest of rabbis humming over the book.
Voice-over they say in movies,
the voice you hear and think you see.
You cannot see the voice.
You cannot see the voice and live.
And while he stands there and does what he does out loud
and voices fall from everywhere around him
Eurydice also is there.
Alive and silent
if silent people can be called alive.
Silent in this place and every place she is
because he has never learned to hear her.
But still she moves.
We see her dancing.
We see her move like someone waking up
someone falling asleep someone dying
someone waking up again—
but all the while she dances
he thinks she’s dead
she’s behind him, she dances behind him,
whatever’s behind us we think is dead.
He thinks the snake bit her and she died.
He thinks the snake killed her.
Orpheus sometimes thinks he was the snake, he killed her with neglect, put other women before her, sang their songs, put her behind him and she died.
It is his fault.
Orpheus other times thinks he was not at all the snake, the snake was someone else, a sly adulterer who carried her off to his sleazy realm and made her forget him, made her put him behind her. It must have been his fault.
And other times Orpheus thinks Eurydice was the snake herself, her own wandering ways took over, so she wandered off, slithered away, and was gone, over the hill, beyond the forest, across the sea, dead to him, dead with distance.
He must have bored her with his endless verbiage, word play, heart songs, or not held her tight enough, or held too tight. His fault.
Orpheus thinks all these things, and can’t decide.
He can’t make up his mind.
A poet can’t make up his mind—
the poem makes up his mind for him.
Some say Eurydice killed herself.
Some say Orpheus killed her.
Some say she never died.
A myth is what happens to the mind — when it stops thinking.
The orderly wrongness of being me
chided by birdsong
early, the skreel
of night things ever after—
the fault is mine
he is the guilty one,
the pointer out, explainer,
child babbling in the back seat
the names of all the things they pass
how irritating, maddening really
that is, the ceaseless chatter
of a mind trying to confirm
its own existence by naming
all the things it sees the things it wants
how irritating the ceaseless
commentary of poetry.
No wonder everybody loves me
and nobody really loves what I speak.
what shall we make of her,
an honest broad-faced wench
all too soon promoted to alterity?
it is so hard to be somebody’s Other
meantime in silly urgency
he craves Isthmia,
snake-hipped, virgin-harlot, temple prostitute—
But shouldn’t he be the worshipper?
Endless confusions of Orpheus—
his mistakes interest him, he
finds his starting place
in whatever goes wrong
he makes us listen ever after to what baffles him
happy, humming them under our breath
for it was breath
where it all began
when it was any good at all
Some say art smothers breath,
blinds the eyes, stuffs the ears.
If he thought it into place
it stank like the dead meat
of that turtle whose shell
he lifted so painfully off had
made the first soundbox
for his lyre, because meat
is what thinks
but breath is what speaks
Orpheus sneers at the sophists: these men
(and it is mostly men, isn’t it,
who do philosophy, alas)
these men are silenced by ideas
as adolescent boys drown
all night in visionary thinking
from which no word can ever speak—
What is vision?
seeing the unseen
This body will not dance
they dance around me
all around me, all
the ones I thought
thought I meant
but they return, they
mean me now
and the dance wills body—
o all these ones
are not the one…
[VOICE OFF, SINGS:]
che farò senza Euridice?
She was the only one
who brushed my words aside
and smiled and loved me
despite my music—
for her I was what so
few poets dare to be,
a human on earth, stuck
here, glad to be,
thick with breakfasts
working for a living
and grumbling at the weather,
nobody special, hence genuine,
I was that one to her,
without her I am not that
to myself, and come
to be like all the other geniuses,
ridiculous and noble,
statue to my own identity…
Writing is his mode of being.
Slow opening of ancient files
police digging in the cellar
all I am is a bone of what there was
Mythology lets you talk about yourself
unashamed, shamelessly even,
like Oedipus babbling in the woods—
lets everybody know
the monster that I am
and what I’ve done
with this body of mine
she gave me
—one last cry, “Mother!”—
I have heard that dying men call out to their mothers—
but my mother told me the last word she heard
her mother calling out was her name, Maggie, Maggie,
and the street was full of snow. And the doctor
was walking away. Maggie, for Margaret, from a Mediterranean
root meaning ‘pearl.’
Everything comes from the sea—
the water that snakes its way from the mountain springs
from the monsoon rains from the clouds’ intimate rubbing on the hills,
snakes its way down and fills the sea to its brim,
we are the brim,
we live on
ill-balanced between the elements
It’s when I feel you so close in dream
that waking I most feel I’ve lost you—
either feeling I could bear but the both
together slay me. So I tied
a rope around your hips and drew you
there was not slack left enough
to tie a knot, so instead you looped
the rope over your wrists
held out to me; this I knotted loosely
and pulled you after me
from the dream. The stories say
I looked back and lost you –
nonsense: looking never lost the looked at.
What happened is I opened
my eyes on the hillside up from dream
and lost you in the glare of common daylight.
And when I close my eyes
I swear you still are there,
right here, I mean, between
all my past and that slim
knifeblade of a future, just
as you are in all my poetry.
Orpheus is consoling himself. He picks up the sheaf of his recent work and thumbs through it, looking for her. He’s like an old rabbi busy at his pilpul, trying every dodge to find her, Her, in every line.
Shakespeare put beautiful poems in the unlikeliest mouths; character is his excuse for poetry. Orpheus, earlier, dared to
put songs in no one’s mouth
yet we can hear them sing
and by such empty song
he forced us to pay mind.
But who said that?
And what mind is it that songs rouse to attend?
At last at least the current runs
after a day or two of pleasing lyric sputter.
Now down your harps, ride the torpedo,
full seed abaft!
For the woman
was always behind me.
That is the secret. The word,
almost, that I was always
turned away from her
but she was always (I thought)
in my mind.
But she was nowhere
but where she was,
now I know better.
She was my mind.
With this kind of funereal philosophy
he could almost conquer silence—
When I turned back
that famous day
to look at her at last
I was looking at my mind.
As the Lamas say,
when your mind
looks at your mind
the story ends.
Narration is confusion.
The myth says this, then that—
but you know what myths are,
the lovely lies
that keep us half-awake.
The myth called it death,
as if losing the story was losing the woman.
But we know better—
we never know who is speaking—
who knows? who knows better?
and what is known,
is that also dancing,
now here and now lost —found—
in some romantic shade?)
but who is speaking?
The woman, even this one,
even the she of all my poetry,
the woman is not life,
she gives it, surely, always,
to everyone who dares to be born,
and sometimes even to his poetry,
and she takes it away, sometimes—
but she is not life.
She is the mind from which life spills,
the matrix from which life comes
as an almost unnoticed consequence
of her awareness. Of Awareness.
A fall perhaps,
an Eden in the eye,
where awareness seeks
an object to be of,
this goes beyond my element
which is to sing
what I don’t know
and lick my half-guesses
loud enough for you to hear
who are not she,
not Eurydice, are you?
Is every loss the same loss?
into which she falls
are the same everywhere,
dark lymph of the world
nothing is lost from the world
but she is lost, she
is lost only from you
not from herself
not from everyone.
To be a self is to lose the rest
Be pretentious, little poet,
push your fancy far as you can
be what you pretend to be
then unmake the fancied image
later and go free
you must have a self
before you can abandon the self
there is no self—
indulge the imputation:
be a pirate a little while
a diva, a deva, a boon
companion of foxes and wolves,
even some man’s wife
and then get over it,
the self is a sickness from which we can recover
he sang, but the self he lost
was not his own
the self is a sickness from which no man can recover
VOICE OFF, ANNOUNCES:
What could distract anyone from the other?
Isn’t the other all there is out there?
Who are these people reading me
with such big eyes?
The oak tree pierces my song
the birds are busy at it
building and breeding, things
things he knows nothing of,
Orpheus has no children,
only songs, only the sounds
of all the birds, all the people
doing what he does not know.
Did the birds read him?
Did they rend him?
Do we tear apart the mind of what we read,
our fitful eyes and lusts
tear up the quiet suchness of the text?
We always hear that girls tore him apart,
bassarids, bacchae, bacchantes, Aglaonice—
No, he is torn apart by what he remembers,
all the images that crowd his mind crowd out his soul,
his mind was in his eyes and his heart was in his voice,
he watched all of them, all the women
and his voice called out to each of them
as if he meant her and only her,
he couldn’t tell the difference,
and each one heard his song as if it meant only her.
how could it be different,
isn’t that what song is
or does, a singling of out everyone
everyone who hears it
knows it’s just for him
this entryway is meant for you alone
my song’s a door
open only for you
then the women rose
took off their clothes
turned their backs on him
the song froze
in mid-air, some
looked back over
their shoulders to see
whence that silence came
and one alone did praise
him for some new
trick it sounded like
he’d learned then she
alone stepped near
and closed the door.
Was that your Eurydice?
Already he forced himself to forget
studied instead the woodgrain of the door
behind which she is hidden…
They all hide from me
that’s all the world has in it now
women and the grain of wood—
everything else is marginal.
Imaginal, he means.
Can song sing
what no one sees?
Even if in the shuttered
attic of his thinking he saw,
would we believe?
The wood of the door
she slams in his face
reveals the sinuous
continuous writhing of time
through the matter world
sleek as their hips—
whose? but they are gone—
intimate as the thoughts
she denies him now
is all the eternity
he ever has
All my poems exist just to find out what she thinks
Why don’t you ask her what she thinks?
She doesn’t know she’s thinking—
Only the language knows.
And when time withers
and the door crumbles,
splinters and honey-colored
dust on the floor of the mind?
But that is not wood’s way
it goes on standing, word’s way,
signifying, its ancient life
All such images, lover, are shallow consolation.
The whole world can’t console you
for this one slim shadow
who’s slipped away from you now
as shadows blend into shadows
so no one hears you
o sweet interference
with how things are,
I send you to her
to distract her—
Once he started thinking
he stopped listening,
The girl stepped back
into the wood and was gone
The man died into the poet,
the maybe died into the yes.
Yes is dangerous, yes is a vine
grows quick round a young woman’s feet,
she thinks it is a snake around her ankle
then she doesn’t know what to think.
Every affirmation drags her down.
Everything a man says about a woman loses her.
She dances around him,
her hips cry out: “Your syntax slew me
from what I was to what you saw,”
her hair awhirl between
his eyes and the lamplight cried
“Every image you affirmed
was stolen from my mind,”
you leave me bare,
swept clean by music.
Then her bare feet patted:
empty empty, empty empty.
A girl is need, a man is seed?
In his dream she lay across his knees
like a koto played beneath his fingers
turning contour into tone, pressure,
percussion and no more harp.
Her voice long muffled sang out too:
The time of the lyric is gone past
you need more fire and less air.
Too many words, still too many words.
Just keep talking, maybe it will make sense.
But was he dreaming all the while?
So much for listening.
You need a harp
to hear with
just as you need
a pen to think.
But thought is its own instrument
and he thought she had learned that news in Hell
where it is too dark to read or write—
and that is why the body is
always we see her moving,
she is the wind
itself through his dying forest,
the drowned pinewoods
alphabetic against the sky,
the waterbrooks trying to bring
his dead soil back to life,
the elements work against
themselves in him—
such things about himself
when he sees –he sometimes sees—
the shadow of her dancing…
Let me tell you everything I know:
tell everything you know
only after you’ve said everything else—
tell what you don’t know.
That’s the only thing words are good for.
Or otherwise how will I, listening,
ever know who I am?
We exist at the intersection
of two ignorances,
at the place called Knowing.
For body is the first language
and at last the only one—
we only need to speak
because we’re separate.
Any word is a scar on the abiding silence.
No wonder she’s gone—
she sees that he’s in love with separation,
he thinks she hides in every woman he might meet
stares brusquely through the forest of her eyes
to catch a glimpse of his Eurydice
who of course was never his.
Justice—broad or slender—
belongs to no man, least
of all a man with words in his mouth.
Justice flees when juries talk.
My mother—who was my mother?—
taught me: Talking is a sin
and writing worse,
so tenderly to protect her poor son
from what I would say,
from ever believing what came out of my mouth.
sometimes I think that with
the bible already written in the rock
the axes in crystal and the molecules of actual things
maybe every human word is blasphemy
and who is this anyhow man?
Silence is his breath,
he is the one who listens for us,
who listens out loud
Why do we need to hear what no one says?
We listen to him listening,
we help his words to find their silences again.
= = = = = = =