Saturday, February 2, 2013

"Shift"!! Those ACTORS said, "shift" - in PUBLIC!

Two telegrams tell the story of the opening night of JM Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. Both were sent to WB Yeats by flamboyant Lady Gregory, who was helping him run the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland's embryonic national theatre. He was woken up in Aberdeen by the first, sent at the close of act one: "Play a great success." Two acts later, she sent a second: "Play broke up in disorder at the word 'shift'."
According to William Fay, playing the lead, the audience had become "a veritable mob of howling devils" at this mention of a petticoat. Soon, "the uproar had become a riot". The mob was only prevented from storming the stage by the call-boy, who "had armed himself with a big axe... and swore by all the saints in the calendar that he would chop the head off the first lad who came over the footlights". (Samantha Ellis, The Guardian online)

You know, sometimes you just need a good call-boy and a big axe, and nothing else is going to do the trick.

 This week, in Irish Literature, we read two plays by J. M. Synge. The first one, "Riders to the Sea," is a quick punch to the solar plexus in one act. A mother and her two adult daughters, in the kitchen of their tiny little windblown, seacoast, dirt poor house, waiting for the news of the death of the last remaining brother. Read this one and weep. You won't be able to help it much.

But "Playboy"? Oh my oh my oh my. Believe me, the public mention of the name of a lady's undergarment is the least of the worries here. This is a bawdy, rowdy, hilarious, in your face and slap your pants ride into everything the polite people of the world want stopped. If you were born and raised in the particulars of propriety, this is not the sort of thing you want on the stage.

Set in a small village in County Mayo, The Playboy of the Western World is a lyrical comedy which tells the story of lonely dreamer Christy Mahon who wanders into a pub, claiming that he has killed his father. Captivating the locals with his tale of bravery he becomes an instant hero but it turns out that there is an unexpected twist in his tale. (London Theater)

Ha! "Unexpected twist" indeed. Spoiler alert. He didn't do it.

But it's worse even, than that. A country's fragile ego was at stake here. Ireland was getting sick and tired and tired and sick and shut yer face about it with all of this condescending claptrap coming at them from England's hoity toity mucky mucks. The national theater was somber, artistic and important, and th' divil take y' if y' don't understand that!

Ireland in 1907 saw itself as ready for self-rule and it expected its artists to promote the image of a steady, sober, self-reliant people. Instead, with The Playboy of the Western World, Synge gave them a play in which a village loon splits his father's head open with a spade, runs away, tells people he "killed his da" and is promptly installed as a hero by excitable women and drunken men. Worse still, this drama was staged not in some backstreet art-house, but at the Abbey, Ireland's national theatre, one of whose mission statements was to show that Ireland was not the home of buffoonery but of an ancient idealism. (Declan Kiberd, The Guardian, online)

Ireland, in all of living memory now, and for a long time before that, is a place where the unforgiving ocean's tide changes and the violence of it can be heard inside the kitchen of the praying mother's house. England hammers on the one side, colonizing, unmaking the Irish people and their mother tongue, and the bogs suck at the boots of anyone walking there. To have such a portrayal of the Irish, to make their most vulnerable country rubes the laughing stock of the theater ... it was too much.
 Some writers who had admired Synge's earlier work felt that now he had gone too far. "It is not against a nation that he blasphemes," wrote Patrick Pearse in a journal of the Gaelic League, "so much as against the moral order of the universe." The Irish Times's critic identified one cause of the trouble: "It is as if a mirror were held up to our faces and we found ourselves hideous. We fear to face the thing. We scream." (Kiberd)
So far, this all makes sense. (The Guardian's Kiberd does a great job of discussing all of this. Click on the link for "The Riotous History" of this play.)

But theater goers also rioted in New York and in Philadelphia when the play came to this side of the pond. This is a play about something horrible (a son killing his abusive father), which is made funny by the antics of the women who swoon over the scrawny, lying little twerp who has the gift of the blarney (and they're not exactly proper, those women).
Like Christy’s own tale of slaying his Da, the story of his injuries to Ireland’s good name continued to grow with the years. When the Abbey theatre took the play on tour to the United States, the clash between the idea of a pure nationhood cherished by Irish immigrants and what they saw on stage was even more pronounced. In New York missiles were thrown on the stage, and a hundred police attempted to keep order. Lady Gregory, who led the tour, received death threats; Theodore Roosevelt’s presence at the second performance ensured a more sedate reception. But when the company arrived in Philadelphia all hell broke loose, and the players were hauled into court by an Irish-American patriot who accused the company and the play of indecency. The case was dismissed when the judge learned that the accusers had not read the text. (Anne Saddlemyer, Oxford University Press, online)
Ah, for the love of Mike! The riots over this play tell the story of every purist, every fundamentalist, every rampaging, prohibition-championing, thin-skinned, small-minded, fear-mongering zealot of a lunatic that has ever drawn breath on this whole glorious planet. Would someone call the call-boy out here? And give him an axe!

Irish Lit: Poetry in Week Three

Scrambling to catch up, before the middle of the term!

We read Yeats in week three, and for our blog post, we're supposed to take one poem, and address a few points. They are:
1. What is this poem "about"?
2. Who is the speaker (or speakers) in the poem?
3. What is its tone or mood? Does the tone change?
4. Comment on any images in the poem.
5. Does the language itself have any notable features (e.g. is it plain or ornate, difficult or easy, colloquial or scholarly)?
6. Is the poem itself musical and rhythmical to the ear or is it more of a textual experience?
And now, for your entertainment, I shall attempt to do all of this on a high wire. No. Not a high wire. A high aware(ness) that this is my own personal public blog of ordinary me, me doing this, here, now. I'm going to talk about this poem without numbering my answers. I'm just going to talk.

It's not hard. It's Yeats.

It's not easy. It's Yeats.

Yeats of the old school. Yeats of the era of Serious British Education, the native Dubliner, Yeats. Yeats who longed to "build up a national tradition, a national literature, which shall be none the less Irish in spirit from being English in language" because Yeats loved Ireland. William Butler Yeats turned his Ireland into words in stanzas, and these stanzas shimmer with his love.

The b
eauty of his poetry transcends time and space, and, I think, it even transcends Yeats himself. Here. I'll show you what I mean. This is a recording of his own reading of "The Lake Isle of Innesfree," -- he reads his poem in a completely dated and sonorous style which we, today, can find melodramatic and just a little silly. The text of the poem is below the imbedded video, so you can read along.

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, 
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made: 
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee; 
And live alone in the bee-loud glade. 

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, 
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; 
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, 
And evening full of the linnet's wings. 

I will arise and go now, for always night and day 
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; 
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, 
I hear it in the deep heart's core. 

He sounds like he learned public speaking from men in black robes who stood in high pulpits or behind lecterns at the front of cavernous naves and classrooms, before the era of the false intimacy of the microphone. And, of course, he did. (Our era's public speaking all sounds like a revival tent meeting or a night club act, if you ask me. He's dated, but at least he's not trying to whip me to a fervor by shouting - then whispering - then shouting -  his emotional manipulations. He wants us to hear the poem.)

But it bothered me a little to hear his reading of his own poetry. His reading sounds as if he is trying to stay in speech, but he hears a tune in his head. It sounded like the reading of a canticle when you're used to chanting it musically. Maybe, though, he didn't hear a melody, but only the long, drawn-out rhythms of the inhale and exhale of a vacation at the lake. Maybe this is the slow pace of the kind of snoring a boy could do in a hammock in the yard.

His words could have been easily understood by the boy he used to be. There is nothing too scholarly or ornate to understand - at least, not if the listener has ever loved the peace of a place like that. But a boy in a hammock might not catch the exhausted tones of the man who wrote these words. It takes a man to know what sort of effort is meant by the need to "arise and go" - from a life of noise and stink of town, and from the constant clamor or too many people being too busy in a far too mechanized world. The boy would not wonder if that tired, sighing man might even be longing for the quiet and completely natural state of death itself.

From his own explanations of the poem (found here), it's easy enough to tell that this is him - his own self - Mr. Yeats - remembering a very real time and place, and the splash of water that made him feel like this memory made him feel. His own boyhood is being remembered. Like anyone whose family roots are visited in holidays and kept alive by a parent (in his case, a mother) who sang its songs to him, his love of Ireland is as deep as his own skeleton and muscles. There, he can have the sounds of crickets and bees. The lapping water of a lake at the edges of a lake sound like peace for him - beans growing where those bees are the loudest thing to listen to sounds like the best kind of noise in the world - especially when he's standing on the unyielding, grey pavement of the modern city, far, far from his deep heart's core.