We know that ghosts cannot speak until they have drunk blood; and the spirits which we evoke demand the blood of our hearts.—Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Greek Historical Writing, and Apollo (1908)
Thirteen years ago, when I lived briefly in Glasgow, I made it a habit to regularly attend the theater. An unheralded cultural mecca in its own right, overshadowed by charming, medieval Edinburgh to the east, the post-industrial Scottish capitalI was never lacking in good drama. Also, they let you drink beer during performances. Chief among those plays was a production of Sophocles’s Antigone, the final part of his tragic Theban Cycle, and one of the most theorized and staged of dramas from that Athenian golden age four centuries before the Common Era, now presented in the repurposed 16th-century Tron Church. Director David Levin took the Attic Greek of Sophocles and translated it into the guttural brogue of Lowlands Scotts, and in a strategy now deployed almost universally for any production of a play older than a century, the chitons of the ancient world were replaced with business suits, and the decrees of Creon were presented on television screen, as the action was reimagined not in 441 BCE but in 2007.
Enough to remind me of that headline from The Onion which snarked: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place that Shakespeare Intended.” The satirical newspaper implicitly mocks adaptations like Richard Loncraine’s Richard III which imagined the titular character (devilishly performed by Ian McKellen) as a sort of Oswald Mosley-like fascist, and Derek Jarman’s masterful version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, which makes a play about the Plantagenet line of succession into a parable about gay rights and the Act Up movement. By contrast, The Onion quips that its imagined “unconventional” staging of The Merchant of Venice is one in which “Swords will replace guns, ducats will be used instead of the American dollar or Japanese yen, and costumes, such as…[the] customary pinstripe suit, general’s uniform, or nudity, will be replaced by garb of the kind worn” in the Renaissance. The dramaturgical perspective behind Levin’s Antigone was definitely what the article parodied; there was nary a contorted dramatic mask to be found, no Greek chorus chanting in dithyrambs, and, as I recall, lots of video projection. The Onion aside, British philosopher Simon Critchley would see no problem with Levin’s artistic decisions, writing in his new book Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us that “each generation has an obligation to reinvent the classics. The ancients need our blood to revise and live among us. By definition, such an act of donation constructs the ancients in our image.”
Antigone, coming from as foreign a culture as it does, still holds our attention for some reason. The story of the titular character—punished by her uncle Creon for daring to defy his command that her brother Polynices’s corpse be left to fester as carrion for the buzzards and worms in the field where he died because he has raised arms against Thebes—would seem to have little to do with Tony Blair’s United Kingdom. When a Glaswegian audience hears Sophocles’s words, however, that “I have nothing but contempt for the kind of governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course the he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare—I have no use for him either” a bit more resonance may be heard. Critchley argues that at the core of Greek tragedy is a sublime ambivalence, an engagement with contradiction that classical philosophy can’t abide;as distant as Antigone’s origins may be, its exploration of the conflict between the individual and the state, terrorism and liberation, surveillance and freedom seemed very of the millennium’s first decade. Creon’s countenance of the unthinkable punishment of his niece, to be bricked up behind a wall, was delivered in front of a camera as if George W. Bush announcing the bombing of Iraq from the Oval Office on primetime television. “Evil sometimes seems good / To a man whose mind / A god leads to destruction,” Sophocles wrote. This was a staging for the era of the Iraq War and FOX News, of the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance, and of the coming financial collapse. Less than a year later, and I’d be back in my apartment stateside watching Barack Obama deliver his Grant Park acceptance speech. It was enough to make one think of Antigone’s line: “Our ship of fate, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come to harbor at last.” I’m a bad student of the Greeks; I should have known better than to embrace that narcotic hope that pretends tragedy is not the omnipresent condition of humanity.
What could Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus possibly have to say in our current, troubled moment? Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to grapple with those disquieting 32 extant plays that whisper to us from an often-fantasized collective past. What survives of Greek tragedy is four less plays than all of those written by Shakespeare; an entire genre of performance for which we have titles referenced by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, with only those three playwrights’ words enduring, and where often the most we can hope for are a few fragments preserved on some surviving papyri. Critchley emphasizes how little we know about plays like Antigone, or Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or Euripides’s Medea; that classicists often hypothesized that they were born from the Dionysian rituals, or that they focused on satyr psalms, the “song of the goats,” giving tragedy the whiff of the demonic, of the demon Azazel to whom sacrifices of the scapegoat must be made in the Levantine desert.
Beyond even tragedy’s origin, which ancient Greek writers themselves disagreed about, we’re unsure exactly how productions were staged or who attended. What we do have are those surviving 32 plays themselves and the horrific narratives they recount—Oedipus blinded in grief over the patricide and incest that he unknowingly committed but prophetically ensured because of his hubris; Medea slaughtering her children as a revenge on the unfaithfulness of her husband; Pentheus ripped apart by her frenzied Maenads in ecstatic thrall to Dionysius because the Theban ruler couldn’t countenance the power of irrationality. “There are at least thirteen nouns in Attic Greek for words describing grief, lamentation, and mourning,” Critchley writes about the ancients; our “lack of vocabulary when it comes to the phenomenon of death speaks volumes about who we are.” Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to give us a bit of their vocabulary of excessive lamentation so as to better approach our predicament.
Readers shouldn’t mistake Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us as a conservative defense of the canon; this is no paean to the superior understanding of the ancients, nor is its highfalutin’ self-help. Critchley’s book isn’t Better Living Through Euripides. Easy to misread the (admittedly not great) title as an advertisement for a book selling the snake-oil of traditionalist cultural literacy, that exercise in habitus that confuses familiarity with the “Great Books” as a type of wisdom. Rather, Critchley explores the Greek tragedies in all of their strange glory, as an exercise in aesthetic rupture, where the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides configure a different type of space that renders a potent critique against oppressive logic. His task is thus the “very opposite of any and all kinds of cultural conservatism.” Critchley sees the plays not as museum pieces, or as simple means of demonstrating that you went to a college with diplomas written in Latin, but rather as a “subversive traditionalism” that helps us to critique “ever more egregious forms of cultural stupefaction that arise from being blinded by the myopia of the present.” This is all much larger than either celebrating or denouncing the syllabi of St. John’s College; Critchley has no concern for boring questions about “Western Civilization” or “Defending the Canon,” rather he rightly sees the tragedies as an occasion to deconstruct those idols of our current age—of the market, of society, of law, of religion, of state. He convincingly argues that any honest radical can’t afford to ignore the past, and something primal and chthonic calls to us from those 32 extant plays, for “We might think we are through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.”
Critchley explains that the contemporary world, perhaps even more so than when I watched Antigone in Glasgow, is a “confusing, noisy place, defined by endless war, rage, grief, ever-growing inequality. We undergo a gnawing moral and political uncertainty in a world of ambiguity.” Our moment, the philosopher claims, is a “tragicomedy defined by war, corruption, vanity, and greed,” for if my Antigone was of its moment, then Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us could only have been written after 2016. That year, and the characters it ushered into our national consciousness, can seem a particular type of American tragedy, but Critchley’s view (even while haunted by a certain hubristic figure with a predilection for the misspelled tweet) is more expansive than that. In his capable analysis, Critchley argues that tragedy exists as a mode of representing this chaos; a type of thinking at home with inconsistency, ambiguity, contradiction, and complexity. It’s those qualities that have made the form suspicious to philosophers.
Plato considered literature in several of his dialogues, concluding in Gorgias that the “effect of speech upon the structure of the soul / Is as the structure of drugs over the nature of bodies” (he wasn’t wrong), and famously having his puppet Socrates argue in The Republic that the just city-state would ban poets and poetry from their affairs for the aforementioned reason. Plato’s disgruntled student Aristotle was more generous to tragedy, content rather to categorize and explain its effects in Poetics, explaining that performance is the “imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself…with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” Aristotle’s view has historically been interpreted as a defense of literature in opposition to Plato, whereby that which the later found so dangerous—the passions and emotions roiled by drama—were now justified as a sort of emotional pressure gauge that helped audiences purge their otherwise potentially destructive emotions. By the 19th century a philosopher like Friedrich Nietzsche would anticipate Critchley (though the latter might chaff at that claim) when he exonerated tragedy as more than mere moral instruction, coming closer to Plato’s claim about literature’s dangers while ecstatically embracing that reality. According to Nietzsche, tragedy existed in the tension between “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” poles; the first implies rationality, order, beauty, logic, and truth; the second signifies the realm of chaos, irrationality, ecstasy, and intoxication. Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy that the form “sits in sublime rapture amidst this abundance of life, suffering and delight, listening to a far-off, melancholy song…whose names are Delusion, Will, Woe.” For the German philologist that’s a recommendation, to “join me in my faith in this Dionysiac life and the rebirth of tragedy.”
As a thinker, Critchley Agonistes is well equipped in joining these predecessors in systematizing what he argues is the unsystematizable. Faculty at the New School for Social Research,and coeditor for The New York Times philosophy column “The Stone” (to which I have contributed), Critchley has proven himself an apt scholar who engages the wider conversation. Not a popularizer per se, for Critchley’s goal isn’t the composition of listicles enumerating whacky facts about Hegel, but a philosopher in the truest sense of being one who goes into the Agora and grapples with the circumstances of meaning as they manifest in the punk rock venue, at the soccer stadium, and in the movie theater. Unlike most of his countrymen who recline in the discipline, Critchley is a British scholar who embraces what’s called “continental philosophy,” rejecting the arid, logical formulations of analytical thought in favor of the Parisian profundities of thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Emanuel Levinas, and Martin Heidegger. Critchley has written tomes with titles like The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas and Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas, & Contemporary French Thought, but he’s also examined soccer in What We Think About When We Think About Football (he’s a Liverpool fan) and in Bowie he analyzed, well, Bowie. Add to that his provocative take on religion in Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology and on death in The Book of Dead Philosophers (which consists of short entries enumerating the sometimes bizarre ways in which philosophers died, from jumping into a volcano to love potion poisoning) and Critchley has announced himself as one of the most psychedelically mind-expanding of people to earn their lucre by explaining Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein to undergraduates.
What makes Critchley such an engaging thinker about the subjects he examines is both his grounding in continental philosophy (which asks questions about being, love, death, and eternity, as opposed to its analytical cousin content to enumerate all the definitions of the word “is”) and his unpretentious roots in working class Hertfordshire, studying at the glass-and-concrete University of Essex as opposed to tony Oxbridge. Thus, when Critchley writes that “there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” it seems pretty clear that he’s a secret agent working for the latter against the former. He rejects syllogism for stanza and embraces poetics in all of its multitudinous and glorious contradictions. The central argument of Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that the form “invites its audience to look at such disjunctions between two or more claims to truth, justice, or whatever without immediately seeking a unifying ground or reconciling the phenomena into a higher unity.” What makes Antigone so devastating is that the title character’s familial obligation justifies the burial of her brother, but the interests of the state validates Creon’s prohibition of that same burial. The tragedy arises in the irreconcilable conflict of two right things, with Critchley explaining that Greek drama “presents a conflictually constituted world defined by ambiguity, duplicity, uncertainty, and unknowability, a world that cannot be rendered rationally fully intelligible through some metaphysical first principles or set of principles, axioms, tables of categories, or whatever.”
This is the central argument: that the “experience of tragedy poses a most serious objection to that invention we call philosophy.” More accurately, Critchley argues that tragedy’s comfort with discomfort, its consistent embrace of inconsistency, its ordered representation of disorder, positions the genre as a type of radical critique of philosophy, a genre that expresses the anarchic rhetoric of the sophists, rather than their killjoy critic Socrates and his dour student Plato. As a refresher, the sophists were the itinerant and sometimes fantastically successful rhetoricians who taught Greek politicians a type of disorganized philosophy that, according to Socrates, had no concern with the truth, but only with what was convincing. Socrates supposedly placed “Truth” at the core of his dialectical method, and, ever since, the discipline has taken up the mantle of “a psychic and political existence at one with itself, which can be linked to ideas of self-mastery, self-legislation, autonomy, and autarchy, and which inform the modern jargon of authenticity.” Tragedy is defined by none of those things; where philosophy strives for order and harmony, tragedy dwells in chaos and division; where syllogism strives to eliminate all contradiction as irrational, poetry understands that it’s in the complexity of inconsistency, confusion, and even hypocrisy that we all dwell. Sophistry and tragedy, to the recommendation of both, are intimately connected; both being methods commensurate with the dark realities of what it means to be alive. Critchley claims that “tragedy articulates a philosophical view that challenges the authority of philosophy by giving voice to what is contradictory about us, what is constricted about us, what is precarious about us, and what is limited about us.”
Philosophy is all arid formulations, dry syllogisms, contrived Gedankenexperiments; tragedy is the knowledge that nothing of the enormity of what it means to be alive can be circumscribed by mere seminar argument. “Tragedy slows things down by confronting us with what we do not know about ourselves,” Critchley writes. If metaphysics is contained by the formulations of the classroom, then the bloody stage provides a more accurate intimation of death and life. By being in opposition to philosophy, tragedy is against systems. It becomes both opposite and antidote to the narcotic fantasy that everything will be alright. Perhaps coming to terms with his own discipline, Critchley argues that “it is necessary to try and think theatrically and not just philosophically.” Tragedy, he argues, provides an opportunity to transcend myths of progress and comforts of order, to rather ecstatically enter a different space, an often dark, brutal, and subterranean place, but one which demonstrates the artifice of our self-regard.
A word conspicuous in its absence from Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that of the “sacred.” If there is any critical drawback to Critchley’s argument, it seems to be in the hesitancy, or the outright denial, that what he claims in his book has anything to do with something quite so wooly as the noumenal. Critchley gives ample space to argue that, “Tragedy is not some Dionysian celebration of the power of ritual and the triumph of myth over reason,” yet a full grappling with his argument seems to imply the opposite. The argument that tragedy stages contradiction is one that is convincing, but those sublime contradictions are very much under the Empire of Irrationality’s jurisdiction. Critchley is critical of those that look at ancient tragedy and “imagine that the spectators…were in some sort of prerational, ritualistic stupor, some intoxicated, drunken dumbfounded state,” but I suppose much of our interpretation depends on how we understand ritual, religion, stupor, and intoxication.
His claims are invested in an understanding of the Greeks as not being fundamentally that different from us, writing that “there is a lamentable tendency to exoticize Attic tragedy,” but maybe what’s actually called for is a defamiliarization of our own culture, an embrace of the irrational weirdness at the core of what it means to be alive 2019, where everything that is solid melts into air (to paraphrase Marx). Aeschylus knew the score well; “Hades, ruler of the nether sphere, / Exactest auditor of human kind, / Graved on the tablet of his mind,” as he describes the prince of this world in Eumenides. Critchley, I’d venture, is of Dionysius’s party but doesn’t know it. All that is argued in Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us points towards an awareness, however sublimated, of the dark beating heart within the undead cadaver’s chest. “To resist Dionysius is to repress the elemental in one’s own nature,” writes the classicist E.R. Dodds in his seminal The Greeks and the Irrational, “the punishment is the sudden complete collapse of the inward dykes when the elemental breaks through…and civilization vanishes.”
Absolutely correct that tragedy is in opposition to philosophy; where the latter offers assurances that reason can see us through, the former knows that it’s never that simple. The abyss is patient and deep, and no amount of analysis, of interpretation, of calculation, of polling can totally account for the hateful tragic pulse of our fellow humans. Nietzsche writes “what changes come upon the weary desert of our culture, so darkly described, when it is touched by…Dionysius! A storm seizes everything decrepit, rotten, broken, stunted; shrouds it in a whirling red cloud of dusty and carries it into the air like a vulture.” If any place best exemplifies that experience, and this moment, it’s Euripides’s The Bacchae, to which Critchley devotes precious little attention. That play depicts the arrival of that ambiguous god Dionysius to Thebes, as his followers thrill to the divine and irrational ecstasies that he promises. It ends with a crowd of those followers, the Maenads, mistaking the ruler Pentheus for a sacrificial goat and pulling him apart, his bones from their sockets, his organs from their cavities. Until his murder, Pentheus simultaneously manifested a repressed thrill towards the Dionysian fervor and a deficiency in taking the threat of such uncontained emotion seriously. “Cleverness is not wisdom,” Euripides writes, “And not to think mortal thoughts is to see few days.” If any didactic import comes from The Bacchae, it’s to give the devil as an adversary his due, for irrationality has more power than the clever among us might think.
Circling around the claims of Critchley’s book is our current political situation, alluded to but never engaged outright. In one sense, that’s for the best; those demons’ names are uttered endlessly all day anyhow. It’s desirable to at least have one place where you need not read about them. But in another manner, fully intuiting the Dionysian import of tragedy becomes all the more crucial when we think about what that dark god portends in our season of rising authoritarianism. “Tragedy is democracy turning itself into a spectacle,” and anyone with Twitter will concur with that observation of Critchley’s. Even more important is Critchley’s argument about those mystic chords of memory connecting us to a past that we continually reinvent; the brilliance of his claim about why the Greeks matter to us now, removing the stuffiness of anything as prosaic as canonicity, is that tragedy encapsulates the way in which bloody trauma can vibrate through the millennia and control us as surely as the ancients believed fate controlled humans. Critchley writes that “Tragedy is full of ghosts, ancient and modern, and the line separating the living from the dead is continually blurred. This means that in tragedy the dead don’t stay dead and the living are not fully alive.” We can’t ignore the Greeks, because the Greeks aren’t done with us. If there is anything that hampers us as we attempt to extricate the Dionysian revelers in our midst, it’s that many don’t acknowledge the base, chthonic power of such irrationality, and they refuse to see how violence, hate, and blood define our history in the most horrific of ways. To believe that progress, justice, and rationality are guaranteed, that they don’t require a fight commensurate with their worthiness, is to let a hubris fester in our souls and to court further tragedy among our citizens.
What Medea or The Persians do is allow us to safely access the Luciferian powers of irrationality. They present a more accurate portrayal of humanity, based as we are in bloodiness and barbarism, than the palliatives offered by Plato in The Republic with his philosopher kings. Within that space of the theater, Critchley claims that at its best it “somehow allows us to become ecstatically stretched out into another time and space, another way of experiencing things and the world.” Far from the anemic moralizing of Aristotelian catharsis—and Critchley emphasizes just how ambiguous that word actually is—that is too often interpreted as referring to a regurgitative didacticism, tragedy actually makes a new world by demolishing and replacing our world, if only briefly. “If one allows oneself to be completely involved in what is happening onstage,” Critchley writes, “one enters a unique space that provides an unparalleled experience of sensory and cognitive intensity that is impossible to express purely in concepts.” I recall seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Othello at London’s National Theatre in 2013, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Adrian Lester as the cursed Moor and Rory Kinear as a reptilian Iago. Dr. Johnson wrote that Othello’s murder of Desdemona was the single most horrifying scene in drama, and I concur; the play remains the equal of anything by Aeschylus or Euripides in its tragic import.
When I watched Lester play the role, lingering over the dying body of his faithful wife, whispering “What noise is this? Not dead—not yet quite dead?” I thought of many things. I thought about how Shakespeare’s play reflects the hideous things that men do to women, and the hideous things that the majority do to the marginalized. I thought about how jealousy noxiously fills every corner, no matter how small, like some sort of poison gas. And I thought about how unchecked malignancy can shatter our souls. But mostly what I thought wasn’t in any words, but was better expressed by Lester’s anguished cry as he confronted the evil he’d done. If tragedy allows for an audience to occasionally leave our normal space and time, then certainly I felt like I was joined with those thousand other spectators on that summer night at South Bank’s Olivier Theatre. The audience’s silence after Othello’s keening subsided was as still as the space between atoms, as empty as the gap between people.
“For years the old Italians have been dying/all over America.” -Lawrence Ferlinghetti
On the second floor of Harvard’s Fogg Museum, in an airy, well-lit, white-walled gallery, near a slender window overlooking a red-bricked Cambridge street, there is a display case holding three portraits on chipped wood not much bigger than post-cards. Of varying degrees of aptitude, the paintings are of a genre called “Fayum Portraits” from the region of Egypt where they’re commonly found. When the Roman ruling class established itself in this Pharaonic land during the first few centuries of the Common Era, they would mummify themselves in the Egyptian fashion while affixing Hellenistic paintings onto the faces of their preserved bodies. Across the extent of the Roman empire, from damp Britain to humid Greece, little of the more malleable painted arts survived, but in sun-baked Egypt these portraits could peer out 20 centuries later as surely as the desert dried out their mummified corpses. When people envision ancient Mediterranean art, they may think of the grand sculptures blanched a pristine white, Trajan’s Arch and the monumental head of Constantine, the colorful paint which once clung to their surfaces long since eroded away. And while the monumental marbles of classical art are what most people remember of the period, the Fayum portraits of Harvard provide an entirely more personal gaze across the millennia.
If white is the color we associate with those sculptures, then the portraits here in Cambridge are of a different hue. They are nut-brown, tanned from the noon-day sun, yellow-green, and olive. Mummy Portrait of a Woman with an Earring, painted in the second century, depicts in egg tempura on wood a dark-skinned middle-aged woman with commanding brown eyes, her black hair showing a bit of curl even as it is pulled back tightly on her scalp; a woman looking out with an assuredness that belies her anonymity over time. Mummy Portraits of a Bearded Man shows the tired look of an old man, grey beard neatly clipped and groomed, his wavy grey hair still with a hint of auburn and combed back into place. Fragments of a Mummy Portrait of a Man represents a far younger man, cleft chinned with a few days’ black stubble over his olive skin. What’s unnerving is the eerie verisimilitude of this nameless trio.
That they look so contemporary, so normal, is part of what’s unsettling. But they also unsettle because they’re there to assist in overturning our conceptions about what Roman people, those citizens of that vast, multicultural, multilingual, multireligious empire, looked like. Our culture is comfortable with the lily-white sculptures we associate with our Roman forebearers which were then imitated in our own imperial capitals; easier to pretend that the ancient Romans had nothing to do with the people who live there now, and yet when looking at the Fayum portraits I’m always struck by how Italian everybody looks.
The old man could be tending tomatoes in a weedy plot somewhere in Trenton; the middle-aged woman wearily volunteering for a church where she’s not too keen on the new Irish priest, and the young man with the stubble looks like he just got off a shift somewhere in Bensonhurst and is texting his friends to see who wants to go into the city. I’ve never seen anyone who actually looks like the statue of Caesar Augustus of Primo Porta carved from white stone, but you’ll see plenty of people who look like the Fayum Portraits in North Boston, Federal Hill, or Bloomfield (the one either in Jersey or in Pittsburgh). When I look at the Fayum portraits, I see people I know; I see my own family.
Despite my surname vowel deficiency, I’m very much Italian-American. Mathematically, twice as much as Robert DeNiro, so I feel well equipped to offer commentary in answering the question with which I’ve titled this piece. Furthermore, as a second-generation American, I’m not that far removed from Ellis Island. My mother’s father immigrated from Abruzzo, that mountainous, bear-dwelling region that was the birthplace of Ovid, and his entire family and much of his fellow villagers were brought over to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, to work as stone masons, a trade they’d been plying since the first rock was laid in the Appian Way. My grandmother’s family was from Naples, where Virgil was born, a teeming volcanic metropolis of orange and lemon trees, a heaven populated by devils as native-son Giordano Bruno wrote in the 16th century. For me, being Italian was unconscious; it simply was a fact no more remarkable than my dark hair or brown eyes.
Being Italian meant at least seven fishes on Christmas Eve and the colored lights rather than the white ones on the tree, it meant (and still means) cooking most things with a heavy dollop of olive oil and garlic, it means at least once a week eating either veal parmesan, prosciutto and melon, calamari, spaghetti with tuna, and buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes. Being Italian meant laminated furniture in the homes of extended family, and Mary-on-the-half-shell; it meant a Catholicism more cultural than theological, with the tortured faces of saints vying alongside a certain type of pagan magic. Being Italian meant assumed good looks and a certain ethnic ambiguity; it meant uncles who made their own wine and grew tomatoes in the backyard.
Being Italian-American meant having an identity where the massive pop culture edifice that supplies representations of you implies that the part before the hyphen somehow makes the second half both more and less true. My position was much like Maria Laurino’s in Were You Always an Italian?: Ancestors and Other Icons of Italian America, where she writes that “All the pieces of my life considered to be ‘Italian’…I kept distinct from the American side, forgetting about the hyphen, about that in-between place where a new culture takes form.” What I do viscerally remember is the strange sense I had watching those corny old sword-and-sandal epics that my middle school Latin teacher used to fill up time with, a sense that those strangely Aryan Romans presented on celluloid were supposed to somehow be related to me. Actors whose chiseled all-American whiteness evoked the marbles that line museum halls. Sculptures of Caesar Augustus were once a lot more olive than white as well. That classical Greek and Roman statuary was vividly painted, only to fade over time, has been known since the 19th century, even as contemporary audiences sometimes violently react to that reality. Using modern technology, archeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann has been able to restore some of the most famous Greek and Roman statues to glorious color, as he details in his Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World, but as the classicist Sarah Bond writes in Forbes, “Intentional or not, museums present viewers with a false color binary of the ancient world.” We think of the Romans as lily white, but the Fayum portraits demonstrate that they very much weren’t. That the individuals in these pictures should appear so Italian shouldn’t be surprising—Romans are Italians after all. Or at least in the case of the Fayum portraits they’re people from a mélange of backgrounds, including not just Romans, but Greeks, Egyptians, Berbers, Arabs, Jews, Ethiopians, and so on. Rome was, like our own, a hybridized civilization, and it’s marked on the faces that peer out towards us on that wall.
Last fall, at a handful of Boston-area colleges just miles from the museum, classical imagery was appropriated for very different means. Students awoke to find their academic halls papered with posters left during the night by members of one of these fascistic groups to have emerged after the 2016 presidential election, a bigotry that has been revealed as if discovering all of the fungus growing underneath a rotting tree stump that’s been kicked over. This particular group combined images of bleached classical sculpture and neo-fascist slogans to make their white supremacist arguments. The Apollo Belvedere is festooned with the declaration “Our Future Belongs to Us,” 17th-century French Neo-Classical sculptor Nicolas Coustou’s bust of Julius Caesar has “Serve your People” written beneath it, and in the most consciously Trumpy of posters, a close-up on the face of Michelangelo’s David injuncts “Let’s Become Great Again.” There’s something particularly ironic in commandeering the David in the cause of white supremacy. Perhaps they didn’t know that that exemplar of the Italian Renaissance was a depiction of a fierce Jewish king as rendered by a gay, olive-skinned artist?
Such must be the central dilemma of the confused white supremacist, for the desire to use ancient Rome in their cause has been irresistible ever since Benito Mussolini concocted his crackpot system of malice known as fascismo corporativo, but the reality is that the descendants of those very same Romans often don’t appear quite as “white” as those supremacists would be comfortable with. This is especially important when considering that the Romans “did not speak in terms of race, a discourse invented many centuries later,” as scholar Nell Irvin Painter writes in The History of White People. Moral repugnance is a given when it comes to racist ideologies, but one should also never forget the special imbecility that comes along with arguing that you’re innately superior because you kinda, sorta, maybe physically resemble dead people who did important things. What makes the case of the posters more damning is that those who made them don’t even actually look like the people whose culture they’ve appropriated.
No doubt the father of celebrated journalist Gay Talese would be outraged by this filching. In a 1993 piece for The New York Times Book Review, he remembers his “furious and defensive father” exploding after he’d learned that the Protestant-controlled school board had rejected his petition to include Ovid and Dante in the curriculum, the elder man shouting at his son that “‘Italy was giving art to the world when those English were living in caves and painting their faces blue!’” A particular twist as the descendants of those same WASPs paper college campuses with posters of Italian sculptures that they somehow claim patrimony from. But that’s always been the predicament of the Western chauvinist, primed to take ownership over another culture as evidence of his own genius, while simultaneously having to explain his justifications for the disdain in which he holds the actual children of that culture.
Since the late 19th-century arrival of millions of immigrants from the Mezzogiorno, American racists have long contrived baroque justifications for why white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are the inheritors of Italian culture, while Italians themselves are not. Some of this logic was borrowed from Italy itself, where even today, Robert Lumley and Jonathan Morris record in The New History of the Italian South, some northerners will claim that “Europe ends at Naples. Calabria, Sicily, and all the rest belong to Africa.” Northern Italians, comparatively wealthier, better educated, and most importantly fairer, had been in the United States a generation before their southern cousins, and many Anglo-Americans borrowed that racialized animus against southerners which reigned (and still does) in the old country.
As Richard Gambino writes in Blood of my Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian-Americans, it was in the “twisted logic of bigotry” that these immigrants were “flagrantly ‘un-American.’ And Italians replaced all the earlier immigrant groups as targets of resentment about the competition of cheap labor.” This was the reasoning that claimed that all Italian accomplishments could be attributed to a mythic “Nordic” or “Teutonic” influence, so that any Mediterranean achievements were written away, orienting Rome towards a Europe it was only tangentially related to and away from an Africa that long had an actual influence. Notorious crank Madison Grant in his unabashedly racist 1916 The Passing of the Great Race claimed that Italians were now “storming the Nordic ramparts of the United States and mongrelizing the good old American stock,” with Gambino explaining that “In his crackpot explanation, Italians are the inferior descendants of the slaves who survived when ancient Rome died.”
Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould writes that Grant’s book was “the most influential tract of American scientific racism” and Adolf Hitler wrote a letter to the author claiming “The book is my Bible.” A lawyer and eugenicist, Grant’s writings were influential in both the Palmer Raids, a series of unconstitutional police actions directed by the Wilson administration against immigrants suspected of harboring anarchist and communist sympathies, as well as the xenophobic nastiness of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act which made eastern and southern European immigration slow to a trickle. Incidentally, it was the Johnson-Reed Act that, had it been passed 10 years earlier, would have barred my mother’s father from entering the United States; a law that former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions lauded in a 2017 interview with Stephen Bannon, arguing that the banning of immigrants like those in my family “was good for America.”
In Chiaroscuro: Essays of Identity, Helen Barolini writes that “Italian Americans are too easily used as objects of ridicule and scorn,” and while that’s accurate, it’s a rhetoric that has deep and complicated genealogies. Italy has always occupied a strange position in the wider European consciousness. It is simultaneously the birthplace of “Western Civilization,” and an exoticized, impoverished, foreign backwater at the periphery of the continent; the people who first modeled a noxious imperialism, and the subjugated victims of later colonialism. A pithy visual reminder of Italy’s status in early modern Europe can be seen in the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 masterpiece The Ambassadors, which depicts two of the titular profession surrounded by their tools. On a shelf behind them sits a globe. Europe is differentiated from the rest of the world by being an autumnal brown-green, with the exception of two notable regions colored the same hue as Africa—Ireland and Sicily. In Are Italians White?: How Race is Made in America, coedited with Salvatore Salerno, historian Jennifer Guglielmo explains that the “racial oppression of Italians had its root in the racialization of Africans,” something never more evident than in the anti-Italian slur “guinea” with its intimations of Africanness, this implication of racial ambiguity having profound effects on how Italians were understood and how they understood themselves.
In the rhetoric and thought of the era, Italy was somehow paradoxically the genesis of Europe, while also somehow not European. As such, Italians were to be simultaneously emulated and admired, while also reviled and mocked. During that English Renaissance, which was of course a sequel to the original one, books like Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, with their respective paeans to sensuality and duplicity, molded a particular view of Italianness that has long held sway in the English imagination. Consider all of the Shakespeare plays in an imagined Italy: The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentleman of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Othello, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale and The Merchant of Venice, not to mention the occasional appearance of Romans in other plays. Shakespeare’s plays, and other icons of the English Renaissance, set a template that never really faded. A simultaneous attraction to and disgust at a people configured as overly emotional, overly sexual, overly flashy, overly corrupt, overly sensual, and with a propensity less cerebral than hormonal. And the criminality.
Long before Mario Puzo or The Sopranos, Renaissance English writers impugned Italians with a particular antisocial perfidy. Such is displayed in Thomas Nash’s 1594 The Unfortunate Traveller: or, the Life of Jack Wilton, which could credibly be called England’s first novel. In that picaresque, the eponymous character perambulates through the Europe of the early 16th century, encountering luminaries like Thomas More, Erasmus, Henry Howard, Martin Luther, and Cornelius Agrippa, and witnessing events like the horrific siege at Munster in the Low Countries. Most of Nash’s narrative, however, takes place in “the Sodom of Italy,” and an English fever dream of that country’s excess settles like a yellow fog. One Englishmen laments that the only lessons that can be learned here are “the art of atheism, the art of epicurizing, the art of whoring, the art of poisoning, the art of sodomitry.”
The narrative circumstances of Nash’s penultimate scene, which reads like Quentin Tarantino, has an Italian nobleman being executed for the violent revenge he took upon his sister’s rapist. On the scaffold, the nobleman declares that “No true Italian but will honor me for it. Revenge is the glory of arms and the highest performance of valor,” and indeed his revenge was of an immaculate quality. He’d first forced his sister’s assailant to abjure God and condemn salvation, and then, satisfied that such blasphemy would surely send his victim to hell, he shot him in the head. A perfect revenge upon not just the body, but the soul. Nash presents such passion as a ritual of decadent Mediterranean vendetta, simultaneously grotesque and inescapably evocative.
From Nash until today there has often been a presumption of vindictive relativist morality on the part of Italians, and it has slurred communities with an assumption of criminality. In the early 20th century sociologists claimed that the dominant Italian ethic was “familial amoralism,” whereby blood relations had precedence over all other social institutions. Nash’s nobleman is the great-grandfather to Michael Corleone in the collective imagination. Do not read this as squeamish sensitivity, I’d never argue that The Godfather, written and directed by Italians, is anything less than an unmitigated masterpiece. Both Puzo’s novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation are potent investigations of guilt, sin, and evil. I decided not to join the Sons of Italy after I saw how much of their concern was with stereotypes on The Sopranos, which I still regard as among the greatest television dramas of all time. I concur with Bill Tonelli, who in his introduction to The Italian American Reader snarked that “nobody loves those characters better than Italian Americans do,” and yet I recall with a cringe the evaluation of The Godfather given to me by a non-Italian, that the film was about nothing more than “spaghetti and murder.”
Representations of Italianness in popular culture aren’t just Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano, there’s also the weirdly prevalent sitcom stereotype of the lovable, but dumb, hypersexual goombah. I enter into consideration Arthur “The Fonze” Fonzarelli from Happy Days, Tony Micelli from Who’s the Boss?, Vinny Barbarino of Welcome Back Kotter, and of course Friends’ Joey Tribbiani. Once I argued with my students if there was something offensive about The Jersey Shore, finally convincing them of the racialized animus in the series when I queried as to why there had never been an equivalent about badly behaving WASPs called Martha’s Vineyard?
Painter explains that “Italian Americans hovered longer on the fringes of American whiteness,” and so any understanding must take into account that until recently Italians were still inescapably exotic to many Americans. Tonelli writes that “in an era that supposedly values cultural diversity and authenticity, the portrait of Italian Americans is monotonous and observed from a safe distance.” The continued prevalence of these stereotypes is a residual holdover from the reality that Italians are among the last of “ethnics” to “become white.” Tonelli lists the “mobsters, the urban brute, the little old lady shoving a plate of rigatoni under your nose,” declaiming that “it gets to be like a minstrel show after a while.”
Consider Judge Webster Thayer who after the 1921 sham-trial of anarchists Barolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco would write that although they “may not have committed the crime” attributed to them, they are “nevertheless morally culpable” because they were both enemies of “our existing institutions… the defendant’s ideals are cognate with crime.” Privately, Thayer bragged to a Dartmouth professor, “Did you see what I did to those anarchistic bastards the other day?” As late as 1969, another professor, this one at Yale, felt free to tell a reporter in response to a query about a potential Italian-American New York mayoral candidate that “If Italians aren’t actually an inferior race, they do the best imitation of one I’ve seen.”
But sometime in the
decades after World War II, Italians followed the Irish and Jews into the
country club of whiteness with its carefully circumscribed membership. Guglielmo
explains that initially “Virtually all Italian immigrants [that] arrived in the
United States [did so] without a consciousness about its color line.” Victims
of their birth nation’s rigid social stratification based on complexion and geography,
the new immigrants were largely ignorant of America’s racial history, and thus
were largely immune to the anti-black racism that was prevalent. These
immigrants had no compunction about working and living alongside African
Americans, and often understood themselves to occupy a similar place in
But as Guglielmo explains, by the second and third generation there was an understanding that to be “white meant having the ability to avoid many forms of violence and humiliation, and assured preferential access to citizenship, property, satisfying work, livable wages, decent housing, political power, social status, and a good education, among other privileges.” Political solidarity with black and Hispanic Americans (we forget that Italians are Latinx too) was abandoned in favor of assimilation to the mainstream. Jennifer Gillan writes in the introduction to Growing up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction about Learning to be American that “American have often fought bitter battles over what it means to be American and who exactly get to qualify under the umbrella term,” and towards the end of the 20th century Italians had fought their way into that designation, but they also left many people behind. In the process, a beautiful radical tradition was forgotten, so that we traded Giuseppe Garibaldi for Frank Rizzo, Philly’s racist mayor in the 70s; so that now instead of Sacco and Vanzetti we’re saddled with Antonin Scalia and Rudy Giuliani. As Guglielmo mourns, “Italians were not always white and the loss of this memory is one of the great tragedies of racism in America.”
If there is to be any anecdote, then it must be in words; where literature allows for imaginative possibilities and the complexities of empathy. What is called for is a restitution, or rather a recognition, of an Italian-American literary canon acting as bulwark against both misrepresentations and amnesia. Talese infamously asked if there were no “Italian-American Arthur Millers and Saul Bellows, James Baldwins and Toni Morrisons, Mary McCarthys and Mary Gordons, writing about their ethnic experiences?” There’s an irony to this question, as Italians in the old country would never think to ask where their writers are, the land of Virgil and Dante secure in its literary reputation, with more recent years seeing the celebrated post-modernisms of Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Dario Fo, and Umberto Eco. In this century, the citizens of Rome, Florence, and Milan face different questions than their cousins in Newark, Hartford, or Providence. Nor do we bemoan a dearth of examples in other fields: that Italians can hit a baseball or throw a punch can be seen in Joe DiMaggio’s homeruns and Rocky Marciano’s slugging; that we can strike a note is heard in Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin; that we can shoot a picture is proven by Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese.
Yet in the literary arts no equivalent names come up, at least no equivalent names that are thought of as distinctly Italian. Regina Barreca in the introduction to Don’t Tell Mama!: The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing says that there is an endurance of the slur which sees Italians as “deliberately dense, badly educated, and culturally unsophisticated.” By this view the wider culture is fine with the physicality of boxers and baseballs players, the emotion and sensuality of musicians, even the Catholic visual idiom of film as opposed to the Protestant textuality of the written word, so that the “intellectual” pursuits of literature are precluded. She explains that what remains is an “idea of Italian Americans as a people who would never choose to read a book, let alone write one,” though as Baraca stridently declares this is a “set of hazardous concepts [which] cannot simply be outlived; it must be dismantled.”
I make no claims to originating the idea that we must establish an Italian-American literary canon, such has been the mainstay of Italian-American Studies since that field’s origin in the ’70s. This has been the life’s work of scholars like Gambino, Louise DeSalvo, and Fred Gardaphé, not to mention all of the anthology editors I’ve referenced. Tonelli writes that “Our time of genuine suffering at the hands of this bruising country passed more or less unchronicled, by ourselves or anyone else,” yet there are hidden examples of Italian-American voices writing about an experience that goes beyond mafia or guido stereotypes. For many of these critics, the Italian-American literary canon was something that already existed, it was merely a question of being able to recognize what exists beyond the stark black and red cover of The Godfather. Such a task involved the elevation of lost masterpieces like Pietro di Donato’s 1939 proletarian Christ in Concrete , but also a reemphasis on the vowels at the ends of names for authors who are clearly Italian, but are seldom thought of as such.
That Philip Roth is a Jewish author goes without saying, but rarely do we think of the great experimentalist Don DeLillo as an Italian-American author. A restitution of the Italian-American literary canon would ask what precisely is uniquely Italian about a DeLillo? For that matter, what are the Italian-American aesthetics of poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jay Parini, Diane Di Prima, and Gregory Corso? What can we better say about the Italianness of Gilbert Sorrentino and Richard Russo? Where do we locate the Mezzogiorno in the criticism and scholarship of A. Bartlett Giamatti, Frank Lentricchia, and Camille Paglia? Baraca writes that “Italian Americans live (and have always lived) a life not inherited, but invented,” and everything is to be regained by making a reinvention for ourselves. Furthermore, I’d suggest that the hybridized nature of what it has always meant to be Italian provides a model to avoid the noxious nationalisms that increasingly define our era.
Guglielmo writes that “Throughout the twentieth century, Italian Americans crafted a vocal, visionary, and creative oppositional culture to protest whiteness and build alliances with people of color,” and I’d argue that this empathetic imagination was born out of the pluralistic civilization of which the Italians were descendants. Contrary to pernicious myths of “racial purity,” the Romans were as diverse as Americans are today, drawing not just from Italic peoples like the Umbrians, Sabines, Apulians, and Etruscans, but also from Egyptians, Ethiopians, Berbers, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Anatolians, Gauls, Huns, Dacians, Franks, Teutons, Vandals, Visigoths, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Iberians, Jews, Arabs, and Celts, among others. A reality quite contrary to the blasphemy of those posters with their stolen Roman images.
Rome was both capital and periphery, a culture that was a circle with no circumference whose center can be everywhere. Christine Palamidessi Moore in her contribution to the Lee Gutkind and Joanna Clapps Herman anthology Our Roots are Deep with Passion: Creative Nonfiction Collects New Essays by Italian American Writers notes that “Italy is a fiction: a country of provinces, dialects, and regions, and historically because of its location, an incorporator of invaders, empires, and bloodlines.” Sitting amidst the Mare Nostrum of its wine-dark sea, Italy has always been at a nexus of Europe, Africa, and Asia, situated between north and south, east and west. Moore explains that the “genuineness of the ethnicity they choose becomes more obscure and questionable because of its mixed origins; however, because it is voluntary, the act of choosing sustains the identity.”
The question then is not “What was Italian America?” but rather “What can Italian America be?” In 1922 W.E.B. DuBois, the first black professor at Harvard, spoke to a group of impoverished Italian immigrants at Chicago’s Hull House. Speaking against the Johnson-Reed Act, DuBois appealed to a spirit of confraternity, arguing that there must be a multiethnic coalition against a “renewal of the Anglo-Saxon cult: the worship of the Nordic totem, the disenfranchisement of Negro, Jew, Irishman, Italian, Hungarian, Asiatic and South Sea Islander.” When DuBois spoke against the “Anglo-Saxon cult” he condemned not actual English people, but rather the fetish that believes only those of British stock can be “true Americans.” When he denounced the “Nordic totem,” he wasn’t castigating actual northern Europeans, but only that system that claims they are worthier than the rest of people. What DuBois condemned was not people, but rather a system that today we’ve taken to calling “white privilege,” and he’s just as correct a century later. The need for DuBois’s coalition has not waned.
Italian-Americans can offer the example of a culture that was always hybridized, always at the nexus of different peoples. Italians have never been all one thing or the other, and that seems to me the best way to be. It’s this liminal nature that’s so valuable, which provides answer to the idolatries of ancestry that are once again emerging in the West (with Italy no exception). DuBois offered a different vision, a coalition of many hues marshaled against the hegemony of any one. When I meet the gaze of the Fayum portraits, I see in their brown eyes an unsettling hopefulness from some 20 centuries ago, looking past my shoulder and just beyond the horizon where perhaps that world may yet exist.
I couldn’t bring myself to drive to Boston’s Revere Beach, where my father drowned himself in 1992, so I took the G train to the Greenpoint Waterfront, where Spalding Gray’s body was discovered in 2004. I’d been there before, of course—countless afternoons sloping into evenings on the rocks of WNYC Transmitter Park.
But I had never gone there realizing it was where Gray’s body washed up on a cold day in March, two months after he was reported missing. Nearly 14 years later to the day, I stood on a pier overlooking the rocks off the East River, holding my copy of The Journals of Spalding Gray. I turned to the last page, a quote from one of his entries written in 1970:
I began to realize I was acting as though the world was going to end and this was helping lead to its destruction. The only positive act would be to leave a record. To leave a chronicle of feelings, acts, reflections, something outside of me, something that might be useful in the unexpected future.
Here was a spot where I’d supervised photoshoots with clients, where I’d participated in woo-woo Californian rituals of impermanence and sipped pony-necked beers out of brown paper bags. To be here now seemed at once wholly incompatible and utterly harmonious. It was like coming home.
Like Gray, I grew up in Rhode Island, about 30 minutes north of his hometown of Barrington. Like Gray, I lost a parent to suicide—his mother in their family garage with the door closed and the engine on, my father in a way that was … well, like Gray. In September of 1992, my father walked into the waters off the Boston shore, stating in his note that his intention was for the tides to take him.
The tides must have worked, because he was never found. After waiting out a seven-year period to have him declared in absentia, his mother sent me a manilla envelope with a copy of a suicide note and his will. My own mother rarely, if ever, brought it up.
Gray learned about his mother in a similar way when she died in 1967. At a train station in Providence, his father said simply that she was “gone.” When Gray later referred to this as “the avoidance language that was going on in Rhode Island,” I knew intuitively, experientially, what he meant.
Around the same time that I learned of my father’s death in that familiar old Rhode Island language of avoidance, I was also beginning weekly, sometimes biweekly trips into Providence. In ninth grade, a performance of Othello at Trinity Repertory Company shook something deep in my ribcage—especially in the moment of Othello’s suicide at the end. It was like chasing the dragon, but the dragon itself was unnamable. In the wake of that performance, combined with a childhood love of opera, I took after-school classes at Trinity as well as the experimental theater down the street, Perishable Theater. I saw plays by New York experimentalists like Mac Wellman over and over until I’d memorized the scripts.
And I began to read books—monologues, really—by a fellow Rhode Islander whose brother, Channing, covered the arts for the Providence Journal. They were one-man shows with titles like Swimming to Cambodia, Gray’s Anatomy, and Monster in a Box, performed (as I later saw on film) at a wooden table, adorned with a single glass of water, with a notebook used occasionally for reference. It was nothing like the verbal aerobics of Shakespeare or the pageantry of opera, yet I was completely taken with this not-quite-actor, not-quite-writer who seemed to cut to some primal aspect of the human experience.
In 2003, I began my freshman year at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus as a playwriting major. Those first few months in New York, I often hoped I would run into Gray on the subway, that we could share the distinct experience of being two of the few Rhode Islanders who move outside of a 20-mile radius of their childhood homes and seek their fortunes in the unknown. I went further outside of the Rhode Island safety zone and spent that first winter of my college experience in Russia, studying at the Moscow Art Theatre School which both augmented and challenged what I’d gleaned of Gray’s school of downtown theater.
The day I returned from Moscow was the day Gray disappeared. What we presume to know now is that he boarded the Staten Island Ferry and leapt into the ultimate unknown. We never locked eyes on the B train, but his loss felt familial. The next few months felt like a bizarre stasis in the face of life continuing. My second semester of college, my first job in the city, working on plays on-campus and off. I learned that they found him when a guy I was seeing emailed me about it before inviting himself over. I imagine Gray would have appreciated his death being used as fodder for a booty call.
But going back into those books that I’d collected, the tales of peak experience and alternative medicine and childhood pets, was impossible. I often wonder if there was some subconscious connection between Gray’s death, my own delayed grieving process for my father (which wouldn’t begin in earnest until 2011), and my ultimate decision at the end of 2004 to withdraw from Fordham and abandon theatre studies.
It took me half a decade before I felt ready to read Nell Casey’s compendium of Gray’s journal entries, which span the 1960s up until the first weeks of 2004. Grief, in some ways, is a lot like Gray’s signature monologues: There’s some semblance of an arc of where you begin and end, but for the most part it’s improvised, nonlinear. You circle around one topic (anger, depression) before hopscotching over to another (bargaining or acceptance), and then making a sharp U-ey over to one of the earlier stages (denial) for a coda.
And reading Gray’s journals was a method for unraveling this reverse-Fibonacci sequence. A wayfinder of his artistic development, the books he read, and his ongoing obsession with synchronicity, the journals also kept the loss of his mother in the same room. If it wasn’t front and center, it was at least in the periphery, hanging like a premonition. An undated entry read, “the new fear was that mom had not only killed herself, but had also laid the groundwork to kill me.” I felt the familiar rattling of ribs, got a whiff of the vapors of recognition.
I realized that, more than anything else, this is the monster in a box left behind by the suicide of a parent: We worry that the stories they write are also coded into our DNA, and that we’re bound to follow in their wake. “MY MOM DIDN’T LEAVE A NOTE,” he wrote in all-caps in an undated entry from the early 1980s, when he was touring Australia, and I wonder if his journals, if his obsessive self-biography, was some sort of recompense. I wish I could tell Spalding that my father did leave a note, and it didn’t do a Rosetta Stone’s job of helping me to understand why he left. It didn’t even do a Google Translate’s job.
I tried for years to find out exactly who my father was: the books he read, the path of his development, the theories that formed his obsessions. He died pre-internet, however, and the information available is sparse. Trying to track it down would make me physically sick from the subliminal stress. His name appears in a college yearbook for the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at UMass Amherst. The U.S. Coast Guard sent me a copy of his brief military record before he was honorably discharged from Governor’s Island. I want to know his pain, what kept him up at night, the scraps of paper he filled and the complaints he wrote in all caps. Gray called this act in life “seeking out its dark spots” in an April 1985 entry.
For reasons that were beyond articulation when I added the book to my Amazon cart, I believed that Gray’s journals would give me some sense of a road map to self-destruction without having to feel that destruction cut so close to the bone. Academic research. Clinical observation. Over the course of four decades, I’d be able to see the same road markers in Gray’s life that my own father followed. What I got instead was more of this nonlinear grief, but at some point it resolved into an equally nonlinear understanding. It was an understanding through coincidence, of the sort of chance groupings that psychoanalyst Carl Jung would define as synchronicity.
In his book of the same title, Jung notes that we could see synchronicity as those coincidences that fall within the realm of probability. But we can also intuit within them a sense of persistence. Taken at face-value, none of what I’ve written about so far is so unique: People lose parents to suicide. People die, voluntarily or otherwise, by drowning. The reason that we still see memoirs with titles like My Dead Parents is that they have a market; they carry resonance. And people are drawn to the water (we are, after all, 66 percent water). It’s not an uncommon metaphor.
But if we care to look past the odds of probability, these ideas still have a way of persisting. At a certain point in The Journals of Spalding Gray, it’s as though I’ve become bloodhound-attuned to sniffing out at first any mention of his parents, death, or the water. I free associate and scribble notes about the few times Casey writes in editorial notes that Gray almost drowns, either intentionally or not. It’s not unlike how Gray himself drew connections between the elements of his life and the lives of others in order to distill greater meaning. It wasn’t so much that he projected his suffering, neuroses, hopes, or fears onto others as it was that he understood, implicitly or not, that one of the main reasons synchronicity exists is that as humans, most of what we do experience are the hand-me-downs of history.
In that same April 1985 journal entry, Gray described Swimming to Cambodia as an attempt to balance out polar extremes. “Like any work of art it is an attempt to become God out of a loss of contact. An attempt to create a tiny, balanced universe. An attempt to play at being God out of a lack of contact with the real or imagined source.” And here I am attempting to play at being God, using Gray as an imagined source. And that experiment seems to work.
Jung writes that “spontaneous synchronistic phenomena draw the observer, by hook or by crook, into what is happening and occasionally make him an accessory to the deed.” Nearly a quarter of a century after losing my own father, nearly 18 years after learning about his death, there is still a knot of complicated grief. Trying to untangle it in the years that followed that initial manila envelope often resulted in paralysis, of making the jumble even worse. Gray’s journals pulled me out of that inertia, allowed me to know when to weave one end of the twine over or under an entangling loop.
On September 26, 1985, the day after I was born, Gray wrote in his journal, “Had this dream that I was arrested for holding a mirror up to people on a beach in England.” Many who have eulogized Gray, including those whose tributes appear in the 2005 book Life Interrupted, note his role as the mirror, observer, and reflection all in one. To read his work, any of his work, is to see and be seen. It’s to be made an accessory to the deed, of testing the mirror by moving some part of our body to see it reflected. Like a Möbius strip, that reflection comes back to us, albeit transposed. We don’t know the exact truth, but we know its mate.
By hook or by crook, Gray’s journals drew me into the wilderness of a mind both voraciously open and inescapably hindered. He wanted to know the truth. But like grief, to know the truth is to be an active participant. Like grief, the truth lacks a script. At best you can hope for it to show you to a wooden table with a glass of water and a notebook with some sense of an outline.
In October 2015, Hogarth Press from Crown Publishing launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project, an anticipated eight-part series in which best-selling authors retell a Shakespearean classic as a contemporary novel. Jeanette Winterson’s cover of The Winter’s Tale—A Gap of Time—was published first, almost exactly 400 years after the Bard’s death. Five more installments have since been released, with the final one—Gillian Flynn’s cover of Hamlet—expected in 2021.
Contemporizing a Shakespearean play is a fairly common undertaking. As the Hogarth Shakespeare’s website notes, Shakespeare’s works have frequently “been reinterpreted for each new generation, whether as teen films, musicals, science-fiction flicks, Japanese warrior tales, or literary transformations.” Reimagining a Shakespearean story can often be a contentious effort as well. Many critics note the difficulty of believably translating a Shakespearean conflict—written centuries before the study of psychology—into a modern setting. Supporters, meanwhile, will often point to William Shakespeare himself and his own aptness to adapt and revise stories from various sources.
Regardless of one’s personal thoughts on Shakespearean adaptations, it is hard to overlook their significance to our cultural canon, from musicals like West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate to films such as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Even having the original texts set in modern circumstances can be incredibly influential and timely, with the Public Theatre’s recent production of Julius Caesar—in which Caesar was modeled after Donald Trump—being the most notorious recent example.
As a lover of both Shakespearean drama and contemporary literature, I am an ardent follower of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. However, my interest in the project stems not from a desire to see creatively adapted Shakespearean plots; but, rather, an interest in seeing Shakespearean stories used to examine contemporary political, social, and cultural issues.
Each book in the series thus far has had varying success with this. Jeanette Winterson uses her cover of The Winter’s Tale to examine the devastating effects of hyper-masculinity and violence against women, as well as the normalcy of homoeroticism. Shylock Is My Name—Howard Jacobson’s cover of The Merchant of Venice—uses both Shylock himself and his modernized counterpart, Simon Strulovitch, to examine the past and present expectations of Jewish identity. In Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, her cover of The Taming of the Shrew, the Petruchio character attempts to woo Kate into marriage so that he can avoid deportation. The most meta cover version—Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed—has the Prospero character produce The Tempest in a prison. This Tuesday marked the release of Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar—his cover of King Lear—which sees Lear reimagined as the head of an international media corporation.
Edward St Aubyn’s novel, however, was preceded by Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, her cover of Othello and Hogarth’s first modernization of a Shakespearean tragedy. Chevalier’s retelling takes place over the course of a single day on a predominantly white elementary school playground, in which Ian, the playground bully, schemes to break up the budding relationship between Osei—a new student originally from Ghana—and Dee, a popular white student.
When it comes to contemporizing Shakespeare, Othello tends to be considered one of the most substantial texts to view through a modern lens, generally accompanied by The Merchant of Venice. Although Shylock is presented as the villain of Merchant, the anti-Semitism he experiences allows for a modern writer to examine Shylock’s personal tragedy as a victim of discrimination. Meanwhile, although race is not specifically mentioned as incentive for Iago’s escalating schemes against Othello, the implicit racial politics of both Othello’s interracial marriage to Desdemona and his military success as a man of color provide plenty of contemporary subjects for a modern author to examine. In his recent piece for The New York Times, “Shylock and Othello in the Time of Xenophobia,” Shaul Bassi writes, “If throughout the 20th century ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ vied for the title of most topical political allegory, in the new millennium ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’ are the plays that make Shakespeare our contemporary.”
The fatal misstep of New Boy, then, comes from the fact that Chevalier chose to set her retelling in 1974 Washington D.C., only 10 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act and, from Bassi’s perspective, before Othello truly became the relevant allegory that it is today. There are only a few choice nods to early 1970s pop culture such as hippies, Oldsmobiles, and Roberta Flack, and only one fleeting reference is made to Watergate (despite impeachment proceedings presumably taking place minutes away from the playground). Instead, the main aspect of New Boy that gives it a sense of time is the overtness of the racism that it exhibits. Teachers are frequently overheard discussing Osei, expressing their relief that he isn’t in their classroom, sayings things like “This school isn’t ready for a black boy,” and commenting that Osei has given Dee “a taste for chocolate milk.” Osei and Dee’s teacher, a rumored Vietnam War veteran, functions primarily as a racist stock character, lashing out at Osei for minor infractions by calling him “boy” and telling him to watch himself. His arc appears in the final pages of the book, when he drops the novel’s one predictable and unnecessary n-word, as he yells to Osei to get off of the jungle gym.
Chevalier’s descriptions tend to hinder her storytelling as well. The most significant example of this is in her characterization of Osei’s sister, Sisi, who has begun to follow the Black Panther party back in New York. Her empowerment is described at one point as an “angry black girl performance,” and she is subsequently described as angry so often that her character appears flat and stereotyped. Chevalier’s writing can also begin to feel heavy-handed, with six instances in which characters start to call Osei black before stopping mid-word to correct themselves. Even with this occasional interruption, the word “black” is used so often that it begins to feel artificial and excessive. In Act IV, Chevalier writes:
[Osei] did not want to confront her, to have her get in his face, talking to him, telling more lies, treating him like her boyfriend, and then like the black boy on a white playground. The black sheep, with a black mark against his name. Blackballed. Blackmailed. Blacklisted. Blackhearted. It was a black day.
So how is it that Hogarth’s cover of The Merchant of Venice was so successful, while their Othello cover fell so flat? The answer appears to be because of writers that were assigned to them. Howard Jacobson is a Jewish novelist best known for writing about the struggles of Jewish characters. Jacobson reportedly asked to cover other plays before being assigned Merchant, indicating that Hogarth thoughtfully assigned the play knowing that he would modernize it in a provocative way. Meanwhile, Tracy Chevalier is a white woman best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, set in the Dutch Golden Age, which bares little resemblance to the conflicts of Othello. When asked in an promotional interview for Hogarth as to what attracted her to the text, Chevalier likened Othello’s otherness to that of hers living as an expat in Great Britain.
White writers opting to write about a time in the recent past when racism was more deliberate is not uncommon. Abandoning a nuanced discussion of micro-aggressions, structural and institutional racism, and white supremacy in favor of explicit and often dated racial language often simplifies the writing process, and keeps white audiences comfortable as they read. In a similar critique of Hollywood, Kara Brown noted in Jezebel last year, “Right now, Americans are only comfortable with a certain type of black person onscreen.” Although Chevalier occasionally hints at the possibility of a more complex discussion of micro-aggressions—the principal congratulates Osei on being “articulate” before telling the class to welcome him even though he is a “less fortunate” student, despite his father being a diplomat—she ultimately shies away from it.
Alternatively, in A Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson uses her own background to add to her source material and intensify the text’s conflict. In The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes rather unexplainably believes that his friend King Polixenes is having an affair with his wife, Hermione. In A Gap of Time, Winterson—known for her autobiographical writing on LGBT issues—creates a previous affair between her Leontes and Polixenes, which, as Dean Bakopoulos points out in his New York Times review of the novel, “makes Leo’s overblown rage and irrational envy at the outset even more credible than it is in the original.” Therefore, although The Winter’s Tale isn’t usually listed with The Merchant of Venice and Othello as one of Shakespeare’s most politically relevant plays, Winterson’s unique additions make it more successful adaptation than Chevalier’s take on Othello, which idly favors a more overt racism than what is featured in her source text.
The choices of writers in many cases have led to fascinating twists on Shakespeare’s works, namely Jacobson’s parallel Shylocks in Shylock is My Name and Jeanette Winterson’s gay undertones in A Gap of Time. However, in a 2015 New York Times article detailing the Hogarth Shakespeare project, Alexandra Alter wrote that Winterson’s cover was, “a promising start to an ambitious new series from Hogarth, which has assembled an all-star roster of stylistically diverse writers to translate Shakespeare’s timeless plays into prose.” As the series has gained more traction, it is hard not to notice the word “stylistically” here. Although the writings of the Hogarth team are stylistically varied, their biographies are less so. Three of the writers are American and three are British, leaving Margaret Atwood (who is Canadian) and Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, whose cover of Macbeth is expected next year. All eight writers are white—five women and three men—with only one under the age of 50 (Flynn is 46), and three writers in their 70s. Although each author did achieve some success within their own adaptation, imagine how rewarding the series would have been had it featured writers whose backgrounds varied more drastically from Shakespeare himself. It is disappointing when a project aims to see “the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought to life for a contemporary readership,” yet the writers selected are not ultimately representative of all that contemporary society has to offer.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
It was in 2002, while an undergraduate at James Madison University, one of many colleges nestled among the villes and burgs of southern Virginia, that I first discovered the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih. I still have the same copy of his novel, Season of Migration to the North, I purchased from the university bookstore for a world literature course: a burnt-orange Heinemann paperback edition, translated from the Arabic by Denys Johnson-Davies. On the front cover: the visage of a woman, carved as if from stone, a sun beating like a heart below her throat. On the back, a giant bookstore barcode, above which are the words SALIH USED.
What struck me most then, and still does, was the author photograph. It’s a face that reminds me of my father. Both men have the same tight curls of black hair, the same broad noses, the same drooping earlobes. They both wear the same ill-fitting shirt collars, they both wince when they smile, as if hesitant to display happiness. The first time I saw that face, I remember feeling rent by coincidence, by history. There’s me: the first-generation Sudanese immigrant, my genes muddled with those of an American-born mother, barely cognizant of the details of his cultural history. Then there’s my father: now 74, a journalist born in a small Nile village two hours outside of Khartoum. And, between us, there was now Tayeb Salih: the Sudanese novelist whose only relation to us was that same five-letter surname, with the same vowel sandwiched like a tiny person between the “l” and the “h.”
I’ve picked up Season of Migration to the North four times in the 15 years since I discovered it; or, rather, since it was thrust upon me by a professor. The first reading was an academic one, in conjunction with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to which Salih’s novel reads like a direct response, a way for the colonized to seize the narrative from the colonizer and hand it back, pretzel-twisted into something strange and unique. The second reading, in 2007, was prompted by a piece I wrote on overlooked books for the Baltimore City Paper titled “Sexing Up Colonialism: Tayeb Salih’s Novel Plows a Different Organ into Darkness’ Heart.” The third reading, seven years after that, was for no reason other than curiosity at seeing the book’s yellowing spine while rearranging my bookshelves.
Finally, last month, I opened Season of Migration to the North once again, this time in the company of my father and several other Sudanese immigrants. It was this reading, and the discussion that followed, which gave new meaning, new weight, to the novel’s magnificent opening line, one that captured me from the first time I read it: “It was, gentlemen, after a long absence—seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe—that I returned to my people.”
In the same finished basement in the northern Virginia home where I spent so much of my childhood—playing eight-bit video games at sleepovers, sneaking down to watch soft-core cable porn, sitting at an electric typewriter and writing absurdist stories about my classmates—my father now hosts monthly book club meetings with his Sudanese friends. For several hours, the group of four or five men—journalists, professors—drink tea and coffee, eat cookies and crudité, and talk. The books they discuss are usually political, usually esoteric, always about Sudan, and always read (and discussed) in Arabic.
One day, I asked my father why he and his friends never read and discussed novels. He didn’t have an answer for me, so instead he posed a challenge: Find a novel, in English, about Sudan, and we’ll read it. And you can join us for the discussion.
Even after decades of voracious reading, my knowledge of Arab literature, like my ability to read and speak the language, is pathetic at best. Everything I know about Arab literature I learned (in translation) from comparative lit classes, where I was first introduced to works like Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun, the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, Emile Habiby’s surreal The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist, Miramar by Naguib Mahfouz, and Edward Said and Jean Mohr’s photo essays, After the Last Sky. But of all these books, it was Season of Migration to the North to which I felt most compelled to return, yet again, like the novel’s nameless narrator who keeps returning, from his adult life in Khartoum, to the village of his childhood. The chance to read this novel outside academia, among the men who actually lived it, who were very much Salih’s contemporaries and who shared the same lives and experiences as the fictional Sudanese villagers who imbue this short novel with so much human force and vitality, was too potent to pass up.
It was also, I confess, a blatant effort to come even closer to my own heritage—or as close as I could manage after so many years as a young kid outright rejecting it. Like most mixed-raced children, I was raised in a manner that, for all its inclusiveness, was nevertheless confusing. I never knew to which camp, which tribe, I belonged. Yet I drew my battle lines right from the start, opting to shrug aside as much of my Sudanese self as I could: the Arabic lessons I never took to heart; the Ramadan fasts I always broke during lunch at school; the Sunday visits to the community mosque through which I’d sit and suffer and wait for snack time; the circumcision of my birth name, Zaki, for the more pronounceable, more Americanized “Zak.” Only in college and graduate school, when I came out of the closet and joined another tribe, did I begin to appreciate, to respect, the personal history I’d ignored for so long.
Suggesting Tayeb Salih’s novel, joining the late-May book club meeting, sharing my thoughts on the novel not with lit majors and newsweekly readers but with my Sudanese elders—all of this, I suspect, was an attempt to redeem myself, in some small way, from decades of personal neglect and ignorance.
Published in 1966 and translated into English three years later, Season of Migration to the North begins with a return: that of the nameless narrator to Wad Hamid, the Sudanese village of his birth, after years of study in Europe. There, he encounters the mysterious, Kurtz-like character of Mustafa Sa’eed—himself returned from years abroad in Europe, albeit under more sinister circumstances. Sa’eed shares the story of his life in 1920s London as a scholar of English literature and a rampant womanizer who feeds off the cultural fetishes of London women. These lovers, invariably, end up destroying themselves. Two of the women commit suicide; the third, Jean Morris, is murdered by Sa’eed in a scene that recalls William Shakespeare’s Othello (or, just as well, the icepick murders in Basic Instinct).
A testament to one’s maturity is being able to discuss such frank sexual matters in the company of one’s father and his friends. But there’s no way to sidestep the issue; Season of Migration to the North is suffused with psychosexual themes. As Sa’eed suggests, his reckless relationships are revenge for the infractions of European colonialism, and throughout the novel you find the common colonial trope of land as a fertile woman waiting to be seeded. In many ways, Sa’eed’s adventures in London fulfill the anxieties one finds in late 18th-century works inspired by the fear of reverse colonialism: H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, to name but two. Consider one of the novel’s most chilling lines, spoken by Sa’eed: “I’ll liberate Africa with my penis.”
After serving a prison sentence in England, Sa’eed returns to Wad Hamid, remarries, and lives a traditional life. Soon after sharing his story with the narrator, however, Sa’eed disappears (it’s implied he drowns himself in the Nile). The narrator is left with the terrible knowledge of the poisonous relationships between men and women, between East and West (or, in this case, south and north), between colonizer and colonized, between tradition and modernity. The narrator—like my father, like his friends, like myself—is torn between a life in the West and the traditions of his village.
Then there’s the troubling legacy of colonialism. As a college student dabbling in cultural relativism, I would shudder to hear my father speak about how grateful he felt toward British colonialism: to the river steamers, to the railways, to the British educational system. I thought he was insane. And yet, it was this very system that allowed my father to go to college, to study abroad in America, to create for himself his own destiny outside the doum trees and mud-and-brick huts of his village.
A reading of Season of Migration to the North disrupts this idea, however much truth there is to it. Addressing the court during his trial for the murder of Jean Morris, Sa’eed says:
The ships at first sailed down the Nile carrying guns not bread, and the railways were originally set up to transport troops; the schools were started so as to teach us to say “Yes” in their language. They imported to us the germ of the greatest European violence, as seen on the Somme and at Verdun, the like of which the world has never previously known, the germ of a deadly disease that struck them more than a thousand years ago. Yes, my dear sirs, I came as an invader into your very homes: a drop of the poison which you have injected into the veins of history.
There were four of us in the basement that Saturday afternoon, sitting at polite distances from one another on the curving sofa, sipping pitch-black coffee from tiny cups and saucers, holding our respective copies of the novel (a handsome reprint by NYRB Classics, a floppy paperback in Arabic, my own well-worn Heinemann edition). The conversation was decorous, respectful. In the presence of my elders I felt quieter than usual; I felt like the narrator does when listening to the conversations between his grandfather and other villagers, among them the hyper-sexed Wad Rayyes and the uninhibited Bint Majzoub. I felt like an eavesdropper or worse, a tourist, obliging these men to speak in English instead of Arabic.
At one point, a small argument sprang up between two of my father’s friends over the politics not of Salih’s novel but of his life. Mr. Shuaib, born in Darfur, toothpick-slim and militant in a snug green jacket, insisted at great length that we not forget the author’s faint praise of Sudan’s military regime and that this colored one’s reading of the novel. Mr. Babiker, born in a Khartoum suburb, relaxed in cargo shorts and t-shirt, decried such a political reading, insisting we should enjoy Season of Migration to the North on the merits of its language as opposed to its politics. I debated lobbing some hefty rock of literary theory into the conversation, the “death of the author,” perhaps. Instead, I just listened as the two men argued over whether or not Salih’s work for Gulf-state rulers somehow discredited his literary ideas about the world being big enough for everyone.
Then there was my father, who reminded me of Tayeb Salih in looks and, more importantly, in the trajectory of his life from Sudanese village to Western metropolis. This is where I learned my father had met the author twice. The first meeting was in the late 1960s, while my father was a journalist in Khartoum working for the newspaper al-Sahafa. He managed to squeeze in a few minutes of conversation with Salih, who was there being interviewed by the paper’s books editor. My father’s questions, he told us, were anything but literary. Was it true the London buses ran on time, and that Londoners could set their watch according to the bus schedule? Was it true the British had stiff upper lips? (Of course, as he put it, my father shied away from the real questions he wanted to ask: What were white Western women like? Did Mr. Salih really know women like Mrs. Robinson? Did he sleep with women like Isabella Seymour, like Ann Hammond, like Jean Morris?)
In the early 2000s, my father met Tayeb Salih for the second and last time. Over the intervening decades, my father had followed in the author’s footsteps somewhat, traveling to America on a loan from the government to study political science and journalism at Indiana University (where he finally met, and married, a white Western woman, my mother), opting to stay in the U.S. instead of going back to Sudan, working as a Washington correspondent for Arab newspapers and newsmagazines. During this second meeting, my father was less concerned about the West and more concerned with the East, with questions about what it meant to be a Muslim, about the anxiety of return.
Midway through the conversation, a fourth person came down into the basement: a young professional, American-born, in his early 30s, named Mr. Elrayah. When prompted to share his thoughts, Mr. Elrayah spoke of how the novel evoked the experiences he’d had every summer as a young boy during his visits to Sudan, how Salih’s novel suggested the courtyards, the palm trees, the raucous and ribald conversations in his village of El-Kadarou. I sat there, watching him speak, thinking how far removed even this experience was from my own. I’d only been to Sudan twice in my life. The first time was in 1989, when I was seven years old and too young to remember anything but the vaguest sensations of interminable air travel. The second was a decade later; I was 17 and in a state of contemptuous despair at being forced to come to Khartoum, this strange land that was so far removed from the comforts of my unassuming suburban life. (I remember with shame how I bawled when we’d missed our first return flight back to the U.S., terrified I’d be trapped in my father’s village for the rest of my life.)
Everyone else in this room had palpable connections with their Sudanese histories. And what did I have? After all the years of neglect and disinterest in my Sudanese heritage, all I had was this slim paperback novel I kept rolling and unrolling in my hands. I put on a good face and, when it was my turn to speak, gave my usual undergraduate talking points on post-colonial literature, on the anxieties of reverse colonization. Underneath, however, I felt like more of an outcast than I ever had. I felt distraught, displaced. I felt, appropriately enough, like the novel’s narrator, who finds himself caught in the middle of the Nile:
half-way between north and south. I was unable to continue, unable to return. I turned over onto my back and stayed there motionless, with difficulty moving my arms and legs as much as was needed to keep me afloat.
Season of Migration to the North ends with the narrator’s weak suicide attempt in the Nile, a cri de couer that’s also a cry for help. In all my years of reading, it remains one of the most palpable, affecting endings to a novel I’ve yet encountered.
Then my mind cleared and my relationship to the river was determined. Though floating on the water, I was not part of it. I thought that if I died at that moment, I would have died as I was born—without any volition of mine. All my life I had not chosen, had not decided. Now I am making a decision. I choose life. I shall live because there are a few people I want to stay with for the longest possible time and because I have duties to discharge. It is not my concern whether or not life has meaning. If I am unable to forgive, then I shall try to forget. I shall live by force and cunning. I moved my feet and arms, violently and with difficulty, until the upper part of my body was above water. Like a comic actor shouting on a stage, I screamed with all my remaining strength, “Help! Help!”
The tenuousness, the tension of the narrator trapped in the middle of the Nile—Will there be anyone to help save him from drowning? How much longer can he stay afloat, stay alive, on his own?—is what makes it so arresting, so haunting.
In the weeks since my father’s book club meeting, I’ve reread, once again, Season of Migration to the North—as well as Salih’s collection of short stories on village life, The Wedding of Zein. Taken together, they’re a portrait of a world and a time that I’ll only ever know through literature and through the shared experiences and stories of my father and his contemporaries. I suppose it was enough for me to connect with others, for a few brief hours, over what these pages mean, why I keep returning to them after all these years.
This is what we mean when we talk about the consolation, the community, literature provides. Season of Migration to the North is a 169-page umbilical cord connecting me not just to my Sudanese side but, in a more direct manner, to my 74-year-old father who has managed to survive—and thrive—suspended between two worlds. It’s his suspension, this thrilling existential high-wire act, which inspires my own.
It’s also a suspension that, as it does for the novel’s narrator, requires outside assistance. Just a few days ago, working on this piece, I had a few questions. So I called the only person I could think of. The phone rang twice, then the familiar voice, rich with age and experience, said hello.
“Dad,” I said, “I need your help.”
I recently had the privilege of participating in a panel at the Center for Fiction. The topic was “Modern Family,” and the moderator posed the question: “What literature influenced you as a young person?” My fellow panelists—the amazing Alden Jones, Min Jin Lee, and Tanwi Nandini Islam—named beloved, important books and authors. My answer—which I think came as a surprise to most—was that I hardly read as a child and youth.
My parents are immigrants—English is not their first language—and neither are they readers or cultural mavens. We did not have many books in the house, and I was not read to as a child. I do recall a Disney picture book involving a scroogey Donald Duck character that I liked to read over and over—something about soup made from a button. Once I started school, there were of course books assigned, and I read them obediently if not enthusiastically. Mine was a somewhat typical suburban childhood: I watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Doritos.
The first book I read out of inner compulsion, as opposed to externally-imposed obligation, was Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. This was my junior year of college—relatively late for someone who now writes and reads “professionally.” Reading Dillard was (and continues to be, in fact) a truly ecstatic experience—I must have reread every single page as I went along, pausing to stare into space or jot things down in my journal or just shake my head in awe—and it took me quite a long time to finish even as I couldn’t put it down (by the end, incidentally, I had decided I had to be a writer; or die trying). Where had this kind of reading been all my life? I realized for the first time that there is reading, and there is reading. The kind of reading that counts, that really matters, is what I’d call whole-soul reading. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James writes about “mystical susceptibility,” the experience of books and language as “irrational doorways… through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, [steals] into our hearts and [thrills] them.” I’m so grateful to have had that intense conversion moment—because I have brought that expectation and susceptibility with me to every book I’ve picked up since then.
It’s true that I have often felt at a disadvantage for embarking on my reading life so late. I wrote about this a few years ago—the project of frantically “catching up” with my peers once I set myself on the path of literary life. But mostly that underdog status has been a positive motivation. I am an omnivorous reader and have not lost that addiction to mystical thrill—in James’s words, “states of insight and depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect… illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain”—when reading.
In 2016, thanks to a semester sabbatical, I read more than usual. Canonical books I read for the first time—”catchup” reading I’ll call it still—captivated me utterly and reminded me that, truly, there is never a “too late” (in fact, there may be a “too early”) when it comes to the reading life.
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Raymond Chandler said it best: “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley … He wrote for people with a sharp, aggressive attitude to life. They were not afraid of the seamy side of things; they lived there…He had style, but his audiences didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinement.” I was struck especially by the female characters Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Effie Perine: just when you thought you were going to have to excuse this old-fashioned author’s concessions to gender stereotypes, both the characters and the plot (by which I mean Hammett, of course) would subvert that concern. Incidentally, I also read The Big Sleep but didn’t take to it as much as Hammett. I’ve just started reading The Glass Key (on Chandler’s recommendation) and may be starting on a Hammett binge.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Of course this is a book I felt like I’d read because I know so much about it. At some point I may have half-watched on an airplane the film that stars Winona Ryder. I was sure I’d identify with Jo—if you’re reading the book at all, you’re Jo!— but was surprised (and not a little dismayed) to see a lot of myself in Amy. It was also interesting to recognize that the novel is as much about money as it is about being female—a reminder of the inextricability of economics and gender.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. You know, it’s all relative I suppose, but given our enlightened times, wherein heterosexual relationships are more holistic and less physically driven, I found the sex here—four score and a decade later—still pretty racy. Perhaps our advantage as modern readers is that none of it is shocking, and so the novel’s themes—social class, integrity, the relationship between love and lust, human wholeness—have room to come forward.
King Lear, Othello, and The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare. I wasn’t actually sure if I’d read King Lear previously; again, I knew the story so well, in an ambient, abstract way. But once I started actually engaging the language, I knew that even if I’d “read” it, I definitely hadn’t read it. Here I offer another mode of reading, which is via audio: because Shakespeare is intended to be performed, an audio reading experience, sans visuals, is actually a spectacular way to immerse in Shakespeare’s dramatic and linguistic brilliance. Yes, I would sometimes need to rewind and relisten to confirm who was speaking, but all the better. I continued on with audio readings of Othello and The Winter’s Tale (irrational male jealousy is a theme I hadn’t ever before associated with Shakespeare, hmmm) and am ready, I think, for the historical-political plays—Henry IV is currently on deck.
Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. At a different time in my life, I might have read the former as a categorical rejection/denouncement of Christianity. But I was struck by Baldwin’s stunning feats of compassion—for Gabriel, the character based on his strictly religious, and hypocritical, father, especially: “Then, he began to cry, not making a sound, sitting at the table, and with his whole body shaking…finally he put his head on the table, overturning the coffee cup, and wept aloud. Then it seemed that there was weeping everywhere, waters of anguish riding the world—” (Also, we do well not to divorce Baldwin from religion, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater with regard to our best spiritual writers.) Giovanni’s Room as a kind of personal and artistic experiment—Baldwin writing about love, sex, desire, identity, money, integrity, and family without writing explicitly about blackness—inspires me and, especially in this moment of controversy over cross-racial writing, stirs so many questions. I’m still asking them.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Another oldie that struck me as relevant and very now. Women still struggle to be “selfish,” which is to say centered around one’s creative and sensual imperatives. Chopin’s/Edna’s attraction to heterogeneous culture—cultures of color, of mixedness, of social fluidity and possibility—is arguably a little icky, yet not so removed from what we today call “gentrification”: affluent whites from homogeneous backgrounds wanting to increase their quality of life by stirring up their privilege with urban history, cultures that emerge from struggle, intersectional experience (I live in West Harlem, can you tell?). Chopin’s descriptions of Edna’s nascent self-centering resonated with me over and again: “There were days when she was very happy without knowing why. She was happy to be alive and breathing, when her whole being seemed to be one with the sunlight, the color, the odors, the luxuriant warmth of some perfect Southern day. She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places. She discovered many a sunny, sleepy corner, fashioned to dream in. And she found it good to dream and to be alone and unmolested…Even as a child she had lived her own small life within herself. At a very early period she had apprehended instinctively the dual life – that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”
Chopin provides a definition of mystical experience—those moments when the inward life questions—that James himself may have appreciated. The Awakening is an adult coming-of-age story in its pursuit of integration—collapsing the outward and inward existences. I love the notion of every book we read—whole-soul read—being a part of this process: a quiet, private evolution, toward a more complete self, and in a world we must all work to make more hospitable to such evolution than was Edna Pontellier’s.
Image credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz.
“How had no one ever told me about (Othello’s) Emilia, who, in only a couple of lines, brings down one of the most conniving, merciless villains in all of Western literature? How had no one told me about this fantastic female character who defies not one but two sword-wielding men in order to make sure Desdemona, her mistress and friend, receives justice? I wanted to rip up my diploma. I wanted to start over as a freshman and devote my entire undergraduate career to the Gospel of Emilia.” On Othello’s Emilia and her refusal to be silenced.
“All that he doth write / Is pure his own.” So a 17th-century poet praised William Shakespeare. This is not actually true.
Shakespeare was a reteller. Cardenio, also known as The Double Falsehood, which I’ve written about before for The Millions, was a retelling of the Cardenio episode in Don Quixote. As You Like It retold Thomas Lodge’s romance Rosalynde, The Two Noble Kinsmen comes from the Knight’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The Comedy of Errors is Plautus’s Menaechmi with an extra set of twins. The Winter’s Tale retold Robert Greene’s novella Pandosto without the incest. Much Ado About Nothing is Orlando Furioso, although Beatrice and Benedick are original. King Lear, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew may be simple rewrites of earlier plays. In fact the only of Shakespeare’s plays to have original plots were The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. What makes Shakespeare, well — Shakespeare, is not his plots, but his language.
This month, Hogarth Press published the first entry — The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson — in a new collection of novels by today’s major practitioners that each rewrite one of Shakespeare’s plays. Tracy Chevalier will be retelling Othello; Margaret Atwood The Tempest; Gillian Flynn Hamlet; Edward St. Aubyn King Lear; Anne Tyler The Taming of the Shrew; Jo Nesbø Macbeth; and Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice. This is not a new endeavor, although it does seem to be a uniquely 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon. (The Romantics preferred to think of Shakespeare as an artless genius working under pure inspiration.) But as scholars have begun to recognize the extent of Shakespeare’s own retellings — and collaborations — modern writers have taken a page out of his book by rewriting his plays. (I’ll mention here the newly announced project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, but that seems to stem from a different impulse.)
Perhaps this narrative is too simple. It is not as if, after all, writers in the last century suddenly discovered Shakespeare as a source and influence. For the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s poetry and plays have become as much a part of the common language and mythology as the King James Bible. In a sense, Noah’s flood is as much a foundational myth of our culture as the Seven Ages of Man. Like Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, we use Shakespeare as a way to understand and connect with each other. There is so much of Shakespeare woven into Moby-Dick, for instance, that the allusions and the words and the quotations feel like the warp and woof of the novel. The same could be said for just about anything by Milton, Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Frost, Eliot — in fact I could name most of the writers in the English and American canons, and, indeed, abroad. Borges, to name just one example, found in Shakespeare a kindred spirit in his exploration of magical realism; and Salman Rushdie’s definition of magical realism as “the commingling of the improbable with the mundane” is a pretty good description of some of Shakespeare’s plays — A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind.
Let’s take, for an example, Woolf’s Between the Acts, her last novel. It is a book seemingly made entirely of fragments — scraps of literature spoken and overheard; parts of the village pageant, around which the novel centers, either omitted or the voices of the actors blown away by the wind; characters speaking to each other but failing to understand, or only managing to half-articulate their thoughts. In the midst of all this, Shakespeare is ever-present, a source for the poetry on everyone’s lips, inspiration for part of the pageant, and a symbol of what ought to be valued, not just in literature and art, but in life.
One of these piecemeal phrases that becomes a refrain in the book and in the consciousness of the characters is “books are the mirrors of the soul.” Woolf turns it around from meaning that books reflect the souls of their creators to meaning that the books we read reflect what value there might be in our souls. The person who is drawn to reading about Henry V must have that same heroism somewhere in him; the woman who feels the anguish of Queen Katherine also has some of her nobility. The younger generation of Between the Acts reads only newspapers, or “shilling shockers.” No one reads Shakespeare, although they try to quote him all the time. Shakespeare becomes a substitute for what they cannot put into words themselves, their “groanings too deep for words.” The worth of Shakespeare that emerges in Between the Acts is as a tap for the hidden spring in each of the characters that contains the things they wish they could say, the thoughts that otherwise they would have no way to communicate — instead of mirrors, books are the mouthpieces of the soul.
Shakespeare’s plays are a touchstone, and the way we react to them, the way we retell them, says more about us than about him. For example, Mary Cowden Clarke in 1850 created biographies for Shakespeare’s female characters in The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines. Each are made paragons of virtue and modesty, reflecting Victorian morals and values. But Clarke was also coopting Shakespeare for her own interest in women’s rights, using his stories of women with agency and power, and clothing them in Victorian modesty in order to provide an example and a way forward for herself and her female readers.
To take another example, Mark Twain retold Julius Caesar (actually, just Act III, Scene i) in “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” but he used it to address the bully politics of his day. Shakespeare’s play becomes a news squib from the “Roman Daily Evening Fasces” and the title character becomes “Mr. J. Caesar, the Emperor-elect.” Twain’s Caesar successfully fends off each would-be assassin, “[stretching] the three miscreants at his feet with as many blows of his powerful fist.” The story also makes a claim about Twain’s status as a writer compared to Shakespeare: by mentioning Shakespeare as a supposed citizen of Rome who witnessed “the beginning and the end of the unfortunate affray,” Twain mocks the popular reverence for Shakespeare; he ceases to be a poetic genius and becomes merely a talented transcriber. But by doing so, Twain mocks himself as well; he is, after all, transcribing Shakespeare.
To turn to novels, I could mention Woolf’s Night and Day, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Robert Nye’s Falstaff, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, Rushie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, and a long list of others. In a way these are their own type; rather than appropriating Shakespeare, or quoting or alluding to Shakespeare, they purport to re-imagine his plays. Jane Smiley’s retelling of King Lear is probably the most well-known. A Thousand Acres manages to capture the horror of Lear. It is modern in that there is no ultimately virtuous character. Cordelia, or Caroline, becomes naive and blind and prejudiced as any other character in the play, and Larry Cook’s strange relationship to his daughters and the way it blows up says less about power and pride and love and aging than about abuse and bitterness. It is both horribly familiar and also fits surprisingly well into Shakespeare’s play. It becomes part of the lens through which we now must view Lear. It enriches our reading of Shakespeare while also giving us a new view of ourselves. And oh is it a cold hard view.
For her entry into the Hogarth series, Winterson had first pick, and chose The Winter’s Tale, which she says has always been a talismanic text for her. In The Gap of Time, Winterson has written what she calls a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. It’s a jazzy, news-y retelling, set insistently in a realistic world. Whereas Shakespeare takes pains to remind us that his play is just a play, Winterson’s emphatically tries to set the action in our own world. Hermione, for example, an actor and singer, has a Wikipedia page. Her acting debut was in Deborah Warner’s adaptation of Winterson’s novel The PowerBook, and she has performed at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. Leontes lives in London, where he is a successful businessman with a company called Sicilia, and Polixenes, a video game designer, lives in New Bohemia, which is recognizable as New Orleans. The characters are renamed with short, jazzy nicknames: Leontes becomes Leo; Polixenes is Zeno; Hermione is Mimi; the shepherd and clown who discover the lost Perdita become Shep and Clo. Only Perdita and Autolycus retain their full names. (Autolycus is the best translation of the book: he becomes a used car salesman trying to offload a lemon of a Delorean onto the clown.)
Shakespeare’s play is focused almost equally on the parent’s story and then the children’s, but Winterson’s focuses almost exclusively on the love triangle between Zeno, Leo, and Mimi. Whereas Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that Leontes may have some grounds for jealousy (though if we believe the oracle of Apollo, no room for the possibility of Hermione being guilty of adultery), Winterson is explicit that a love triangle does exist, but she inverts it. It is Leo who loves both Mimi and Zeno, Leo who has slept with both. And it’s clear that though Mimi chose Leo, there was a distinct connection between her and Zeno. Winterson even takes a hint from Shakespeare’s source in Pandosto and makes Leo consider romancing Perdita when he meets her. “As someone who was given away and is a foundling, I’ve always worked with the idea of the lost child,” Winterson has said. The part of Shakespeare’s tale that spoke to Winterson was the origin story, why the child was lost.
Shakespeare’s play, because it doesn’t insist upon existing in a realistic world, is full of wonder and mystery. It’s that magic that happens when you hear the words “Once upon a time.” The closest Winterson’s version gets to that place is in the scenes that take place inside of Zeno’s video game, when Zeno and Leo and Mimi play themselves but also become something a little grander, a little wilder, a little more numinous. But there is little of Shakespeare’s language present. Winterson’s The Winter’s Tale is as much a retelling of Pandosto as Shakespeare.
Why do we return again and again to Shakespeare’s plays, why do we keep rewriting them? Is it in hope that some of his genius will rub off? Are we searching for new possibilities for interpretation, hoping to mine new ore out of well covered ground? Or are we going toe-to-toe, trying our strength against the acknowledged genius of English literature? Perhaps it is simply that creativity is contagious. When a piece of art inspires you, it literally in-spires, breaths into you. It makes us want to create new art. Or, maybe it’s a more basic instinct. From the beginning of our lives, when we hear a good story, a story that as Winterson says becomes “talismanic” for us, what do we say? “Tell it again.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
I thought of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” as I watched the opening sequence of Ex Machina, a new film by Alex Garland. Caleb, played Domhnall Gleeson, peers into his computer in a techy looking office. He receives a message that he has won a lottery. As text messages pour in to congratulate him and co-workers clap his back, a look settles onto his face. Just as the opening of “The Lottery” glorifies our pastoral past too perfectly with flowers, “blossoming profusely,” Caleb, lit by the glow of his screen, seems to question. In a post-Edward Snowden world where our identities are tracked and online movements are monitored, is there such thing as random selection?
After his win, Caleb is flown by helicopter to a remote spot in the mountains and told to follow the river, which isn’t easy with a rolling suitcase. He finds the house of the CEO Nathan, played by a perfectly hollow-about-the-eyes Oscar Isaac, and is asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Nathan’s house is actually a high tech research facility and Caleb has been brought in to conduct a test of a machine’s intelligence ability to pass as human, a Turing test. The rest film is structured around Caleb’s testing of Nathan’s artificial intelligence, Ava.
Ava, in a subtle performance by Alicia Vikander, is visibly robotic, though parts of her have soft, perfect skin. Her arms, legs, and waist show her mechanics, shaped curves hug her breasts and bum. When I first saw her, with my tongue in cheek I thought: Ah, a female character reduced to the important parts. And in this kind of reaction lies the cleverness of this film. It plays out as a test of theory of mind, or “awareness of mind” as the film calls it — the ability to understand your own beliefs, intents, and desires, but also to understand that someone else has a different set of the same.
Robin Dunbar, a British evolutionary psychologist who specializes in primate behavior, studies how we hold several people’s intentions in our minds at the same time. In his book, Lucy to Language, he uses the example of Othello, that the plot requires audiences to understand, “that Iago intends that Othello imagines that Desdemona is in love with Cassio.” William Shakespeare requires the audience to understand four levels of mental representation. He raises it to a fifth level when, “Iago is able to persuade Othello that Cassio reciprocates Desdemona’s feelings.” To Dunbar, that is how Shakespeare weaves a narrative spell.
Ex Machina works on a similar level. Without spoiling the plot, the fun of the film lies in that Nathan intends that Caleb imagines that Ava is or is not feeling about Caleb, who may or may not believe Nathan. Kyoko, Nathan’s servant becomes involved, the plot gets another twist.
Dunbar makes an interesting point about writing. Most of us can follow to the fifth level of intention and enjoy a good story. However, far fewer have the ability to compose an interesting tale because the fifth level is most people’s natural limit. The ability to work at the sixth level, what makes a really interesting story, is rare. Shakespeare was able to, “intend that the audience believes…” Garland also successfully works a level higher and this is where the film soars. In taking and subverting current ideas about gender, sci fi, and the thriller genre, he gives us a sharp tweak and delivers a film about theory of mind that is deliciously hard to read.
Garland is author of The Beach, a novel that defined the darker side of backpacking in the 1990s and later became a movie staring Leonardo di Caprio. His next novel, The Tesserat, was called “taut, nervous and often bloody,” by The New York Times and was an early sign of his willingness to play with structure. He wrote the script for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for the screen.
As an Ishiguro fan, I asked Garland about adapting Never Let Me Go. He was able to form an accurate belief about my intentions and said he felt “an acute sense of duty.” He had moments where he wondered why he could not just leave it as a novel, but, as with any project he works on, “it’s not a calculation, it’s a compulsion. You do it because you have to.”
With Ex Machina, Garland wrote the script and directed the film as well. At first he said it was a bigger step to go from novelist to screen writer, whereas moving from writing to directing felt smaller. The more we talked, however, the more Garland came around to seeing his work in novels and on the screen as very similar: “You start with a blank page. You engage the imagination. The problems of how it hangs together are the same.”
Like the best short stories, Ex Machina is sparse, taut, and precise. Every word of dialogue has weight and each shot has a purpose. As with Jackson’s “The Lottery,” the film ultimately shows the power of thinking about what we are doing and why. While the action in Ex Machina shifts in sharp pivots, many of the scenes play out almost as if they are on the page with Caleb and Nathan debating the philosophical implications of artificial intelligence. In other words, it’s fascinating.
William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday is upon us, and at The Millions we wanted to celebrate it in 21st century American style, by debating which of his 38 plays is the best. (Actually, we might have been even more of our time and place if we’d tried to denote his worst.) This exercise comes with the usual caveats about how every play is special and to each his own when it comes to art. But waffling didn’t serve Hamlet well and it’s no fun in this situation, either! We asked five Shakespeare experts to name their favorite play and defend it as the Bard’s best, and they certainly made good on that request. Below you’ll find five persuasively argued cases for five different plays. These contributions may not settle the matter once and for all (though I was happy to see a very strong case made for my personal favorite play), but you’ll certainly learn a lot from them and likely be inspired to dust off your Shakespeare reader or take to the theater next time a production of [insert name of best play here] comes to town. And, really, what better birthday present could we give ole William than that?
Ros Barber is author of The Marlowe Papers.
I would like to be more daring, but when pressed to name Shakespeare’s best work, I can only argue for Hamlet. You could have asked me which play I consider his most underrated (Cymbeline) or which one I feel most personally attached to (As You Like It). But best? Hamlet is iconic.
From the first report of his father’s ghost to the final corpse-strewn scene, Hamlet epitomizes the word “drama.” Shakespeare’s wit, playfulness, and linguistic skills are at their most honed. Everything Shakespeare does well in other plays he does brilliantly here. His characters are at their most human, his language is at its wittiest and most inventive. The heights he has been reaching for in every play before 1599, he achieves fully in Hamlet. The play contains a line of poetry so famous I don’t even need to quote it. Then there’s “Oh that this too, too solid flesh…” — the finest soliloquy in the canon. The memorable images that arise from Hamlet have soaked into Western culture so thoroughly that even someone who has never seen the play is liable, when presented with a human skull, to lift it before them and start intoning “Alas, poor Yorick…”
The role of Hamlet is the role that every actor wants to play. Supporting roles such as Ophelia and even incidental roles such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have spawned major works of art. And – “the play’s the thing” – the play within a play is called The Mousetrap, and by the influence of its title alone appears to have spawned the longest-running show of any kind in the world. There is some kind of radical energy in Hamlet, and it has been feeding artists, writers, and actors for over four hundred years.
When I wrote The Marlowe Papers, whose premise is that William Shakespeare was a playbroker who agreed to “front” for Christopher Marlowe after he faked his death to escape execution, I knew from the outset that I had to elevate this already genius writer to the point where he was capable of writing Hamlet. Not Othello, not King Lear, but Hamlet. It’s the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s artistic achievement. Hands down.
Rev Dr Paul Edmondson is Head of Research for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. His current projects include www.shakespeareontheroad.com, a big road trip of Shakespeare festivals across the United States and North America in Summer 2014. You can follow him on Twitter at @paul_edmondson.
For emotional high-points, it doesn’t come much better than The Winter’s Tale: the evocation of the loving friendship between the two kings; the sudden and expressionistic jealousy of King Leontes and his cruel treatment of Queen Hermione; her tender moments with her son, the young Prince Mamillius; her trial and condemnation; her death quickly followed by the death of Mamillius; the banishment of her baby, the new princess; the bear that chases Antigonus off the stage. And then the passage of time.
I love the way that, every time I see it, this play manages to convince me I’ve entered a whole new world in its second half, a pastoral romance, and that I’ve left behind the tragedy of the earlier acts. And then it all comes magically back to where we started from, with new people who have a different stake in the future. We are sixteen years on but when we return it’s as if we know the place for the first time.
Then the final moments when the statue of Hermione comes to life. It’s a magical story and a miracle of a moment, not least because of the physical challenges it places on the actress to stand as still as she needs to. For these reasons it is the Shakespeare play above all that I find to be genuinely the most moving. The director Adrian Noble, when asked which was his favorite Shakespeare play used to reply, “You mean after The Winter’s Tale?” When this play is performed I see audience members reaching for their handkerchiefs and walking out of the theatre with tears in their eyes. “You can keep your Hamlets, you can keep your Othellos,” a friend of mine once said to me at the end of one performance, “give me The Winter’s Tale any day.” And I agree with him.
Laura Estill is Assistant Professor of English, Texas A&M University, and editor of the World Shakespeare Bibliography.
Of course there is no single best Shakespeare play: there is only the play that speaks best to a reader, scholar, theatre practitioner, or audience member at a given moment. Today, the play that speaks most to me is Henry V. Henry V is not just a great history play — it is a play about how we create and encounter history and how we mythologize greatness. Throughout the play, a chorus comments on the difficulties of (re)presenting history. The prologue’s opening lines capture the play’s energy:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Henry V is part of a series of four Shakespeare plays, the Henriad, named for Henry V. The Henriad traces Henry’s claim to the throne and his calculated move from a carousing youth to a powerful leader. Henry V brings together threads from the earlier plays in the tetralogy (Richard II, 1 & 2 Henry IV) and is haunted by the ghost of Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most endearing characters. The play has meaning not just as a standalone piece, but as part of a network of texts, including other contemporary history plays and the historical accounts that Shakespeare used as his sources (notably, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland).
Shakespeare’s plays reflect the preoccupations of their readers and audiences; it is the multiple interpretations (both by scholars and performers) that make these works valuable. The counterpoints that Shakespeare presents in Henry V invite the audience to consider how we think of ourselves and what it means to be a strong leader. Shakespeare contrasts Henry’s moving and eloquent speeches (“we few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) with the toll of war on common people (“few die well that die in a battle”). Some people see Henry as the greatest English king; others point to Henry’s threat to impale infants on pikes. The epilogue raises Henry as “the star of England” yet also reminds audiences that his son will lose everything Henry has fought to gain.
Although all of Shakespeare’s plays can be approached from multiple angles, not all have remained perennially popular like Henry V. Whether it stars Kenneth Branagh (1989), Tom Hiddleston (2012, The Hollow Crown) or Jude Law (2013, Noel Coward Theatre), Henry V is a great play because it raises more questions than it answers.
Doug Lanier is Professor of English and Director of the London Program at the University of New Hampshire. He’s written Shakespeare and Modern Popular Culture (2002) and is working on a book on Othello on-screen.
King Lear is the Mount Everest of Shakespeare – often forbiddingly bleak and challenging, but for those who scale it, it offers an unparalleled vista on man’s condition and its own form of rough beauty. More than any other Shakespeare play, Lear exemplifies what Immanuel Kant labeled the “sublime,” by which he meant those objects that inspire an awe that simply dwarves us rather than charms.
King Lear explores human identity stripped of the trappings of power, civilization, comfort, and reason, what Lear calls “unaccommodated man,” the self radically vulnerable to the vagaries of an indifferent universe and the cruelties of others. That Shakespeare’s protagonist is a king and patriarch, for early modern society the very pinnacle of society, makes his precipitous fall all the more terrifying. The image of Lear huddled with a beggar and a fool in a hovel on a moor while a storm rages outside is one of the most resonant – and desolate – literary representations of the human condition. Equally bracing is Gloucester’s reward for loyalty to his fellow patriarch: in one of Shakespeare’s most daring onstage moments, Gloucester is blinded before our eyes, an instance of cruelty which even today has the power to shock.
How to live on with knowledge of our fundamental condition is the play’s central preoccupation. Paradoxically, it is precisely the world’s bleakness and our own vulnerability that makes the ephemeral glimmers of love within it all the more valuable. Lear opens the play by asking his daughters to display their love, and his painful recognition of who truly loves him drives the action of the play. Love is so ineffable in Lear that it is typically expressed in minimal language, as if almost beyond words. Cordelia says “nothing” to Lear’s demand for love, and later when her father asks her forgiveness, she replies with understated poignancy, “no cause, no cause.” At play’s end Lear’s anguished love for the dead Cordelia is expressed in a single, excruciatingly repeated final word – “never, never, never, never, never” – in a line which captures at once his guilt, his need for love, his protest against the cruel circumstances of existence, his irremediable pain.
What makes King Lear difficult is its virtue: Shakespeare’s willingness to look a comfortless cosmos directly in the eye and not to turn toward easy consolation. Lear’s world is recognizably our own, our own terrestrial hovel in the dark cosmic storm. And the play’s exceptional power remains its capacity to remind us that hope and love, however fleeting, remain that world’s most precious resource.
Elisa Oh is Assistant Professor of English at Howard University. She has published articles on King Lear, The Tragedy of Mariam, and Wroth’s Urania, and her current book project explores representations of race and gender in early modern dance.
Choosing my favorite Shakespeare play is like choosing my favorite child. However, for the sake of the argument, I throw down the gauntlet in favor of Othello. This is why it’s great: First, Othello shows us how language and stories create reality; second, the play reveals both heroic loyalty and the vengeful, perverse underbelly of same-sex friendship; and finally, it challenges us to realize how easy and harmful it is to racialize and essentialize others’ identities.
Language itself manipulates reality with powerful effects throughout Othello. Language causes characters to fall in love and to fall in hate with each other. Desdemona falls in love with Othello’s stories of wartime adventures, and Othello falls into an obsessive jealous hatred through Iago’s stories of Desdemona’s imagined liaison with Cassio and others. Othello wants “ocular proof” of her infidelity, but he ultimately accepts Iago’s words in place of seeing an actual illicit sex act, and then Othello begins misreading outward signs of innocence as evidence of inner corruption, because he already “knows” the truth. Iago’s diabolical success and sinister final silence demonstrate the ultimate incomprehensibility of evil, which may exceed the bounds of linguistic articulation.
Desdemona’s loyalty to Othello, even when he mistreats and kills her, and Emilia’s loyalty to Desdemona, even when speaking in her defense results in Emilia’s death, cause us to admire their transcendent steadfastness and to question the proper limits of self-sacrifice. Though “race” had less stable meaning for Shakespeare than it does for us today, the play continues to generate important conversations about how we “racialize” others or define them as possessing certain essential inner qualities based on exterior features, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Even the venomous serpent of internalized racism uncoils itself in Othello’s self-recriminations following his murder of Desdemona.
Witnessing the dis-integration of Othello’s love and trust in Desdemona is not a pleasant experience; if the criteria for “greatness” included audience pleasure, then one of the festive comedies would certainly come before this tragedy. However, taking each step down that sickening descent into murderous jealousy with Othello has the painful but useful result of making us question why and how this was possible with a passionate intensity bred out of a sense of injustice. The play serves as a magnifying glass that focuses conflicts about belief and disbelief; language and silence; loyalty and revenge; love and lust; blackness and whiteness with a growing intensity that becomes excruciatingly brilliant, unbearably burning, and finally cathartically destructive and revelatory.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Today we celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Why are we celebrating it? A simple answer is that Shakespeare’s plays still speak to us. But for me, as for so many women since Shakespeare wrote his first play in around 1590, my response to his plays is complicated by my gender. Virginia Woolf wrote in the first draft of To the Lighthouse that “man has Shakespeare & women have not.” This is true. At the same time, this is not true.
Women Making Shakespeare, a new anthology from The Arden Shakespeare series edited by Gordon McMullan, Lena Cowen Orlin, and Virginia Mason Vaughan, illustrates both sides of this paradox. The anthology was designed as a tribute to Ann Thompson, the general editor of the Arden series, who edited the massive Arden volume of all three texts of Hamlet with Neil Taylor, and who throughout her career has broken new ground in feminist criticism of Shakespeare, especially with her 1997 anthology (with Sasha Roberts) Women Reading Shakespeare 1660–1900. Thompson has also, in her role as general editor of the Arden series, dramatically increased the number of women editors of Shakespeare’s plays. Her work and her influence are worth celebrating because even today’s statistics on the numbers of women editors and commentators of Shakespeare are as damning as the VIDA statistics.
The anthology contains short essays on anything related to women and Shakespeare — as characters, as actresses, as critics and scholars, as educators, as suffragists and feminists, and as readers — over the past 450 years. I would like to pose some questions that plumb the variety the anthology offers: what does reading Shakespeare mean for women? Was Shakespeare proto-feminist or patriarchal? Has anything changed in 450 years?
We might investigate these questions through the history of Juliet. Shakespeare’s Juliet is bold, Romeo’s equal. She initiates their relationship, telling Romeo “take all myself” before she even knows for certain of his interest or commitment, bubbling over with her desire past the bounds of what might be considered correct behavior, and yet her frankness, as she calls it, is what makes her magnetic. And she talks and talks — of all Shakespeare’s heroines, only Cleopatra and Rosalind have more lines. Juliet might be another Rosalind, were this not a tragedy; I can imagine her saying, with Rosalind, “Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.”
Juliet defies her father’s plan to arrange her marriage, equivocating to Paris to avoid suspicion, and bravely agrees to the Friar’s plan to fake her death and rescue her from her family’s tomb. Shakespeare lets Juliet, rather than Romeo, describe their wedding night: “O, I have bought the mansion of a love / But not possessed it.” And in the last couplet of the last scene, the play becomes the story of “Juliet and her Romeo.” While the Friar chides Romeo for his “womanish” tears, Juliet stands out as the more mature partner. This is Juliet’s play.
Juliet’s equality with Romeo may have been underscored at its original performances by the fact that young men played both roles. But the thing about Shakespeare’s women, the reason why we still love Rosalind and Juliet today, is that they don’t read on the page or on the stage like young men in drag, trying to show what a second gender is. These are true-hearted women. Juliet is frank, and petulant, and brave, and chatty, and loving. She is authentic.
Restoration theater brought women actresses onto the stage for the first time — a woman played Desdemona for the first time in 1660 — but it also brought changes in how women were presented on stage. The prologue to the 1660 Othello declared: “I come . . . To tell you news, I saw the Lady drest; / The woman playes to day, mistake me not, / No Man in Gown, or Page in Petty-Coat; / A Woman to my knowledge.” Thus began the tradition in which actresses’ bodies were voyeuristically put on display and actresses became equated with prostitutes. At the same time, Juliet’s frankness, especially about sex, became seen as unseemly. A 1679 version of Romeo and Juliet, Thomas Otway’s Caius Marius, cut the wedding night speech and instead called marriage “lawful Rape.” Lavinia, the Juliet-figure, wakes just before her lover’s death, but in a state of confusion that elides Juliet’s strength and intelligence.
In 1744, Theophilus Cibber’s abridged Romeo and Juliet kept Otway’s alterations and, further, condemned Juliet’s exchange with Romeo in the balcony scene; her mother, suspicious of Juliet’s aversion to marriage with Paris, supposes it must be because Juliet has done something to compromise her chastity: “What sensual, lewd Companion of the Night / Have you been holding Conversation with, / From open Window, at a Midnight hour?” she demands. To be disobedient is to be unchaste.
Both Cibber and David Garrick, in his 1750 version, rewrote the closing couplet, deleting the line that foregrounds Juliet “and her Romeo,” and Garrick further deleted any hint that Juliet knows anything about sex. By 1797, with Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Italian, a retelling of the play, Ellena is propriety itself when she learns that her lover has overheard her beneath her balcony. She turns pale, shuts her window, and doesn’t speak to him. In 1845, Charlotte Cushman played Romeo to her sister Susan’s “beautifully confiding and truly feminine” Juliet — in other words, perfectly demure, perfectly silent, a model of Victorian womanhood.
Shakespeare was increasingly appropriated around this time to provide models for womanhood. Often these were paired with arguments for better access to education for girls, Kate Chedgzoy argues in her essay in this anthology, as with Mary Lamb, who composed her Tales from Shakespeare (1807) with her brother Charles partly as a way of “redressing the limitations of the education on offer to girls.” Girls could not read Shakespeare directly (what if they read Juliet’s wedding night speech?), but they could read the tales as mediated through an educator. Lamb herself later became a tutor to Mary Cowden Clarke, teaching her Latin and to read verse. Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines (1850) had a similar aim, but it is worth noting that each girl’s story is framed as a march from girlhood to education to marriage. The purpose of education is not, at least primarily or overtly, to give women a voice and power for self-definition; the track of womanhood offered through these Shakespeare tales is girl to teacher of children (or apprentice mother) to mother.
In Juliet’s case, as treated by Cowden Clarke, her education is at fault for her eventual tragic end. Ignored by her parents through her girlhood, her faulty education accounts for her outspokenness and self-will, and it is these qualities, not her star-crossed fate, that lead to her death. This was the same period as Henrietta and Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare (1807), in which many of Juliet’s lines are scrubbed and she becomes more submissive; and of Helen Faucit, an actress who, at the same time that William Charles Macready was restoring the performance of Shakespeare’s original texts, deleted even more of Juliet’s lines than usual. Her performances were called “types of noble womanly nature” and a reviewer commented: “her delicacy of taste and elevation of thought have succeeded in banishing from [Shakespeare’s] characters…all that, from the change of manners, sometimes in the hands of others, has become painful. Such is the atmosphere of purity with which she is surrounded, that nothing at variance with it can enter…” And yet actresses at this time were still equated with prostitutes.
The idealization of Shakespeare’s heroines as “types of noble womanly nature” had the effect, as Lois Potter notes in this anthology, of simplifying, Bowdlerizing, the plays. But it also simplified and silenced the women. A noble, virtuous Juliet, as in Faucit’s portrayal, was, compared to Shakespeare’s original, a silent woman. Let me return to one of my original questions: was Shakespeare a proto-feminist or was he patriarchal? My history of Juliet thus far suggests that he was, somehow, a sixteenth century feminist. Now let’s look at The Taming of the Shrew.
It is almost unbelievable that Katherina does not have more lines than Juliet or Rosalind. She is outspoken. She is argumentative. She is everything we love about Juliet and Rosalind cranked up a few notches. But on her character and her play, female editors have been almost universally silent. There have been two female editors of the play so far: Ann Thompson and, commissioned by Thompson for the Arden series, Barbara Hodgson.
What do we do with Shrew? A woman is physically abused by her husband until she shows symptoms of Stockholm syndrome, and only then, the play seems to suggest, will they live happily ever after. Bianca, the woman who is not abused during her wooing and wedding, shows signs of becoming a shrew and a scold afterward. Which method is being held up as ideal?
Farah Karim-Cooper’s essay in Women Making Shakespeare notes that some modern productions have found the only way to make the play palatable to modern audiences is to set it in the past. The guilt we feel over Katherina’s treatment by Petrucchio is only palatable at a distance of 450 years. But she also provides some hope in context: ideal sixteenth century wives were both obedient and silent. Obedient Katherina becomes, but never silent; the play ends with a lengthy speech from Katherina. She has a voice! It is possible that Shakespeare is unravelling the courtship rituals that called for a false hierarchy between men and women that would be immediately undermined or reversed within marriage. Bianca has the appearance of submission — but which would you rather have as a marriage partner? Nevertheless, there remains the troubling feeling that this play, and therefore Shakespeare, approve of Petrucchio’s behavior, and the abuse and silencing of a woman in the name of ruling a wife.
When actresses were first allowed to perform publicly in England, they generally did not address the audience directly in a prologue or epilogue. As Sonia Massai notes in this anthology, when they did, their speeches stressed the “exceptional quality” of the occasion. Then, as this essay traces, for much of the history of women’s performance of Shakespeare, actresses were associated with prostitutes, even up to the Victorian era. Ailsa Grant Ferguson’s essay takes this history up to World War I, talking about Gertrude Elliott’s work to legitimize female performance and management through the creation of “the Shakespeare Hut” to entertain soldiers passing through London. This all-female Shakespeare was acceptable because it was “war work,” because it was patriotic, and because, the actresses for the most part being middle aged, their performances were positioned as maternal care, and thus a-sexual, for the very young men about to go to the front.
One of the last essays in the anthology, by Kevin A. Quarmby, talks about the contemporary performance trend of “sexing up” Goneril in King Lear, and suggests that both in contemporary criticism and in performance, transgression by a woman, even political transgression as in Goneril’s case, is still seen as equivalent to sexual transgression. Because Goneril betrays a man (Lear) politically, therefore she is also a whore. This makes her little better than a cipher — sexualizing her deprives her of her right to a legitimate political voice, and therefore silences her.
What has changed in 450 years of performing, reading, writing Shakespeare? The history of women interacting with Shakespeare’s plays is also the history of women’s rights, suffrage, and of the feminist movement. It is a history of women being silenced and of finding ways to speak out anyway. Shakespeare has been, and is, an uneasy ally in this history. He complicates but also enriches our idea of what a woman is. Too often we are still Katherinas, forced to compromise our dignity in order to retain our voice, or else our insistence on speaking is blamed for our tragedies, like Juliet. But the reason why we still read Shakespeare’s women, is that they are women. Goneril, Juliet, and Katherina are finally not ciphers. Whatever else they may be, they are true women, and they have true voices.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Reese wrote in with this question:I’m a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA focusing mostly on literature. Over the summer I’m attempting to do an independent study of suicide in art and literature. The only thing is, I’m having trouble formulating a reading list. While I can certainly think of a lot of novels that feature a suicide or two in them, I’m really looking for books that focus prominently on the subject. So far all I’ve got is John Barth’s The Floating Opera and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, in addition to A. Alvarez’s study of suicide, The Savage God. Any suggestions? I’d be much obliged.One of my favorite short poems is Langston Hughes’ “Suicide’s Note”:The calm,Cool face of the riverAsked me for a kiss.And I offer it as an epigraph to our reader in search of literary works that take suicide as a central theme or plot event. Here, with a few notes, is a (by no means comprehensive) list in roughly chronological order.Sophocles’ Oedipus and AntigoneVirgil’s Aeneid (Dido’s suicide in the fourth book)Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet (Ophelia’s suicide), and Romeo and JulietFanny Burney’s late eighteenth century novel Cecilia has a striking public suicide in one of London’s pleasure gardensAnna Karenina, which pairs nicely with James Joyce’s micro-Anna Karenina “A Painful Case” in DublinersWilkie Collins’ The Moonstone has a suicide involving a quicksand pit called “The Shivering Sands”The Suicide Club, Robert Louis Stevenson (three short stories)The Awakening and “Desirée’s Baby,” Kate ChopinVirginia Woolf’s Mrs. DallowayVladimir Nabokov’s Pale FireAlice Munro’s “Comfort”Sylvia Plath is the patron saint of suicide lit: The Bell Jar and, among her poetry, particularly “Lady Lazarus” (But you might also check out Anne Sexton’s work and that of Ted Hughes’ second poetess-wife to die by her own hand, Assia Wevill)”A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” J.D. SalingerAh, yes, and Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé” – as beloved as the Hughes and almost as short:Razors pain you;Rivers are damp;Acids stain you;And drugs cause cramp.Guns aren’t lawful;Nooses give;Gas smells awful;You might as well live.Happy Reading![Ed note: got more suggestions? Leave a comment]