Dr. Metablog is the nom de blague of Vivian de St. Vrain, the pen name of a resident of the mountain west who writes about language, books, politics, or whatever else comes to mind. Under the name Otto Onions (Oh NIGH uns), Vivian de St. Vrain is the author of "The Big Book of False Etymologies" (Oxford, 1978) and, writing as Amber Feldhammer, is editor of the classic anthology of confessional poetry, "My Underwear" (Virago, 1997).
I have a sour relationship with "the stage" -- and especially with staged Shakespeare plays. The theatre and I just don't get along. I think it's because my expectations are too grand. When I go to the theatre, I want to be ravished, but more often I'm bored, or worse than bored, embarrassed. I long to laugh, to cry, to be transported --but instead, I find myself to be entirely too conscious of the efforts and the contrivances of directors and designers and actors. Moreover, how am I supposed to achieve ecstasy when the guy in the next seat is snuffling and fidgeting and making inappropriate sounds at the wrong moments. And besides, I probably know more about the Shakespeare play that I'm watching than my comrades in the audience and I have opinions about what the play is supposed to mean and how it should be performed, and so I become intolerant and over-critical. And when one is busy criticizing, and one misses one's inexplicably-deleted favorite lines, one has strayed from the path that leads to rapture. When I sit still and concentrate on the book, I can achieve moments of private transcendence. When I'm at the theatre, the theatre gets in my way.
Despite all, I went to see ("hear," Elizabethans would say) Cymbeline at the Barrrow Street Theatre and, I joyfully confess, had a good time. Cymbeline isn't performed much and I had never seen it done (except for the pedestrian BBC-TV version, which doesn't count). I was in doubt whether such a long, complex, plot-heavy play could be performed. But the young Barrow Street people were earnest and enthusiastic and pretty and well-rehearsed. Their Cymbeline was swiftly-paced and offered some delightful moments. I was genuinely impressed.
But I was not satisfied. I was not transported.
Was it a problem with the delivery, or was it the fault of the listeners, that when Imogen learns that her husband/lover Posthumus Leonatus is at Milford Haven, and cries out, "O for a horse with wings," the audience laughed. Oh, please, audience, don't laugh, and please, actors, don't play it for laughs. Imogen's imaginative expression is designed to capture her frustrated yearning for the mate from whom she has been forcibly separated and to express all the sexual longing of vibrant youth. She's head over heels in love and she's not making a joke of it. A "horse with wings" is not a piece of grotesquerie, as the audience and the actors seemed to assume -- it's simply the fastest means of transport that anyone could imagine until 200 years after Cymbeline was written, when engineers started to play with the idea of a steam-driven engine. I so much wanted last night's Imogen to express, with that line, the kind of emotion that brings me to tears in my study. But alas.
And similarly, when Imogen and Posthumus are reconciled at last, and they embrace (an act that the the audience has been anticipating for hours), Posthumus is given the most poetically resonant line in the play. "Hang there," he says, "like fruit, my soul,/ Til the tree die." The line, compact of images, is just outside our easy comprehension, but we know at a minimum that trees take a very long time to die and that Posthumus and Imogen are now linked into one soul and that Imogen is like "fruit" in the sense of sweetness and juiciness and fertility -- indeed the ramifying plot has found its way to fruition. And so has the chain of imagery that began in the first moments of the play, when Imogen told us that her father, "like the tyrannous breathing of the north/ Shakes all our buds from growing." It took five acts, but those blighted buds finally ripened. I'm sorry to say that in the Barrow Street version, this touchstone of poetry was not emphasized but swallowed; if you weren't waiting for the line, you would have missed it entirely. Another moment of potential ecstasy surrendered.
But in all honesty, I must admit that if the players had paused to underline the sentence, I would probably be complaining that they treated the poetry too "poetically" and too portentously. Shakespeare is hard to play, and I'm hard to please.
But I'm not principally concerned that the Barrow boys and girls misread or neglected a line here or there. I'm concerned about their big compromise.
While enjoying the first four acts, I could not help but wonder how six performers on a rudimentary stage were going to deal with the theophany in the fifth act, when Jupiter himself descends from above on the back of an eagle and tells the audience not to worry, that everything is going to work out just fine. The scene is the most important in the play and it's what distinguishes Cymbeline from Shakespeare's earlier and easier and more-easily-performed comedies. But the theophany is hard, and hard to explain, and also, I'm sure, expensive. In my view, Barrow Street should have pulled the goalie and thrown a hail Mary downfield; lay it all out there. But instead, they took an intentional pass. O my gosh! they took a razor to the entire business. No Jupiter, no eagle, no wondrous, mystical, symbolic appearance of Posthumus's lost family, no soothsayer, no riddle, and therefore, I'm sorry to say, no enchantment and no miracle. No miracle, no Cymbeline, at least no Cymbeline as it is known and loved by such as I.
Here's what I think happens in Cymbeline. For four and a half acts, human beings make a mess of things. The king is blinded by uxoriousness, the queen is a machiavellia, Posthumus is vain, Cloten is simply stupid. The characters tie themselves into plot knots and everyone is deceived in part or in whole (although Shakespeare witholds nothing from the audience). Cymbeline thinks his sons are lost, Posthumus thinks Imogen is dead, Lucius Brutus thinks Imogen is a boy, Imogen thinks that Posthumus has been beheaded, and so on. Everyone is wrong; no one knows the whole truth.
And then comes the miracle. Jupiter descends, and 20, or 21, or 22 (depending on who's counting) mistakings are unravelled in five amazing, astounding minutes. Cymbeline is a tragedy for four and half acts and a comedy at the end. And should be played so. Take away Jupiter and take away the miracle. A play about human folly and divine intervention becomes nothing more than Twelfth Night or As You Like It. which is not a bad thing to be, but not what Shakespeare was doing in 1610. It's like scissoring Marina's magical virginity out of Pericles, or Hermione's rebirth out of The Winter's Tale, or Prospero's magic out of The Tempest. It's not right. It undervalues a most thrilling, most remarkable piece of writing. Even those of us who don't believe in miracles want to believe in Shakespeare's miracles.
But -- the Barrow Street guys and gals inspired me to re-read Cymbeline, and, all alone, just me and my Kindle, I once again indulged my ecstasy. So thank you.
One high noon, many years ago, when I was myself barely fledged, and was an undergraduate at a "large Eastern university," I spotted three well-known members of the humanities faculty on the hunt for lunch. They were Ephim Fogel, David Grossvogel, and Don Kleine. An unforgettable assemblage! Fogel, Grossvogel and Kleine, I thought -- sounds like the name of a law firm invented by Tom Pynchon.
I had not reflected on this -- to me -- amusing incident until this week, when I was reading the bird book that I mentioned in a previous post. There I discovered that the largest known bird was the recently extinct elephant bird, a distant Madagascan cousin of the ostrich, which stood 10 feet tall and tipped the scale at 880 pounds. Its eggs were 3 feet in circumference and would have provided three chicken-size egg omelets for about 55 people. I also learned that the smallest bird is the bee hummingbird which the calipers says is two inches long and which weighs .06 of an ounce. Its egg is the size of a pea, which means than it would take a small flock of hummingbirds many days to make me a decent breakfast.
Here's a bee hummingbird:
And here's an imaginative reconstruction of the elephant bird, a grossvogel if there ever was one.
What is a currawong? a gonolek, a boubou, a tchagra, a brubru? a sitella, a minivet? a drongo? a common koel? Do you think that I've invented these words? Heck no. Each one is absolutely genuine and furthermore, far beyond my powers of invention. And from the same large family come the zitting cisticola, the bulbul, the cacique, the oropedola, the po'o-uli, and the 'o'u. Not to mention the rhabdornis, the oxpecker. the rockjumper, the babbler, the treecreeper, the tapaculo, the cotinga, the manakin, the pitta, the assity, the yellow rifleman, and the logrunner.
You've probably figured it out by now. They're all passerines.
These great and new-to-me words come from The Bird (New York, 2008), a whimsical, idiosyncratic survey, by the appropriately--named ornithologist Colin Tudge. "What's that on that branch over there? Is it a grinning tudge?"
This year's Nuggets are now at 3-2 and each game has been worth watching. Because there are no superstars, there's a different plot every game. The ball moves and doesn't stop as when, in the old day, it came into the hands of Carmelo, or, even worse, The Answer. Everyone plays defense; everyone runs, almost everyone gets into the game. Arron Affalo is the key, I think, because he sets the example of constant effort. As soon as he gets into better shape, and his three starts to fall, he'll be even better. Lawson is fearless and swift as an arrow and he's become adept at pocket-picking. Andre Miller is a player to identify with: he can't run, can't jump, has no range, has no weight-room/steroid muscles and his mid-range is more of a leaner than a jumper, but he's smart, resourceful, tricky, and throws a better alley-oop than anyone in the league. He's the kind of steadyEddie you want to be in there for the last five minutes. Al Harrington, who was injured and out of shape last year, has come back strong and is now a classic sixth-man-scorer-off-the-bench-instant-offense-go-to-guy. The Birdman is as erratic as all get out but he remembers to swat a couple away every game. Unfortunately, he's mutilated his body to the point that any person of aesthetic sensibility must fast-forward through his foul shots. The furriners give the team great balance (and because they're untattooed, provide a welcome relief for the eyes.) Gallinari, the Italian, shows great promise, especially when he goes to the rim with two-handed authority. When Nene, from Brazil, plays up to his ability, he's sensational, and the more time he gets at PF the happier he'll be, which is why it's crucial that Timofey Mozgov, the massive Russian center. learns to move his feet and avoid the fouls. Mozgov will improve as the season progresses. Rudy Fernandez, the lone Spaniard, plays good man D., but won't make a real contribution until the outside shots start to fall. And then there's the half-Greek 7-footer, Kosta Koufos, who plays with great enthusiasm.
Not to mention Kenneth Faried, college rebounding sensation, who's chomping at the bit, waiting for one of the regulars to go down.
Other reasons to watch the Nugs: no J. R. Smith (a most talented nutcase), no Kenyon Martin (effective on D but always borderline thuggish, and with the ugliest no-spin set shot ever); no Carmelo playing matador. Addition by subtraction.
It's a short long season, ths year. Stay healthy, guys.