Monday, November 23, 2009

Beware Hamlet on Broadway

A certain movie star will soon finish his run as Hamlet at Broadway’s Broadhurst Theater. Polonius and Laertes will again be safe from nightly perforation at the end of this actor’s sword, and Shakespeare’s play will also be safely out of his reach. It isn’t the first time that an accomplished movie star has entered the sublime domain of Shakespeare’s greatest play and engendered chaos. When Kevin Kline directed and starred in Hamlet for TV in 1990, he desecrated it in pretty much the exact same way.

In the famous “Alas poor Yorick” scene, Hamlet gazes at the old court jester’s skull and has this to say: “Not one now to mock your own grinning—quite chop-fallen!” Hamlet means that Yorick looks gloomier than he used to, i.e. “down in the mouth”—which is funny in and of itself since Yorick is not depressed, but in fact a corpse. And by “chop-fallen,” Hamlet also means that Yorick’s jaw has literally fallen off. Lines like this, entwining despair and humor, have made Hamlet famous for his depth and complexity. Hamlet uses cleverness, satire, and gallows humor to attack with words what he can’t attack with action: death, shame, powerlessness, self-hate. Hamlet’s defeatedness and softness mixed with murderous rage and dominance through wit are what defines him, and in this scene Shakespeare brings out his character in a very moving way.

The gravedigger’s recollections imply that Hamlet was seven years old when Yorick died. Hamlet’s memories of riding on Yorick’s back and of Yorick entertaining him constitute almost the sole example of familial warmth in Shakespeare's treatment of life at Elsinore. Hamlet obsesses over his father more than he expresses love for him, and the ghost of King Hamlet too does not love, obsessed as he is with his own misfortunes. The Yorick scene, however, like the hints of past love between Hamlet and Ophelia, demonstrates with great pathos what has been lost—not only a loved one, but mirth and love itself, which happens when “a noble mind is here o’erthrown” by grief, depression, rage, and self-hate.

What Kevin Kline did to these subtle lines recalls what Achilles did to the fallen Hector, which was to tie Hector’s corpse to the back of his chariot and, with a vain and ruthless ignorance of the meaning of life, to drag him behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. “Quite! Chop! Fallen!” Kline bellowed in a stentorian, public voice. He didn’t seem in the least curious about what the lines might mean, to say nothing of actually trying to act out the difficult mixture of humor and sorrow written there. He beat the phrase like a bass drum, ignoring the lovely falling meter of “chop-fallen,” a dactyl that conveys the fallenness of Yorick and of Hamlet’s heart.

Kevin Kline was not there to read Hamlet to anyone. Was he there, maybe, to read his own name over the marquee? From Jude Law’s comments to the press, it’s evident that he savors this role for its prestige. He stated no qualms about taking on the huge challenge of understanding and revealing this difficult character. At the glorious moment of taking the stage as Hamlet, Law and Kline seem instead distended with pride and self-congratulatory joy. And why not, as long as they can also give the part what it deserves. The problem is that the role demands an intimate knowledge of self-hate, not self-infatuation.

Jude Law is less pompous in the role than Kevin Kline, but he’s equally brutal and unfeeling to the play. “My father’s brother, but no more like my father / Than I to Hercules,” Hamlet says in Act I. Everyone knows this is one of a thousand examples where Hamlet belittles himself in comparison to his father, where he asks himself “Am I a coward?” as he puts it directly in Act II. Hamlet wants to say, Claudius isn’t as good as the heroic and Herculean King Hamlet, and neither am I. The way Jude Law reads it, however, with great self-assurance, Hamlet might as well have said, “no more like my father than I to a refrigerator.” Jude Law’s Hamlet is interested in revenge and in Ophelia and in a good joke, but he’s not even slightly curious about himself.

In discussing one of the trademarks of Shakespeare’s characters, Harold Bloom cites Hegel’s notion of “self-overhearing.” This is Shakespeare’s device for dramatizing introspection and looking inside his characters. Hamlet is the most self-observant, self-overhearing character of them all, and without this trait the play loses not only its meaning but its plot and the coherence of its other characters. Without self-doubt, Hamlet cannot be the underdog and the hero we care about, and Polonius cannot by contrast be the supremely comic figure he should be.

According to the critic Vladimir Kataev, Hegel defined a comic character as one with an “invincible faith in oneself.” (Apparently, Hegel actually was comprehensible at least twice.) Polonius is all about that invincible faith in himself. He’s actually much farther from Hamlet’s nature than Claudius, who hates himself just like Hamlet and who envied the king, just like Hamlet. But Law plays Hamlet, not Polonius, as an invincible and hence ridiculous character.

You can practically hear the delicate apparatus of this great work of art seizing under the influence of Law’s performance which, to be fair, has a certain breathtakingly illiterate barbarism to it, like when the Taliban destroyed those ancient Hindu statues. And yet the audience gave Jude Law’s Hamlet a standing ovation. One of Chekhov’s characters, Mikhail Fyodorovich, tells a story of a man who applauded a play he wasn’t listening to (the man, who was drunk, said, “What’s he saying, something noble?”). I can only think that the audience, like Jude Law, came to the theater, as Fyodorovich says, "not for art but for nobility."

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Mark Helprin's "Paradigm of the Romance"

Refiner's Fire was Mark Helprin's first novel, published in 1977, a semi-autobiographical fantasy that follows Marshall Pearl from his childhood in the Hudson Valley through many adventures on the sea, in the mountains, and in the plains, in the classrooms of Harvard and finally in the Israeli army. A London newspaper described the book like this: "As if The Odyssey had been updated and rewritten by Dylan Thomas." There is a sense in which that's true. There's another sense in which it's as if some gifted poet had rewritten a trashy spy-novel or romance. Either way, it's highly entertaining, engaging writing that's at times aesthetically magnificent.

Mark Helprin is an interesting case. His website says, "Mark Helprin belongs to no literary school, movement, tendency, or trend. As many have observed [including, perhaps most often, himself (—A.R.)] and as Time Magazine has phrased it, 'He lights his own way.' " In an American literary scene dominated by liberals, he’s an unapologetic conservative, a former speech writer for Bob Dole and an occasional columnist for the rightwing op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. He once was published regularly in the New Yorker, but no longer, and he has expressed both frustration at the unprecedented level of corruption of literary art by commercial forces (somewhat iconoclastic for a conservative) and also the probably justified view that the literatti have expelled him because of his rightwing politics.

He is a self-styled maverick, but also an actual one. He believes in the art of truth and beauty in an age where cultural criticism has for many called Keats's maxim, and aesthetics as a whole, into question. Helprin is attracted to heroic ideals as in ancient myths and epics, not because he wants to deconstruct those ideals but because he more or less subscribes to them, and because he thinks the heroic "paradigm of the romance," as he calls it, "has been the preferred method of storytelling for human beings" since time immemorial--justification enough, perhaps, if what is old is good. In any case, his aesthetic achievements are often very great. His sentences spring to life. They overflow with sensation and a sense of the emotional and aesthetic importance of physical sensation, the meaning of sensation in the scope of a life history; places echo with the footsteps of forefathers, forests bend in the wind as if remembering the ancient enemies who trod there, etc. He's masterful with hyperbole and magnifies real life with the awe of fathers, lineage, great deeds of the past, and great men, the fear of not measuring up, and the joy of victory. I admire his iconoclasm, and have been influenced as a writer by his wonderful effects.

At the same time, he doesn't really "light his own way." For one thing, he’s afflicted with a certain submissiveness before ideology. This has led him to take political positions that are to my mind bizarre, such as his view that the U.S.'s top 21st c. priority is to build up our navy vastly to counter China's influence in the Pacific. (Uh, really? That is so last-century, it was actually last-century last century--an assessment to which he might not object since he wants to live like Perseus or King David.) And his ideology contaminates his work with a phony machismo, a warmongering and jingoism, and worst of all, an evasion of internal conflict. It’s as if in his reading of ancient texts he missed the parts about hubris as a tragic flaw, and guilt, and the curse of the house of Atreus, and the fear of the Furies. Beowulf has more internal conflict than Marshall Pearl.

Helprin said in an interview that in the 19th c., realism killed the "romance," by which he means his particular idea of a heroic, epic quest-narrative. But his greatest talent is, ironically, for a unique brand of magical realism—for wonderful naturalistic descriptions imbued with a kind of simultaneous memory and anticipation, a realism that situates all experience within a larger curve of father-son relations, and injects all experience with an idealistic, heroic yearning drawn from those relations. He is a realist, and a very good one. If he only realized that, I think he could succeed in depicting the heroic ideal as a beautiful psychological force rather than fall victim to that ideal's partly juvenile and ridiculous worldview. The tension of Marshall Pearl's unfulfilled promise to his forefathers and his destiny winds up Helprin’s narrative in an entertaining, but ultimately not literary way. And Marshall Pearl’s epic journey consequently does not lead him to Valhalla, where Helprin wishes him to go, but instead to Hell, where he's condemned to be a cartoon.

That said, Helprin is a writer of huge talent, and I love him for his love of truth and beauty, notwithstanding his circuitous efforts to find it, and, no matter how macho he pretends to be, I love him for the actual rugged individualism that dwells underneath. Most of all I love him for his sensitivity to the delicate affair of fathers and sons and the destinies they imagine for themselves and one another.