Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Antigone at the National

I wish that the National Theatre could take over the existing UK government and run it out of Cottlesloe as a play in progress.  They know everything they need to know to do this from their current production of Antigone by Sophocles.  Holy shit, what a production.  What a choice of a play.

When I was a little kid I bought an anthology of plays at a garage sale.  This anthology had Antigone. At age eleven,  I  loved the heroine of this play because she was so fearless.  She was so unhesitant in doing the right thing. What I loved about Antigone when I saw the play again  on the eve of my 45th birthday, was the bigger picture:  The hollowness of authority, the sanctity of love.  Seeing that love must always win over abuse of power.

The criticism of the U.S. War on Terror in the opening scene is unspoken and ingenious.  At the King's headquarters, he and his advisers watch a screen where someone is being killed.  They move into a perfect tableau of the famous photograph of Hilary Clinton, Biden, Obama and selected others watched the live feed of the Bin Laden execution.  And they stayed there for a long time.  Unmistakable.  When the State kills its enemies, someone ends up murdered, and that is not right.  No, it wasn't right when Al Qaeda did it on 9/11 and it wasn't right when the U.S. did it to Bin Laden.  Even States should comply with the rule of law.

The King is played by Christopher Ecclestone, who was Dr. Who before David Tennant (never4get) and Matt Smith.  Ecclestone really bothered me as Dr. Who, he didn't have the expansive, endless love of humanity I felt was essential to the character. He was a reserved Northern unemotive Dr, even slightly awkward.  As Timothy Dalton was to James Bond so Christopher Ecclestone was to Dr. Who.   This exact quality served Ecclestone him well as King, though.  It somehow highlighted the fragility of the King's authority and its hollow, fearful center.

He doesn't start out fearful, though, he starts out convinced of his merit for the job and the importance of the State. In a kind of John Prescott style, he speaks: the interests of the State and of all of its citizens are one and the same, and only complete fidelity to the State will be tolerated. He has decreed that no one will bury the body of the dead soldier, the traitor to him, the new King.  Antigone cannot bear to abide by this decree and thus condemn her brother to be an unhappy ghost, she breaks the prohibition as quickly as possible.

She is brought before the King and condemned.  She is sentenced to being walled into a cave in the distant desert with a little food.  Thus no soldier will have blood on his hands. Wow, I thought.  Drones.  Sophocles was warning about drones back then.  It is an odd sort of remove, to kill with bombs and drones.  When the play ends everyone is covered with blood but to me the most chilling thought was how mechanizing killing makes it that much easier.

The King is warned by his old friend the blind soothsayer Tiresias that his decree against the burial of the traitor was short-sighted and irrational.   The King, I would like to say, realized that in transgressing the bonds of love and family and decency, he had overstepped the authority of the State but actually all that happened was that he started to be frightened of the dire consequences Tiresias predicts.

The King's son is Antigone's affianced (also her cousin) and he kills himself after he finds Antigone dead, and his mother kills herself after hearing the news of her son's death.  

Clean, lean, direct, riveting, true.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

From the preface of Adrienne Rich's book, What Is Found There

               It is difficult
to get the news from poems
      Yet men die miserably every day
                                       for lack

of what is found there. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

They Might Have Something Here (Constitutional Monarchy)

    So I have come to some conclusions around the Jubilee.  There exists among most people in the UK a deep-seated respect and affection for the Queen.  This is a fact, a stubborn thing, a truth to be accepted.  This is also something completely foreign to me.  And unfortunately sometimes quite revolting.  But if I can get past my American exceptionalism for a moment, it is interesting to observe.  The relationship of the citizen to the state is different here, because the state has two components: the monarch and the government.  Each person has a relationship with both.  To me it seems like a steady affection and respect for the royals somehow provides a constant distraction from the other component of the State, the government.  So basically you have this reminder of the State in the Queen, who represents the best of Britain, the rich history and excellence in the arts and sciences, and then you have the actual government, which is a slave to banks and frankly a cesspool. 

And yet I willingly say the relationship of a UK citizen to the state is better than the relationship of the US citizen to the state.  Because in truth, the poor citizen of the United States has had all choice, all nuance, all complexity robbed from them and they have only the Orwellian Binary Choice:  Republican or Democrat.  In the meantime, the overlap between the binary is 90%: deference to the banks, commitment to defense spending, the lobbyist system - a commitment to serving money and not citizens.  Both parties happily agree that international law does not apply to extraterritorial US actions and both parties are happy for the President to order the killing of our enemies and mayors to order the beatings of protestors.  These are disgusting violations of the rule of law.  but the binary choice masks them and they become invisible, silent nonissues in every presidential debate.    

I think people in the US are just starting to wake up to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, this situation does not serve the ideals of democracy and justice we founded these United States to achieve.  At least some of the people think this.   Many people I love and respect are still so much in the war of Democrats and Republicans that they don't see how rotten the entire system has become. Believe me in Washington I was in that war.  When Clinton was elected, the Republicans waged an unceasing and inventive war on his presidency which included, among other things, Whitewater, the Vince Foster suicide, the Paula Jones suit, the impeachment trial, the Lewinsky wiretap - tawdry awfulness dug up by spirited zealots who saw the only way to righteousness was to destroy the enemy.  What an awful waste of time it all was, what an awful waste of time and talent.  The war between the Democrats and the Republicans still is.  I know they try to suck you in and get your money by pressing your buttons,  I get those Emily's List emails myself but please resist.  Getting sucked into that noise is just a block to your enlightenment. 

It actually is great in the UK that members of parliament are determined not to turn elections into economic exchanges.  It's one good thing.  In the UK they very nobly wait to be elected and then sell the power of the state to corporations to ensure their personal wealth.  That's the European way.  But there will be no holograms in the coverage. 

The UK and US have many of the same hurdles to clear between where they are now and the free democratic state we all wish them to be, and actually, I dream that the UK shows the US the way.  I feel like the US is stuck in this absolute quagmire of religion and the Orwellian Binary Choice, but the UK is not.  Maybe their affection and respect for the Queen triangulates and grounds their feelings about God and Government. 

I see these things and I hope.  I hope that all the acuity and greatness that the people of the UK have in their arts and education could be wielded to solve the great problems of our time.  I hope for this constitutional monarchy and my constitutional democracy.  I still have hope. 


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself — by Wislawa Szymborska

The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.
A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?
Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they're light.
On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Sunday night, 3rd June, Monarch Celebration

  I have been so curious to see how this would play out, this Jubilee.  I mean, I am a big one for the 4th of July, I really feel it, this love of the United States, so I was wondering if anyone here in the UK would be feeling the Jubilee and if so, how they would celebrate it.

 Answer:  Cupcakes, bunting, cucumber sandwiches, community lunches, street parties.   And a hearfelt respect and admiration for the Queen.  Now that turns my stomach, personally, I mean, a monarch?  Someone who is better than you by accident of birth yet you support it?  Yech.

 Yet I respect how they feel about their Queen here.  A lot of working class people get an element of their identity from her, she holds their gracious dignity and devotion to duty, she is that part of them. And the mums I talk to from the middle class here - and they are mums, not moms, these British ones -- they like the Queen. They like her.  And they are happy that a big component of their relationship to the State is their affection for the Queen.  As someone who has been known to get the crowd on a Metro train chanting "USA . . . USA . . . USA. . ." I am not one to judge.  I accept.  I can even celebrate.

I can almost even celebrate. I am in Brecon.  We have been married for ten years and we have taken our two children back here for half term, to see the Cathedral where we were wed and Peterstone Court, where we had our reception.  Of course they don't care that much.

But walking through Brecon is a horror show of the worst effects of the austerity economics the government has foolishly chosen to get us through this worldwide recession.  So many closed stores, so many Poundlands and the like, even a store called "CHEAP BOOZE" has opened on the High Street.  This is where I come from.  This is where my Grandmother lived and died.  This is where my mother got married, and I got married, and it's just not a good situation.
I don't blame anyone for celebrating being British.  You have Dr. Who, Wimbledon, Shakespeare, The National Theatre, Jo Malone, Elton John, Narnia, Middle Earth, Hogwarts, Neverland and Mr. McGregor's Garden.    Not to mention The Beatles. 

Yet Brecon - it's like Pottersville when Jimmy Stewart had never been born in It's A Wonderful Life.  Except Brecon doesn't have a hero like George Bailey who will emerge via Clarence to resolve it into the better reality.  It doesn't.  It is impoverished, large corporations are cynically sucking out the sustenance capital that is left.  The streets are filled with powerless people.  And maybe as long as the people of Britain have an affectionate relationship with the State via the Queen, and we give the Queen all the power, we will not find the power we need to heal these cities and to be their George Bailey.
Whether intentional or not, the Jubilee and the Olympics are a distraction from impending economic disaster.  I know precious little about economics but I think the unprecedented crises in Portugal, Italy, Spain and Greece will affect us all. Ah, we have been stretched, but we will be stretched more. No amount of cupcakes and bunting will change that reality.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Bee

The Bee

James Dickey
To the football coaches of Clemson College, 1942

One dot
Grainily shifting we at roadside and
The smallest wings coming along the rail fence out
Of the woods one dot of all that green. It now
Becomes flesh-crawling then the quite still
Of stinging. I must live faster for my terrified
Small son it is on him. Has come. Clings.
Old wingback, come
To life. If your knee action is high
Enough, the fat may fall in time God damn
You, Dickey, dig this is your last time to cut
And run but you must give it everything you have
Left, for screaming near your screaming child is the sheer
Murder of California traffic: some bee hangs driving
Your child
Blindly onto the highway. Get there however
Is still possible. Long live what I badly did
At Clemson and all of my clumsiest drives
For the ball all of my trying to turn
The corner downfield and my spindling explosions
Through the five-hole over tackle. O backfield
Coach Shag Norton,
Tell me as you never yet have told me
To get the lead out scream whatever will get
The slow-motion of middle age off me I cannot
Make it this way I will have to leave
My feet they are gone I have him where
He lives and down we go singing with screams into
The dirt,
Son-screams of fathers screams of dead coaches turning
To approval and from between us the bee rises screaming
With flight grainily shifting riding the rail fence
Back into the woods traffic blasting past us
Unchanged, nothing heard through the air-
conditioning glass we lying at roadside full
Of the forearm prints
Of roadrocks strawberries on our elbows as from
Scrimmage with the varsity now we can get
Up stand turn away from the highway look straight
Into trees. See, there is nothing coming out no
Smallest wing no shift of a flight-grain nothing
Nothing. Let us go in, son, and listen
For some tobacco-
mumbling voice in the branches to say “That’s
a little better,” to our lives still hanging
By a hair. There is nothing to stop us we can go
Deep deeper into elms, and listen to traffic die
Roaring, like a football crowd from which we have
Vanished. Dead coaches live in the air, son live
In the ear
Like fathers, and urge and urge. They want you better
Than you are. When needed, they rise and curse you they scream
When something must be saved. Here, under this tree,
We can sit down. You can sleep, and I can try
To give back what I have earned by keeping us
Alive, and safe from bees: the smile of some kind
Of savior–
Of touchdowns, of fumbles, battles,
Lives. Let me sit here with you, son
As on the bench, while the first string takes back
Over, far away and say with my silentest tongue, with the man-
creating bruises of my arms with a live leaf a quick
Dead hand on my shoulder, “Coach Norton, I am your boy.”