Friday, April 18, 2008

Prospero's Cell - A Hard Heart and Kingdoms of Air

One of Hitler's most coveted paintings he looted was Vermeer's The Astronomer. (At right.)

It is almost obvious what drew the horrible dictator to Vermeer's study of this young scientist searching, (possibly for spirituality?), through his art.

The solitude of study, the practice of art with such expense of the rest of the world?

It is one of the struggles at the heart of The Tempest for Prospero. Actors Shakespeare in Boston just closed their unique and funny production which eschewed making central the colonialism themes that many productions play up. (Although this could also be further evidence of the theory, raised by Robert Brustein in the New Republic, that more and more Shakespeare in America seems to be under the influence of Harold Bloom.)

While the magic theater staging at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center intrigued, I think I agree with Thomas Garvey at Hubreview when he says that it never quite cohered. After all, Prospero, while quite aware, in the end, of the vaporous consistency of his conjured visions, is doing real magic that has powers beyond that of say Edward Norton in last year's film The Illusionist.

Remember, Prospero claims to have raised the dead!

In the ASP production, we see all the wires and the traps in any of the visions presented on the Victorian stage , and it makes for an enjoyable treat, along with beautifully setting a nice atmosphere for comedy. However, this is a play in which Shakespeare at least appears to have been concerned with stage technology for the purpose of awe. (Bardolators feel free to contradict me.)

The stage directions indicate things dissapearing and appearing by means of "stage devices." True, these would most likely appear very ridiculous to us, but the best magic being done today still has the ability to drop our jaws.

Prospero's dedication is to his art is total, and he takes delight in hearing of even Ariel's successes with natural manipulations. His frustration at imprecise execution is palpable, even on the printed page.

Another sort of Prospero is on display at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Whistler in the Dark's production of Howard Barker's A Hard Heart, which is a type of fable or allegory about a the siege of a capital city in the imaginary nation of Praxis.

The Queen, trapped with her subjects in the walls of the capital city by an army of barbarians, enlists the talents of the Genius Riddler, a woman with a brilliant mind for military tactics.
The Riddler, a cold and calculating mind, is empowered to achieve the impossible: prevail against the massacre of the city. The Queen gives Riddler anything she requires, (the sacrifices grow larger and larger as the play continues,) and Barker brings us to the inevitable questions. What is the worth of cultural symbols? What is the point at which we sacrifice too much to stay alive? Where does genius cross into madness?

One of the allowances given the Riddler is space for her to be alone. (Something both Prospero and Caliban value equally.) She prizes this above all. Her house is protected from any noise or any intrusions, and she lives there with her infantilized adult son. Part of her deal with the Queen is that he will be protected from conscription. (Right, Meg Taintor as the Riddler in Whistler's production.)

As Riddler plans against the sieging armies, her genius and her intellect grow more at odds with what we naturally associate with humanity. Working in her semi -solitude, the monstrousness of her theories have no chance to gain traction. She admits, at one point, that she is almost in a zone of ectasy at being able to practice her genius so unfettered and watch her schemes work perfectly.

Prospero, (Albert Epstein, left,) in Shakespeare's Tempest has a moment that fills him with dread and anger. While engaged in watching a pageant that he has completely conjured through the almost total mastery of his art, he forgets, for a moment, the plot against his life. He stops the pageant, and is able to thwart the attack of the clowns. However, there is a turn there that fleshes out through the rest of the play.

Barker's Riddler undergoes a similar infatuation with her arts, only there are more tragic consequences.

Gonzalo, stranded on the Prospero's Island near the beginning of the Tempest, muses the perfect kingdom:

All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.

Antonio and Sebastian interrupt to point out the, well, pointlessness of Gonzalo's Utopia. The irony being that they soon try to plot all sorts of palace intrigue and assasinations while they are, for all intents and purposes, forever stranded on a desert island. The kingdom in which they will reign, is, as well, made of air.

In just the first scene of Shakespeare's complicated comedy, these themes are wonderfully dramatized . It is sad that in most productions of the Tempest, this most important opening dialogue is lost in the understandable desire to portray a tempest-tossed vessel.

Amidst the howl of winds and sounds of thunder and rain Shakespeare lays out his themes ingeniously. Gonzalo and the king's court, seeking a status update, approach the Boatswain who is combatting the surly ocean:

In this, Shakespeare presents the entire thesis of the comedy to come.

Barker's Riddler has similar moments with the Queen of Praxis along with the Queen's military advisor. They seek to remind the genius of the importance of the structure of society - the hierarchy, the temple. Like the Boatswain, like Prospero, she reminds them of the ultimate endgame.

They are two different plays, but seeing them so close together on the same weekend I was struck by some of the commonalities.

The Tempest, unfortunately has now closed, (Actors Shakespeare's Project's next production is King John, if you wish to see it, get your tickets early.) Whistler's production of Howard Barker's A Hard Heart is still playing for a couple of weekends.

(Actors Shakespeare Photos by T. Charles Erickson.)


Thomas Garvey said...

Very good point about that open dialogue, Art. It's almost always lost, and yet, as we should expect from Shakespeare, it's a compact evocation of the central themes of the play.

Anonymous said...

please provide a link to brustein's piece on bloom and american shakespeare ?

Art said...

Hi Anon,

I went to the New Republic website to search the archives. The article may have been about 4 years ago.

Their website isn't searching well, and it comes up with a message that they are trying to work out the kinks.

As soon as I can locate the link I will find the review in which he muses about this.