Review: Copenhagen, Michael Frayn

Ah plays. I bought Copenhagen in 2009 at the glorious glorious book sale in my hometown (oh my God that book sale, I dream about it sometimes) because it was fifty cents or something and I like plays, and then I chronically didn’t read it for a year and a half, and then I moved to New York and left it behind because I didn’t love it because I hadn’t read it, and then in January when I was at the library getting plays I was all, Dammit, I need to read this damn play. So I checked it out from the library and read it.

Believe me, I am well aware of how dumb this whole saga is. In March 2009 I had a job that paid me well and an empty bookshelf, and those are circumstances that make a girl spendthrift at a book sale. I was much more strategic about my acquisitions in 2010 when I was poorer. When I look at the picture from 2009 I’m like, Eh, I didn’t need a lot of those, but when I look at the 2010 picture I’m like, Wow, I’ve only had these very necessary books since then? I am actually considering flying home next year for this book sale. Oh God that would be amazing.

Anyway, Copenhagen is a play about the time that German physicist Heisenberg, of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which I think means you can’t measure two things really accurately at the same time, went to visit the Danish physicist Niels Bohr in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. While there, he asked Bohr some questions about the ethics of atomic weaponry. Why he came and why he asked have — evidently! I didn’t know about it! — been the subjects of much debate, and Copenhagen circles around and around the meeting and what might have happened and what it all might have meant.

What I liked: The circling back around the same event, suggesting new ideas of what might have happened, new interpretations of what might have been said, and what might have been meant. We hear what Heisenberg remembers, what Bohr remembers, what Bohr’s wife Margrethe remembers, and what they all think it meant. I love, I adore, I cherish books that make me go back to events we covered earlier and say, Maybe it didn’t go that way, maybe it went this way. Maybe he didn’t mean that, maybe he meant this. That’s what actual real life is like, and I love seeing it reflected in fiction.

I also liked that the play is channeled through the memories of just three characters: Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr’s wife. They create a nice balance: Margrethe on the attack, Heisenberg on the defensive, and Bohr trying to find the middle ground that takes into account the personal (his past relationship with Heisenberg) as well as the political (Heisenberg belongs to the country that is occupying Bohr’s country). The characters represent three balancing perspectives without coming off as one-note, and all of their viewpoints were emotionally resonant.

What I did not like: Copenhagen feels very written, particularly at the beginning. Part of this is just the problem that a play is a play and not a book (cf., the last line in the movie Doubt, which I’m sure was a fine curtain-drop-preceder but felt like a strange way to end a film). As the play went on, the direct-to-audience communication worked better and felt less awkward. At the start, though, it was off-putting, and indeed it nearly put me off altogether. It was a massive infodump. It was Diana Rigg announcing haughtily, “It’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.”

Anyway, overall good! I would go see it in a theater if it were relatively cheap. I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to keep my copy of the play. I’ll have to revisit it at Christmas and see if it’s worth hanging onto.

Review: Translations, Brian Friel

I have now read two of Brian Friel’s plays (this one on the recommendation of my theater-savvy coworker) and I have determined that I am strongly in favor of him. Ordinarily I do not seek out the Lit’rature of Ireland, ancestral home though it is.* Because the Lit’rature of Ireland seems terribly depressing, and even when it is Breakfast on Pluto and produced both that darling little film with Cillian Murphy and the excellent line about “his disagreeing face, disagreeing because it is as if he is saying ‘you can say this is happening but I don’t agree with you'” — um, yeah, even then, it is depressing.

Brian Friel does sad without being depressing. I’m not sure where the distinction lies here, but Translations is melancholy, not grim, a romantic tragedy, with jokes (if I may steal Tom Stoppard’s description of Arcadia which, by the way, may not have mentioned this yet, I saw. Twice!!). It is about a small town in Ireland in the earlyish 1800s, and the British officers who come to Ireland to make maps of it and change all the Irish place names into English ones.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about Translations that makes it so lovely. A crucial element is the wordplay and language-play. Many of the scenes take place in a small village school, where the teacher and pupils toss around Latin and Greek but decline to learn English and don’t always believe they will need to. Along comes the British soldier, young eager Yolland, who understands not a word spoken to him by most of the villagers, but who finds that he loves Ireland and its language and its traditions and its people (one in particular).

Friel does something that must be difficult to stage, which is to imply to the audience that his characters are speaking two different languages, when in fact they are all speaking English. Thus a British character speaks in English, and he’s actually speaking English, but an Irish character, also speaking English, may translate, and the audience is to understand that the Irish character is actually speaking Gaelic. I’m not explaining this very well. Lo, an excerpt!

Lancey [the British dude]: His Majesty’s government has ordered the first ever comprehensive survey of this entire country – a general triangulation which will embrace detailed hydrographic and topographic information and which will be executed to a scale of six inches to the English mile.

Owen [the Irish dude, translating]: A new map is being made of the whole country.

(Lancey looks at Owen: Is that all? Owen smiles reassuringly and indicates to proceed.)

Lancey: This enormous task is being embarked on so that the military authorities will be equipped with up-to-date and accurate information on every corner of this part of the Empire.

Owen: The job is being done by soldiers because they are skilled in this work.

And so forth.

It’s a meditation on the use of language to preserve tradition, or to discard it. Friel’s plays seem generally to be interested in the capacity of language to destroy or to build, to help or to harm, which I, with my lifelong crush on words, always love. And Translations has got a hell of an ending too. Just as we begin to feel that things might go well for the characters, Friel turns around and wallops you with the implications of the linguistic games the British and Irish characters have been playing throughout. Then it ends with the teacher quoting the Aeneid, and even better, lines I remember from the Aeneid. Yay!

By the way, I’ve become desperately worried that I will miss seeing something amazing on Broadway, just because I haven’t read enough plays. So if you have any recommendations of good plays, please toss them my way. Imagine if this breathtaking production of Arcadia had come to New York, and I hadn’t cared about it! Well, let’s not imagine that, it makes me sad. But that’s what I want to avoid. Thoughts?

*Dear Everyone In Britain, I know you hate it when Americans say their families are from Ireland or Germany, because you think those connections are too distant (being, generally, multi-great grandparents who actually moved from Ireland to America) to make any difference. But in fact it makes a noticeable difference. Holiday meals with my New York Irish relatives are very different to holiday meals with my Louisiana German relatives, and funerals with each group of relatives are even differenter. Hence I carry on saying my people were Irish. Because they were. I promise. They were. xoxo, Jenny.

Also, happy birthday, Rachel! I hope you are having a lovely day!

Review: Arcadia, Tom Stoppard

There is a particular sort of novel of which I always profess to be passionately fond: the sort with one plotline in the olden days with people doing their olden-day thing, and one in the present with eager scholars researching the very olden-day events in the other plotline.  (Is there a word for this sort of book?  Can there be one?)  If you have ever reviewed a book like this on your blog, I have probably commented to say something like, “Love this sort of book!  Adore!  Worship!  Cannot imagine my life without!” and added it to my reading list straight away.

When pressed, though*, I can only think of one such novel that I would recommend to a friend, and then only if I knew the friend in question didn’t mind extreme wordiness.  (A.S. Byatt’s Possession.  I should read that again.  It’s been years.)  More often I am disappointed on an epic scale by the author’s failure to live up to some arbitrary and impossibly high standard for this kind of novel.

*By me.  Much as I would like to live the sort of life where book lovers from all over the nation are constantly bashing at my door trying to get my opinion on Important Literary Matters, I am not yet at that place in my life.  Give it time.

For reasons far too complicated** to go into here, I am binging on Tom Stoppard right now.  I started with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, moved on to The Invention of Love, the result of which you saw, and just finished the play I normally claim as my favorite, ArcadiaArcadia goes back and forth between Byron-times, when a thirteen-year-old girl called Thomasina contemplates Latin translations and carnal embrace under the instruction of her tutor Septimus Hodge (that sounds much dirtier than it is), and present times, when scholars research Thomasina’s family and try to work out whether Byron ever shot a poet at their house.

**And awesome.  I would tell you what they are, except that I’m afraid that if I did, my sister’s boyfriend would no longer be able to write that treatise on Tom Stoppard and the nature of art that I expect he is currently planning, and also that Tom Stoppard’s people (I’m assuming he has people.  He’s Tom Stoppard.) would find this post, take umbrage at my flippant tone, and decline to allow Tom Stoppard to be interviewed by anyone ever again.  Better safe than sorry, right?

No wonder other books of this type have failed to satisfy me!  I have been comparing them all this time against Tom Stoppard!  It is hardly fair.  Especially when you consider that Billy Crudup, on whom I have a massive crush from Charlotte Gray and Almost Famous, played Septimus at one point in his career; and Bill Nighy, on whom I have a massive man-crush*** from, well, everything, was the original Bernard; and both of them are playing those roles in my head when I read Arcadia.  It’s like saying, Oh hey, I traveled back in time and saw the original production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe with William Shakespeare playing Oberon, so WHY CAN’T YOU MEASURE UP, NEIL GAIMAN?****

***My little sister and I got fed up with having no word to describe our feelings for male actors we adore but don’t have crushes on.  We can say “crush” to describe how we feel about Ben Barnes, and “girl-crush” to describe how we feel about Carey Mulligan and Helen Mirren, but there is no word for how we feel about Nathan Fillion and Johnny Depp.  So we decided to say “man-crush”.  It is officially the most useful word I coined in the 2009 holiday season (with “snuddle” a close if nauseating second).

****Confession: Before I ever saw a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I read Susan Cooper’s heart-wrenching King of Shadows, in which a lonely orphan boy travels back to Shakespeare times to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Shakespeare takes care of him.  While playing Oberon.  I think that may actually be why I have never seen a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that satisfied me.  That, or the Royal Shakespeare Company is massively overrated.

Arcadia gives us alternating scenes in past and present, gradually unfolding the little drama that took place in the old days between a poet called Chater and another called Byron.  Stoppard manages to maintain intellectual and emotional suspense while exploring chaos theory, the intersection of science and humanities, and the limits of human knowledge.  While, also, being very funny:

Thomasina: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?

Septimus: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.

Thomasina: Is that all?

Septimus: No…a shoulder of mutton, a haunch of venison well-hugged, an embrace of grouse…caro, carnis, feminine: flesh.

Thomasina: Is it a sin?

Septimus: Not necessarily, my lady, but when carnal embrace is sinful it is a sin of the flesh.  QED.  We had caro in our Gaulic Wars: ‘The Britons live on milk and meat’ – ‘lacte et carne vivunt’.  I am sorry the seed fell on stony ground.

Thomasina: That was the sin of Onan, wasn’t it, Septimus?

Septimus: Yes.  He was giving his brother’s wife a Latin lesson and she was hardly the wiser after it than before.

Phew.  Dizzy from all the wordplay.

Tom Stoppard, y’all.  Arcadia.  I almost got to see it in London but then did not, and I really wished I had organized my schedule better.  It’s a magnificent example of the above-mentioned double-plotline sort of story, the standard to which all others of this type should aspire.

Arcadia gives us alternating scenes in past and present, gradually unfolding the little drama that took place in the old days between a poet called Chater and another called Byron.  Stoppard manages to maintain intellectual and emotional suspense while exploring chaos theory, the intersection of science and humanities, and the limits of human knowledge.  While, also, being very funny:

Stomping around my bedroom late at night

I do not appreciate the suggestion that Oscar Wilde’s cleverness consisted in paradoxical epigram.  I will accept gracious tributes to Wilde’s way with epigrams, like Dorothy Parker’s:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit.
We all assume that Oscar said it.

Thank you, Dorothy Parker.  You have lovely qualities and could bang out epigrams with the best of them.

I will not, however, sit idly by in the face of any slighting reference to Oscar Wilde that implies that he was not as witty and charming as he is renowned to be, but only fooled people into thinking he was by inventing, and then saying, little paradoxes.  WRONG.  He was exactly as witty and charming as he is renowned to be, and I will argue you into the ground on this point; and trust me, you will get tired of arguing about it before I will, because I will never get tired of arguing (about Oscar Wilde).

Last night I was reading The Invention of Love, my current favorite Tom Stoppard play.  It is set at Oxford during the youth of A.E. Housman, and also on the rivers Styx and Acheron following the death of A.E. Housman (because Tom Stoppard can do things like that).  The play is about Housman, studying Latin and being quietly and hopelessly in love with a classmate, while Oscar Wilde and British concern over homosexuality are always in the background, for Housman to take no notice of.  Viz:

Pollard: Ruskin said, when he’s at Paddington he feels he is in hell – and this man Oscar Wilde said, “Ah, but—”
Housman: “—when he’s in hell he’ll think he’s only at Paddington.”  It’ll be a pity if inversion is all he is known for.

I read this line and went straight into a snit.  I was all, “Um, Alfred Edward, you are cute and all, but out of you and Oscar Wilde, only one of you graduated Oxford with a double first, while the other (I’m not naming names) failed to pass Greats.  I think you will find that Oscar Wilde is a bit more than an epigrammatist.  I mean if it’s a pity he’s only known for anything, it’s—”

Oh.  Inversion.


And then I sat up and gazed at the book and read it over twice, and I said, “Oh, well played, Tom Stoppard.”  And then I got up out of bed and strode around the room waving my arms around and talking to myself about how good Tom Stoppard is.  I did this, you see, because the alternative was me drunk-on-wordplay-dialing one of my friends, and I really don’t think any of my friends would appreciate getting a late-night phone call demanding their vocal appreciation for a play on words that hinges on a term for homosexuality that’s completely out of date.

That is pretty good, though, eh?  Inversion?  Get it?  Get it?

Review: Titus Andronicus, William Shakespeare

They cut my head off in Titus Andronicus.  When I write plays, they’ll be like Titus…I liked it when they cut heads off, and the daughter mutilated with knives.  Plenty of blood.  That’s the only writing.
–John Webster character in Shakespeare in Love

Oh, Tom Stoppard.  You are so great.  I wish you would write screenplays for thousands of movies.  I wish you would have your own television show, and it would be called Tom Stoppard Is Not Ha-Ha-Funny But Everybody Loves Him Anyway, and on it, you could make wry comments about hermits who read newspapers and John Webster and the history of aviation.

Why am I talking about Tom Stoppard when I am meant to be talking about Titus Andronicus?  Because ever since I started this project of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays in chronological order, I have thought a lot about the chats Shakespeare and I are going to have in heaven; and I am afraid that I have been too negative about him as a young writer, and he will remember it and be upset with me.

Me: But you were young!  The pressures of being a writer for the Elizabethan stage were many!  You had to give the people what they wanted!
Shakespeare: Those considerations didn’t deter you from employing the phrase “racist, poorly plotted, bloodbathy crap”!
Me: Bloodbathy isn’t even a word!
Shakespeare: It would be if I had used it.  Now run along and bother somebody else.

Or maybe he’ll say, I didn’t write it!, and we can spend a happy hour abusing its real authors as well as the fools who ascribed it to him.  That’s the better outcome.  Either way, like apocryphal George Washington, I cannot tell a lie.  Titus Andronicus is racist, poorly plotted, bloodybathy, and crap.  All the characters are perfectly hateful, though none is as hateful as – can you guess? – the black guy!  Aaron the Moor likes his son, but his only regret as he is led off to be executed, is that he hasn’t done ten thousand more wicked deeds than the deeds he actually did.  His soul, you see, it is as black as his skin.

Dreadful.  Absolutely no excuse for it.

Have you ever seen Titus performed?  Is there any excuse for it?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Review: The Comedy of Errors, William Shakespeare

Here’s what you should understand before reading Comedy of Errors.  My boy Shakespeare, he’s funny.  He’s all about being funny; he’s got funny down pat.  If you don’t believe me, I can only assume that it’s because you have never seen one of Shakespeare’s plays performed by actors with any hint of comedic timing.  He can do it in many different ways – he can do slapsticky visual gags, he can do puns, he can do wry little digs and situational irony and gallows humor.

And when he’s not being funny, he’s still being clever.  Nearly always!  He makes his words work hard for their money – if a word has a double meaning, Shakespeare will not let it pass unnoticed.  If two people are arguing, they’re not doing a half-assed job of it.  Read Richard III and you will find that Shakespeare could already, at the age of 27, crank out some whip-smart stichomythia that would make Aaron Sorkin cry like a little girl.

By the way, I just sat here for ten minutes conducting major excavations in my memory for the word stichomythia, and I eventually dug it out without the aid of the internet, and I am rather proud of that fact.  I took eight years of Latin and majored in English literature, and the result is that I have lots of dorky love for literary devices.  Like litotes?  I am not unfond of litotes (see what I did there?).  Cicero used them to great effect in his First Catilinarian Oration.  I like zeugma too because the word sounds exactly like the sound Ad-Aware makes when it’s finished finding bad files on your computer.  Chiasmus and transferred epithet and ascending tricolon, each in its own particular way is dear to my heart; and though it caused me some difficulties in Latin translations, I admire the elegance of periodic structure.

But back to Comedy of Errors.  It is not wholly without merit.  It has many funny lines; the two Dromios and the two Antipholuses get a couple of good riffs going between them.  The reason I have just spent some time defending Shakespeare and his ability to write comedy is that Errors is not his finest hour, plotwise.  It’s about two sets of twins (a set of master twins called Antipholus and a set of servant twins called Dromio) who were separated in a shipwreck, and as coincidence would have it, one of each set took his twin’s name as an homage.  Now the set that lived in Syracuse has come to Ephesus (risking death, because nobody from Ephesus can visit Syracuse and vice versa).  People in Ephesus get the twins mixed up.  That’s the whole plot.  It gets old after a while.  Mistaken identity humor is the kind of humor that’s difficult to sustain.  I am interested to inspect the ways in which Shakespeare manages his mistaken identity humor over the years.

Seriously, though.  I cannot wait for Twelfth Night.  That whole thing with Malvolio?  CLASSIC.  Do you have a favorite Shakespeare comedy moment?

Review: Richard III, William Shakespeare

I looked up Richard III, and Wikipedia says that scholars consider it one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.  Well, you know what, Wikipedia?  Scholars apparently did not read The Daughter of Time at a young and impressionable age and acquire an emotional stake in the innocence of Richard III!  I have a framed portrait of Richard III in my house, and one of these days I am going to borrow a drill to do a guide-hole, and hang the damn thing up.  In my last apartment it hung right next to my bookshelf.

Let me just say, Parliament had already passed through a bill declaring all of Edward IV’s children illegitimate (that was how Richard became King in the first place), so there was just really no point in Richard’s killing them.  Hell, I’d have declared them illegitimate too, with their father dead and all the kill-you-to-get-ahead Woodville relatives around preying on their little minds.  Oh, and when Henry VII took power (HUH), Parliament passed through a Bill of Attainder about how wicked and evil Richard was, and it never even hinted that he had killed any little princes.  Which makes Josephine Tey – and Elizabeth Peters – and me – think that they were probably not dead yet at that point.

And you know what else?  Henry VIII was not a bad king, despite his shocking wife-beheading ways, and that little incident with St. Thomas More, and I just want to say, he really spent very little time with his (Tudor) father growing up, but was very close with his (Plantagenet) mum.  I ONLY MENTION IT.  I DO NOT POSIT ANY CAUSAL CONNECTION.

Is Richard III one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays?  Dude, I have no idea.  I was too busy stewing over the injustice of history.

No, wait, I’ve not done this right.  Let me give it another go.  The Duke of Gloucester – I’m calling him that as a means of separating him in my mind from Actual Richard III, who I AM SURE would never hurt a fly – the Duke of  Gloucester is an excellent character.  As evil as he is, it’s a bit seductive.  (I liked Satan as well in Paradise Lost.)  We’re the only ones in Gloucester’s confidence, and he’s tipping us an enormous wink with practically every line:

They do me wrong and I will not endure it:
Who are they that complain unto the king
That I, forsooth, am stern, and love them not?
By holy Paul, they love his grace but lightly
That fill his ears with such dissentious rumours.
Because I cannot flatter and speak fair,
Smile in men’s faces, smooth, deceive and cog,
Duck with French nods and apish courtesy,
I must be held a rancorous enemy.
Cannot a plain man live and think no harm,
But thus his simple truth must be abused
By silken, sly, insinuating Jacks?


I am, by the way, justly paid out for urging Shakespeare to fudge history to make it a better story.  Gloucester takes the throne by declaring his brother’s sons illegitimate.  And to make Gloucester really wicked, Shakespeare has him cast doubt on the legitimacy of Edward IV too; i.e., Gloucester implies that his own mother was unfaithful to his father.  “But touch this sparingly, as ‘twere far off,” he says, “because you know, my lord, my mother lives.”  Oh, he’s so evil!  This is a better story than sticking to a possibly legitimate gripe about Edward IV’s bigamy, and I cannot really complain about it.

I love it how Gloucester and his cohorts plan how to make him appear noble and religious when he is ready to get crowned, how his (temporary) BFF Buckingham describes him as the antithesis of the womanizing Edward IV (darn it, I keep writing Edward VI by mistake – he’s the one who died without knowing the love of a woman).  When offered the crown in a nicely staged ceremony before the people and the gullible Mayor of London, Gloucester nobly refuses – shades of Caesar, and a plot device that Shakespeare will, of course, use again when he writes Julius Caesar.

(In his cups (I’m assuming they have pubs in heaven), Plutarch is probably all like, “Shkspeare din’t think of that himself, y’know.  I was the originin – I was the orin – I was the one who wrote that story down first.  Evrybody thinks he’s so great but iss me that he got that story from.  I’m a great historian!”  And then he probably slaps his beer down really hard and sloshes it everywhere, and then Ralph Waldo Emerson is probably all, “Let me take you home; you’ve had enough” and says apologetically to the bartender, “Sorry about him, he really was a great historian,” and then Plutarch probably throws his glass at the bartender and hollers “I usedta work for an ORACLE!” and Emerson props him up and says, “I know you did, man, let’s get you back to your cloud, come on.”  And on the way home Plutarch laughs derisively and says, “He said Brutus was an honorable man like – like fifteen thousand bazillion – it got rully lame – I don’t feel so good,” and then is sick into someone’s heavenly geraniums and then he’s like “Hahahahaha, I ralphed – get it, get it, cause your name – I love you Ralphie,” and then he probably cries and says “Willm Shkspeare never visits me – nobody reads my stuff except stupid Latin students – why doesn’t anybody love me anymore?” and drunk-dials Herodotus to commiserate.)

Okay, having given myself some emotional distance by calling Shakespeare’s character Gloucester, and by thinking of him as a character instead of a historical figure of whom I am protective – I have to admit that Richard III is a damn good play.  I want  to tell you about every single amazing scene – like the one where Margaret (“Why should she live, to fill the world with words?”) makes fun of Edward IV’s queen, who has just lost her husband and sons; and the one where Richard screws around with Buckingham just because he can.  Oh, and the scene where Gloucester (now King) is telling his sister-in-law how nice he’s going to be to her, and she bitch-slaps him in iambic pentameter:

Be brief, lest that the process of thy kindness
Last longer telling than thy kindness’ date.

And then there’s the big battle, and despite a lot of brave fighting, Richard is slain.  It’s sad, and I couldn’t maintain this separation between the Gloucester character and the real Richard III.  I remember from The Daughter of Time what the City of York put in their town records after Richard III was killed, and I’m pretty sure I remember it word for word.  So while Shakespeare was sucking up to the descendents of Henry VII, I was thinking of that.  “This day was our good King Richard piteously slain and murdered; to the great heaviness of this city.”

Onward now to Comedy of Errors.  I really do not want to read Comedy of Errors.  I was in it in high school and it’s idiotic.  Preview: There are two sets of twins resulting in lots of HILARIOUS MISHAPS.  God, I can’t wait for Twelfth Night.

Have you read Richard III?  Or have you seen it performed?  Is there a good film version I should investigate?