Monday, May 11, 2015

Taming Taming of the Shrew

This last weekend, I went to see a production of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, which I may not have ever seen before in person.

(Also new to me: the hillside theater at Zilker Park, which was very nice, especially with the addition of a little picnic basket.)

This version was set in 1890s Texas (more or less), with all the place names changed. So in the original, where a traveler says his trip will take him
...as far as Rome;
And so to Tripoli, if God lend me life
in this version, the traveler says that he's going to Dallas or Abilene or Fredericksburg. I can't remember which, which shows that that sort of info is easily swapped out. You could place this on a spaceship or in modern day New York and easily replace the place names without changing much about the play.

What you can't replace is the central plot, about Petruchio crushing Katherine's spirit by starving her, disrupting her sleep schedule, dressing her in his clothes, and teasing her with beautiful new clothes that he won't let her have. Or some combination of tactics that may remind you of standard cult activity. (Or standard activity at a military bootcamp, or Gitmo, or... Lots of organizations like to break people's spirit.)

(Well, teasing someone with clothes that they can't have is perhaps a little more specific; but in general, offering/teasing people with some reward is pretty standard.)

There's a lot of argument about the meaning of this plot. Is Shakespeare advocating it? Is he making fun of it? Is it about more than gender?

But however you take it, seeing a man torture a woman into submission is a little offputting.

(I remember going to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the University of Chicago Theater; and I remember the sound of the entire audience catching its breath when we remembered that this play was about a viciously unhappy couple in academia. I felt a similar moment at the theater when Petruchio starts starving his wife.)

Maybe it's just that I recently watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that has me thinking about things this way, but I'm wondering what's a way to play Taming of the Shrew and be smart about this plot? Perhaps you could rewrite it literally as the story of a cult...

Monday, May 4, 2015

So I just finished Daredevil...

... and I didn't love it the same way that everyone else seems to. Or at the very least, NPR's Peter Sagal showered love on Daredevil on Twitter, while my nerd friends showered love on it on Facebook. I didn't check Pinterest or Instagram, but I'm sure there's love being showered on it there.

And there are things to love about Daredevil! I mean, I watched 13 episodes of my own free will--and very little of what kept me going was a sense of obligation. (Though there was that too.)

(Slight digression: Why is Drew Goddard credited as "creator"? There must be an agreement or a discussion that makes sense of that credit. Someone please explain that to me.)

Here's some of the things to love:

  • Vincent D'Onofrio's portrayal of a damaged Wilson Fisk, not yet the in-control Kingpin; 
  • the love of friends between Wesley/Fisk, Foggy/Matt;
  • some of the fight scenes.

And here's some of the things not to love:

  • repetitive and trite women and children in peril storylines; 
  • yet another Batman-ization of a character--the centralization of trauma;
  • most of the fight scenes;
  • so much empty talk.

To expand on trauma's central role in comic book characters: since the beginning of modern superheroes, creators have recognized that it takes a particular sort of person to put on a mask and hit people for justice. And often, that "particularity" takes the form of some trauma: the death of a loved one (Batman, Spiderman), exposure to some dangerous mutagen that might make normal life impossible (Fantastic Four, the Hulk).

Matt Murdoch, the Daredevil, gets a double dose of trauma in his origin story: blinded and granted heightened senses by exposure to some dangerous chemical, he also loses his father to gangsters. And yet, until Frank Miller took him over, Daredevil was something of a light-hearted character. (There was a running joke in the comics about how bad he was at keeping his secret identity, since he kept revealing himself to pretty women.)

And yes, Frank Miller did grim and gritty for Daredevil, which made a lot of sense: a street-level character dealing with police corruption and inner-city violence. (Hell's Kitchen also made a lot more sense back then. These days, every time someone in the tv show talked about how bad Hell's Kitchen was, I had to stop myself from laughing. It's the double-edged sword of Marvel using the real-world as a setting: they get the benefit and disadvantage of instant recognition.)

So the creators of the show could have pointed to Daredevil's history as a reason for either way they wanted to go: cartoony and fun or dark and heavy. No money for guessing what they did.

The problem with that, for me, isn't that I'm fatigued with grim-gritty superheroes. The problem for me is that, about half the time, they did grim-gritty in a predictable and boring way. For instance, in the opening scene Matt Murdoch talks to his priest:
"I'm not seeking penance for what I've done, Father. I'm asking for forgiveness... for what I'm about to do."
Not a bad line, unless you saw it coming from a mile away. And that sense of grimness such suffuses so much of the show, from the acting (so much heavy pauses in the speaking, as if the weight... of what you were saying... was exhausting), to the fight scenes (so many of which were muddily lit, robbing them of any excitement).

I could go on, but I want to end with just one comment on the role of women. Matt Murdoch is motivated, in part, by his father issues. (Get it--he starts the show by talking to a priest because he has father issues. Wah-wah.) Which would be fine change from being motivated by protecting women--except there's no hint of his mom at all. As if Matt sprung fully forth from Jack Murdoch's forehead.

Besides that glaring omission, we could go through the women in the show and their relation to the men, particularly Matt. The tally isn't so great. Sure, Karen Page (secretary) and Claire Temple (nurse) get at least one moment of revenge or beating someone up. (Heck, even Foggy gets one moment of beating someone up.) But most of the time, the women are objects of rescue: Karen, Claire, Vanessa (an object of rescue not for Matt, but for Fisk).

Oh god, and I didn't even get into the 80s-esque racial/crime components, particularly the inscrutable Asian gangs: the honorable Japanese ninjas (which are so Frank Miller), and the secretive Chinese drug-runners.

In short, I didn't hate the show, but it seems to have some really apparent problems and some missed opportunities.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 275: Anna Cora Mowatt, The Morning of the Débût (#275)

Anna Cora Mowatt, "The Morning of the Débût" (1856) from The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner:

Meh. Nothing much to say here. Anna Cora Mowatt was a writer and actor, who wrote both a biography and a fictional account of stage-life. This is from the fictional version, but clearly close to some actual experience: a young actress first going on stage in a major role. Rather long, didn't keep my interest.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 274: W. C. Heinz, Death of a Race Horse (#274)

W. C. Heinz, "Death of a Race Horse" (1949) from The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz:

W. C. Heinz writes movingly--and briefly--about a horse with great prospects who breaks his leg on his first run. Heinz gets an effect by keeping things simple and repetitive, so that we hear Air Lift's lineage and family several times: in the title, in the opening, at the end. Air Lift was the full brother of Assault, but that's not going to save him.

Which seems a little odd to me: sure, if he never gets a race, he'll never prove his mettle, but with so much proof of his bloodline, you'd think they might keep him around as breeding stock.

There's very little here about racing and an awful lot about the trappings of the race track and the race industry. When Air Lift is hurt, he's not immediately put down; they've got to get word from his owner about that. And when he is put down, the veterinarians take his broken bones--for insurance purposes.

All in all, it's a strange and alternate view of a sport, a glimpse into a world from an angle not often used.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 273: Arthur Miller, Mare Island and Back (#273)

Arthur Miller, "Mare Island and Back" (1945) published for the first time in Arthur Miller: Collected Plays 1987–2004, with Stage and Radio Plays of the 1930s & 40s:

I'm excited to see Arthur Miller's radio plays get some attention in the LoA, if only because they are radio plays: a large segment of our cultural heritage that we don't really pay attention to, except for one-off incidents (Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?", Orson Welles's "War of the Worlds") or properties that stretched beyond radio (The Lone Ranger).

That said, I find it odd to read a radio play. Sure, a big reason why we don't remember a lot of radio work is that it was literally ephemeral, floating in on the airwaves at a particular time and place. And, again, sure, the Library of America focuses on books and printed material.

But really, at least some of these radio experiences were recorded and aren't that hard to find. Perhaps it's time that the LoA starts thinking about the multimedia experience of some of its collections.

Because, really, without the radio show, it feels like we're only hearing half the story here.

(And yes, if you couldn't tell, I don't have much to say about this so-so radio play: a doctor deals with three wounded men during the war, two who want to give up, and a third who believes he can fly a plane despite his amputation. Of course, this being Arthur Miller, everyone has a happy ending. OK, so at least I can say that: whether pressured or natively optimistic, Miller's work here doesn't really read like his other plays.)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

One way of looking at common titles

Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld magazine put together a list of the most common story titles in their submissions. It's an interesting list for that reason alone: even the most popular title ("Dust") shows up only 18 times out of 50k. The tenth most popular titles--of which there are several--show up 8 times each.

But we could also break down the list into other groups, according to structural or semiotic lines. For instance, "The " + noun titles account for 139 of the top stories. Then there's also concrete noun titles, like "Dust" and "Hero"; more abstract nouns, like "Voices" and "Memories." There are clumps of home-related titles ("Going Home", "Home") and clumps of boundary-related titles ("The Wall," "The End"). There are adjectives and nouns and verbs.

Probably these titles are so simple because only a simple title could be so frequently reused. I mean, "Dust" is a title I could probably use for some of my stories. (And as some commenters noted, some great stories have been written with that name.) You're not going to find a lot of stories titled, '"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman.'

But I'm especially interested in that "The " + noun form:

The Gift
The Box
The Hunt
The End
The Visit
The Collector
The Wall
The Prisoner
The Machine 
The Tower
The Dark
The Door
The Choice
The Fall

There's that "The" that makes a definite moment out of something wide open. This isn't the story of just any old visit--this is "The Visit." We're not just talking about "A" machine, but "The" machine--the machine that we've heard so much about or that plays such a bit role in our life.

It reminds me of something Ray Bradbury wrote about his own process, which involved lists just like this of nouns that somehow captured his attention. These weren't special, strange nouns, but everyday nouns, like "baby." (That story became "The Small Assassin.")

So what is it about nouns that seems to inspire some writers?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 272: Elizabeth Keckly, Lincoln’s Assassination (#272)

Elizabeth Keckly, "Lincoln’s Assassination" (1868) from The Civil War: The Final Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

Another record of Lincoln's assassination, this time from freed slave and dressmaker to Washington, Elizabeth Keckly. (The LoA note on this says that she was born a slave, married a free man of color, bought her and her child's freedom, and eventually separated from her husband--which is all sorts of interesting, but not anywhere in this story.)

The end is what you'd expect it to be: Lincoln shot and people astounded and grief-stricken. What's more interesting to me is the beginning, which records Lincoln alive: rehearsing for a speech, talking about his beloved pet goats, using the goats as lead-in for a discussion of political/social issues.

But again, all Lincoln stories end up with the tragedy of his death. And I wonder what the cult of Lincoln would be like without that martyrdom. Mind you, I'm fully in the cult myself: his intelligence, humanity, grace, humor, kindness, firmness--all of it combines to make him a fascinating figure for study and emulation. But again: would he have become a fat Elvis joke or a terrible reactionary or would he have gone on and retained his aura of greatness?