Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Clouds

The Athenian philosopher Socrates shows up in the dialogues of Plato, but he also appears in dialogues of Xenophon, and in the play The Clouds by Aristophanes.

Most experts will tell you that the real Socrates is the Socrates of Plato, on the basis of... well, okay, there really isn't much basis for that. Both Xenophon and Aristophanes appear to have been closer in age to Socrates than Plato, so they might very well have known him better. However, it's Plato's version of the philosopher that shows him as the tragic martyr we want him to have been.

The Socrates of The Clouds isn't admirable in the slightest. He's just another fast-talking shyster who takes money to teach people how to argue that right is wrong and wrong is right. The play's protagonist Strepsiades (the name means "twister") wants to get his racehorse-loving son Pheidippides (whose name means "shy horse") to learn the new style of reasoning so he can finally get out of debt.

Socrates appears in a basket suspended in the air, and contrary to his depiction by Plato, seems more interested in science than moral philosophy. "I tread the air, contemplating the sun," Socrates says. "Sublime in air, / Sublime in thought I carry my mind with me, / Its cogitations all assimilated / To the pure atmosphere..." A fair depiction? Probably not, but the impractical man of thought trying to literally put his head in the clouds is a great metaphorical image.

Speaking of clouds, they form the chorus, and though the choral members were originally played by male Athenian citizens, the clouds are supposed to appear as female. Strepsiades asks how clouds have been transformed into women. "Clouds can assume what shapes they will," Socrates reassures him. For instance, if they see some young upstart like Xenophantes, they might "kick at him for vengeance." (Xenophantes was one of those crazy guys who thought there was only one God, and not a whole slew of deities atop Olympus.)

Apparently, the clouds have just gotten a look at Cleisthenes, a politician known for his womanizing, so they've transformed into ladies in order to mock him. Socrates claims that these clouds are the only divinities, and that Zeus and his crew are just a bunch of fables. Strepsiades objects that it's Zeus who makes the rain fall, but Socrates counters that it's really just the clouds who do that, and provide thunder and lightning as well. If Zeus really used lightning to strike down perjurers, why are there still so many lying politicians around, while innocent trees get blasted? (Actually, he's got a point there...)

The action really heats up with an on-stage battle between Dicaeologos (the name means "good reason") and Adicaeologos ("bad reason"). Since this is a school for shyster philosophers, Bad Reason kicks Good Reason's butt, making fun of the entire audience in the process. It's then that the chorus of clouds steps forward for the parabasis and address the audience the play just insulted.

In ancient comedy, the parabasis was the playwright's chance to appeal directly to the audience for votes. Since comedies were presented as part of a competition, and the winning dramatist won a prize, the parabasis was a bald-faced begging for votes. In The Clouds, the chorus does this by promising good things for anyone who votes for the play:

               Now to our candid judges we shall tell
               What recompense they may expect from us,
               If they indeed are studious to deserve it:
               First, on your new-sown grounds in kindly showers,
               Postponing other calls, we will descend.
               The bearing branches of your vines shall sprout,
               Nor scorch'd with summer heats not chill'd with rain.
               This to our friends who serve us,—but to him,
               Who dares to slight us...

Yup, that's followed by threats for anyone who votes for a different play. Their fields will never produce wine or olive oil again! Don't mess with clouds. They will hail on your house and send a deluge on your wedding day. (Anyone who got married the weekend of Superstorm Sandy knows this part is actually true.)

Anyway, after much back and forth, Pheidippides does get his lessons in lying from the school of Socrates. Unfortunately, things don't go the way his father intended. While Pheidippides is successful in getting out of paying his debts, he then turns the tables on Strepsiades and argues he has a right to beat his own parents.

Aristophanes's point here is that while new-fangled ideas might be fun and even useful at times, if you abandon tradition, you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Whether the historical Socrates was trying to do that or not, many of his successors have certainly attempted to overturn long-established traditions in favor of trendy intellectual fads, and The Clouds stands as a lasting warning against the overturning of the foundations upon which our society rests.

Monday, September 13, 2021


I recently read The Moor of Peter the Great by Alexander Pushkin, the playwright, poet, and fiction writer who became the central figure of Russian Romantic literature.

The fragmentary historical novel tells the story of Pushkin's great grandfather, Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal. From what we know about Gannibal, he was born in Africa, forcefully brought as either a slave or a hostage to the Ottoman Empire, and then sent by a Russian ambassador to the court of Czar Peter the Great.

In Russia, Gannibal rose to become a prominent member of the czar's court. Pushkin was proud of his  ancestor, and wanted to pay homage to him by writing a fictionalized version of his life. Walter Scott had already made historical fiction popular, so Pushkin also had every reason to believe the book would sell.

The Moor of Peter the Great involves more imagination than fact, but it's still an entertaining read. It begins in Paris, where Ibrahim is carrying on an affair with a fashionable countess. When she gets pregnant with his child, however, they have to arrange for the baby to be switched with the white infant of a poor family so her husband doesn't get suspicious. After this deception, Ibrahim decides to return to Russia, as his godfather the czar has been entreating him to do.

Back in Russia, Ibrahim becomes depressed over his separation from the countess, and wanting to cheer him up, the czar arranges for Ibrahim to marry a charming young woman he danced with at a ball. This turns out to be a terrible idea. The lady in question is already in love with someone else, plus her racist family is not keen on her marrying a black man. Unfortunately, the manuscript breaks off in the middle of chapter seven, and Pushkin never completed the work.

He went on, however, to revolutionize Russian poetry, prose, and drama. Pushkin's writing provided the stories for two of the most famous operas by Peter Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades. Around the time he wrote The Moor of Peter the Great, Pushkin also wrote a historical drama, Boris Godunov. The massive verse tragedy was later turned into an opera by Modest Mussorgsky. During Pushkin's lifetime, however, the play was censored by the government.

Also influential were Pushkin's brief plays known as "little tragedies." One of those dramas, The Stone Guest, tells the story of Don Juan. Another, Mozart and Salieri, later inspired Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus. Toward the end of his life, Pushkin even supplied the plot for a new play to his friend Nikolai Gogol. That play ended up being Gogol's The Government Inspector, one of the most famous comedies in the history of Russian theatre.

Unfortunately, Pushkin was constantly getting into trouble with the czar's government. In 1837, he got into a duel with a French military officer in the employ of Czar Nicholas I. In spite of the fact that duels had been outlawed, the czar's guards declined to intervene. Not being as skilled with a gun, Pushkin was mortally wounded and died two days later. 

Pushkin's death only added to his fame, and today he is revered in Russia as the country's greatest author. He is also remembered for his descent from Ibrahim Gannibal, made famous by one of Pushkin's own works.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Book of Moron

After the inauguration of Donald Trump, after the denial of COVID, after the insurrection of January 6th, is comedy even possible anymore?

That seems to be the central question raised by Robert Dubac's new one-man show The Book of Moron. Dubac is an undoubtedly funny guy, and his past shows like The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron? have had audiences rolling in the aisles. But can he--can anyone--just stand up and tell dick jokes while the whole world seems to be on the brink of collapse?

The solution Dubac comes up with is not to drop the dick jokes (don't worry, as the audience still gets to enjoy lots of transgressive humor), but to make the dick jokes relevant to our current situation, by having them, err, rise to a higher purpose. The result is a funny show that isn't just a funny show, but one that forces us to confront the world around us with humor as well as horror.

"What is truth?" is the question Pontius Pilate allegedly asked Jesus, but it's also the question Dubac asks the audience. (Dubac has a different question for Jesus, who fortunately responds via Facebook.) With so much bullshit (the show's term) in politics, religion, and the media today, how do we tell what's really real? By turning himself into a human bullshit detector, Dubac helps us to separate truth from illusion... at least for the 80-minute intermission-less show.

It probably doesn't hurt that the play is directed by television legend Garry Shandling, who keeps the pace up throughout so that the audience doesn't find themselves drifting. A succession of stage tricks keeps us constantly guessing what will come next. Set designer Melissa Burkhardt Moore uses a deceptively simple blackboard to work magic on multiple occasions. And speaking of magic, Dubac performs a few tricks that even if they're old-school are so flawlessly executed that they get the audience every time.

The Book of Moron is currently playing at Soho Playhouse, where all audience members must be vaccinated, masked, and socially distanced. In another era, these precautions might have felt like a kill-joy, but with live performance so rare these days, it's a pleasure to laugh with other people even if they have to sit a row away from you.

Unfortunately, the show is only running until September 26th, so get your tickets now!

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Aristotle's Poetics

When discussing Greek drama, the subject of Aristotle's Poetics frequently turns up, since not only is it a fascinating piece of criticism, but it also gives us a lot of evidence about the origins and history of classical tragedy.

It was Aristotle who suggested that tragedy grew out of the dithyramb. He also credited Aeschylus with first increasing the number of actors from one to two, and Sophocles with adding a third actor. Sophocles, according to Aristotle, also introduced painted scenery to tragedy.

The sixth chapter of The Poetics is the most famous. In it, Aristotle lays out his theory of catharsis, a purgation through pity and fear. He also catalogues the component parts of tragedy: plot, character, language, thought, spectacle, and melody. Of these, The Poetics singles out plot as the most important, since tragedy is not an imitation of people, but of their actions.

Plot, according to Aristotle, must be complete, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In order to be beautiful, it must also have a size or magnitude appropriate to it. Plays must not be so long that we cannot hold them in our memory, and Aristotle writes that at one time tragedies were timed by water clocks, or at least some people people say so. (I wonder what would have happened if a play went over the time limit!)

Aristotle is opposed to episodic drama, in which actions follow one another in no probable or inevitable sequence. Instead, he recommends the use of reversals and recognition scenes, which work best when they go together to cause suffering, or pathos.

Later on, Aristotle's vague suggestions got taken for hard-and-fast rules all playwrights had to follow. If we take his advice as it was meant, helpful hints rather than dictates, The Poetics can be a useful resource for dramatists even today.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Happy Birthday, Mary Shelley!

Today is the birthday of Mary Shelley, the gothic novelist who gave the world Frankenstein, a book that has been adapted to the stage over and over again.

In 1823, Richard Brinsley Peake wrote the first stage adaptation of Shelley's novel, which he titled Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein. Later that year, however, he wrote a parody of his own play, Another Piece of Presumption, which featured a tailor named Frankinstitch. At one point, Frankinstitch calls out:

Every moment lost sticks in my gizzard! Good gracious how I have been cogibundating since I read that wonderful peculiar romance--I have cut out many a gentleman's coat, waistcoat and breeches, but now my ambition is to manufacture a gentleman itself.

Other parodies followed, including the anonymous Frank-in-Steam; or, The Modern Promise to Pay, which features "a natural and experimental Philosopher--in love and debt."

Most of us today are more familiar with film adaptations of Frankenstein, though. A 1910 film made by the Edison studio was recently restored and is now available on YouTube.

You might consider watching it to celebrate Shelley's birthday. (She would be 224 if re-animated today.) If not, just raise a glass to the young lady who made monsters!

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Used Up

The Irish dramatist Dion Boucicault had his first big hit in 1841 with London Assurance, which opened at Covent Garden, managed at that time by Lucia Elizabeth Vestris and her husband Charles Mathews.

Though the play was a success, Vestris spent lavishly on the production, as well as on subsequent plays, including Boucicault's own The Irish Heiress. In 1842, only a year after the triumph of London Assurance, Vestris and Mathews lost their lease on the Theatre Royal at Covent Garden.

In 1844, Vestris and Mathews opened a new Boucicault comedy, Used Up, at the Haymarket Theatre. The piece was based on a French farce by Félix Auguste Duvert and Augustin-Théodore de Lauzanne. Mathews, who played the leading role of Sir Charles Coldstream, contributed much of the dialogue, and his acting was largely responsible for the play's success.

Sir Charles is a wonderful role, and the novelist Charles Dickens later performed it in an amateur production. Dickens's friend, the artist Augustus Egg, even painted a portrait of the writer in the part, which you can see here, courtesy of ArtUK and the Charles Dickens Museum. Boucicault himself played the role in the U.S., first in New York in 1854, and later in New Orleans.

In the play, the spoiled Sir Charles is so bored with life that he resolves to propose marriage to the next woman he meets. That woman ends up being his neighbor, Lady Clutterbuck, who in a rather unlikely turn of events, was previously married to a blacksmith hired to install a balcony outside a window in Sir Charles's house. Even the prospect of marriage doesn't relieve the young aristocrat's boredom, but he begins to feel alive again as he fights the blacksmith, and the two topple out of the window and into a river.

In the second act, both Sir Charles and the blacksmith are presumed dead. Both, however, are alive but in hiding, fearing they'll be charged with one another's murder. While disguised as a simple plough-boy, Sir Charles falls in love with Mary Wurzel, the niece of one of his tenant farmers. Eventually, he learns his lesson, which he sums up for the audience in true Boucicault fashion:

...a man's happiness, after all, lies within himself--with employment for the mind, exercise for the body, a domestic hearth, and a mind at ease...

Even if that sentiment feels a little trite today, the play is a great deal of fun, and it helped Boucicault learn his craft so he could go on to pen better plays, including The Poor of New York.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Merry Wives of Harlem

Theatre in New York never completely went away. Even in 2020 while the virus was raging in the city, Blessed Unrest put on an outdoor production of Battle of Angels, and this summer, I've had a chance to see King Lear and Twelfth Night in parks in Manhattan, as well as The Alcestiad on Roosevelt Island and an indoor production of The Disciple.

That's why it seemed a bit presumptuous for the Public Theater to introduce this summer's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor as the return of theatre to New York. Still, after last summer's cancelations, this year's show was more than welcome. The Delacorte Theater in Central Park still isn't operating at full capacity, as there are special social-distancing sections, but the audience who did get in for the production I saw last night thoroughly enjoyed the play.

While The Merry Wives of Windsor isn't Shakespeare's greatest play (in fact, a good case can be made that it's his worst), adaptations of it have sometimes proved successful. Verdi's opera Falstaff, for instance, has some great music that papers over the weak plot. Generally, productions of Shakespeare succeed when the hew closely to their source material, but this play is an exception. That's why I welcomed news that the text had been adapted by contemporary playwright Jocelyn Bioh.

Reset in a community of African immigrants in contemporary Harlem, Bioh's adaptation cleverly finds ways to utilize the source text to comment on a very different time and place than Shakespeare's England. Doctor Caius is a French physician in the original, but by making him from Francophone Africa, Bioh is able to keep his ridiculous speech peppered with French words and phrases. The Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans becomes Pastor Evans, who is fortunately not Welsh. (How does one even make Welsh jokes in New York?)

The center of the show, however, is Falstaff, played in this production by the wonderful Jacob Ming-Trent. The moment he appears on stage, we know exactly who he is--not so much a player as a player-wanna-be who somehow still manages to win us over with his charm.

This production is still running until September 20th, so sign up for the digital lottery and get your tickets soon!