Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Cruelest Month

The burning of the roof off of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris seems like only the latest sign that the world around us is coming undone. Perhaps that's why it seemed fitting for Fiona Shaw to show up in Madison Square Park last week to recite T.S. Eliot's bleak poem The Waste Land.

Saturday morning I was at a meeting of the 36th Street Writers Block, when Jessica Vera told me about Shaw's imminent appearance. She had recited the poem the previous day, no doubt to the surprise of people randomly walking through the park, and was scheduled to appear again at 6:00 without much publicity fanfare. Of course, I had to come.

Eliot's poem, which he acknowledged to be indebted to Jessie Weston's book From Ritual to Romance, deals with the spiritual waste land created by the First World War. As recited by Shaw in and around the empty fountain at the north end of the park, it became supremely relevant, "mixing / Memory and desire" as it were. Though "Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow," it was time for us to wake up again.

I had forgotten how sexual some parts of the poem are, but Shaw wouldn't let us forget. The second part of Eliot's poem--"A Game of Chess"--conjures up images of Philomel, who in mythology was transformed into a nightingale after being raped by King Tereus. Shaw's recitation of "Jug Jug" was indeed meant for "dirty ears." Then in the next part--"The Fire Sermon"--she emphasized the bedroom scene of the typist and "the young man carbuncular" which Eliot describes like this:

     The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
     The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
     Endeavors to engage her in caresses
     Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
     Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
     Exploring hands encounter no defense;
     His vanity requires no response,
     And makes a welcome of indifference.

Yikes. And all of that is recalled by Tiresias, who has "foresuffered all" and sees the same scene enacted on Philomel repeated again and again and again, down to the present day.

That evening, as it so happened, I had tickets to see Lucas Hnath's new play Hillary and Clinton, which interestingly enough also deals with the idea of the same events being enacted over and over. Laurie Metcalf plays someone who happens to be named Hillary Clinton, and who happens to be married to someone named Bill Clinton, played by John Lithgow. The fact that the actors don't really look like their characters' namesakes is part of the point. The details may be different, but the essence is the same.

As was the case with his previous play, A Doll's House, Part 2, Hnath doesn't come up with any speculations that couldn't have been dreamed up by anyone else. The speculations are not the point. Rather, we're watching skilled performances of actors re-trodding well-known material with slight but interesting variations.

Word on the street is that the production of King Lear with Glenda Jackson pulls off the same trick. I haven't seen it yet, but have my ticket for later this month. Yes, April is shaping up to be just as grim as Eliot's poem claims.

Next month, on the other hand, seems to be looking up, but that will be the subject of another blog post.