Prophetic Poetry from Canada’s Oil Patch: Naden Parkin’s “A Relationship With Truth”

When the Muses appeared to Hesiod on Mount Helicon, they put in his hand a branch of olive-wood and breathed into him a divine voice that he might celebrate the things that shall be and that were aforetime.  That a humble Boeotian farmer should make such claims for himself may surprise and shock those who regard the Greeks as the first rationalists and their poetry as a dawn breaking through the long Babylonian night.  But Hesiod was not alone even among the Greeks in asserting the poet’s dominion over so vast and so formidable a field.  Claims like his can be found in many ages and many places, and though not all poets were in the beginning prophets, there is abundant evidence for an ancient and intimate connexion between poetry and prophecy.
–Sir Maurice Bowra, The Prophetic Element, the 1959 Presidential Address to The English Association, p. 3.

Naden Parkin is a voice, crying in the wilderness of Canada’s Oil Patch, a Jeremiah forced by circumstances to live off the altars of the petrochemical Baal.  Naden Parkin is that perhaps most unexpected of creatures, an oil field mud-man prophetic poet.

Yesterday I was in the Chapters store in Sherwood Park – Sure White Park, as we like to call it, due to the largely pale demographics of this Edmonton bedroom community – browsing through the tiny “Arts and Letters” section, when I noticed a slim paperback with no lettering on the spine.  A Relationship With Truth: Poem and Verse Born in the Canadian Oil Patch was the title, by one Naden Parkin.  No publisher name. Must be self-published, I thought.  Parkin’s picture is on the back cover. Peaked cap, sunglasses. Round head, soft body, standing in snow in front of a Ford F150.  He looks like any of a dozen guys you’ll see in any small Alberta or Saskatchewan town standing outside the Co-op or the [Small Town Name] Hotel Tavern.  One of the thousands who end up working in the Oil Patch to support a young family, to make house payments, to pay for the case of beer on the two days out of twenty they aren’t working.  One of the thousands who do what they can in a perpetually un-diversified economy.

There are two testimonial blurbs on the back cover from poetry critics with whom I’m afraid I’m unfamiliar. One is from Logan Wild, of Discovery Channel’s Licensed to Drill.  The other is some very erudite words from Tim the thrashing machine Hague, UFC Heavyweight and former King of the Cage Heavyweight Champion:

A Relationship With Truth, offers an incredibly interesting and necessary glimpse into Alberta’s Oil-infused lifestyle.  We have the chance to see how Canada’s life blood has affected one man both negatively and positively.  This book is a treat to read from start to finish.

For anyone with preconceptions about Alberta and those who work in the Oil Patch, the whole package would seem surreal.  But here in Alberta we know the complicated contradictory truth.  Here in Edmonton, Oil Patch workers tend to be educated, are likely hipsters in their off time, collect art, go to live theatre, like to go out drinking with friends, enjoy sports, may well have voted NDP all their short lives, and are conflicted about Alberta’s and their own dependence on the fossil fuel economy.  And they may or may not drive a pick up truck.

It really shouldn’t be surprising to find a poet working in resource extraction — Robert Service in the Klondike and James Anderson in the Cariboo stand in that long line.  What I find startling and exciting is just how good Parkin’s poetry is.

A Relationship With Truth begins with a brief exhortation to the reader to “Listen”.  Whether he realizes it or not, Parkin is placing himself in the Prophetic poetic tradition occupied in English most particularly by Blake.  He has a profound message for us, if we have ears, and will,  to hear.

The second poem, “Wake Up”, is a cycling series of morning wake up calls which with remarkable economy show the generational cycle of domestic struggle and break up and hope and disappointment and perseverance of the Oil Patch life.  Here, at the outset, Parkin shows his rhythmic debt to Hip Hop, and it is clear that his poetry is meant not simply to be read aloud but to be declaimed and performed, a necessity made even more clear by “Something Inside”:

. . . Visions of mine,
A whole civilization blind, and victimized
As we lie below an invisible line
Beneath, the richest guys
Who bitch and cry over misplaced dimes
While we,
Risk our lives just to wish of times of bliss and pride
To see,
Retired at 65. Is it worth it? To work to die?
No please don’t believe those lies,
Slaves of our time
As am I. . . .

Parkin’s poetry exudes what might be seen as a rough socialism, but it’s actual a gentle communitarianism, a deep desire to get along fairly and honestly in a world in which dishonesty and greed are not rewarded.  He’s not calling for an overturning of the classes, but an idealistic, perhaps utopian, humane leveling, where everyone has enough and no one hoards at the expense of others.

I have written elsewhere, in the context of Irving Layton’s work,  about what Sir Maurice Bowra termed the Prophetic Element in poetry.  As well as clearly being in the Prophetic tradition, Parkin has something of the goaty Layton about him, in love poems such as “Goodbye”, “The Cutest Girl”, “After Love”, and “Fly Like That”, and in poems interested in chemical recreation such as “My Stoned Bliss” and the powerful and surprising earthy blend of “What I Love Doesn’t Matter”, a list of the worldly and not-so-worldly loves of the poet and an indictment of the narrowness of societal definition of the individual.

Parkin is  man of a very particular location, the oil lands of Saskatchewan and Alberta, once the bison killing-fields.  In “Northern Man” he says of the locations he lists as home:

You ask me, I’d invest in that
It’s natural gas and the oil patch
Western Canada, we’re blessed with that
And cursed with that
And if you think not, then you’re immersed in facts.

In 1959, when describing poets engaged in the Prophetic Element, Bowra wrote:

They feel that the ordinary methods of scientific or logical analysis are quite inadequate for the vast and terrifying issues befoe them and that their own kind of vision is a better way to the truth than the statistics and generalities with which publicists forecast .  ,  .
The Prophetic Element, p. 5

Immersed in facts, indeed.

Throughout the book, Parkin scatters short untitled poems, like the little gem on p. 17:

A flat land with a painted sky
Graced by the great herds
But all the grazers died.

The final line is a shock of banality because the grazers didn’t simply die – they were deliberatly exterminated, and everyone knows that fact.  And so we wonder: are the bison the great herds today? Or are human workers the grazers these days?  And we remember from “Something Inside”

. . . Is it worth it? To work to die?
No please don’t believe those lies,
Slaves of our time
As am I . . .

More than a hint of childhood trauma is buried in “The Pit”.  Parkin draws a nightmare vision of slippery references to let any childhood trauma fit and to make a definite become a universal claim of survival and reintegration in the last line:

He’s whole.

(with a play on “hole” as in “pit”, of course.)

Two poems use the image of a Heart of Gold: “Mortal’s Globe” which begins with the wonderful line:

You’ll never know whether I’m clever or slow

and the poem titled “Heart of Gold”.  I find no reason to doubt that, among other things, both poems reference Neil Young and his remarkably unnuanced opposition to Canada’s Oil Patch and it’s miners, so many with their hearts of gold.  Not only does “Heart of Gold” have an earthy whiff of Layton, it also mentions Optimus Prime, one of the more unexpected images of spiritual transformation in modern poetry.

A fascinating aspect of Parkin’s poetry is that from this young man, so immersed in the work of the Oil Patch, comes the constantly echoing warning that when it comes to living on this earth and saving it for future generations, “It’s Up To You”:

. . . gotta use yer main nerve

or crater

What ya do when ya lose and the music takes yer
Shoes to the moon cause the view is great there
But lose old blue and we’re in
Danger
And the way we use crude you can’t blame her
Neck through the noose boots down and hand her
See the future’s looking screwed
When the few control the huge
And when the few control the fuel
The few control you
It’s lose lose unless you choose to
Save her.

And in “I Know” the poet is prophet again:

. . . know that I chose to show this
to let my soul expose what all of you already know
But you hold in.

And, in “Use Your Noodle”:

You’ve got to lose the fools and use your tools
And use your noodle to search for truth,
Instead of just using Google.

And so on, through “Why I’m Here”, “My Prayer for Humanity and “I Knew a Man”, which reminds me favourable of Leonard Cohen’s “The Captain”, Parkin the prophet strolls until the end of “Surviving” in which he flicks his mantle blue and takes his leave, with just a brief untitled envoi to the reader:

As this page closes I hope you’ve taken notes
You’re a day closer to laying under roses
A shame moments fade as we grow older
So
Feel as what I’ve shown you and make love before it’s over.

Consider Cohen’s “The Captain”:

There is no decent place to stand
In a massacre;
But if a woman take your hand
Go and stand with her.

Throughout A Relationship With Truth, Parkin makes clear that society is headed for a massacre of some degree, but always the horror of past, present and future is tempered by the gentleness of love, the simple things of life, and the free pleasures, like the Aurora Borealis on a crisp winter night.

A Relationship With Truth is a profound collection of poetry from an unexpected source that should be sought out, and Naden Parkin is an Oil Patch mud-man whom poets, poetry editors and poetry readers would do well to watch.

Star Wars

 

In February 1977 I was 15 years old, a little more than half way through grade ten, and a fan of Science Fiction.  I read Science and Science Fiction books voraciously.  I had a subscription to Analog Science Fiction|Science Fact magazine.  A year earlier I had been excited to read Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune, the third volume in the now never ending Dune series, serialized in Analog.  I must have first read Dune when I was 11 or 12.

In those days Science Fiction, with the rare exceptions like Star Trek, on television, and Kubrick’s 2001 in cinema, was almost purely a literary phenomenon.  And Science Fiction fans were readers above all else.  We — well, they — I never got to a convention — they went to Science Fiction conventions to meet their favourite authors and editors, to get books autographed by superstars with horn-rimmed glasses or massive side-burns or, in the case of Asimov, both.

Those superstar writers and editors had started their careers as fans, and generations of Science Fiction writers have followed that path to a career as an author.  I remember a number of authors from my Analog subscription and wonder what ever became of those lucky souls whose first publications I read in those pages.  I wonder if youngsters like Orson Scott Card or George R. R. Martin ever went on to do anything else.  And the cover art!  I wonder what ever happened to artists like Rick Sternbach and Mike Hinge, whose covers consistently blew me away for vastly different reasons.

In February 1977 I read the book reviews in Analog.  The reviews were Lester del Rey’s usual feature, “The Reference Library”, at the end of the issue, just before “Brass Tacks”, the letters to the editor.  The first book reviewed was Frederik Pohl’s Gateway, the beginning of what would be a series of novels by Pohl.  The second book is something called Walkers on the Sky by David J. Lake.  And the third book . . .

Well, the third book is a little thing the hero of which is, as del Rey writes in reference to the previously reviewed book, “oddly, named Luke Skywalker.”

Here is the first encounter I and a great many Science Fiction Fans had with this thing called Star Wars:

del Rey Star Wars 1 001  This book called Star Wars was credited to a new author named George Lucas.  It was, as most know today, ghost written by Alan Dean Foster, now well known as a Science Fiction writer.  Foster’s career had received an early boost with the commission to “novelize” the animated Star Trek as the Star Trek: Log series of paperbacks.

But, back to Star Wars and del Rey’s review and as a Science Fiction fan my experience of the years since 1977.

In May 1977 I saw Time magazine’s “Film of the Year” article about Star Wars and thought “this could be interesting”.  Soon after it opened in Edmonton — at the Odeon on Jasper Avenue, I think — I went to see the film with my mother.

I liked it.  It was fun.  The dialogue and science were equally crappy. It was not a thought provoking stumper like 2001 nor a discussion novel made SF TV like Star Trek. The best thing about it was something pointed out in the Time article: the world of Star Wars was battered, grubby, and lived in. Otherwise, it was a crappy space opera and I enjoyed it.

And I was fifteen.

I felt it was the precursor of something.  Star Wars seemed parallel to the cheesy, often badly written pulp fiction Asimov celebrated in his anthology Before the Golden Age.  I figured that we’d have some cheesy pulpy Science Fiction films for a bit, but surely a Golden Age of intelligent Science Fiction cinema was on the horizon.

In the fall of 1977 I moved to del Rey Star Wars 2 001Grade 11, still fifteen until December.  My new English class was taught by Mr. Mallet, one of the finest teachers I ever had.  Part way through the year he completed his Masters thesis (Symbolism of some sort in Hawthorne).  At some point that year he was advisor on a “special project” I did for credit.  I wrote my first novel — Science Fiction, of course, and, of course, unpublished.

I don’t know how he arranged it, but Mr. Mallet designed the entire Grade 11 English program around Star Wars.  Except Macbeth. Macbeth was done separately.  But Mr. Mallett made a point of reading the Porter scene, which had been excised from our texts, aloud to the class.  Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead with the alcoholic impotence!

So, the class had a field trip to the Odeon to see the film and then the readings were assigned: Dune, for the desert planet, The Wizard of Oz, for the Tin Man, The Hobbit for the quest and the wizard . . .

Two students raised their hands.  “Read ’em already” Jenny and I said.  Jenny’s an Egyptologist in New Zealand now.  We were friends then.

Mr. Mallet replied: “Lord of the Rings.”

“Read it.”

“Twice”

“Right.”  Mr. Mallet paused a moment.  “You two will spend class time in the Library researching and writing essays on subjects I assign.”

As the rest of the class belly-ached about unweaving Lucas’ rainbow and “only two weeks to write 250 words?! Impossible!” Jenny and I skipped off to the library with Mr. Mallet’s wonderful gift of time to read and write with unheardof freedom combined with sympathetic direction.

My best friend Dan was a huge fan of Star Wars although he had never been a particular fan of Science Fiction.  He liked cars and girls. And cinema.  While still in High School he was working at an Edmonton television station, coming up with some innovative set and prop ideas.  Today he works in the film industry in Vancouver as a property master.

Dan had a Darth Vader action figure and a classic sports car.  I had a storm trooper action figure and a battered Ford Custom when I could get permission from my father to use it.  We hung our action figures from our rear-view mirrors.  My heart was never really in it.  Dan’s heart seemed to be in every thing but perhaps was really in nothing much other than career in those days.

We lost touch.

In 1977 Science Fiction fandom was about reading.  In 2015 it is about cinema, television, and gaming — and Star Wars is the colossus that bestrides every convention, every consciousness.  Yes, there are still readers of Science Fiction, but the money — and the fans — are in the films and their tie-ins — the action figures Dan and I hung in our cars, the novelizations, and occasionally in the novels that script the visual presentations.  Do fans read the novels that seeded the blockbusters?  From what I’ve seen of the recent cinematic versions of Tolkien, the novels are only skimmed by the film makers.  As a friend said to me once of Lynch’s film of Dune, “It’s as though he filmed the first page of each chapter and the last page of the book.

I can’t help but look at fans today, idolizing the actors and ignoring the imagination behind the actors, indeed, ignoring their own imaginations and their own potential.  I can’t help feeling something has been lost in a Golden Age still-borne.

Are young people still inspired by the Dragons of Pern? Do they need a movie or TV show to take them to Earthsea?  Will they ever puzzle over Bombadil now that fandom is about blockbuster films rather than words on a page?

I look around at the society we have created, the internet, the International Space Station, the Artificial Intelligence in every toaster and coffee maker.  I look at our Brave New World of reproductive technology and multiplicity of gender. I look around and I read myself into Heinlein, Clark and Asimov, Le Guin, Tiptree and Russ.  The world around me is the world I read before Star Wars.  It is also a world like and unlike 2001.  But it is not a world at all like contemporary blockbuster Science Fiction films.

Before Star Wars, Science Fiction fandom was about imagination and its freedom.  After Star Wars fandom has become about imagination structured, about cannon, and, above all, about consumption.

About a decade ago, my old friend Dan’s partner sent me a note before his fortieth birthday, asking for a thought, a wish, a memory.  I don’t remember what I wrote.

We drift from our childhood friends and childhood things.  I’ve not heard from Jenny or Dan or Mr. Mallet in forever.  I no longer have my copy of Foster’s Star Wars. But then, I’m reading Dune again right now.  And I still have my original paperback copy.  I hope there’s a young person somewhere out there reading Dune – in paperback – for the first time.

Del Rey, in the penultimate paragraph of his review of Star Wars, the book, writes:

“Maybe the book is all right for some of the juvenile audience, but it certainly isn’t for sophisticated readers.”

Not long after Star Wars my subscription to Analog lapsed.  Reading is no longer analog for most – it is digital.  I’ve lost touch with much of contemporary Science Fiction.  Gibson and Stephenson are pretty much just names.  I’ve read The Hunger Games but seen none of the films.  I expect the special effects are spectacular.

I think I might try to reconnect with Jenny and Dan.  We are no longer the juvenile audience of the original Star Wars. We now live in the grown up Science Fiction I read as a kid.

 

And these days I should still be able to make the Edmonton/Vancouver/Auckland Run in less than twelve parsecs.

“Mote”: a New Play by José Teodoro

Spoiler alert:

Marion dies in the shower.

José Teodoro’s new play Mote, now playing at La Cité Francophone, is in the workshop stage, so I’m willing to give it a little rope.  The first unusual  item to notice is the sign reading “Balcony seating only”.  The seats have been removed and the floor has become the stage.   La Cité’s theatre is an unusually narrow, high space, so this change makes an interesting space even more interesting, but it limits the audience to little more than thirty seated in a single row on three sides of the action — unless the second balcony, partly used for technical tasks, were also opened to audience members willing to risk vertigo.  If one is sitting on the side, much of the action will be missed unless one leans far forward over the railing, which is not a terribly severe criticism as the play is mostly words rather than actions.

The set is a minimalist black box with projections and a few pieces of furniture – chairs and tables.  The projected material designed by Max Amerongen was something less varied than I had expected coming in – the white centre line flashing past representing driving, a sort of paisley shadow on the floor representing a seaside, the moon representing moonshine.  But the projections were quite effective in setting scene, and, particularly in the case of the opening green squigglies, in setting the mood.

I have a suspicion that the make up design is the work of costume designer Megan Koshka, fresh off a stint as assistant costume designer on Catalyst’s Vigilante.  Between Nevermore, Vigilante, and now Mote, this make up design is becoming a bit of an Edmonton signature. We need to be careful but the dark shadowed eyes and black lipstick are very effective here, making the characters seem like stark marionettes rather than agents of their own destiny.  On Luc Telier, who plays Norman, the make up accentuates his more than passing resemblence to a young Klaus Kinski, notorious for playing Nosferatu. This accentuated resemblance makes Norman just a little more disturbing for audience members with a longer cinematic memory.

The performances were uniformly solid, with the melancholy singing duets of Telier and Twila MacLeod (Marion) a bit of stand-outs.  Brian Dooley as Arbogast the flatfoot pursuing Marion had me spellbound during his brief, gentle telephone exchange with his young daughter from whom he’s separated by his work.  The rest of the cast provide rock solid support to these leads.

A criticism I will offer is that the pacing is thrown off by Marion’s outfit changing.  I realize that Hitchcock took some time with similar scenes in Psycho, but on film he was able to direct our gaze, to the suitcase, to the envelope of money. As we look down on the stage, we’re just looking at a woman changing her clothes. I’m not sure that any symbolism of changing clothes/changing character outweighs the loss in pacing.

The first part of Mote largely follows the course of the opening of Psycho, with one particular film studies student exception. As Marion and her co-worker Caroline (Andrea Rankin) kibbutz about the office, Caroline suddenly notices  a fat man on the sidewalk outside the window and goes out to shoo him away.  This is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearance in Mote. In Psycho, Hitchcock is outside the window, but not noticed by the characters.   I have a suspicion there’s another Hitchcock cameo in the later scene in the bar between Norman and Sam (Chris Schulz), but I’ve not nailed down what film is referenced.

The second part of the play, after the lady vanishes with Norman’s help, strikes me as also a bit of a film studies student piece, with a frenzy of Hitchcock, film and Hollywood references. For example, Arbogast’s voice over mentions that Norman goes to Hollywood and hangs around on a set with Ava Gardner. Is this a reference to Hitchcock’s Norman, Anthony Perkins’ roll in On the Beach opposite Gardner and Gregory Peck? Norman’s repressed homosexuality is presented without a shadow of a doubt but perhaps with less exploration than would be ideal. I worry that reference may be overshadowing exploration.

In the end, Mote is most interesting and very enthralling and original, but I can’t help thinking it needs tightening.  That, of course, is the point of workshopping.

Mote, by José Teodoro, directed by Wayne Paquette, is playing at La Cité Francophone in Edmonton until May 17.

As a sidenote, it was so nice to finally meet (my #yeggie nominee) Jenna Marynowski in real life last night at Mote.  I’m looking forward to reading her take after seeing the play – which I’m sure will show up soon at After the House Lights.

On Watching Zeffirelli’s “The Taming of the Shrew” for the First Time in Many Years

I have a dim memory of the first time I saw Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew.  It was on television.  I’m sure I was watching with my parents, and the image of Elizabeth Taylor falling in the muddy stream and being left behind by her laughing husband is pretty much all that has stuck with me for forty years or so.

Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet I saw in High School and many times since.  I’ve always thought it a wonderful interpretation of Shakespeare’s play with a great deal to recommend it.  On returning to Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew, however, I found little to recommend.  Yes, Zeffirelli has assembled lush and beautiful costumes and sets of great detail. But those sets have too much of a smell of polystyrene, the beautiful Italian light of Romeo and Juliet is missing, and the pacing despite large cuts and rewritings of Shakespeare’s text, is, frankly, plodding.  Elizabeth Taylor discharges her roll as Katherina professionally, but Richard Burton as Petruchio and the rest of the cast have been set free, or directed, to chew the (polystyrene) scenery with gay abandon.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, The Taming of the Shrew is a difficult play for a contemporary audience.  When the fundamental theme of the play, the breaking of a strong woman through starvation and sleep deprivation, is combined with the swinger misogyny of the mid-Sixties, the result is unbearable.  Petruchio’s country house here is a grubby man-cave, complete with lecherous douche bro retainers. “And Philip’s dagger was not fully sheathed”, a line not in Shakespeare’s text, is inserted apparently for the sole purpose of making an open codpiece joke, a bit of wit Petruchio and his buds think wonderful.  And then they start the torture of Katherina.

I’m not sure that Zeffirelli had any awareness of the misogyny of The Taming of the Shrew.  But there is one very odd detail which suggests he, or a set dresser, did look more carefully.

As Lucentio (Michael York) arrives in the streets of Padua, he passes two criminals enduring public punishment, one in a suspended cage, the other below in stocks.  Large signs are lettered with their crimes: “Drunkard” for the caged man; “Wife Stealer” for the man in stocks. Shrew 1

I’m not sure that “wife stealing,” phrased that way, has ever been a recognized offense in Padua. Almost immediately, Lucentio falls in love-at-first-sight with Bianca (Natasha Pyne), then he witnesses his new love chased through Padua by a gang of young men who eventually corner her and force her veil from her face.  As Zeffirelli portrays it, this is, if you’ll pardon the image, a thinly-veiled gang rape, a gang rape which seems to greatly amuse everyone, including the victim.

Later in the film as the drunken Petruchio hauls away his forced bride Katherina, Bianca’s sister, they pass the same two unfortunate prisoners, signs again prominently displayed. “Drunkard” and “Wife Stealer”.
shrew 2

What to make of this subversive bit of set-dressing associated with two rape scenes?  In no way does it ameliorate the symbolic gang rape of Bianca or the misogynistic celebration of Katherina’s forced marriage and later joy that she has been broken under torture.  The cage is where the drunkard Petruchio belongs, and his wife stealing logically deserves the stocks.  But he is presented by Shakespeare and Zeffirelli, and played by Burton, as the hero, not only for his drunken wife-stealing, but more so for his triumphant success in inflicting the Stockholm Syndrome on Katherina.

I don’t know the intention behind the small gesture of putting those prisoners into the two scenes.  But I certainly don’t feel any better about The Taming of the Shrew, either Shakespeare’s or Zeffirelli’s, because of them.

As I did when considering The Freewill Players’ The Taming of the Shrew,  I again am considering whether it is possible to stage The Taming of the Shrew without a profuse apology for its pervasive misogyny.  In my wondering I have come up with a curious thought:  what would be the effect of a modern dress production of The Taming of the Shrew, but in the modern dress of Kandahar or the Swat Valley of Pakistan.  What would happen if The Taming of the Shrew were staged completely faithfully to the script but with burkhas or niqabs instead of Elizabethan dresses? Zeffirelli’s Bianca enters veiled, and, Petruchio, after all, has more of the Taliban or Boko Haram about him than he does of Sir Walter Raleigh dropping his cloak in the puddle for Queen Elizabeth to tread upon.  Such a staging would remain faithful to the text, but no contemporary Western audience would be able to ignore the misogyny.   Would some say “you’re insulting Islam” or “you’re taking Shakespeare out of context”? Possibly. But the text is unchanged – is Shakespeare insulting Islam?  And modern dress is routine in Shakespeare production today. Why is it any more “out of context” to set The Taming of the Shrew in the Swat Valley than it was for Ralph Fiennes to set his Coriolanus in the former Yugoslav republics?

Doubtless such a production would offend all over the place.  But somehow I think it would be worthwhile for the shaking up it would bring.

In the end, such a production would demand an answer to the question “Can you defend this play?”

Brief Thoughts on the Current Alberta Election Campaign from an Old Progressive Voter to the Progressive Voters of Alberta

The riding in which I have lived since the mid-eighties, Edmonton Strathcona, has not elected a Progressive Conservative Member of the Legislative Assembly since 1982. We’ve never elected a Wildrose MLA or (since 1982) an MLA to the Right of the Alberta Liberal Party.

What’s with the rest of you?

A Meditation on Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”, and a slight review of Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre’s production of same

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”
— T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Artist”

Tom Stoppard is a demanding dramatist.  He does not stoop to explain references in detail. He assumes that some in his audience will be left out — never more explicitly perhaps than in The Invention of Love in which a character tells the audience “if you can’t read Latin go home, you’ve missed it!”  In Rock ‘n’ Roll he expects the audience to remember Syd Barrett and know about The Plastic People of the Universe.  And, in Arcadia, Stoppard puts before us Byron and hangers-on of the Romantics, English landscape architecture, iterated algorithms and fractals, a joke dependent on an understanding of both Old and New Testament, and, yes, a bit of Latin.  Many will be left behind as are left behind by the references in Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech. Yet we all enjoy Romeo and Juliet.

The slight review of the Citadel Theatre’s production of Arcadia

. . . literature, ever since Theocritus, has been sophisticating nature  . . .
— Agnes Latham, introduction to the Arden Shakespeare (second series) edition of As You Like It, p. xliv.

Finally on Easter Sunday I had the opportunity to see Arcadia in a matinee performance of the appropriately pretty production directed by Tom Wood at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.  I’ve been waiting to see Arcadia since first reading a review of the play in, of all places, the July 1997 issue of Scientific American.  To be honest, I feel Stoppard’s tight script and careful stage directions leave little extra for the director to do, and, not meaning to sound like Septimus talking to Chater, Wood does a good job of it.  One particular touch I noticed was in the first scene of Act II, when non-verbal Gus (Luc Tellier) sits up straight and perks up his ears when Bernard (Jamie Williams) mentions Gus’ namesake predecessor, Augustus Coverly (also played by Tellier). This touching and meaningful tiny moment is not hinted at in Stoppard’s stage directions, and the gesture adds subtly but greatly to the cross-century connection.

The set is exquisite, the costumes beautiful (both by Leslie Frankish), the sound (Owen Hutchinson) and lighting design (Kevin Humphrey) are perfect.  Performances were spot on, with special mention going to Julia Guy’s totally charming and intimidatingly intelligent Thomasina Coverly, Kevin Klassen’s lovably foppish Ezra Chater, Claire Armstrong’s crustily vulnerable Hannah Jarvis, and Jamie Williams’ smarmily narcissistic Bernard Nightingale.

My criticisms of what went on on stage are so small as to barely need mention: Plautus the tortoise is a model rather than a live tortoise; Aaron Hursh gives a little too much shrillness to Septimus Hodge’s laughs in Act I; and the wig Luc Tellier wears as Augustus Coverly makes that character a little too distinguishable from Gus Coverly, the other character Tellier plays.  Stoppard is explicit that the two should be easily confusable.

But, picking nits.

Arcadia is a long and challenging play.  It became clear part way through the second act that many in the audience had lost track and were exhausted. At the end of each of the last few scenes, a good portion of the audience began to applaud, in mistaken relief that the play had ended, uncomprehended.  I see this incomprehension not as a criticism of the play, the direction, or the performances.  Arcadia demands much of the cast and much of the audience.  It is impressive that the cast rose to those demands, and not surprising — although sad — that some audience members weren’t up to it.  Arcadia is a play to be savoured.  Careful engagement richly repays the challenge.

Arcadia plays at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, on the Shocter Stage, until April 12, 2015.

Please check out Jenna Marynowski’s review of Arcadia at After the House Lights.

A Meditation on Arcadia

Life is a quest for a quarry we will never capture.  We reach for perfection in art and always fall short.  We investigate the universe ever more deeply through science and mathematics and every answer brings a thousand new questions.  We strive for Arcadia but find ourselves fumbling in a gazebo in an English formal garden.

On stage throughout Arcadia there is a tortoise, perhaps a very long lived tortoise, like the Galapagos tortoise named Harriet who was reputedly collected by Darwin in 1835 and died in 2006.  In the 19th century scenes in Arcadia the tortoise is named “Plautus” for the early Roman comic dramatist.  The Roman dramatist was a source of plots for young Shakespeare and I have no doubt Stoppard has chosen the name carefully, at the least as a reminder of Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus (The Braggart Soldier).  The action of Plautus’ play, like that of Arcadia, is triggered by a servant’s accidental witnessing of a carnal embrace.  Plautus’ Soldier, Pyrgopolynices, fumbles through life with the mistaken impression that he is in control when he is, in fact, slave to his own failings and the wiles of his own slaves.  Some of Stoppards characters, Chater particularly, have much of Plautus’ soldier in them. But the most important and interesting characters in Arcadia are very much aware of what ultimately controls things — the entropy which winds down every life. Et in Arcadia, ego.

In Classical Comedy, we laugh a lot and there is a generally happy ending.  Plautus’ plays are exceptionally light fare.  Arcadia, on the other hand, for all its glittering wit and English country sunshine, for all its joy of discovery running through, is a fundamentally tragic vision.  Stoppard shows us that not only do we each have a fatally tragic flaw, but that the flaw is the tragic flaw of the universe.  No matter our joys, our discoveries, our duels or our carnal embraces, we are all doomed with the universe itself to

. . . wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless . . .

as the second law of thermodynamics grinds its irresistible way to that far future when Darkness is the Universe.

In Stoppard’s play, Hannah recites the above lines of Lord Byron, using poetry as evidence that even before our thermodynamic doom was understood mathematically, it was possible to glimpse the cold, dark truth.  This dark truth hangs over all the characters in Arcadia.

But we are not alone, either in space or time.  Septimus says of the endless succession of human generations:

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.  The procession is very long and life is very short.  We die on the march.  But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.

I can’t help but hear an echo of T. S. Eliot here:

He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.

Indeed, I find much in Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” which illuminates Arcadia.  Consider:

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.

Arcadia is fundamentally about creativity in the face of the Second Law.  it is about life as a local reversal of entropy and what a marvellous gift that reversal is.  Arcadia is about the quest to find out, to learn. Hannah says:

Comparing what we’re looking for is missing the point.  It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.  Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.

Yes, Death is there, but, before all else, Even in Arcadia is Life.

Some, having little understanding of the Second Law, have tried to argue that Darwinian Evolution, for example, contravenes that law by increasing order when order must decrease.  But, of course, there is nothing in the Second Law which makes impossible localized, temporary increases accompanied by a greater decrease elsewhere or elsewhen.  Each pleasantly arranged dessert, each beautiful poem, every evening at the theatre, is made possible by the distant future cinder we now call The Sun.  These local eddies of increased order are what Stoppard offers us — not as consolation — as purpose and meaning.  “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow the universe will sink into a lightless heat-death.”

Eliot again:

….he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

Near the end of the play Gus, the non-verbal youth picks up what has been shed, as he had earlier picked up a trans-temporal apple for Hannah (a reference, I think, to Theocritus’ third Idyll). Gus gives Hannah the unexpected clue she needs to clinch her argument about the identity of the Hermit.  In that moment, Gus and Plautus the tortoise are linked through time.  The silent watchers hold the answer, but there is a melancholy.

Septimus and Thomasina dance. Gus silently invites Hannah to dance.

Hannah says,

“Oh, dear, I don’t really . . .”

But, really, she does.

As the couples orbit each other into the night at the end of the play, we and they know that the journey and our companions, including those who have preceded us, and what we make of them, are all we truly have.

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard is published by Faber & Faber.

On a lighter note

From page 38 of my 1993 copy of Arcadia:

Et in Arcadia Typo

Et in Arcadia, Typo.

Personal Reflections on “Mr. Bliss” by J. R. R. Tolkien

 

A cousin (by marriage) of mine, a British physicist, said to me in the summer of 1983:

“I hear it said that Tolkien would have been a fine scholar if he hadn’t wasted all his time writing silly stories.”

I was young and little prepared to rebut. I knew, of course, of Tolkien’s important and influential lecture “Beowulf: The monsters and the critics” and he was sort of an eminence hanging over my Old English studies. And I knew that the influence on me of Tolkien the storyteller and philologist was a major part of why I was in Europe that summer, digging in Roman dirt and visiting a Book in Exeter.

Now I’m older than Tolkien was when The Hobbit was published and rapidly closing the distance to his Lord of the Rings age. I know now that Tolkien didn’t waste time writing silly stories. He spent time on some very fine scholarship and teaching, he devoted much time to being a loving father and husband, and to finally come near to my point, he wasted a lot of time mucking around trying to satisfy his sequel-hungry publisher after the success of The Hobbit (and of The Lord of the Rings later). Which brings me to Mr. Bliss.

When I was very small my father would tell me bed-time stories of Murgatroyd the rabbit and Farmer MacGregor. I know now that he agonized over the creation of those stories. When I was a little older, my mother read all of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia to me at bed time. Lewis would perhaps be disappointed to learn that his books instilled no Christianity, although they did help interest me in pagan Classical mythology, and, for a time, gave me a tendency to speak to trees. After Narnia, my mother read through The Hobbit and maybe half of The Lord of the Rings before saying, in essence, “Read it yourself!”

I will be forever grateful to my parents for their herculean storytelling efforts during my childhood.

Those who know a little of Tolkien know that he spent a great deal of time telling stories to his children. A number of his posthumous volumes are those stories, formalized as submissions to George Allen & Unwin, his publisher, as potential follow ups to The Hobbit. Mr. Bliss is such a volume. Mr. Bliss was rejected by George Allen & Unwin due to the expense of publishing the many illustrations, and so, Tolkien cast about a little and decided to just start work on another story about Hobbits, almost certainly unaware that an epic had taken him over.

Mr. Bliss was finally published as a facsimile of Tolkien’s manuscript in 1982, almost ten years after Tolkien’s death. That edition is interesting from a scholarly point of view, but the author’s handwriting is often difficult to read and the illustrations are not always ideally placed.  When I first read the Mr. Bliss facsimile many years ago, my reaction was lukewarm.

But in 2011 a new edition was published in which the illustrations have been properly placed within a nicely typeset text, and the result is startling! Mr. Bliss, now that it has been artfully formatted, is an entirely charming children’s book which should be discovered by adults while they read it aloud and by laughing children hearing it and looking at Mr. Bliss’ tall green hat, yellow motorcar and unusual pet girabbit and enjoying the gentleman’s adventures in and around an unnamed English village. Certainly Tolkien’s illustrations are at times ham fisted, but they always have a remarkable fluidity and a strong sense of an England now gone, if it ever were.

I highly recommend this at last truly finished version of Mr. Bliss to parents of young children. It is a refreshing new Tolkien, and a story to be read aloud, with feeling, expression and playfulness.

And, consider: what if George Allen & Unwin could have afforded the cost of illustrations as World War II loomed? What if Mr. Bliss, not The Lord of the Rings, had been the follow up to The Hobbit? What a different world it might have been! And how fortunate we are to enjoy a world with both the dark, sweeping mythic vision of The Lord of the Rings and the sunny, silly joy of Mr. Bliss.

This latest edition of Mr. Bliss, with the 1982 facsimile reprinted at the back, is published by HarperCollins.