The Freewill Players’ Summer of Love

I make no bones about it: I love seeing Shakespeare outside. For me, the Freewill Shakespeare Festival is the peak of Edmonton’s rich and varied Festival Season (which season really lasts year round).  Always interesting, always fresh, always squirrel-challenged, the Freewill Players have, in my experience, always made the plays accessible and challenging to modern audiences without compromising the poetry and drama of Old Bill’s work.  A group of actors simply sitting in the Heritage Amphitheatre competently reading the plays aloud would be joy enough. But the Freewill Players consistently dig deep, reach high, and always pull out a sack of gems and a constellation of stars to toss to their happy audiences.

This year the Freewill Players have gone retro, which may seem an odd thing to say about the production of a couple of four-hundred year-old plays.  Billing it a “Summer of Love”, the promotional materials and merchandise for Freewill’s productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost and Romeo and Juliet are all a clear reference to the 1960s graphic design style of Peter Max and Heinz Edelmann’s work on The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film. The set for Love’s Labour’s Lost is marked by a London-style street sign reading “Academe Road”, a riff on Abbey Road. While the production of Romeo and Juliet is a little more traditional, apparently set pretty much in a timelessly Elizabethan Verona, Love’s Labour Lost‘ design and attitude is all the 60s of the Beatles, a bit of the Monkees, and a dash of Laugh-in.

And it works.

Romeo and Juliet has been shortened (as has Love’s Labour’s Lost) with careful judgement to fit the time constraints of Hawrelak Park’s 11 pm closing, but the result is not bad. The action moves quickly and falls nicely into two contrasting acts.  The first half is all bawdy and joyous boyish and girlish exploration and risk taking while in the second half “All,” as Capulet says, “is Death’s”.

Hunter Cardinal and (overachieving) Cayley Thomas make a charming and anxiously hormonal Romeo and Juliet. Jesse Gervais is finely eccentric and fascinatingly varied in the challenging roll of Mercutio, flitting between manly-man and mincingly gay three times per line. Louise Lambert nicely reprises her Nurse roll from Tom Wood’s Citadel production a few years ago, and Sheldon Elter as Benvolio turns in his usual sterling performance.  Belinda Cornish does a nice job of demonstrating that the conjugal love she promises Juliet will see blossom with Paris hasn’t quite fallen on rich soil in her own case.

A theme emphasized in both plays this year — and it is a theme well worth emphasizing — is the strength of the women, most concretely illustrated by casting Mary Hulbert as Escalus, the Prince of Verona, politically the most powerful character in Romeo and Juliet. But also in Love’s Labour’s Lost, which flirts at the beginning with being a new Beatles film with the four mop-top lads from Navarre, it is the women who dominate. In this case the eight principals, the King of Navarre (Nathan Cuckow) and his three lords (Gervais, Cardinal, and Neil Kuefler) and the Princess of France (Kristi Hansen) and her three ladies (Thomas, Cornish, and Lambert), are of roughly equal socio-political station, but it is the women who steer the men, it is the women who control the men, and, in the end, it is the women who impose the final resolution on the men.

As Romeo and Juliet do in their play, the men of Love’s Labour’s Lost move with haste and foolishness. Fortunately the result for them is not lethal: the women of France impose just a third of the original vow of celibacy while Romeo and Juliet’s crossed-stars (and parental feud) imposes death.

Freewill’s Summer of Love may seem to promise a whole lot of joy, and it delivers, but, walking out of the big tent into the wonderful park in the heart of Edmonton, it’s clear that the Players have seen themselves – and shown to us – the bitter with the sweet. Navarre and Verona are in a world with consequences. Yes, we laugh, we party, we huff some helium, and we love in Navarre and Verona, but we also fight, and wait, and hunger, and die. For all their Yellow Submarines and Queen Mabs, for all their inaccessible references and high poetry, for all their Worthies (with feet of clay), Romeo, Juliet, the King, the Princess and all the lords, ladies, merchants, and commoners are here.

They are us.

In a Summer of Love.

 

The Freewill Shakespeare Festival‘s Summer of Love continues in the Heritage Amphitheatre in Edmonton’s Hawrelak Park until July 17, 2016.

 

Seventy of My Favourite Books and Why You Shouldn’t Read Them

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The Internet seems cluttered with lists of books. Prescriptive lists of books. Thirty books every man should read by such and such an age. The one hundred best books ever. Twenty-seven must-read books about Medieval tapestries. Lists of various celebrities’ favourite books.

I hate those lists. To me “You should read” is a complete sentence and the only and most detailed imperative about reading necessary in polite society. No object is needed there. As soon as “this” or a book title is added, I turn off. One’s reading history is intensely personal. If you consider “you should read this because it had an important effect on me” to be a worthwhile recommendation, then aren’t you conforming more than a little? Aren’t you thinking at some level “I want to be just a little like the person recommending the book, I want to feel what they felt, I want to have their shape”?

I have been shaped by the thousands and thousands of things I have read over the last half century. You have been shaped by the things you have read. I have no interest in giving you a list of the books that have formed me and saying “these are Must-Read books!” any more than I have an interest in conforming to some Internet dweeb’s idea of the Thirty Books that Make a Real Man. I find book clubs a sort of interruption in my reading journey. I don’t generally want my reading choices made by others. I want my past and present reading to lead organically to my future reading. I don’t want a visitor from Porlock to interrupt my blissful journey to Xanadu.

I wish everyone felt that way.

As an exercise, perhaps in absurdity, and as a sort of illustration, I’ve made an annotated list of some of my favourite books. These are not Must-Read books. Some are not great books or maybe even good books. Most people would find many of them dull and in a few cases, completely unreadable. A good number are in “dead” languages. But they are books that helped make me the person I am today.

Please, if you take anything from this list, be inspired to follow your own unique, quirky, unashamedly self-guided trajectory through the magnificent, infinite Library of Human Feeling and Knowledge.

I have tried to limit myself to one book per author, but have not always succeeded. If I don’t mention a translator of some non-English books it’s because I can manage that language, often to my surprise. If I may impolitely suggest, the first duty of a serious reader is to learn another language. Regularly and repeatedly.

The List, in no particular order

1. Challenge of the Stars, Patrick Moore and David Hardy

Hardy’s space art in this book was my first inspiration to pick up a brush and a tube of paint. Perhaps enough said.

2. Intelligent Life in the Universe, I. S. Shklovskii and Carl Sagan. Russian translation by Paula Fern.

A book by Carl Sagan had to be on this list, and this odd Cold War collaboration had to be the one. This book revealed to me when I was about thirteen years old the beauty and wonder of the poetry of Yeats. And the book is also full of all sorts of beautiful and wondrous scientific space stuff!

3. The Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski

I have written at length about Bronowski’s masterpiece elsewhere, so, a link.

4. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the Tolkien/Gordon edition.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is perhaps the finest poem of winter in English, although its English is awfully difficult for most modern readers. Although available in many translations, nothing compares to the real thing.

5. The Exeter Book

The Exeter Book is the largest surviving collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry, a magnificent cross section of the types and qualities of poetry produced in the Old English period. The short poem modernly titled “The Wanderer” is recognized as one of the great achievements of World Literature, and the book is packed with gems both long and short, enough verse riddles to keep Bilbo and Gollum guessing for days, and, perhaps my favourite, a beautiful, melancholy, fragmented piece of poetry modernly titled “The Ruin”.

6. The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings is the single book that led me directly to study Old English poetry. And, the sustained epic vision in Tolkien’s works was such a refreshing tonic to C. S. Lewis’ annoying Narnia books!

7. The Road to Xanadu, John Livingston Lowes

The Road to Xanadu is a breathtaking piece of scholarship. In meticulous detail, Lowes researches and reconstructs Coleridge’s reading that was distilled into “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Lowes sources everything in the poems, down to individual words, exhibiting the poet as a great synthesizer, an arithmetician creating magical new and greater sums from startlingly disparate parts. A simply remarkable and artful piece of scholarship.

8. The Odyssey, Homer, Robert Fitzgerald’s translation

The Odyssey is so rich, and so earthy, and so totally human. Every reading is exhilarating.

9. Aeneidos, Liber Sextus, Virgil, edited by R. G. Austin

This favourite is actually a favourite physical object, my own copy of Austin’s edition of Book Six of the Aeneid. This is the book in which I first read epic poetry in Latin. This is the book in which I discovered Cumae and Lake Avernus, and the Golden Bough and the gates of horn and ivory. This is the book which caused me to shout “Cumae!” from the back of the van on the Italian highway when the Director asked “We’ve a free weekend coming up. Does anyone have anywhere they’d particularly like to see?” This book was absolutely vital in the making of present day me, but it would be absurd for me to say this is a Must-Read book for anyone other than 1981 me.

10. History of the Conquest of Mexico, William H. Prescott

Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico is a tour de force of historiography (as is his History of the Conquest of Peru). More than a century old, it remains a wonderful and eye-openingly informative understanding of the events that led to the fall of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire under the assault of the well-armed infantry of rebellious vassal city-states and a rag-tag few dozen vicious foreigners, veterans of the generations-long crusade against the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula.

11. Incidents of Travel in Central America, John Lloyd Stephens

Together with Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, this is an exciting travelogue of the first English-speaking traveller (with literary ability) to visit the ruins of Classic Maya cities. Catherwood’s illustrations are somewhat fanciful, but are sometimes remarkable in their reproduction of Maya inscriptions, which were unreadable at the time. When driving through Chiapas in the early 1990’s I often thought of Stephens’ writings and of Catherwood’s illustrations.

12. The Myth of the Eternal Return, Mircea Eliade, translated by Willard R. Trask

Eliade’s writings on the History of Religions influenced my thoughts immensely when I was younger. While I’ve come to realize that Eliade was a “creative” scholar and to be taken with a large grain of salt, I still find his ideas and inferences to be thought-provoking.

13. Guns, Germs, & Steel, Jared Diamond

A great popular synthesis of modern understandings of what, largely geographic, circumstances led to the European colonial dominance over Africa and the Americas.

14. Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter

Goedel, Escher, Bach is a simply exquisite piece of writing. I don’t know what more to write.

Hofstadter’s later book, Le ton bon de Marot, largely about translation and its challenges, is also a favourite of mine.

15. Paradise Lost, John Milton

Epic. In English. What’s not to like?

16. The Tempest, William Shakespeare

It might seem like a hard prospect, choosing a single favorite Shakespeare play, but really, it’s not for me. The Tempest is a tireless piece, whether it’s on stage at Freewill or in Christopher Plummer’s stunning Stratford performance, or Julie Taymor’s film with Helen Mirren, or Paul Mazursky’s brilliant modern adaptation with John Cassavetes. Simply tireless and of unplumbable depth. The Tempest is a play to be enjoyed and explored for a lifetime.

17. The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard

The Real Thing is so full of great Stoppard lines! Again, a play I never tire of.

18. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon

Another tour de force of Historiography. And Gibbon is a brilliant prose stylist.

19. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury

Mars the way it was supposed to be. Dying Martian civilization, square-jawed colonists from Earth, breathable atmosphere, canals. Science Fiction that concentrates on the Fiction.

20. Dune, Frank Herbert

The first book in this never-ending series is the best. Always re-readable.

21. Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

Peake, painter and poet as well as novelist, is a startling writer. His prose is poetry and intensely visual. The writing in Titus Groan is so beautiful that it’s a pure joy to read, however weird the characters, setting, and plot. Peake’s description early in the book of the Grey Scrubbers who clean the Great Kitchen of Castle Ghormenghast is beautiful, melancholy and brain-etching.

22. The Monk, Matthew Lewis

Brilliant Gothic terror! The Monk is simply gripping.

23. The Golem, Gustav Meyrink, translated by Mike Mitchell

Like The Monk, The Golem is a brilliant piece of fright writing, but more understated than The Monk. The Golem is one of the few books that has actually sent a shiver down my spine.

24. A High Wind in Jamaica, Richard Hughes

A children’s book for not faint-at-heart children. Real pirates, real kidnapping, real danger, and really strong drink! And real fun!

25. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

The moment when Marlow says “And this also, has been one of the dark places of the earth” forever changes one’s perspective on so many things.

26. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett

Not so much a favourite because it changed my opinion on anything, but that Dennett articulates things so well.

27. On The Origin Of Species, Charles Darwin

The first edition of On The Origin Of Species is a wonderful piece of clarity and all the exposition needed of what really is a totally obvious thing: descent with variation together with variable reproductive success inevitably produces evolution.

28. Voltaire’s Bastards, John Ralston Saul

Saul exposes our contemporary society as a system run by management consultants for whom management theory is everything and humanity is irrelevant. A terrifying dystopia we’ve come to accept unquestioningly.

29. Project Apollo: Mission to the Moon, Charles Coombs

This is the first library book that I wanted to own a copy of. My father generously ordered it from some bookstore in Downtown Sudbury, Ontario when I was about nine years old. My first Space Book.

30. The Gilgamesh Trilogy, Ludmilla Zeman

Ludmilla Zeman’s trilogy is simply beautiful. Zeman’s illustrations of her retelling for children of the Gilgamesh Epic are wonderfully evocative of a mythic time of great cities in a mysterious wilderness world.

31. Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

One of the funniest novels ever written.

32. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne

Even funnier than Tom Jones. And daringly experimental.

33. The Once and Future King, T. H. White

Here is where I first experienced the Arthurian tales. And White’s novel is grand and eccentric. When I read it as a boy it was a wonderful challenge and was so when I read it again as an adult.

34. English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Francis James Child, editor

The Child Ballads are a tremendous archive of folk song material collected from throughout England and Scotland in the 19th century while the traditions were still fully alive. Child presents multiple variants of most of the ballads as well as the vast scholarly apparatus so loved by the Victorians and me.

35. The Oresteia, Aeschylus, translated by Richmond Lattimore and David Grene

The raw, fundament of the Western dramatic tradition. Primal and stirring.

36. The Crazy Ladies of Pearl Street, Trevanian

I simply love the novels of Trevanian, one of the most overlooked English language novelists. A brilliant and versatile writer, in his final (maybe) novel, he lovingly recreates his childhood in Albany in the 1930s. Lovely, loving, sad, sweet, sunlit and hilarious.

37. Theogony, Hesiod, Richmond Lattimore’s translation

The raw beginnings of Western Literature, a rustic farmer on a mountainside calling on the Muses of true lies to tell about the still-close primeval world of the gods and goddesses.

38. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by F. N. Robinson

Chaucer’s voice is a joy, telling of very real and happily ordinary human beings finding laughter and even bliss in the gritty, smelly world of Medieval Europe. Chaucer’s English is fresh and his verse sings. It is impossible to tire of Chaucer.

39. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Sure Steinbeck writes with a sledgehammer, but it’s a beautifully mythic sledgehammer and in The Grapes of Wrath it hammers out social(ist) justice and hope with a vengeance.

40. The Latin translations of Rolfe Humphries

Rolfe Humphries’ translation of The Metamorphoses was my first meeting with Ovid, and, despite the severe look of Humphries in the author photo on the back, Rolfe was certainly a playful enough fellow to make over Ovid (and Martial and Juvenal and Virgil and Lucretius) into English verse, and poet enough to make that verse poetry. Almost never slavishly literal, Humphries’ translations are most often audacious recreations, what the old poets might have written if they’d been writing in America in the ’50s.

41. The Poems, Catullus, edited by Kenneth Quinn

Catullus is a treasure, never more so than when he’s translating Sappho. I got this book in the summer of ’83, the summer I was digging Roman ruins, and I translated into English some of Catullus’ Latin translations of Sappho’s Greek.

42. The Passionate Friends or Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island, H. G. Wells

I’m not sure that I really have a favourite Wells book. But The Passionate Friends is up there because of the moment in my life that I read it and Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island is attractive because it is a very odd novel. Of course, Wells was always reinventing himself. It’s sad that he is now remembered mainly for his youthful Science Fiction novels and not for his more mature work in a multitude of genres.

43. Selections from Five Roman Poets

This little kind of Victorian-looking school text was were I first read truly connected Latin poetry, so, how could it help be a favourite?

44. Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, 15th edition

And here is were I first read Old English. I well remember getting my texts in the summer before my sophomore year and thinking “I’ll get a head start!” I opened up Sweet’s to the first selection and, after a vast meadow of introductory matter in fine print, I saw this: “Her Cynewulf benam Sigebryht his rices ond Westseaxna wiotan for unryhtum daedum, buton Hamtunscire” and I thought “what have I gotten myself into?”

45. Wagner’s Ring, Robert Donington

I am not a musician, but Donington’s book made me feel like I deeply understood Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and that was quite a feeling.

46. Myth and Meaning, Claude Levi Straus

Isn’t it odd that a book by astrophysicists led me to the poetry of Yeats and a book by a French anthropologist led my to my almost religious reading of Scientific American from cover to cover each month? Strange, but true.

47. American Empire and the Fourth World, Anthony J. Hall

This is just a big, rich, eye-opening scholarly book about the history and future of the Americas.

48. I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, Crystal Zevon

This biography of the great Warren Zevon is fascinating. Crystal Zevon, Warren’s ex-wife, as well as writing a personal account of her late-husband’s life, managed to draw together reminiscences of those who knew him, both in the music industry and outside. The picture that emerges is of a brilliant musician and song-writer who had mental health issues, huge personality flaws, and problems with addiction, but remains lovable despite the warts and clay feet.

49. The Jeeves Books, P. G. Wodehouse

How could Wodehouse not be here?

50. Wonderful Life, Stephen J. Gould

Gould’s books always interested me. Wonderful Life opened my eyes to the idea that evolution is massively contingent on circumstance, and that rewinding the tape of life and letting it play again would not necessarily end with me sitting at my little computer listening to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Wonderful Life is a bit of an explanation mark to follow Darwin’s great theory: Evolution Is Aimless!

52. The Rebel Angels, Robertson Davies

This was my first encounter with Robertson Davies. The garlic press has stuck with me forever.

53. Norstrillia, Cordwainer Smith

The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith was a revelation to me as a teen. His world was so richly foreign compared to the stuff I’d been reading by Asimov and Clarke and Larry Niven. This was a Science Fiction growing in soil that was not Anglo-American, and it was wonderful.

54. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley

Frankenstein and Dracula first came to me as a pair of paperbacks bought in Hudson’s department store in Detroit when I was not much more than ten. . . .

55. Dracula, Bram Stoker

. . . Dracula and Frankenstein will always stand together in my mind.

56. Time Enough for Love, Robert Heinlein

Heinlein is a hard one to call a favourite as he writes uncomfortable and unfashionable things about pedophilic incest and economic and social systems easily mistaken for fascism (it’s actually Social Credit he’s talking about). But Heinlein has to be on this list because I’ve spent so much damn time reading (almost) everything he’s written.

57. If on a winter night a traveller, Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver

A fascinating experimental novel.

58. The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

I just really loved this book when I read it, although the age difference between the lovers at times in the novel was thought provoking and discomfiting.

59. Maya Cosmos, David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker

I had to but a Linda Schele book on the list because she was in the thick of the breakthroughs in decipherment of Maya glyphs, a subject fascinating to me from childhood.

56. Backlash, Susan Faludi

A sad prediction of what was just beginning at the time Faludi wrote, the conservative backlash against the advances made by feminists up to the eighties. I’m not sure that the backlash has been as successful as she dreaded, but certainly we still aren’t in the non-sexist world I had hoped we would have built by now.

57. The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf

Not so much an eye-opener for me, but definitely a confirmation of what my open eyes were seeing.

58. The Cheese and the Worms, Carlo Ginsberg, translated by John and Anne Tedeschi

I might have chosen Ginsberg’s Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, translated by Raymond Rosenthal, but The Cheese and the Worms was the first Ginsberg book I read, so let’s go with it. Ginsberg does this fascinating historiography by deeply examining a lives and thoughts of social outliers rather than of the traditional subjects of history, kings and generals. Marvelous stuff.

59. The Divine Comedy, Dante, translated by John Ciardi (for the felicity of the English) or by Charles S. Singleton (for the facing Italian)

No explanation should be needed.

60. Cantos, Ezra Pound

Pound’s Cantos had hung over me for decades since I read his translation of the Old English poem “The Seafarer” (the subject of my first academic publication). Finally I knuckled down and read the thing, mostly on a cruise ship off the coast of B. C. and Alaska, and it just felt good to finally know it.

61. Love Poems, Pablo Neruda

Everybody seems to rave about Neruda and I thought “Okay. Better read the fellow and see what the fuss is about. I found this pretty little volume with the Spanish on the left and English translation facing and soon realized I was reading the whole thing in Spanish, not realizing it had somehow become one of my languages. Neruda’s poetry is crushingly beautiful and earthy and beautifully simple and earthy. Just wonderful.

62. Collected Poems, Irving Layton

Speaking of earthy poetry. Layton’s is a perfect example of what Sir Maurice Bowra described as Prophetic Poetry. Interestingly, a few weeks ago, long after I first made the link between Layton’s poetry and Bowra’s lecture on Prophetic Poetry, I heard an old recording on CBC radio of Layton describing himself as a Prophet, and I did a little fist bump for myself.

63. The Nature of Paleolithic Art, R. Dale Guthrie

Not a well-known volume and probably not a well-accepted one, but I found Guthrie’s hypothesis about who actually made most European cave art (paleolithic teenage boys) to be compelling and his tentative first investigations (measuring the hands of people he knew) suggestive if not conclusive.

64. The Cyberiad, Stanislaw Lem, translated by Michael Kandel

In The Cyberiad, Lem anticipates so many of the issues being faced by Artificial Intelligence researchers it is remarkable. My reading of The Cyberiad in the late Seventies informed my understanding of so much of Star Trek: The Next Generation, of my readings of Hofstadter and Dennett (obviously), of my relationship to computer games, and of a particular philosophy course I took in the late eighties. The Cyberiad is pretty much constantly hovering in a corner of my waking mind.

65. The MLA Handbook, Joseph Gibaldi and Walter S. Achtert

This little book helped me survive the typing (yes, on a typewriter) of my Master’s thesis and of the manuscripts of all of my academic publications. Somewhat important.

66. A Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, Casey Miller and Kate Swift

And this book helped me learn that non-sexist writing is more creative and more intelligent than just plugging in the status quo. A marvelous book that should be more widely available and more widely referenced.

67. Lyrical Ballads, 1798 Edition, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

This little book contains so much that is so great, not least Wordsworth’s introduction. I treasure my copy.

68. Faust, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe. Walter Kaufman’s translation for the free flow and facing German, Stuart Atkins’ translation for rigid accuracy and completeness.

Goethe’s Faust is the rich and fertile soil on which so much of later literature grows. I just finished reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and, as much as everyone says an understanding of Stalinist history is what is needed to fully understand that book, I can’t imagine reading it without some familiarity with Faust.

69. Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke

So much more sensible and rational and, dare I say, Enlightened, than Tom Paine’s emotional defense of the Revolution in Rights of Man.

70. The Bible, including The Apocrypha, King James Version, preferably.

Okay, here’s the exception that proves the rule: This is a Must-Read book. If you haven’t read The Bible, you simply cannot fully understand Western Literature composed on a date with an A.D. or a C. E. after the year. This is not a religious opinion. The Bible is one of the foundational pieces of Western Literature. That is all.

There.

Some of my favourite books.

Now go out and create your own list, and your own individual, unique self.

It’s All Greek To Me

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The other day an interesting blog post about astronomical information in a lovely piece by the Ancient Greek poet Sappho came up in my twitter feed. After reading the translations in that post, I said to a friend, “I really should sit down and learn Greek so I can really read Sappho’s poetry. Catullus is at his best when he’s translating her.”  The next morning I sat down for a few hours with my old copy of C. A. E. Luschnig’s An Introduction to Ancient Greek, a long-ago gift from a friend who felt “Old Norse will have to wait!” as she wrote inside the cover.  I don’t think I’ve learned Old Norse yet.

That afternoon I ran to The Edmonton Bookstore, one of a few fine second-hand booksellers in town, hoping that in their collection of Loeb Classical Library books there would be a copy of Sappho’s poems. Sure I’d be able to find texts online, but a real book is always better.  Fortunately, there was one copy of Greek Lyric I: Sappho and Alcaeus on the shelf for me to grab and clutch to my book-loving heart.

In the evening I relaxed with my old Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon and the text of Sappho’s poem:

Δέδυκε μὲνἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληίαδες· μέσαι δὲ
νύκτες, παρὰ δ᾽ ἔρχετ᾽ ὤρα·
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

 

With an ease and rapidity which startled me, I had a scribbled (in green ink) English version of the beautiful poem in front of me:
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More clearly:

Together the Moon and Pleiades
have set. It’s midnight now.
The hours in bunches run away.
But I lie down alone.

I feel satisfied that the grouped, companionable departures of the heavenly bodies and of the hours contrasting Sappho’s lonely solitude have been captured in my translation.  I am not, however, satisfied with the translation of Δέδυκε, with its connotations of dedication to the gods, by the colourless “have set.” But, considering that just twelve hours before I was under the impression that I knew little Greek, I’m feeling pretty good!

I wonder now whether I actually do know Old Norse.

Thoughts on Charity Auctions

Recently I’ve involved myself in two charity auctions. I had the winning bids for three items in an online fundraiser for Northern Light Theatre, and I have donated a painting for an online auction organized by Edmonton artist Jay Bigam as a fundraiser for the Red Cross’ relief efforts for Fort McMurray.  These two online fundraising auctions got me thinking about a decision I made sometime ago: I make it my policy to not donate my art to charity auctions unless there is a minimum reserved bid. I made this decision after I learned that one of my paintings was sold at charity auction for less than the cost of the frame.  I found this to not only be personally insulting, but alsi insulting and disrespectful to the organization trying to raise money for its good works.

In the case of the Northern Light Theatre fundraiser, I went online to check it out because I’ve been a fan of the Company since its early days a generation ago.  I saw fifty dollar gift cards had been donated by three restaurants I’d be happy to feed my hunger at — The Blue Plate Diner, downtown, Under The High Wheel and The Next Act, both in my neighbourhood (Old Strathcona). I checked out what the bids were at.

Five Dollars.

All three of them had been offered five miserly dollars. Some schmuck had said (three times) “Fifty dollars of your food and drink is worth five bucks to me! And your theatre company? The same Five bucks!”

Screw that noise!

I bid fifty bucks each of them because Northern Light Theatre is worth at least hundred and fifty bucks to me and those restaurants deserve proper respect for supporting live theatre in our city.

In the case of the ongoing artists’ fundraiser for Fort Mac evacuees Jay was adamant from the outset that there would be artist-set minimum reserved bids. Once Jay and the Red Cross worked out the mechanics, and even though I’d already donated to the Red Cross’ Fort Mac fund, I without hesitation offered my Sunflower:
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We’ll see how it goes when bargain-hunting vultures are shut out.

Something else that really bugs me about all this is that crowd-funding campaigns have fundamentally the same model as charity auctions but with inflated reserved bids. Give ten bucks you get a doohickey worth a nickle. Give a hundred and you get a wotzit worth five.

And bragging rights.

Sad, but, since crowd-funding seems to be so much more attractive than charity, maybe charities should give up the charity auction idea and sacrifice a few percent on the kickstarter altar.

But, I’m going to claim my bragging rights:

I gave a hundred and fifty bucks to Northern Light Theatre to help keep Edmonton the insanely vibrant live-theatre place it is and I gave proper respect to three generous restaurants who help make Edmonton the crazy foody city it is.

Next time you see a charity auction, show some respect: bid the value or even more (t’s a fundraiser, not a firesale).

And then brag about it. You’ve earned the right.

You know what’s hard?

You know what’s hard? You know what is grinding down for the parent/guardian of an adult with intellectual disabilities and multiple medical problems? What is really hard is the stream of Good Samaritans wondering if they should help/intervene and who don’t actually hesitate to do so.  Don’t get me wrong — I love that Good Samaritans exist and I totally understand why they approach my daughter and I sometimes.  But I’d really like them to understand what’s going on, and I don’t usually have time to explain.

So, I’ll do that now.

Next time you’re at Stadium Station in Edmonton, for example, in the afternoon maybe, and you see that odd couple, the burly fifty-something guy, and the special needs girl who looks about 15 (but is actually pushing 23) — When you see them, go ahead and talk to the girl in baby talk, ask her if she’s okay. Go ahead and ask the guy in your best good cop voice if the girl has a regular doctor. Go ahead and diagnose her spitting up on the sidewalk as a symptom of her anxiety.  Go ahead and keep your worried eye on the two as they hurry to their vehicle and drive away.  And try to forgive the guy for being brusque, because:

The girl has a nasty auto-immune disease which makes her intestines bleed at times, and which also makes her umpteen specialists at the U of A Hospital very attentive to her care.  She also has a nasty summer cold and a urinary tract infection. She has a hair-trigger gag reflex: a single cough or sneeze can make her puke on the side walk, with or without anxiety.  One time she had a coughing bout on a rush hour LRT and the old guy managed to fish a grocery bag out of his omnipresent bag of supplies, catch her puke in it, and bustle them both off the train at the next station, deftly tying a knot in the bag and dropping it in a garbage can on the platform. I don’t suspect anyone on that crowded train realized what had happened.

The girl wears adult diapers because of urinary incontinence. The antibiotics for her current UTI have messed up her gut. At the moment you approach that odd couple, she has excrement in that diaper because she had a bathroom break at the Legislature five stops ago and she’s not so good at cleaning herself at the best of times and security guards and sheriffs tend to intervene when a fifty-something guy and an apparently fifteen year old girl go into a public washroom together, so she was on her own in the ladies’ room at the Legislature.

And, at that moment, you intervene, and she coughs and pukes. He’s simply trying to get his daughter to move with some haste, without tantrums, so that they can get home to the shower-head in the bathtub, the commercial-sized washing machine in the basement, and privacy, before the shit makes its way to her already bacteria-filled urinary tract.

Please forgive the guy for being brusque, and, please, don’t stop trying to help.  But also please try to understand that your intervention may be nothing more than an interruption of a procedure, a protocol if you will, that has been developed over two decades of damned challenging parenting.  Again, please continue to be a Good Samaritan: the world needs you.

But also please try to realize that you may be missing a whole lot of backstory when you step up to help.

Cayley Thomas’ “Weird Love”

It was with great anticipation that I bought Edmonton singer-songwriter Cayley Thomas’ first full-length album, Weird Love.  I had been impressed with her EP Ash Mountains a few years ago, although it seemed a little scattered, like Thomas was trying on different musical costumes, all of them a little retro, and all quite fetching.  Weird Love, while still devotedly retro, is much more focused, and more than a little addictive. The album is emphatically about Love, none of it actually terribly weird love. Here there is addictive love, aged love, teen love, bitter love, broken love, depressive love and sibling love. The overall tone is upbeat, but not unbroken by serious depth and hurt and poetry.  While not perfect, “Weird Love” is eminently listenable, and pretty addictive itself.

The Tracks

The album opens with a driving drum and bass soon joined by guitar and synth and finally by Thomas in an crisply aetherial haunting love song filled with marvellously fresh and strong imagery called “Clementine”. I’m still trying to figure out the end of the song. Somehow it seems like the band just isn’t sure of how to wind it all up musically, and I can’t help feeling a little let down after such a ripping performance.

“What If/I Wish”, with drug references and fortune tellers upstairs and dreams revisits psychedelia and time slips away. A bit of a Midnight Cowgirl vibe happening here.

The third track, “Sure is Nice”, sure is! Another love song, this one is everything good about the Poppy Family, GoGos, The Association.  This is a joyous, a little bubble-gummy, summer time single with hit potential. While “Clementine” has a greater lyrical depth, “Sure is Nice” is so catchy! But, again, a bit of wandering at the fade, but somehow with a late sixties feel, which is a positive.

In my notes while listening to the title track “Weird Love”, I began simply with “Wow!” “Weird Love” is love growing old and bitter, but yet more than a little sweet. The insight this young woman brings to a slowly evolving experience she’s not had time to have is quite remarkable. Again the retro feel in the arrangement. I was thinking for some reason of moments of Bowie circa 1969, “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud”, “Letter to Hermione”, etc.

After a jolly, wistful little do-da-dum piece called “Chirp Chirp”, it’s summer of about ’62 on the way to a beach party with “Hey You”. Professions of eternal love. Grease is the word, it’s a good word when Thomas is crooning “. . . till the end of time.”  And then, a “Commercial Break” — elevator music with a wink.

“I’ve Lost My Mind” is a twist: Juju era Siouxie and the Banshees with  a really fine vocalist.  Real-world depression pressed into a Goth depressive mold.

When you’re still in love but they’ve fallen out of love with you and into love with someone else . . .

“Heart in Two” deals with an all too real thing that could be horrible as a song but Thomas does this torchy blues thing that comes out sounding like an old standard you can almost remember hearing before, but you haven’t.

It’s love again in the ominously titled “Lines”, love of an obsessive unhealthiness, addiction, “Cocaine on Tuesday” and the repeated “Where do we go from here” and “Hope you don’t take it too far.” The closing crescendo and harshly cut off tone-that-goes-on-forever is a tremendous lead-in to . . .

“Alan Alexander”,an almost wordless paean, an ode, an elegy, a threnody, a celebration, and just perhaps, a letting go.

For some years I’ve been saying that Cayley Thomas is a person to watch, at first in Edmonton’s theatre scene, but later mostly for her music and voice.  With Weird Love I hope and expect that she’ll be opening more ears to her music, and more doors for her career.

Weird Love by Cayley Thomas is available for download and on cd and vinyl at Bandcamp.

 

“Wish”: Fine Performances in a Flawed Play

As thousands were fleeing their homes in Fort McMurray last night, I, more fortunate, sat down in the PCL Studio Theatre in Old Strathcona to experience Northern Light Theatre/Good Women Dance Collective’s co- production of Humphrey Bower’s Wish (based on Peter Goldsworthy’s novel of the same name). I won’t go deeply into the production – Jenna Marynowski has already done that in her usual expert way. I will get into some of the questions raised by Jenna but my take is perhaps a little different.

To be clear: Northern Light Theatre/Good Women Dance Collective’s co-production of Wish is beautiful. The performances by the two cast members are brilliant. As Jenna mentions in her review, lighting, sound design, everything, is wonderfully executed. The following is a review of the play-as-text not the play-as-performance.

I’ve not read Goldsworthy’s novel that is the basis of the play.  Although a few of my interests are consciousness, animal consciousness, legal issues surrounding animal rights, disabilities and parenting children with disabilities, languages, language learning, species boundaries . . . the list goes on — although I have these interests which are touched on by the play, I don’t think I’ll be running to read Goldsworthy’s novel. If the play is any indication, the novel is a didactic conflation of Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon” and Shaw’s Pygmalion with a gorilla playing Eliza and a trial for bestiality replacing the Ambassador’s garden party.  I don’t object to the lifting of plots: I have a habit of lifting structure from Homer or Aeschylus when I get around to writing creatively. Virgil, of course, lifted both the Odyssey and the Iliad when he slapped together the Aeneid.

No. What I am uncomfortable with about Wish is that the didacticism that has been imposed on structures borrowed from already didactic works has a sledgehammer clumsiness more baldly preachy even than anything Steinbeck produced at his height.  And it’s a sledge hammer that finally manages to hit no nail on the head. In Wish (the play) we are led by the hand through issues: disabled-as-outsider; disabled parenting; parenting the disabled; animal rights; species boundaries; animal consciousness; language; the nature of Nature; and so on.  Early on J. J. (Christopher Schultz) talks of Signing coming “naturally” to him and that water is his “natural” element. But, signing actually isolates him, and the ocean would quite indifferently drown him. “Natural” is not, to use the language of the play, a sign that is necessarily made with the “good hand”.  In the end, where does Wish leave us? Where we probably all should have been before we saw the play: in a world of shades of ethical grey. In a world in which simply living, however simply we live, has an impact on Nature. If you live in a black and white world, “Wish” may discomfit you. What starts out feeling like a wordy ad for PETA veganism becomes for a moment a poster for species-apartheid before resolving into : “The needs of the many sometimes outweigh the needs of the few except when they don’t — oh and, the individual counts for something. Most of the time. Maybe. And wishes, too.”

I might still have been able to accept and even enjoy the over-the-top but ultimately aimless didacticism of the play if not for my crashing inability to suspend my disbelief when it came to the character of Eliza, the gorilla.  This persistent disbelief has nothing to do with Ainsley Hillyard’s marvellous uncostumed performance. Remember “Elephant Man”? The stage play, not the film, in which the titular character’s deformities where portrayed by skill rather than prosthetics? This is the sort of skill Hillyard brings to the roll of Eliza, and her movements are convincingly gorilla-like. What I had trouble with was Eliza’s character as written. I simply could not imagine that a gorilla, no matter how isolated from peers, could develop into the too-human personality that the text gives her.  If Hillyard were portraying a Bonobo I might have had an easier time.

But, still.

I don’t feel I walked out of Wish with any clear answers or even any clear questions.  For a play which seems so clearly intended to teach, I can’t help but see that as a failing.

Wish is playing at the PCL Studio Theatre,  until May 7.Go see it for the marvellous performances and to support local live-theatre.

PS: I chuckled a bit at the doctor’s repeated correction of “monkey” to “ape” – a little bit of fun I have when talking to fluently anglo-franco billingual people is to ask them,

What’s French for “monkey”?

“Singe” they imediately reply.

What’s the word for “ape”?

Invariably they pause and visibly startle before saying with a mixture of amusement and perplexiry: “singe.”

Wish certainly gets right the power of language to affect thought and concept.