Quick Notes on “Romeo and Juliet” at the Citadel Theatre

I’ve been a little hard on The Citadel Theatre (and its audiences)  and Tom Woods in the past, but, I have to say, the current staging of Romeo and Juliet is a tremendous, thoughtful romp.  Sadly, there are only a few days left in its run — could one imagine it being held over?

Wood’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream two seasons ago was a pleasant enough treatment, a painless entry to Shakespeare for school kids and those wishing to avoid challenge.  It was comfortable.

Wood’s Romeo and Juliet also has a degree of comfort, but it is, thankfully, and in spite of the youth of the characters, a fully adult outing.  In the opening slow-motion melee of Capulet and Montague women and men, blood is drawn front and centre, by a dirk to the eye, no less.  Mercutio’s (Jamie Cavanagh) life’s blood oozes from a belly wound, Tybalt’s (Nick Abraham) face is beaten in, and Friar Lawrence (Jamie Williams) delivers his opening monologue on herbs from a very unusual position.  Wood has given an interesting subtext to the relationship between Tybalt and Lady Capulet (Mabelle Carvajal) – they got a thing going on – which perfectly emphasizes the youth of the Lady — she is roughly twenty-six as written.  There is  desperate clutching for life in deadly feud- and plague-ruled Verona.

The matinee show I saw featured Brendan McMurtry-Howlett and Shaina Silver-Baird, the “young Romeo and Juliet” – two pairs of actors alternate in the roles.  McMurtry-Howlett, all wiry and hopped up on youth and love with golden curls on top, put me in mind of young Brent Carver in the same role in 1976.  Silver-Baird, perhaps not everyone’s idea of Juliet, is a head-strong fire-plug, controlling her situation – and the stage – with an unexpected certainty.  In short, a teenage girl.  Any idea that these are two foolish, mooning, love-struck youth is immediately erased by Silver-Baird’s Juliet’s determination.  Indeed, because Wood has banished the Chorus from the opening, replacing him with a plainsong choir, Romeo and Juliet are not “star-crossed” on this stage. The sole cause of their tragedy is that Friar Lawrence’s letter did not reach Mantua.  We believe their love will last.

A technical note:  I was pleased, particularly after the over-amplified but spectacular Mary Poppins next door, that for Romeo and Juliet the Citadel set aside the microphones.  It was so good to hear the actors voices coming from where the actors actually stood, instead of them all being gathered in an unidentifiable place somewhere over my head.  Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but I’ve always felt that, given a space with appropriate acoustics, actors should use their talents and their actual voices to reach the audience.  It was gratifying to see this cast reminding us that whatever technical wonders are available, theatre is at its essential, an actor and an audience.  With just their voices, Tom Wood’s direction, and Shakespeare’s words, the cast from the Robbins Academy held us spellbound for three hours – no small feet in our 140 character world.

Romeo and Juliet will be at the Citadel Theatre on the MacLab stage until April 27.

Just for fun, when I got home, I rooted around and found my copy of the poster from the 1976 John Neville directed production starring Brent Carver and Nicky Guadagni:

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(and I tried to ignore Colin Maclean’s sexist comments on that 1976 production)

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A Personal View of Jacob Bronowski’s “The Ascent of Man”

Here the great age opens.  Physics becomes in those years the greatest collective work of science — no, more than that, the great collective work of art of the twentieth century.

J. Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, p. 330

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When I was twelve years old I watched a most remarkable television program.  This program did not so much change my life — I was twelve, just barely conscious of a life as something my own — as it set the primary intellectual course of my life.  My parents generously bought me the big book that was basically a transcript of the show.  I have treasured that book for forty years.

I’ve recently finished a reread of Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and I found it an exhilarating, inspiring experience again.  But the sweetness is tempered by a sad and tragic bitterness on which I will touch.  Bronowski’s gentle, wise voice confirms the reality of what I am always nostalgic for: a time when the “developed” world valued science, when evolution was not a battle ground, when pseudo-sciences like astrology were a joke or entertainment, like today’s reality television or Fox News.  I am always nostalgic for a time I remember when knowledge was something to be strived for through science, and belief was expected by all to be challenged.

I’ve mentioned to friends that I feel today as though at the moment I started studying the Middle Ages in 1980, the world around me began an intellectual rush backward to that very time.  This backward rush is exactly something Bronowski dreaded and perhaps expected:

Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts.  Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures.  You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for you while you yourself continue to live out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs.  That is really crucial today.  You can see it is pointless to advise people to learn differential equations, or to do a course in electronics or in computer programming.  And yet, fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not the commonplace of the schoolbooks, we shall not exist.  The commonplace of the schoolbooks of tomorrow is the adventure of today, and that is what we are engaged in.   p. 436-7

We sit now with eleven years left in the half-century Bronowski mentions.  Will the schoolbook commonplaces be those necessary to our existence?  I wonder.

If it were to be dropped by his own, Bronowski expected the torch to be lifted by another culture:

We are a scientific civilisation: that means, a civilisation in which knowledge and its integrity are crucial.  Science is only a Latin word for knowledge.  If we do not take the next step in the ascent of man, it will be taken by people elsewhere, in Africa, in China . . .  p. 437

When I look around the world today, I’m not sure the torch will be held high again any time soon, anywhere.

Science as Art

In Voltaire’s Bastards, John Ralston Saul cautions us all of the rise of the technocratic class, the Men of Reason who have come to be humanity’s actual rulers.  It may seem that Bronowski, in his celebration of the great discoveries of scientists, is promoting the sort of technocratic rule Saul asks us to struggle against. But, The Ascent of Man is not some sort of technocratic celebration of the rise of white coated Analytical Man.  Rather, Bronowski is emphatic that Science is nothing, cannot exist, except as engagement with humanity as a whole:

the aristocracy of the intellect is a belief which can only destroy the civilisation we know.  If we are anything, we must be a democracy of the intellect.  We must not perish by the distance between people and government, between people and power, by which Babylon and Egypt and Rome failed.  And that distance can only be conflated, can only be closed, if knowledge sits in the homes and heads of people with no ambition to control others, and not up in the isolated seats of power.  p. 435

And:

. . . the intellectual leadership of the twentieth century rests with scientists.  And that poses a grave problem, because science is also a source of power that walks close to government and that the state wants to harness.  But if science allows itself to go that way, the beliefs of the twentieth century will fall to pieces in cynicism.  We shall be left without belief, because no beliefs can be built up in this century that are not based on science as the recognition of the uniqueness of man, and a pride in his gifts and works.  It is not the business of science to inherit the earth, but to inherit the moral imagination; because without that man and beliefs and science will perish together.  p. 429-432

I can’t help but notice that today there has been a resurgence of belief based not on science, but on rejection of science, from anti-vaxers, to climate change deniers, to chem trailers and to all the various shapes and stripes of New Age philosophies, health plans, diets and conspiracy theories.  Bronowski warns us against such rejection:

It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers.  That is false, tragically false.  Look for yourself.  This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz.  This is where people were turned into numbers.  Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people.  And that was not done by gas.  It was done by arrogance.  It was done by dogma.  It was done by ignorance.  When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.  This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Science is a very human form of knowledge.  We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped.  Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal.  Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible.  In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken’.

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness.  We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.  We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act.  We have to touch people.  p. 374

Science is not absolute knowledge. In fact, Bronowski argues that the method of Science is the method of Art, indeed, in the epigram at the head of this post, that Science is Art, that Art is Science.

. . . We are aware that these pictures do not so much fix the face as explore it; that the artist is tracing the detail almost as if by touch; and that each line that is added strengthens the picture but never makes it final.  We accept that as the method of the artist.

But what physics has now done is to show that that is the only method to knowledge.  There is no absolute knowledge.  p. 353

As long as I can remember, I have felt no distinction between art and science, these two unnecessarily separated fields of human, endeavour, exploration and discovery.  Reading The Ascent of Man today is like tasting again the intellectual mother’s milk that fed the child that is the father of this man.

I’ve mentioned, probably too often, that as a child I discovered the poetry of Yeats in a book of science by Shklovskii and Sagan.  Just today I discovered that the BBC producer, Adrian Malone,  and one director, David Kennard, of The Ascent of Man a short time later produced Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.  Another piece of the puzzle of my own intellectual development fell into place.

The 1970s, the years of all but the first, childish part of my schooling, were years of Science as Art as Science and Art as Science as Art.  And they were years of hope.  Humans walked on the moon, space stations, Salyuts and Skylab, were in orbit, the U.S. and the Soviet Union had shaken hands in the Apollo-Soyuz docking adapter.  In my little world, I watched Residential School survivor Alex Janvier paint a magnificent mural in the government building across the street from my school.  In that same building I learned the rudiments of television production.  Paolo Soleri’s monumental, inspiring, and perhaps absurd Arcology: The City in the Image of Man was on the very full shelves of my High School Library.  When I was able to, I bought my own copy of Soleri’s book:

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Here, in this scientific/artistic ferment of hope for humanity, my intellect was formed.  Sometime later I discovered the work of Hugh Ferriss, a purveyor of human scientific/artistic hope of a previous generation to mine.

A few years before the revelation of The Ascent of Man I had watched Lord Clark’s Civilisation.  I’m watching it again now as I write.  Although I later studied and published on the very periods Clark discusses in his series, I don’t think it was then, and it certainly is not now, in any great way, inspiring.  Why is it that Clark’s Civilisation, while a brilliant presentation of culture, has so little to inspire the child I was and perhaps still am? And why is Bronowski’s program, in spite of a few flaws of prejudice or fact, such a powerful spur to my desire to learn in every waking minute?

My immediate explanation:

Bronowski provides a play-by-play of Humanity’s physical and cultural evolution, with the clear emphasis being on the fact that the life of Humanity, the Ascent of Man, is a never ending game.  Meanwhile, Clark gives a dry description of the footprints and blood stains in the sand after the players have gone to the dressing rooms in the completed stadium we call Civilisation.  The game that continues in Bronowski’s world is long ended in the world of Clark.  Perhaps it doesn’t help that Lord Sir Kenneth Clark is a stiff and stuffy Englishman of ossified privilege.  Dr. Jacob Bronowski, on the other hand, is a Polish Jewish survivor of the Holocaust who, in spite of the horrors of his century, retains a stunning, arresting hope in the continuing rise of human knowledge, wisdom, and morality.  Interestingly, the great art critic seems cold, to have little human sensitivity while the mathematician/scientist exudes wisdom, hope, generosity, warmth and, in all of the best ways, humanity.

And, diagnostically, Clark says in the last episode: “I know next to nothing about science. . . ”

Whither the Humanities?

There has been much soul-searching of late in the Academic Humanities about the supposed fading of the importance to society at large of the arts of living in a free society — the Liberal Arts.  “Where is the Niel DeGrasse Tyson of the Humanities?” is a question that was asked after the launch of the new, Tyson-hosted, version of Sagan’s Cosmos.  Well, if a previous generation’s experience is any indication, the Humanities’ Tyson today will be a Bronowski rather than a Clark, perhaps a scientist rather than a cultural scholar.  If the Humanities want to inspire they must tell the world what they drive Humanity toward, not just whence Humanity has come.

Bronowski shows us a glow of this future road.  But, I feel, with horror, that we seem to be heading down a dark turning he anticipated:

And I am infinitely saddened to find myself suddenly surrounded in the west by a sense of terrible loss of nerve, a retreat from knowledge into — into what? Into Zen Buddhism; into falsely profound questions about, Are we not really just animals at bottom; into extra-sensory perception and mystery.  They do not lie along the line of what we are now able to know if we devote ourselves to it.  An understanding of man himself.  We are nature’s unique experiment to make the rational intelligence prove itself sounder than the reflex.  Knowledge is our destiny.  Self-knowledge, at last bringing together the experience of the arts and the explanations of science, waits ahead of us.  p. 437

Knowledge, ever broadening but never complete, is our destiny, if we don’t lose our nerve.  If we lose our nerve, if we become complacent in our ignorance, or worse, in a feeling of absolute certainty, then we are lost to the rule the dictators, the autocrats and the technocrats who have concerns far different from the well-being of humanity.

Brownowski concludes The Ascent of Man with a behind-the-scenes note on the making of the television series.  On the morning of the day the first words of the series were to be filmed, a camera plane crashed.  Remarkably, the pilot, cameraman and sound technician emerged shaken but unhurt.  I will close with Bronowski’s words of hope for our continued progress into the future, despite the momentary set backs of ignorance, reactionarianism, or plane crashes:

…naturally the ominous event made a deep impression on me.  Here was I preparing to unfold the pageant of the past, and the present quietly put its hand through the printed page of history and said, ‘It is here. It is now.’ History is not events, but people.   And it is not just people remembering, it is people acting and living their past in the present.  History is the pilot’s instant act of decision, which crystalises all the knowledge, all the science, all that has been learned since man began.

We sat about in the camp for two days waiting for another plane.  And I said to the cameraman, kindly, though perhaps not tactfully, that he might prefer to have someone else take the shots that had to be filmed from the air.  He said, ‘I’ve thought of that.  I’m going to be afraid when I go up tomorrow, but I’m going to do the filming. It’s what I have to do.’

We are all afraid — for our confidences, for the future, for the world.  That is the nature of the human imagination.  Yet every man, every civilisation, has gone forward because of its engagement with what it has set itself to do.  The personal commitment of a man to his skill, the intellectual commitment and the emotional commitment working together as one, has made the Ascent of Man.  p. 438

#AStatueForAlex

I’ve known the story of Alex Wuttunee Decoteau for quite some time now. A Cree Survivor of one of Canada’s now infamous Residential Schools.  Son of one of Poundmaker’s Northwest Rebellion warriors.  A superb athlete.   Canada’s first Aboriginal police officer – a constable and later Sergeant in Edmonton’s early police force. An Olympian. That time he met King George V and received the royal pocket watch from the king’s own hand. And, finally, dying, shot down in the mud of Passchendaele just short of his thirtieth birthday.

I realize that Alex has been honoured by induction into the Edmonton and Alberta Sports Halls of Fame, that the Edmonton Police Service continually honours his memory, and that Edmonton has already memorialized him in the naming of the Decoteau walking trail in Aldergrove.

But. . .

In this Year of Reconciliation declared by Mayor Don Iveson at the final National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in this centenary year of the start of the war that killed so many so young, what could be a more appropriate gesture for our city than to erect a prominent monument – I suggest a statue in Churchill Square or in the plaza in front of City Hall – honouring a Residential School Survivor, an Olympian, Canada’s first aboriginal police officer, and a fallen war hero?  Each November we repeat the words “Lest We Forget” as we consider the Cenotaph and the Fallen it represents.  I think of the words of Justice Murray Sinclair as he opened the final day of the Edmonton TRC National Event: “Never Forget.”  What better way to mark Edmonton’s Year of Reconciliation than a monument to an inspiring survivor of the Residential Schools? An heroic survivor to remind us of the quiet heroism of all the survivors, and in memory of all the children who were taken.

When I had the idea of #AStatueForAlex a few nights ago, I did what any Edmontonian would do: I tweeted it!  I stuck Mayor Iveson’s and Councilor Oshry’s handles onto the tweet and was gratified by the positive response:

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But I fear Alex won’t get a statue if there isn’t a buzz generated.  If you think #AStatueForAlex is a good idea for our Year of Reconciliation, share the idea wherever you can: Twitter, Facebook, your own blog, the comments sections of news sites.  And emails, letters, and calls to city hall, the Edmonton Arts Council and anyone else you can think of.

And learn, and share, and celebrate the story of Alex Decoteau far and wide!

Update, July 16, 2014:  This afternoon I received a  Tweet from Councillor Oshry in which he told me he was bringing forward a motion to Council   instructing Administration, “in consultation with the Aboriginal Community and the Arts Council, to report to Community Services Committee describing options to identify how [the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission National Event] might be commemorated through a monument or public art piece.” 

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A short time later he tweeted that the motion had passed unanimously.

While, in the end, the monument or public art piece may not be #AStatueForAlex, the tremendously important thing is that the TRC, the National Event in Edmonton, and the Survivors seem almost certain to have a memorial in Edmonton.

Thank you Councillor Oshry for taking the lead on this matter, thank you Mayor Iveson for the support I know you have given the idea, and thank you Edmonton City Council for unanimously moving the vague idea of a monument further along toward becoming a reality.

Update, October 15, 2014: This morning a report was tabled before and approved by Edmonton City Council’s Community Services Committee concerning “Truth and Reconciliation National Event Commemoration”.   It’s good to read about the artists the City has been supporting and plans to support in the future. 

Things are moving along!

Update, November 26, 2014:  I was awfully slow to learn of this, but in September it was announced that a new park in Downtown Edmonton will be named for Alex Decoteau thanks to the efforts of the students at Patricia Heights School.  Fine news!

Update, February 1, 2016: It’s been a long journey with a whole of people working toward a fitting public memorial to Alex Decoteau but it looks like we’re almost to the end of the road. This morning, thanks to the good people at Art Rubicon, this call for “an artist or artist team to integrate a site-specific three dimensional artwork in Alex Decoteau Park” came across my virtual desk.   Happy day!

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