Today is the summer solstice, and what better way to celebrate than a song from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The song “Over Hill, Over Dale” comes early in the play, as the audience is introduced to the fairies’ world. I’d like to point out, the un-named fairy who sings it might be particularly relatable to creative types. How so?
On our creative days we may like to think ourselves’ that play’s Puck, “that shrewd and knavish sprite” capable of all kinds of life-shaping mischief with our words and creations; the Puck who gets the play’s ending speech where he represents as all effortless, dreaming creators to our audiences.
But Puck doesn’t sing today’s song.
Nope. The singer is just a fairy no-name. And, to be frank, this fairy is kind of a drudge. The song, delightful as it is—and meant to generate with word-pictures a wonderous world of nature’s magic in the audience’s mind—does this by a description of no-name fairy keeping their fay nose to the pixie grindstone. Dutiful, and busy, busy, busy.
Shakespeare has set no-name fairy’s job to be an exposition-character. After today’s scene-setting song, their dramatic task is to introduce Puck, through no-name recognizing the much better-known sprite and speechifying as Puck’s hype-man. After that, no-name leaves the play speaking lines about not wanting to be noticed.
Consolations? This Victorian artist made our no-name fairy better-looking than Puck (on the left.)
OK, so what’s in this for creatives?
We’re not Puck, at least not most of us, mostly all the time, effortlessly casting our thrall. Magic and delight take a lot of grunt work. There’s always one more cowslip that’s missed its pearl-hanging, that’s a few rubies short of the categorical number.
And if we do our work well enough, it often seems like nature—you know, “You’re so creative. I could never come up with all your ideas!” Well, creative people aren’t the ones who come up with ideas (those are imaginative people, only some of which are creative)—creative people are the people who make things.
Musically, I get to work out my naïve piano playing while aiming for a funky feel on this one. I hear there’s a Midsummer party in the wood outside of Athens. What time? Oh, Elizabethan. The player gadget is below. If you want to read along, the song is at the start of Act 2, Scene 1, and you can read it here.
You may have noticed fewer new pieces posted here over the past month. There are a variety of un-interesting reasons for that, but one cause is worth a post, even if it’s not representative of what you usually find here. Think of it as a “make up post” for the missing activity this July.
This month I traveled to Massachusetts with my family and some friends. My concerns with this project have lead me to cast some recent trips as literary pilgrimages. Since our expedition was a mixed-age group of five, that wasn’t all that we did of course, and many of my memories of this trip are more about fellowship with the rest of the travelers, and not just with the connections I sought with long-dead writers. But let me focus on the literary highlights of this trip today.
We stayed at the Parker House hotel, which was well situated and has a long history connected to the culture of the city. Operating since before the Civil War, it was the meeting site for the Saturday Club, where the region’s considerable 19th Century culture elite met. And for desert, the Boston Cream Pie was developed there too! The current hotel building doesn’t go back to those days, it dates to the 1920s, but since two of our party were 21st Century people, there was plenty of historic charm along with a good night’s sleep to be had there. Alas all that masonry or other infrastructure issues meant the WiFi service was at 1920s level too, so my blog activity was minimal during the trip.
My companion book for this trip was Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club. I was delighted to find our hotel and the still-standing (though it’s a Chipotle now) Ticknor and Fields publisher and bookstore building just down the street were locations used in the book. The book is ostensibly a mystery novel, but what it actually does is attempt to recreate post-Civil War Boston and Cambridge as it would have been experienced by the prominent local poets of the time. Particularly in the opening chapters this requires the reader to struggle with their 21st Century sensibilities. Pearl uses excerpts from these authors’ books and letters repurposed as spoken dialog to convey that time’s sensibilities, and I found that slow going. Not only am I a 20th Century Modern in my own literary sensibilities, but I also believe that their ordinary conversational speech would not be the same as those fountain pen strokes. In the course of the book, Pearl violates every one of Elmore Leonard’s rules for good writing—though they were only the rules that worked for Leonard, and even he admits exceptions. The plot too is somewhat creaky, though that’s a common fault for mysteries.
Am I not tempting you to read this book? On the contrary, I eventually found it captivating. As we moved about Boston and Cambridge, and as I read more of the authors it references, the level of historical research Pearl put into this became apparent. I now want to try his current book, a sequel, that is apparently set among the Pre-Raphaelites, to see if his magic works when you aren’t walking around in the characters’ footsteps.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s oh so modern standing desk. The small statue on top? Goethe.
Pearl’s book is largely responsible for our visit to Longfellow’s house in Cambridge, and for me taking the time to check out Longfellow’s now unfashionable work. We walked through the room there where Longfellow’s beloved wife was sealing envelopes containing locks of their children’s hair with help from her daughters one summer’s day when the sealing wax melting candle caught her dress on fire. The room where Longfellow rushed in and tried to smother the fire engulfing his wife with a rug and his body. He suffered burns from that fire, painful and life-scaring (that bushy beard wasn’t just a fashionable affectation), but not fatal as were the ones that took his wife’s life by the next day. The room he rushed from? His writing room, with it’s nowadays in-fashion standing desk (a tactic he shared with Hemmingway), a room decorated with carved Goethe, Dante, and Shakespeare, all looking at him, asking him to “Let us, then, be up and doing.” I now read his work and think of what it does not say in what it does say.
When told we planned to go to Provincetown, someone asked my wife “You know how wild it is don’t you?” Well, yes, it’s extraordinarily crowded on a summer day with people from other New England places looking for a change of scene, and gayer than a Pride parade. The main street is full of establishments that cater to the not-quite-needs of no-purpose-but-the-change visitors, and the milling throngs are deep in thought of how good a time they are having verses their expectations.
We got off the ferry and had a tasty early lunch of hip-casual fusion food in a place with a patio covered in sand that had a view of the beach, and past that to the ocean that which can’t be bothered with time, which is always visiting, and therefore isn’t a visitor.
We then picked up rental bicycles, and after reminding one brave member of our expedition that riding a bicycle is, well, like riding a bicycle, we took off on a five-mile jaunt up to the highest point on this area of the cape. There’s a widow’s-walk porch atop the visitor’s center at this high point, full of fresh breezes and a view of that ocean again, beside which lie grassy sand dunes that meet that wind with ardent curvatures. I’ve read that the higher water levels and fiercer storms of our human-heated climate have damaged these features, but to us, visitors, it still read as wild and timeless.
After a good long meditation with wind and outlooks, I was reminded of my reason for going to Provincetown, and we set back on bicycles for the town again too look for the house once owned by Susan Glaspell and her husband George Cram Cook. My paternal grandparents are from the same south-eastern Iowa location that Cook and Glaspell grew up in, and though as far as I know they had no direct participation in The Davenport Group, Glaspell was a cousin of my grandmother.
Back in 1915, Provincetown was what was called an artist’s colony. That term is now somewhat outdated I think, but the concept is timeless. Artists, writers, musicians, and the like look for somewhere unfashionable, perhaps a bit run-down, with cheap rents to reduce their overhead while they work on things that won’t bring in a steady cash-flow. These artists naturally knock into each other, igniting collaborations and idea sharing. Often those unfashionable areas gather value, and before you can invent the term gentrification, the upmarket consumers, who though they might bring disposable cash to spend on art, bid up the rents and crowd out all but the most financially successful creators of art.
But all that hadn’t happened yet. Cook and Glaspell settled in a house on the main street, the street we now find full of folks looking for a good day or weekend, walking and driving fender to footsteps so thickly that it was hard to even walk our bikes up to the address. Back in 1915 the couple had redecorated the house’s interior with bright colors and Charles Demuth had sculpted them a sundial for the yard held skyward by a nude statue of my cousin Susan.
Here’s where things get uniquely interesting back in 1915. What could this little group of artists do while waiting for the paint to dry, or while you waited to afford a replacement for the worn ribbon in your typewriter? They decided to put on plays. Whose plays? Well, they were writers, weren’t they? Let’s write them. A stage? Look, we have artists, they should at least be able to wrangle some lumber into a set. They were given the lower floor of a former fish house that was situated on the end of a dock out over the timeless ocean to use.
What did they know and didn’t know, and did that matter? Theater in the United States was a commercial enterprise, exclusively that. This was before broadcasting, and a huge enterprise existed, with theater chains from Broadway to the small cities across the country to supply those things that could make money by presenting live entertainment. In one way, theater was tremendously broad, but it was also predicated on presenting what was going to work for that big audience. In poetry, music, and art, the Modernists were experimenting, trying things that weren’t supposed to work to see if, in fact, they could. Driven by Cook and organized by Glaspell, this little cadre of artists began trying to do that with drama, but I doubt they had any idea of what would happen when they tried this, way out on the Cape, with at first only their friends in the audience.
A disheveled man who shared a rented room in the town, down on his heals and with an already well-established reputation for alcoholism claimed he had a bunch of plays in his trunk. “Trunk plays” is theatrical lingo for old work that might be revived if a need arises, but this was an actual sea trunk he was hauling around with him, stuffed with unproduced work. In an artists colony, many writers would claim they had good stuff already written, just waiting for the world to discover, but then as now, some of this would be an empty boast useful to get someone to pay for the next round.
It fell to Susan Glaspell to arrange an informal table reading of a play from that trunk. Worth a chance, since the new company was short of material and game for anything.
Remember it’s 1915. Europe had Ibsen and Strindberg, sure. The Abbey Theater in Dublin had started a few years before. Some around the table would be well-travelled and would even know their work. But this is America, and this was a hanger-on in a little beach town artists’ colony. The author with the trunk was too shy to read his own play, someone else was deputized, and the author sat in another room as the reading commenced. The guy’s name was Eugene O’Neill, and the play, Bound for Cardiff.
Glaspell wrote about this more than a decade later, but she recalls that right away they knew they had something. Bound for Cardiff, a play set on a tramp steamer, was performed in their makeshift playhouse at the end of a pier that year. The sound of waves, wind and gulls, the murk of fog and evening chill did not have to be added with theatrical tricks. The smell of the sea wafted up through the cracks in the dock floorboards.
The Provincetown Playhouse had its first star playwright, and Modernist American drama had its starting point. And in Glaspell and Cook, they had the organizers who could keep the artistic cats herded and pick up new strays. Within a year Glaspell, who had co-written the first play the Playhouse had produced, wrote Trifles, a seminal work of Feminist drama.
I believe this remaining sign is from a later theater, not the rustic fish-house. However when I was taking this picture a charming older lady walked up and asked if we knew what it meant, and was pleased and surprised that we knew about Susan Glaspell and the original Provincetown Playhouse.
That weathered makeshift theater building on the end of the dock could never have timelessness, though it apparently stood for some years after this. Cook and Glaspell took their organization to Greenwich Village and continued with seasons there as the Provincetown Playhouse for the next decade. There’s more to this story, but I bring the curtain down by noting that while scanning a book of plays the Provincetown Playhouse produced in the towns wonderful small library, I saw that two poets from this month, William Carlos Williams and Mina Loy, once performed on stage in a two character play there.
This was my prime target for this trip, as the Parlando Project has lead me deeper into not understanding Emily Dickinson, which I’m still finding an interesting place to be. Emily Dickinson spent almost all of her life in Amherst, much of it living in her family’s house. Not being a Massachusetts native I had no idea where Amherst was, or any sense of what I’d find. My first surprise was how rural the region seems to be. We entered into the town on a winding two lane road that reminds me of those paved highways that followed what were once wagon rutted dirt roads and before that indigenous footprints.
The Dickinson Homestead. Emily’s front window is the one on top floor left.
The two neighboring houses that make up the Dickinson site are imposing as you pull up to them, reminding you of her family’s prominence in the town. Early on in our tour I learned that the present lot is actually smaller than the holdings in Emily’s time. Across the road running past the house’s front door and under the sight of Emily’s room’s window, the Dickinsons had a hayfield that they cultivated. And the garden that Emily tended, the accomplishment that she was most recognized for by her peers? It was much larger in size and scope than I had imagined, though only a conventional, more modern, grass lawn grows there now. There were flowers, though not in an organized English garden sense, but also a large vegetable garden used to feed the household and a remarkable orchard which the guide told us included fig trees—trees way outside the zone that should survive New England winters due to some ingenious horticultural tricks. Although they were Puritan stock who thought household servants would be a stain on a family’s industriousness, the Dickinsons did hire some garden and field help due to the size of the holdings. None-the-less it was the household’s women who managed the gardens, first Emily’s mother and then Emily herself.
Not only the grounds, but the house’s interior has been redone and revised since her lifetime, and our guide was scrupulous in describing what parts reflected the original arrangements. Emily’s bedroom, where she did much of her writing, and where she stored the hand-made booklets that became the prime source of her ground-breaking poetry, has been recreated in considerable detail however. It’s a bright room in the daytime, and the table by the window where she wrote and revised at night, has a whale-oil lamp that would have been a luxury in her time, but must have facilitated her incredible productivity during the 1860s.
The biggest surprise was the second house, built for Emily’s brother and his new wife next door at the behest of Dickinson’s father. That sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, should not be overlooked as a factor in Emily Dickinson’s genius. They had a close friendship from the time Emily’s brother started courting her, and like Emily, Susan was unusually well educated for a woman of her time and place. Besides emotional bonds deep enough to cause modern speculation about a sublimated or overt lesbian relationship, Emily seems to have used Susan as one of her trusted readers to give her feedback on her revolutionary poetry. For a woman so far out on her own avant garde as Emily Dickinson was in the middle of the 19th Century, Susan may have been indispensable.
This second house, “The Evergreens” remained more or less as it was in the late 19th century, and to a large part has not been restored. It’s spooky, you feel almost like you’ve broken into an abandoned house with wear and lack of maintenance left intact. That feeling is even stronger when the tour takes you to the floor where the bedroom of Gib, Susan Gilbert Dickinson’s youngest child was located. In 1883, at age 8, Gib died of typhoid. Afterward the room was locked and kept closed by his distraught mother. Decades later, when the house was finally turned over to the group that now conserves the site, the room still contained a small boy’s toys and his clothes still neatly tucked away in the dresser, some of which are now tenderly displayed as you walk past the door.
I could speak of more, but those were the literary high points of my trip. I hope to return with normal service in August, combining various kinds of original music with various words (mostly poetry). To tide you over here’s the most popular Emily Dickinson audio piece with listeners here so far, “We Become Accustomed to the Dark.” Use the player gadget below to hear it.
Last night I saw the London production of “The Girl from the North Country.” The play’s production illustrates well how context can change a work of art.
I traveled 4,000 miles to see a play in London written by an Irishman integrating work by a Jewish iron-ranger with a British cast portraying a multi-racial rooming house in what was once Minnesota’s second largest city in the 1930s. The Irish playwright is Conor McPherson and the integrated work was 20-some songs by Bob Dylan.
How much went wrong in such an enterprise? I suppose plenty. I could see seams, but it seamed not to matter much. The core idea, of placing Dylan’s songs in the context of the 1930s worked well. Songs you believed needed to be set in the beatnik early 60s or the cultural turmoil of the around 10 years we don’t name as a decade after that, or against the Reagan/Thatcher or Christian fundamentalist revival and so on, lived inside different lives anachronistically.
Is it a Dylan musical? Not really. Minutes taken out of context could look like that somewhat new form, the Jukebox Musical, but the dramatic material is darker and more substantial than the kind of utilitarian connective material in a Jukebox Musical’s book. This is play with music, not music connected by play. The songs are all sung by the actors, and the musicians are all on stage, sometimes mingling in tableau. In one brilliant little piece of business, a drum set placed upstage has various actors in the cast sitting at it and banging out simple but effective Basement Tapes backing.
In the best moments, the songs (or portions of songs, few are sung in anything close to their entirety) function like an ancient Greek chorus, or at least as I read those classic Greek plays in English translation. The play (or book if you must) reminded me of Eugene O’Neill, someone I have not read or seen in performance in decades. Poetic dialog was uttered often, but character context kept this from being overly artificial (it’s a very unusual cast of characters).
The parts are well sung, and the all-acoustic band with period-correct instruments does well. Same with the acting, which ranged from excellent to good, in a performance that demands a lot from it’s cast. As an evening of theater my wife and I thought it was transcendent, as theater should be. At the end of the performance, about a third of the audience jumped up in standing ovation, followed slowly by another portion, perhaps a third again. As we walked out we heard the reaction of some of that sitting third, disappointed at what has been a very well-reviewed production. I have no idea what the London-usual is for ovations, but in the Twin Cities, everyone stands almost all the time.
My wife doubts it will ever have a U.S. production. She thinks the material is too dark to appeal to audiences seeking uplift for their expensive theater tickets. I’d add that the play’s plot is very indirect with lots and lots of dead ends and shaggy dog story elements. If one is open to that (as I am) this doesn’t hurt anything, but some will miss the comfort of standard story through-lines. By chance I saw “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” on the plane trip over, and its Irish screenwriter, Martin McDonagh, also setting his story in America, has a similar shaggy storyline, and asks for similar emotional commitment for unexpected sharp plot turns. McDonagh’s screenplay however, treats most of its characters, most of the time, as morons. This is not a metaphorical epithet. I found it puzzling and ultimately disrespectful for no good effect that so many in “Three Billboards” were played as being so dumb.
By contrast, in “Girl from the North Country” McPherson has two characters who frankly have mental disabilities, and yet even they are offered more discernment and respect from their author creator in his play.
You do not have to be a Dylan fan to enjoy this play, but you do have to accept a tale that starts with all in trouble and finishes with things worse for almost all, and with a singing of “Forever Young” that could cause you to never hear the song the same way again.
Actual storefront in Hampstead. A sour joke:
vaccination against consumption was not available to apothecary/surgeon John Keats
Today we paired my wife’s love of nature with my love of Keats by visiting the Keats House near Hampstead Heath. Keats House is the duplex that was Keats last rental home, and the place where he wrote many of his best poems. There are few real Keats artifacts, but the house contains some of them and replicas of others. Seeing Keats marked-up Milton books, covered with underlined passages and marginalia in Keats own cramped hand was one highlight. I’m no expert on early 19th Century English living standards, but the living quarters seemed surprisingly middle class adjusted for the time considering what I knew of Keats struggles with money.
My wife caught a break in the grey gloom and rain showers to spend some time roaming the heath while I nursed a cup of tea and started some blog posts and people watching. I have no Bob Dylan to share today, but here’s a version of John Keats “In the Drear-Nighted December” performed by the LYL Band.
As we near 170 audio pieces posted here, we now get our second set of Shakespeare’s words, but instead of one of his sonnets, here’s a short scene from one of his plays (Twelfth Night) which, by his design, includes a song.
The play’s title indicates it was an occasional piece for an English holiday that takes place on the 12th day after Christmas. I read that the traditional English Twelfth Night partakes of various “floating” winter/winter solstice traditions, some dating back to Roman Saturnalia, with much party-play acting of role-reversals, selections of short-term random royalty, eating, drinking, and song.
Here in modern commercial America, the extending of Christmas is via a prelude, with ever extended shopping days before the holiday; but in the past, Christmas was instead broadened after the December 25th date, with the “Twelfth Night” being the end of the “12 Days of Christmas”—yes, those same 12 days the famous listing song counts off. Given the dreary length of winter in northern climes, the holiday season was sometimes extended even further to February 2nd, Candlemas.
And it was on Candlemas, 416 years ago that Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed. The play has a complex series of plots, but the one central to today’s audio piece is that of a young woman, Viola, who’s been shipwrecked in a foreign land, has taken to dressing as a man, Cesario; and while still disguised and cross-dressing, she has fallen in love with Orsino, an older Duke of the foreign land. Orsino is sad because he’s in love with Olivia, a local lady, who refuses his attentions. Only one thing keeps Orsino going in his melancholy: music.
As we enter into the play with today’s audio piece, the “meta” gets laid on thick. Orsino, though unlucky in love himself, seeks to give the “young man” Cesario advice in love. And Cesario (infatuated Viola in disguise as a young man) tolerates this mansplaining in hope that Orsino might someday see something in her/him. And in Shakespeare’s time the young woman passing as a young man would have been played by—well, a young man passing for a woman. To simplify things, I read both actors’ parts myself in the audio piece.
As the scene ends, Orsino asks for an “old song” to cheer him up.
The song Orsino requests “Come, Come Away Death” is so dour I wonder if Shakespeare is making more comedy against the excess of melancholy and the foolish suffering of unrequited love. It’s a cheery little ditty about refused love causing or requiring death, and the spurned lover wishing only that his grave be unknown so that there’s no chance his unresponsive sweetie will ever hypocritically mourn there.
Representative lyrics: “On my black coffin, let there be strown./Not a friend, not a friend greet/My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown.” If Judas Priest had recorded this, it certainly would have been brought up in the 1990’s trial where the heavy metal band was accused of driving listeners to suicide.
But, after all, Twelfth Night is a comedy. No spoilers here, but despite multiple love triangles and more disguises and misunderstandings, fate is kind to multiple sets of lovers, something we can all wish for lovers this upcoming year.
Melancholy Duke Orsino bids Feste to Kick Out the Jams while Viola/Cesario ponders gender roles
Since Orsino in the play’s text asks for “Come, Come Away Death” to be sung, we know it was indeed sung with music in Shakespeare’s time, and there are several extant settings of it. The ones I’ve heard are in the Elizabethan style, usually for a high, plaintive tenor—and even when Elvis Costello sang it, it was in that manner. I went counter to this, taking a more rock stance, allowing the singer to mix some anger into his self-pity. To hear that, use the player below.
Monday night here in Minnesota it snowed. As I took my pre-teen son to school in the morning, he looked at the inch of fresh snow on the spring ground and said “Mother Nature is drunk. Shut her down!”
I rode my winter bike to breakfast that morning, and the trees overhanging the street were shedding overnight ice chunks that their budding branches were rejecting in the morning. As this shrugging hail fell on my ski helmet, it bounced off with a “ping!” like marbles or ping pong balls, and popped onto the icy street like broken ornaments. A few hours later, in the late afternoon, I rode again to the grocery store in considerable sunlight. The streets were dry and I was in shorts and a T shirt.
Plenty of patio seating available for Tuesday breakfast
Minnesotans have a well-worn phrase for our edition of the book of nature. It’s not a hand-bound collection of poems like our New Englander Emily Dickinson’s, but a play script. “The Theater of the Seasons” we call it. Famously, we try to hide emotions here, but we sure do enjoy a little drama with our weather forecasts, keeping an eye peeled for news of storms that can kill or injure you. Sitting in the upper Midwest we can receive weather sweeping up from the Gulf of Mexico or dropping down from the Northwest Territories. So, particularly in Spring and Fall, the Theater of the Seasons plays in repertory here in Minnesota.
Today’s audio piece is short, less than 2 minutes long, and it’s called“Theater of the Seasons,” expanding on that phrase a bit. I think you’ll enjoy it. The player gadget appears at the end of the post, as usual.
As part of this blog’s participation in National Poetry Month, we’re trying to provide even more audio pieces like this that you can stream. If you know someone who might enjoy words combined with music like this, why not take this month to let them know about us and our Parlando Project, or share this or another favorite on your own blog or chosen social media site.