Here’s a song about springtime and wonderous music. The author of the words is William Shakespeare, and it was written to be sung* as part of a play, an art that invites instant appreciation of itself simultaneously by a crowd and a group of people who present it. To merely read a play is like looking over the score of an orchestral work. If you are musically literate you may appreciate the ingenuity of the notes and musical parts, but it’s only a map or tool guiding musicians to the creation of the actual, momentary, and simultaneous thing.**
Stuck in the melting ice/snow, a tiny stick hosts some March fungi trumpeting spring! photo by Heidi Randen
So, as we await the onset of spring and its ancient and age-tested paradox of everything fresh and new, let us return to another warm day that was once fresh and new. It’s 1613, and we’re in London where there’s a new Shakespeare play opening at the Globe Theater, that wooden O that has made his career, the entertainment center that the Bard himself is part owner and begetter of.
Yes, Shakespeare at this time was an established force in English entertainment — but this play has a tough balancing act to perform. The new piece is entitled Henry VIII, or All is True” and unlike Shakespeare’s older history plays, this one deals with events within the childhood memory of the oldest inhabitants of London. The time Henry VIII, or All is True is set in is no more past than the first season of The Crown on TV is today. The theater and his company, The Kings Men, exist partly on the support and permission of the royal family.
The Globe is an entertainment business. Of course, Shakespeare uses his prodigious artistic talents as a draw for this enterprise, and much has been made about how Shakespeare used words uttered by actors alone to do what modern movies and TV shows spend a small nation’s budget worth of money to make with computers and craftspeople now—but the Globe company is not beneath practical special effects to boost the spectacle.
Near the end of Act 1 of the play, there’s a scene where Henry VIII enters with a celebratory cannonade to announce his arrival. If we were there, in that simultaneous artistic moment in 1613, beneath the bang and above us, some sparks from the cannonade equipment (located off-stage near the thatched roof attic of the theater) set the roof afire. For a short time, the play continues until the fire lapped around that wooden O*** and interrupted that moment before the play would come to its third act where today’s song would have been performed.
So, let us leave the simultaneousness of 1613, and ask about what context today’s piece would have been presented in if they had gotten to the third act. At the end of Act 2, Queen Catherine of Aragon has just begged Henry VIII and the play’s chief villain Cardinal Wolsey to not divorce and cast her out. As the thirdAct would have begun (if that theater fire hadn’t broken out) she asks a servant — who in what seems to be musical theater logic, is also a skilled lutenist who has her instrument at hand — “Take thy lute, wench. My soul grows sad with troubles. Sing, and disperse ’em if thou canst.”
In the course of the play, the song doesn’t work. At the end of the song, Wolsey appears to further seal Catherine’s fate.
Simplified map, not the thing itself: the Esus4 riff is repeated twice, and I think I played a CMajor7 over the final “die”
Taken out of this context today’s lyric may seem like a simple song in praise of music — one that references the mythological character of Orpheus, who the Greeks held as the first and finest lyre player, and one whose music was so powerful that it was said to cause trees to travel to be nearer to his music.**** The poem includes more examples of this most well-known power of the marvelous musician Orpheus, but even as the first section ends there’s a subtle undercurrent introduced. Orpheus’ song can control nature the poem says, double-stating a claim that he has “sprung…spring” — but there’s some fine print, or rather a promise is made that we know nothing can fully deliver: it’s a “lasting spring.”
We who sit today in the North on the verge of spring know spring will come. We also know it will go. There’s no such thing as a lasting spring, or a never-ending song. Shakespeare’s new play can start, we can all watch as it occurs before us, but in an instant we might be hot-pantsing it out of the moment and dowsing it with ale. We can be a faithful lover and be denied.
I may be misreading, but the end of the poem seems to add further ambiguity. The servant singing Shakespeare’s song to the soon to be deposed queen says music can kill care and grief, but the sentence continues into the next and final line of the poem: “Fall asleep, or hearing, die.” Is care and grief killed, or is it just beguiled and sleeping for the length of the song? Is the listener to the song — the other hearer besides care and grief — distracted only for a time, for a moment of spring, as one asleep? And then the song ends on that most falling of notes, the word “die.”
Shakespeare’s play can have cannons. And then it can have little 12-line songs.
Today’s song performance has bass and acoustic guitar, organic instruments that have known trees, and then one of my favorite fakeries: the Mellotron. Long time readers here will know my fondness for the Mellotron, a primitive yet overly complicated approximation of orchestral instruments that was used around 50 years or so ago to suggest a bigger recording budget for certain vinyl records. It’s a failed approximation of the things it suggests, but there’s a tragic richness to that failure for some. To hear my performance of “Orpheus with his lute made trees” you can use either this highlighted hyperlink to play it, or if your blog reader favors us with the appearance of the player gadget below, you can fire it off with that.
*Alas, the music to which the songs in the plays were sung during Shakespeare’s time is lost, though today’s lyric has been set to music by a number of composers.
**As we approach a year into our current pandemic, doesn’t this art, the art of live performance in one crowded place, seem even more strange and marvelous?
***Art and time passed aside; you may wonder: three thousand people in a packed wooden theater with at most two exits. How many died? Apparently, no one. Eyewitness accounts include this detail of one notable casualty, “One man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale.”
****I wonder if Willy Shakes wasn’t engaging in some wordplay with the songs opening line. As a player of the guitar, an instrument that is something of a successor to the lyre and lute, we know the reverse of his opening: our “lutes” are largely made of trees. And rather than having musical power to enchant trees we sometimes think as that wood shifts and changes the playing action of our instruments, or it boggles tuning stability, that our wooden guitars have not quite gotten over being wild trees, ones not totally enthralled to our powers.
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.
I often wonder when reading opinions when someone stops or starts thinking.
Opinions generally come from two states. One is intuitive emotion the other is from reason, a thoughtful weighing of something or another. In the case of the former, thought has little to do with it. We know something is wrong, wonderful, disgusting, laudatory, whatever from something we feel innately. The child saved from the burning building, the willful act of unnecessary violence—but we feel intuitively about more complex and controversial things too: the results of an election, the worth of some work of art. In the case of art, many of us are comfortable with expressing that intuitive response, we like it or we don’t, we don’t know why, and don’t really care to know why. However, in politics and public policy, that sort of response can seem irresponsible. Furthermore, mere internalized like or dislike is no good for recruiting others to your side.
The other state, the opinion generated from thought, from some comparison of the options and a reasoned judgment brought forth on the results seems admirable. The problem is that too much thought seems to stop as soon as some conclusion can be reached. There’s no second thought on the thought, no deeper examination of one’s assumptions. There’s a worth to this—speed is a value in decisions not about art after all—and the nature of thought and questions is for them to be never-ending. At some point, one has to stop thinking to ever reach a working conclusion.
I opened this morning’s local paper and saw a man from Crosby Minnesota moved to think about political matters and how they intersect with art. Meryl Streep, a famous movie actor, has expressed political opinions about a TV actor—let me look this up, oh yes—Donald Trump, who has taken up politics and found himself with a prominent new job in the public policy field.
The man from Crosby feels he has found an important thought in this Meryl Streep matter, and his thoughts are expressed as a couple of questions and answers:
“Who wrote those words for her? After all, her whole life has been one of just reading and acting out the words creative thinkers have written for her. She has been good at it, but how can someone who has never had a thought of her own criticize others who have?”
Did he answer his questions too quickly? Did he not expand his inquiry enough?
So, assuming we think about something, when do we stop thinking? We have to stop sometime, but stopping too soon can leave us with meager conclusions and less rewarding art.
For that matter, when do we stop practicing our art? In 2013 a local actor (Kate Eifrig) made a decision to stop acting because she felt that continuing was harmful to her. She gave an interview about her decision, which I felt it was an honorable and insightful one, and this audio piece with the LYL Band performing the music was the result. The first sentence is a quote from her interview, which I then developed into the rest of Acting.
One thing she may not have accounted for in making her decision: while as an actor she would have been allowed to serve in a political office like Helen Gahagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Franken, Ronald Regan, Fred Grandy, Jesse Ventura, George Murphy, or Fred Thompson; but she would not, by our man from Crosby’s accounting, be qualified to comment on political matters.
I object to this too, but don’t compound it by saying something at the Golden Globes!
In one limited way I agree with the man from Crosby. While thought, sometimes even considerable thought, goes into acting and performing; the performance itself is not a thoughtful process: for it is entering into, embodying, a thought, often someone else’s thought. That is a visceral, not intellectual experience whatever thought went before it.
I would ask one more question, reformulating the man from Crosby’s rhetorical question to a familiar piece of folk wisdom: how can someone who has never lived someone else’s thought criticize others?
To hear the LYL Band perform Acting, use the gadget below.