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April 25, 2004 - May 1, 2004
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May 9, 2004 - May 15, 2004

Non-Stop Topless Towers

Fig. 1 -- A lovely Mycenaean stirrup jarNo doubt inspired by the opportunity to coattail on the upcoming Brad Pitt epic, last week saw the long-awaited DVD release of the marvelous 1985 BBC documentary series In Search of the Trojan War, hosted by Michael Wood.

Over the course of six episodes, Wood provides insights on the Wild West exploits of the notorious Heinrich Schliemann (who destroyed as much as he uncovered and was not above Making Things Up) and other, more reputable searchers after the site of Troy and similar Homeric hot spots, with side jaunts into the bardic tradition and everything you ever wanted to know about Mycenaean stirrup jars (fig. 1). I am also regularly reminded by my Lady Wife that Mr. Wood looks very nice as he strides across Greece and the Levant in his tight historian's jeans. I maintain that this is about as good as history-television gets.

After years of making do with fuzzy VHS copies taped off the air when PBS last broadcast it, I am looking forward to seeing this series again in proper pristine form. Wood's book to accompany the series, also entitled (surprise!) In Search of the Trojan War, was updated in 1998 and is recommended for all you armchair archeologists and mythographers.

And now, with that as an excuse, it's time for a freshly composed double dactyl:

Excerpts From the Anachronistiad I

Ilium! Ilium!
Mighty Achilles quotes
Dylan to Hector: “So
How does it feeel?

That’s for Patroclus, pal!
Now, where’s my chariot . . . ?”
Hector’s penultimate
Thought? “What a heel.”

Update: By timely coincidence, Greg Perry voices some doubts concerning the Pitt version at g r a p e z. Hunkiness is next to godlessness, eh?


Here Come the King Bats!*

Checking into an incoming visit from the Periodic Table of Blogs, I discovered that this Fool has been relocated out of the Obscuroid sequence and into the lower left corner of the Cultural columns. And looking into the related weblog at that same site, I discovered that its baseball-loving proprietor Score Bard has produced a double dactyl in tribute to the starting lineup of the 2004 Detroit Tigers.**

* cf. The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure (The 'Good Parts' Version), in which the king bats play a significant role in the childhood of the Turkish giant, Fezzik. Said bats do not figure in the popular film adaptation.

** I am a Detroiter by extraction, myself, though I have lived in southern California for over three decades now. I have fond memories of the 1968 Detroit-St. Louis World Series, featuring the sterling pitching of Mickey Lolich.


More Thom Gunn

If you were or are at all interested in the poet Thom Gunn, whose passing I noted below, you should certainly read Gerard Van der Leun's reminiscence, which he has posted today on his American Digest site and has also left entire as a Comment to my post. He was at Berkeley about ten years ahead of me, and had a much closer contact with Gunn than I could ever claim. Worthwhile for anyone intrigued by Lives of the Poets.

Elsewhere, the Guardian has printed an appreciation of Gunn by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion -- to whom I previously administered a bit of a tweaking for his role shilling a very bad movie.


The March to the Scaffold, or, "Do You So Love the Little Birds That You Give Them This to Perch Upon?"

Savien de Cyrano de Bergerac 1619-1655The art of writing a review that is simultaneously scathing, honest, discursive and informative on broader subjects apparently lives on in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, in which Clive James reviews a dubious new production of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.

The essay is rich in incident and insight, and it is all I can do to remind myself of copyright laws and to resist simply reprinting the entire thing here. Lengthy highlights follow, beginning with Mr. James entering the theatre only to encounter the Last Refuge of the Scoundrelly Designer:

Things never looked promising to begin with. In the Olivier Theatre there is no curtain to go up, so the audience, as it came in, was already faced with the huge and deadly suggestion that the sets would consist mainly of scaffolding. This turned out to be true, although the space-station centrifugal stage machinery was occasionally put into operation so that the scaffolding could be seen from a different angle. On its first appearance, the vast metallic structure was dotted with supernumeraries whose weary attitudes suggested that they might have expired from boredom while bolting it together. Ever since the first post-War translations of Brecht spread their pervasive influence, student productions of any play at all have characteristically established their dedication to the alienation effect with precisely those two elements: scaffolding, and an opening tableau of underemployed walk-ons.

With scaffolding supplanting Paris, the production also downsizes Cyrano's traditional accoutrements:

[Rostand] cared like mad about theatricality. He wanted the full romantic tackle, and he wanted it to swash until it buckled. Cloak, plumed hat and proper sword: he specified them all for his dynamic hero. It was thus three times a bad sign when Cyrano made his entrance minus any of them. The plume sprouting from Cyrano’s hat is meant to be the mark of his panache. In French it is actually called a panache, and provides the once inexhaustibly prolix Cyrano with his dying word, the last word of the play. The plume on Stephen Rea’s hat was a shy puff instead of a proudly flying banner. The sword was a sword-stick: a different thing, and not appropriate for holding Cyrano’s cloak extended at the back, as one of his friends describes.

But he had no cloak. Instead, he had an overcoat, of a type worn by students all over the world to indicate that they are in rebellion against bourgeois values.... I would have been thinking of catching the next plane back to New Zealand if Cyrano, along with everything else he had been deprived of, had been deprived of a big nose. Mercifully he had one, and the quality of its putty looked sufficiently durable to last the night. Perhaps it had been provided by the same construction firm that won the contract for the scaffolding, which clearly would last for ever.

Many diversions and musings follow. The handsome Christian de Neuvillette marches off to the front in the Thirty Years' War, only to be cut down as the Gascon fortifications are raked by machine gun fire. ["Those of us who had been hoping that it would be attacked with a Tomahawk cruise missile might have been disappointed, but for Christian, weak with hunger, it was time to climb the pipes, as men weak with hunger so often do."] Nikolai Gogol is invoked. Alec Guiness is quoted on the evils of the thrust stage. And more.

As play and protagonist expire, Mr. James takes the occasion to offer some insights on the art of translation (the new one by Derek Mahon used in this production comes off at least as badly as the sets), how the French differ in their theatrical expectations and why English stage verse generally does not rhyme:

Lying there in the arms of Claire Price – not normally the worst fate a man can imagine – Mr Rea must have felt his false nose weighing like a lead balloon. He is all too aware that in the 1983 Anthony Burgess version Derek Jacobi finished the evening with the audience pulling the walls in: men signed up for fencing class while women sobbed in each other’s arms.... The Burgess version had enough zing to set the actors and the audience on fire. Burgess kept the exactness of the couplets even when he opened the rhyme scheme into quatrains. Before him, Christopher Fry had deftly done the whole thing in couplets. But for some reason we still think that strict rhymes mean restriction, and that to throw them away means freedom. Why?

Because it is true. In the English theatre, the norm of fluent speech was set by Shakespeare, who had all the technical skill to turn Chaucer’s narrative couplets into a viable dramatic form, but chose to do otherwise. He went for blank verse instead, thus establishing an expectation beside which a latticework of spoken rhymes will always sound artificial. Not even Dryden was powerful enough to put the expectation into reverse. For the French, the normal expectation has always been rhyming couplets. Corneille, Racine and Molière set a rhythm which rebellion could never break, but only work within. The first riot on the opening night of Victor Hugo’s Hernani took place when he broke the rule of always putting the adjective and noun inside the same hemistitch. The audience knew exactly what he was up to because they had been hearing classical couplets all their lives. Rostand could count on that universal expectation when he gave Cyrano the energy of a wild animal. The wild animal is in a cage, and what a French audience hears is its repeated assault on the bars. (You could even call them scaffolding if you like, but in French you would have to say échafaudage.)

[Near-simultaneous links found through Arts & Letters Daily and Andrew Sullivan.]

Continue reading "The March to the Scaffold, or, "Do You So Love the Little Birds That You Give Them This to Perch Upon?"" »


I Love a May Day Parade

May Day is simply not the same since the fall of the Soviet Union. In ages past, the endless lines of cutting-edge collectivized military hardware that annually paraded through Red Square -- with the precision only possible in a workers' paradise -- provided a bracingly romantic backdrop for the reading of the Kremlinological tea leaves. (Who is that next to the Premier and why is he wearing those Foster Grants? Which apparatchik will be airbrushed out of this year's prom photos? What are you doing with that samovar, Sergei?)

For those who get all wistful and misty over such things, we are pleased to offer this footstomping, rather loud archival footage as a reminder that, once upon a time, the Weapon of Mass Destruction that the Decadent West most needed to fear was Precision East German Totalitarian Kittens. You can be sure that this elite corp earned high Marx in all their classes at the Academy.

[This comes a little late, but you're too polite to remark on that, are you not?]