Casablanca | The Story Pt.2 — Inciting Incident

by Glenn on September 17, 2018

I don’t know who invented the idea of the dramatic arc. My idea, with minimal investigation, is that the dramatic arc is useful after the fact to talk about stories on film. It seems to work with Casablanca. I’m not sure how helpful it is on the front end for the writer to have the dramatic arc in front of him or her as a guide for what comes next. If we follow a typical dramatic arc for a story, the exposition is over. (See Casablanca | The Story Pt. 1 —Exposition.) Now we need an inciting incident.

The genius of Casablanca is the way that through the exposition the playing board has been set up with something that we know is a problem that must be dealt with (Victor Laszlow) and something we don’t know is a problem that is going to overshadow the other problem (Rick’s attitude toward women as evidenced by his treatment of one in his bar, and the woman traveling with Laszlow). Up to now, this has been a story about a place (Casablanca) that people want to use as a launching point to freedom, but which has become a dead end, and the arrival of an individual who the Nazis want to ensure does not become exceptional. The story is about to become quite personal for Rick.

The inciting incident is actually an entire scene that begins as a couple enters the saloon. The man identifies himself to the host as Victor Laszlo. We will soon learn he is the man who was going to pay a fortune to Ugarte for two exit visas.

As the couple walk to a table, the woman and Sam, the piano player, make eye contact. We can see that they know each other.

It’s more than recognition, though. The look on Sam’s face suggests a kind of alarm. We thought Laszlo coming to Casablance was a problem. Perhaps there is another problem, not with Laszlo, but the woman who is accompanying him.

Her own look of concern seems to confirm this.

The couple are seated. Laszlo attracts all sorts of attention. If “everybody goes to Rick’s,” then inside Rick’s, everybody goes to Laszlo. First, a member of the underground, Berger, introduces himself to Laszlo. They agree to meet at the bar in a few minutes.

Captain Renault then introduces himself to the couple. Laszlo presents the woman as Ilsa Lund. Renault says, “I was informed you were the most beautiful woman ever to visit Casablanca. That was a gross understatement.” Ilsa asks about the piano player and is told how he came from Paris with Rick. Lund keeps it cool, but you can tell this is not great news for her.

Now, Major Strasser joins the conversation and things quickly become heated between he and Laszlo. They set up an appointment to have a conversation that will take place the next morning in Renault’s office.

During a musical number by one of the other musicians in the bar, Laszlo takes off to meet Berger at the bar. Laszlo confides that he is looking for a man named Ugarte, who is supposed to help him. Berger breaks the bad news that he “cannot even help himself,” because he’s been arrested. This is a blow. Renault interrupts their conversation. It appears Laszlo is not going to be left alone by the local authorities. Laszlo is receiving Renault’s near-complete attention.

Meanwhile, Ilsa asks to have Sam bring his piano over to her table. There is a mystery here. Ilsa and Sam have on some level shared life together and she asks him to play “some of the old songs.” Ilsa asks about Rick and Sam dissembles, suggesting that Rick isn’t around, that he’s meeting a girl at The Blue Parrot. We know better. Rick is very much involved in his business. It’s pretty obvious that Sam is protecting Rick. When Ilsa tells Sam that he “used to be a much better liar,” Sam responds, “Leave him alone, Miss Ilsa. You’re bad luck to him.” Undeterred, Ilsa asks Sam to “Play it once … for old time’s sake.” Ilsa had a song. After some cajoling, Sam, a reluctance and terror on his face, plays “As Time Goes By.” It’s a lovely song. Iconic, now, after all these years. It’s deeply affecting for Ilsa.

Rick has heard “As Time Goes By” elsewhere in the casino. His reaction suggests it’s deeply affecting for him, too, but for him produces a great deal of anger. He storms over and says, “Sam, I thought I told you never to play . . .” He is cut short by a look from Sam.

There are two close-ups of Rick and Ilsa. Rick is shocked. Ilsa has tears in her eyes. Ilsa’s song was Rick and Ilsa’s song.

Before anything can be said between the two of them, Renault and Laszlo show up. Lazlo wants to make introductions, but before he can, Rick says, “Hello, Ilsa.” Lazlo invites Rick to sit for a drink and before Renault can explain that Rick never drinks with customers, Rick says, “Thanks I will.” There’s a revealing interchange here between Laszlo and Rick:

LASZLO
This is a very interesting café. I congratulate you.

RICK
And I congratulate you.

LASZLO
What for?

RICK
Your work.

LASZLO
“Thank you. I try.”

RICK
We all try. You succeed.

For all appearances, Rick is a highly successful businessman, running an operation that combines both the honest (a bar) and the illegal (a casino) to be profitable without getting him into too much trouble with the authorities. In this moment we realize that Rick doesn’t exactly respect the work he is doing. Earlier he said to Major Strasser, Herr Heinze, and Renault, “You’ll excuse me gentlemen. Your business is politics. Mine is running a saloon.” This is true, but not the whole truth. We’re learning we can’t trust everything Rick says. Rick is running a saloon, successfully to all appearance, but there is other work that he respects more. If his business isn’t politics, his interest surely is.

Renault steers the conversation to how Ilsa and Rick know each other. They admit to having been acquainted in Paris, but there are no details offered. After the look of shock and the tears, they are playing it cool. It’s getting late and there is a curfew, so the party breaks up. On their way out, Laszlo comments to Ilsa, “A very puzzling fellow, this Rick.” He asks, “What sort is he?” Ilsa replies, “Oh, I really can’t say, though I saw him quite often in Paris.” You can tell this is only a partial truth.

*   *   *

Until moments ago, it seemed the main problem Casablanca presents is a political one: what to do about Victor Laszlo, the proverbial fly in the Nazi soup? But with the entrance of Ilsa Lund, another issue presents itself: What’s the story with Rick and Ilsa? Why the tears from Ilsa and the flash of anger from Rick over a song?

The first 25 minutes of Casablanca were exposition. We’ve now had an inciting incident, the arrival of Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund, a scene that has taken about ten minutes. For the next hour, things are going to get very interesting.

Ashland/OSF 2018

by Glenn on September 9, 2018

Ashland, Oregon is a college town, the home of Southern Oregon University. But it is also home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It’s difficult to imagine what this town of 20,000 located 16 miles above the California/Oregon border would be like without the latter. Perhaps OSF is not Ashland’s raison d’etre, but it’s fortunes seem to be thoroughly enmeshed.

Each year, from February through October, OSF presents a number of plays in repertory (eleven, this year), which means that actors in one play usually appear in another. During the summer months, three plays are performed on the outdoor Allen/Elizabethan stage. We were pretty faithful attenders beginning in 2003, often bringing along student groups, but Labor Day weekend was our first visit since 2014.

The smoke from forest fires has made this a rough year for OSF. Their struggles have been described in The New York Times. We had a bad week or so of poor air quality here in Portland this summer. What locals in Ashland talk about were the bad weeks—a “When will it end?” phenomena with serious health and economic consequences for all concerned. Thick plastic curtains like you see with large walk-in coolers have been hung over the doors inside the Angus Bowmer Theatre to preserve interior air quality. Many performances of the outdoor plays were cancelled or moved to smaller, but interior locations.

I feel fortunate that our trip this Labor Day weekend seemed to coincide with an improvement in air quality and a palpable sense of lifted spirits for locals.

1 | Three Plays

We saw three plays: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility by Kate Hamill, and The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson.

I didn’t enjoy the first two as much as I had hoped, though the production quality was wonderful. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival practices a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion which, as a member of the audience, I find both praiseworthy and confusing.

For example, in the production of Romeo and Juliet, the casting was intentionally balanced male/female, giving us a female Mercutio and Prince Escalus. You need to be careful about your high horse when criticizing a choice like that, though. After all, in the time of Shakespeare, you would have seen every role played by a man or boy. I thought both actors owned their roles. This wasn’t my favorite Mercutio, but this was a very fine Mercutio.

The diversity went further, though. In this production, one of the actors was deaf. Another was a little person. These latter two casting choices were challenging for me as an audience member. In the case of the deaf person, someone else says their lines for her as she signs, which makes me wonder why not just have a person who can say the lines, especially in a Shakespeare play which depends so much on being heard? The little person played Gregory and was part of the ensemble. Her appearance is distinctive and costume changes do little to disguise the fact that this is the same person. She also doesn’t seem to be able to move that well and so the opening fight scene, which symbolizes the vehemence and intractability of the inter-family violence between the Capulets and Montagues of Verona, looked more static than staged—almost a tableau.

The opening of Romeo and Juliet featured the entire cast reciting The Prologue (“Two households, both alike in dignity …”) in unison. But they also signed these opening lines, so that the beginning of the play resembled a dance team performance. It was too much, I thought.

In Sense and Sensibility, the actors playing the three Dashwood sisters are Latina (Elinor, played by Nancy Rodriguez), Asian (Marianne, played by Emily Ota), and African-American (Margaret, played by Samantha Mille). Their mother is white (played by Kate Mulligan). Each actor was excellent. But when they were together on stage, it felt a little strange. Modern, in a period piece.

Elinor Dashwood (Nancy Rodriguez), Mrs. Dashwood (Kate Mulligan), Marianne Dashwood (Emily Ota), and Margaret Dashwood (Samantha Miller). The Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 2018. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Adapted by Kate Hamill. Directed by Hana S. Sharif. Scenic Design: Collette Pollard. Costume Design: Fabio Toblini. Lighting Design: Rui Rita. Composer and Sound Design: Justin Ellington. Dramaturg: Lydia G. Garcia. Voice and Text Director: Robert Ramirez. Choreographer: Jaclyn Miller. Assistant Choreographer: Valerie Rachelle. Fight Director: U. Jonathan Toppo. Photo: Jenny Graham.

 

On the one hand, good for OSF being so inclusive, doing what we don’t seem to do very well in our nation and culture. Even (or, perhaps, especially) in the Church, where “there is neither Jew nor Greek … male and female” because we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) we remain stubbornly segregated. On the other hand, this is not how the world of Jane Austen looked. Should theatre be forward-thinking or representational of reality?

I’ve noticed that there have been performances on OSF stages that were decidedly (and appropriately) conscious of race. Two plays by August Wilson come to mind—Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Gem of the Ocean. These were phenomenal, moving productions/performances. But they didn’t use color-blind casting.

Because this is repertory theatre, the little person who played Gregory et al on Saturday night, was in the production of Sense and Sensibility on Sunday afternoon playing, among other roles, Lady Middleton, who is described by Jane Austen this way:

“Lady Middleton was not more than six or seven and twenty; her face was handsome, her figure tall and striking, and her address graceful.”

It’s the “tall and striking” that I struggle with. As an audience member I engage in something called “the willing suspension of disbelief,” which is what allows you to be moved when Romeo, unaware of the Friar’s fraught and convoluted plan to fake Juliet’s death following Romeo’s banishment—What could possibly go wrong?—thinks Juliet is dead. She wakes up just as Romeo has killed himself and is so distraught that she, too takes her life.

It is this suspension of disbelief that allows us to take what we see before us as real. We know it’s a stage, but pretend it’s somewhere else in space and time. We know they are actors, but while the performance is going assume they are who they pretend to be.

We accept this. The effect is often surprisingly magical.

But I wonder to what extent the production must do its part? We will believe, but doesn’t the production have to be in some way believable? Or at least not throw significant barriers to belief.

The idea of color-blind casting is wonderful and I feel something like shame that I don’t always like how it “looks” on stage. There have been many times where I haven’t particularly cared, where the ethnicity of the actors has irrelevant to my understanding or enjoyment of the play. Those are wonderful experiences. I recall four productions of Romeo and Juliet at OSF. The first remains my favorite. Kevin Kenerly was Romeo; Nancy Rodriguez was Juliet. The costuming was modern, the staging minimalist, it had a hip-hop vibe to it that worked really well to highlight the youth culture of the play and the day. Kenerly and Rodriguez were fabulous. The fact that Kenerly is African-American and Rodriguez is Latina may have added a sort of two cultures West Side Story poignancy to the whole thing, but as I recall, Romeo’s parents were white. No matter. The point is that Kenerly and Rodriguez were the star-crossed lovers in those performances. So maybe it comes down to believability—the skill of the actors not to be in the way.

The little reading I’ve done suggests there has been a shift in recent years. At one point, the goal was “color-blind” casting, which I like because it means we’re trying to find the best actor for the role and we’re not going to get hung up on appearances. But more recently, some have seized upon the idea of “color-conscious” casting, which “intentionally considers the race and ethnicity of actors and the characters they play in order to oppose racism, honor and respect cultures, foster stronger productions, and contribute to a more equitable world.” I’m not sure what’s fair or appropriate or just in terms of hiring practices in the theatre.

It’s a difficult subject to talk about. If you only imagine Hamlet as a white guy, then introducing a person of color or, as I’ve seen on one occasion, a woman, can be a little jarring. Surprising to me, I’ve read that the playwright August Wilson was actually against color-blind casting. What he wanted to see were more plays written about and roles created for African-Americans in the theatre. And there are times where color-blindness is a no go. Apparently, no one wants to see a white man play Martin Luther King, Jr. Last year, the estate of Edward Albee denied permission to perform Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf using an African-American in the lead. It’s complicated issue. I came across a blog post by Christine Albright Tufts, a terrific actor who we have seen at OSF in years past, that captures some of the heat and tension that comes up around this issue.

It seems like you can be trying to make a point with casting, though, which may be where I want to question, so that instead of serving the story with your production, you are using the story as a vehicle to carry an agenda. That may not be bad. But, if I’m honest, it’s not why I go to the theatre. The more the production lectures me (finger wag?) rather than conveys a story, the less I seem to enjoy it. The program notes for this production of Romeo and Juliet made this comment:

“For the director, setting the play in its original given circumstances while presenting it from a modern point of view through a consciously cast diverse and gender-balanced company of actors ensures that the reason for the feud is not interpreted as based on race or ethnicity.”

It’s an interesting statement, because there is nothing in the play to suggest that the feud is based on ethnicity. At the party, Tybalt makes a reference to the speech of Romeo, which could suggest that perhaps the two families had their own accents? I don’t know. Otherwise, it’s two families of, one assumes, the same Italian ethnicity. Mercutio, who is a friend of Romeo’s was invited to the Capulet party. He, somehow, was able to float between the families. The Friar is all too aware of the strife in the city, but he is apart from it. The rest of the characters are mired in the conflict which is about family loyalties, not race.

The third play was the most enjoyable and I regret that I likely will not get the chance to see this production again. Such is the ephemeral nature of live theatre. The Book of Will is the story of the Lord Chamberlain’s men after William Shakespeare has died. They are frustrated by performances of “Shakespeare” using bad texts, i.e. not Shakespeare, or at least adulterated Shakespeare. When Richard Burbage, who had done the big Shakespeare roles and knew the lines, also dies, John Heminges and Henry Condell decide they must create a definitive Shakespeare. The theme of the play is a What if …? After Shakespeare died, half of his plays had not been published and many of the others were bad editions. What if these men had not gathered the plays together? It’s also a celebration of theatre, Shakespeare’s plays, and, in this production, the actors of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

I was the most dubious of the premise of this play going in but it turned out to be the most deeply affecting of the productions we saw. There was a surprise at the end in which the stage wall became a screen to show a montage of videos of OSF actors portraying various Shakespeare roles. At times, the players on stage were seen on screen in roles they had played, some of which I’d seen: Jeffrey King as Hamlet’s father, Kate Hurster as Lady Anne in Richard III and David Kelly as (if I recall correctly) Richard II—all memorable productions. Kenerly reprised live some of his lines from the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. The man knows how to talk.

The opening of the second act has a beautiful dialogue between John and Henry. John’s wife has died and Henry has come alongside to comfort him:

HENRY
When my first boy died, only months old, I couldn’t imagine a loving God that would have any part in such a thing. And I told Him so in my prayers, silent because I know I’d be the one in the ground if anyone heard what I thought of God and His taking and taking and taking. Then I realized the great weight of every grieving father’s prayers that must hit God every night, and must sound so much like my own. Sons who lost fathers, husbands without wives, mothers—oh God the mothers. All that grief on God’s ear constantly.
Then I felt bad for God.
Which made me laugh.
Which made me feel alive again. Funny how that worked out didn’t it.

JOHN
That’s a good story. Why do we bother?

HENRY
With what?

JOHN
With stories. Dramas. Especially the dramas. Isn’t that ridiculous? Grown men dressing up as kings and, even more ridiculously, queens. And the people come to see it. They weep with us. Why do they do it?

HENRY
Because stories are real in their own way

JOHN
No. Real life keeps going on and on, and the villains aren’t caught and the endings aren’t right, and it’s rough seas and dark days and we sit here in this barn playing fictions for willing dreamers. We tell it over and over and over again. And I sit through it and it’s false and it’s hot air and I need it. When I have nothing left to say I need it. When I hurt so much I can’t breathe, when I’ve got a horse for a heart and it won’t stop running and pounding and running me down, I need it…

HENRY
John.

JOHN
Am I godless? I look to fairies and false kings instead of holy people. Does that a heathen make?

HENRY
No. Of course not, no.

JOHN
I cannot breathe without her, I cannot breathe at home or in the street or in the yard where she now lies, I cannot breath in this world but here [the theatre]. Here I am come. And I am lulled into meaning. And that is the greatest fiction of all. Meaning anything. (Then with great ferocity.) And God and His angels mock us every ending we play but the tragic ones, for if they aren’t tragedies yet, they will soon enough be.
Story’s a forged life. Life’s a tempest of loss. Why do we bother with any of it?

HENRY
To feel again.

JOHN
I feel enough.

HENRY
I said to feel again. That’s the miracle of it. The fairies aren’t real but the feeling is. And it comes to us here, player and groundling alike, again and again here. Your favorite story just ended? Come back tomorrow, we’ll play it again. Don’t like the story you’re in? A different one starts in an hour. Come here, come again, feel here, feel again.
History walks here, love is lived here, loss is met and wept for and understood and survived here and not the first time but every time. We play love’s first look and life’s last here every day. And you will see yourself in it, or your fear, or your future before the play’s end. And you will test your heart against trouble and joy, and every time you’ll feel a flicker or a fountain of feeling that reminds you that, yes, you are yet living. And that is more than God give you in his ample silence. And then it ends. And we players stand up. And we look at the gathered crowd. And we bow. Because the story was told well enough, and it’s time for another.

That was quite a moment.

The acting business is difficult. If the national unemployment rate is something like 5%, the inverse, the actual employment rate for actors is the same, or perhaps less—5%. For every actor working as actors there are 19 or more who want to be. There are no guarantees. You may have an OSF role for one season and then you’re off to find work elsewhere. As an audience member, it’s somehow comforting to see something like a community of actors who have brought Shakespeare to life over the years and to see them on stage together working hard for and to an effect.

Of the three plays and casts that was saw last weekend, The Book of Will is the one that I’d want to see again. It’s also the one that makes me wonder what it would be like to be part of something like that—a great play, great actors with great camaraderie, a great venue.

A lovely interview of the playwright, Lauren Gunderson, about this play can be heard here. At one point Gunderson refers to the theatre as her “church.” I can say that the end of this play had a definite religious quality to it. It was quite emotional and my first thought when the play was over was, “I guess this is what it’s like to attend the Church of Will.”

2 | Three random observations

1. One of the things I’ve enjoyed over the years is the post-matinee discussions, where an actor from a play will come out and answer audience questions. I don’t remember this in the past, but OSF now has a poster board up front that spells out some guidelines for the discussion:

Listen to understand.
Share your own views and experience by using “I” statements.
Don’t speak for others or as others to speak for their community/communities.
Critique ideas, not people.
Maintain respectful engagement by:
• not monopolizing the conversation.
• not participating in side conversations.
• silencing cell phones/no talking or texting.
Enjoy!

The question I have: Was this proactive or reactive? I don’t remember anything happening at one of these discussions in the past that warranted posted rules like these. We also noted that the format of the discussion was changed slightly. Iris, a volunteer who has been hosting these events as long as we’ve been attending them, still serves as host (she read the rules aloud), but now there is a facilitator that accompanies and introduces the actor. I wonder what the story is there? Did something happen?

2. Romeo refers to himself a couple of times as a “desperate” man.

5.1 (aside)
Well, Juliet, I will lie with thee tonight.
Let’s see for means. O mischief, thou art swift
To enter in the thoughts of desperate men.

5.3 (to Paris)
Good gentle youth, tempt not a desp’rate man;

I know I’ve heard the word before, but this time there was an association. It made me think of that line from John Donne’s, “Death, Be Not Proud”:

“Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men …”

Donne wrote the “Holy Sonnets” in which Death, Be Not Proud is included in the early 1600’s. I wonder if this idea of “desperate men” came to Donne from Shakespeare or elsewhere? Not high on the list, but a question to research at some point.

3. One other thing from R&J. It dawned on me that Romeo and Juliet have done a little role reversal in the manner of their deaths. Romeo took poison and Juliet took the more violent and painful (one imagines) method of knife to the gut.

3 | Three Restaurants

I can’t say these are the three “best” restaurants in Ashland, but we certainly have enjoyed these and will happily go back:

1. There have been few trips to Ashland where we haven’t had dinner at Beasey’s on the Creek. In the summer it is delightful to sit out on the patio. It’s upscale, but it’s remarkable to see a restaurant maintain a sense of identity and quality over so many years.

2. Pie + Vine is in the location formerly known as Pasta Piatti. There has been some form of transition (ownership, one assumes), but many items from the previous restaurant have carried over into this new enterprise, the Mista salad, for example, which has a phenomenal dressing, organic, weedy greens, and loads of texture and flavors from a collection of tomatoes, grilled asparagus, red onions, roasted chickpeas and more.

3. We stayed in an Airbnd for the first time in Ashland. This came without breakfast included, which gave us the great excuse to walk a half mile North to the Breadboard. Breakfast was phenomenal. Amazing to me how you can get something as simple as steak and eggs and it tastes so different from place to place, in this case really great. The top sirloin was seasoned well and “over hard” eggs cooked perfectly. I think they make their own blackberry jam which was great on sourdough toast.

 

4 | Three New Things

We tried an Airbnd for the first time. Our place was delightful. We stayed in the Edward Gorey Room at Wood Hamlet. The room was clean, quiet, and comfortable. In the past, we’ve stayed in hotels that have had breakfast included. Those breakfasts don’t compare to the Breadboard (see above). As a bonus, the cost of our Air BnB and breakfast out was much less than the hotels where breakfast is included. I can see why the hotel industry would be upset about something like this. The Wood Hamlet is an easy, half-mile walk to downtown and OSF.

It was great to discover that Case Coffee Roasters has opened a second location in Ashland. Their primary location, where they do their roasting, is located on the Southern end of town, by SOU. Their second location is just a couple of blocks from OSF in the heart of downtown. My test for a coffee place is to order a cappuccino. It’s hard to describe how a great cappuccino, like they do at Case Coffee, tastes. The essence is there is a kind of sweetness to it that comes from a beautifully roasted espresso and a milk that hasn’t been overheated. It’s a hot drink, but not scorching. The contrast, for me, is something like Starbucks, where the espresso is bitter and the milk overheated so that it loses its sweetness.

We knew that In-N-Out burger crossed the Oregon border into Medford a few years back. On our way to Ashland, we noticed there is a new location in Grants Pass that we visited on our way home. In-N-Out Burger never disappoints. It was pleasing to see that the call for a boycott appeared not to be working . (Or how fortunate that we chose to visit In-N-Out burger during a boycott. Imagine how much more busy it would have been.) There’s some irony (that’s the kindest word—perhaps more like hypocrisy) in that a Democrat group called for the boycott because the burger chain—I would argue the premiere burger chain in the country—had donated to a Republican cause. But it turns out they had also donated to a Democrat cause. Their indignation might be cured with some self-examination.

I often find the sanctimony of right-wing fundamentalists tiresome. Is there a sanctimony from the left that is equally tiresome? Do we really have to politicize food?

Casablanca | The Story Pt. 1 — Exposition

by Glenn on August 31, 2018

Among other innovations, the Twentieth Century introduced the idea of visual storytelling with film. The medium has evolved over the years, but as in other art forms, there are films that are relevant beyond their time. Casablanca, one of my favorite films, is one of them. It is now more than 75 years old, but I have yet to get tired of watching it and want to spend some time considering it.

I thought I would begin by telling the story portrayed in Casablanca. Read the rest of this entry »

King Henry VI Part One | William Shakespeare | The Commentary

by Glenn on August 5, 2018

I

There’s a lot going on here in this play beyond the basic action. It seems to me that one way of looking at Shakespeare’s King Henry VI, Part One is as a collection of juxtapositions:

—England vs. France (in particular, a factious England and a more singular (at least in presentation) France)
—English soldier (powerful) vs. French soldier (weak)
—English Court vs. French Battlefield
—Political strategy vs. strategy in War
—Young, solitary king vs. older, squabbling, collection of nobles
—Powerful, “in charge” Henry V vs. Puppet, “must be managed” Henry VI
—England on the ascent (Henry V) vs. England on the decline (Henry VI)
—authority of the king is largely symbolic rule vs. the actual power of those in charge
—Margaret, daughter of King of Naples vs. the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac (relative of the Dauphin)
—Joan (French girl killed for trying to defeat England) vs. Margaret, French girl who is brought in  conspiratorially to help rule England
—Joan: girl, young, unschooled, country born, powerful because possessed vs. Talbot: man, older, noble, high-born, powerful because practiced
—A French army successful because of a witch/woman (supernatural help) vs. an English army full of Talbots
—Yorkists (white rose) vs. Lancasters (red rose)
—witchcraft vs. astrology as an explanation of why events unfold as they do
—witchcraft vs. reason
—legitimate birth vs. out of wedlock
—women vs. men
—the choices and rivalries of humans vs. God’s will
—Winchester/Tawny/Church vs. Gloucester/Blue/State
—The gains of Henry V vs the struggle of Henry VI to keep from losing territory
—Henry VI aware of wanting to avoid civil dissension vs. Henry VI choosing (both) sides by restoring lands and titles and wearing a red rose
—3 French women vs. no English women

The not quite consensus is that this isn’t one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays (if he even wrote it in totality. Even those who like the play avoid superlatives. It’s a young Shakespeare who is involved. But what you can see is that it has significant points of tension.

II

This is really a play about Talbot and Joan more than Henry VI. Jean E. Howard in the notes for The Norton Shakespeare, Third Edition, where I read the play, quotes Thomas Nashe, “Shakespeare’s contemporary, and himself a playwright”:

“How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and ve his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times), who, in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding?”

Howard says the theatre was criticized by Elizabethan writers “as a place of idleness where lies and lewd stories were circulated.” But in plays like this one, Nashe could “argue for the value of the stage, partly because of its role in preserving the memory of England’s glorious heroes.”

Things I gleaned from Howard:

1. History plays were very much in vogue in the time of Shakespeare. One of the virtues of history on stage is that

“The theatre, unlike obscure and musty texts, made a version of English history accessible even to those who could not read. For a penny, a common person could go to the theater, stand in the pit, and thrill to the exploits of Talbot and the treachery of the French.”

2. King Henry VI, Part One was probably written by a committee. It is thought that perhaps Nashe (referenced above) wrote Act I while Shakespeare created the Temple Garden scene (2.4) where roses were plucked to determined sides “and the moving sequence leading to Talbot’s death (4.2–4.5).”

3. There may have been something politically advantageous in telling the story the way Shakespeare and company did. As they tell the story of Essex heading to fight in Rouen, France, a contemporary Earl of Essex was “at the very moment . . . once again before the city’s walls. Many people in England might thus have seen in Talbot an image of their contemporary champion, the dashing Earl of Essex.”

4. When we call this a history play, it really needs to be thought of as a “history” play. Shakespeare is not writing as a historicist. He has taken the works of historians (especially the 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicles and a history of the Wars of the Roses by Hall), maximizing drama and relaxing accuracy.

For example, while the opening of King Henry VI, Part One suggests a confluence of events and a crisis, that at the funeral of Henry V messengers were announcing the loss of French towns, in reality it was years before those towns fell.

King Henry VI was nine months old when Henry V died (1422), but the play shows Henry VI, while in the care of a Lord Protector, has some agency and at the end of the play is getting ready to marry.

Some events are just made up, for example Talbot taking the city of Rouen and the Garden Scene where white and red roses are plucked to determine alliances.

Some things are just wrong:

“In this play, for example, the Edmund Mortimer who had a claim to the throne is conflated with his cousin John Mortimer, who was imprisoned in the Tower for many years for supporting his kinsman’s royal ambitions. Sir John Falstaff is treated as a cowardly knight, when in actuality he was a distinguished officer of Henry’s forces in the French wars.”

III

I’m amazed how Isaac Asimov (Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare) brings a magnifying glass to his reading of these plays. He is very much focused on the trees rather than the forest and displays a deep understanding of the actual history that is compressed, distorted, and re-sequenced in the play. He refers to “the long, turbulent, and tragic reign of Henry VI.” And he enjoys setting the record straight. In the play, Henry says,

“When I was young (as yet I am not old)
I do remember how my father said
A stouter champion [Talbot] never handled sword.” (III.4, 17–19)

Asimov explains,

“The King was certainly ‘not old.’ At his coronation in Paris he was just past his ninth birthday. And to remember something his father said when he ‘was young’ would make him a prodigy indeed, for he was not quite nine months old when his father died.”

Asimov provides a couple of excellent charts of the Houses of York and Lancaster that are really helpful to getting a sense of who is who. When Bedford and Gloucester and Winchester and Exeter are arguing, it’s interesting to note that the first two are uncles and the latter, great uncles of Henry VI. Bedford and Exeter are interested in soldiering. Winchester and Gloucester are focused on politics.

Asimov makes a connection to a film from a generation ago that would never have occurred to me (it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the film):

“It is Talbot who is the true hero of Henry VI, Part One. Indeed, one might almost say that the play bears a resemblance in atmosphere and quality to the motion picture The Green Berets and Talbot is John Wayne.”

Asimov challenges Shakespeare’s presentation of Talbot. The battle referenced by the Third Messenger in the opening scene gives Talbot and the English army superhuman powers—as Asimov explains it, “outnumbered four to one, held out for three hours with Talbot wreaking personal destruction beyond imagination.” But Asimov corrects,

“Actually, Talbot might have fought like a hero, but he had also fought like a fool. The version given here in the play has scarcely anything in common with the facts. Talbot was not ambushed and might easily have avoided a battle and escaped when a French force (consisting of only eight thousand men and not twenty-three thousand) approached him at Patay in June 1429 (and not August 10), some fifteen miles northwest of Orléans.

“The trouble was that Talbot was humiliated at having had to retreat from Orléans, and with the odds four to three against him (not four to one) he decided to fight. Of course, such a keen sense of ‘honor’ is often praised by those who are safe at home, but the Battle of Patay caused the unnecessary deaths of two thousand Englishmen, and that is a high price to pay for Talbot’s wanting to pay back his humiliation.”

Asimov also sets the record straight on Falstaff (he’s not a coward) and Joan la Pucelle (Joan the Maid). Joan was born Jeanne Darc, “but this came to be spelled Jeanne D’Arc as though she were of noble birth and as though she were Joan of Arc, with Arc being the place of her birth. This is wrong, but it is too late to change it.”

Asimov gives excellent genealogical details and adds a layer to the Temple Garden scene that hadn’t occurred to me. He writes, “It is not hard to see that nobody present wants to choose sides.” The problem is that if you pick a white rose, you are  committing an act of treason. If you pick a red rose, you are with the king, but if the Yorkists take back the throne, then you’re now treasonous.

IV

Harold Bloom (Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human) doesn’t have much to say about this play and what he says isn’t all that flattering:

“Shakespeare’s play is bad enough that perhaps we should not lament the loss of the first Hamlet, which I suspect would have been at least as crude.”

V

In contrast, Marjorie Garber (Shakespeare: After All) writes,

I Henry VI is a lively, smart, sophisticated, and well-designed play, full of strong characters and fast-paced action. It plays exceedingly well onstage, and it does not deserve the literary condescension that has sometimes come its way.”

Garber adds some nuance to the fact that Shakespeare (and his collaborators) alter history. She points out that there are reasons, which are “either political or aesthetic (or both).” There are 31 years between the funeral of Henry V, which opens the play, and the death of the two Talbots in battle. As he anticipates his death, Talbot even refers to the “scarce cold” body of Henry V. Garber explains, “The fictive compression of time emphasizes the radical rather than gradual reversal of fortune for England from the power of the previous king.”

While Talbot doesn’t win, neither does Joan, as she is depicted being sent to the stake to be burned as a witch.

Garber mentions the fact that Joan dresses like a man to fight, which “sets up an interesting interplay between the historical and the metatheatrical,” since the behavior for which the historical Joan was burned at the stake (wearing the clothes of the ‘opposite sex’) was standard theatrical practice for boy actors playing women on the English stage.” Garber notes this comes from Biblical law. Deuteronomy 22:5:

“A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.” [NIV]

This brings up an issue (at least one). While cross-dressing was not allowed in real life, the rule that said only men could appear on stage meant that cross-dressing was normative on stage. And so with the character of Joan here we have a man (probably a boy) pretending to be a woman dressed like a man. It’s hard to sort out. Garber adds some detail that I wasn’t aware of. The trouble with Joan, the historical character, is that she is a woman wanting to take on “the rights and privileges of a man.”

In the death scene of Talbot, where young Talbot is put in the arms of his father, Garber finds rich symbolism. (Coincidentally, I did an image search and found a photo of this scene from the one stage production I’ve seen of this play, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2004.)

Garber’s point is that this scene in Shakespeare’s time “would present an unmistakable and powerful spectacle. … [I]t remakes a Catholic icon into a patriotic English one,” noting that England of Talbot’s time was Catholic, before Henry VIII and the Church of England.

VI

I listened to a “fully dramatized,” Arkangel production of Henry VI, Part One. It’s remarkable how much better you understand the words when they are uttered by people who seem to know what they are saying. Good actors have helped me better understand the English of Shakespeare with their actions, but it turns out you can understand a lot by listening. Inflection, tone, diction, emphasis all contribute to understanding.

A valiant Globe Theatre production of Henry VI, Part One, performed outside on a historically relevant battlefield in the pouring rain, is worth watching:

This is a good introduction to the play. This is not. I listened to a couple of really fine podcasts. The first one is by No Holds Bard, it provides a great introduction to the play. The other is by Rex Factor, which does a great job of making the history behind the play both accessible and interesting.

What should one think about the history of Henry VI, Part One as presented by the playwrights (whoever they were that were cooperating with or had been co-opted by Shakespeare)? Should we be critical of the fact that there are errors, including the fabrication of people and events and improper and misleading timelines? The simple, un-nuanced answer is Yes. A history is the remembrance of the past. If you’re going to describe history, you should describe it accurately. Tell the truth.

There are some problems with this simple answer, beginning with the fact that it’s not that easy. There are constraints in the medium of the stage that affect the telling of the story. With a play (or a film for that matter), you’ve got a couple of hours and you can’t convey a lot of history in those two hours, particularly if you say that those two hours have to be in actual time, as say the television show 24 tried to do. You can’t put everything on screen or stage. Borrowing an example from literature, even if you decide to turn The Lord of the Rings into a three-part film, things are going to be left out. Tom Bombadil, for one, and if not Tom, then probably something else. And so we say, “Never judge a book by its movie.” And we should say a similar thing about a history. Maybe the formulation is something like: Don’t confuse a historical production with actual history. At the very least, time is going to be something you don’t want to think about too clearly. In fact, perhaps the best historical plays have a timeless (or out of time) quality to them.

We shouldn’t watch a play to learn history. At best, we should say we’re learning some or simply reflecting on or gaining some insights about history. (Although there’s an argument to be made that says people are sometimes prone to think that what they see in the movies is history. I saw it. But Mel Gibson is not William Wallace. What we saw on screen in Braveheart is not what actually happened. There are always compromises. Years ago, there was a novel of the Civil War that was turned into a film. But Cold Mountain was filmed largely in Romania. We can’t always trust what we are seeing to be telling the truth about even the setting.)

I wonder if history is best learned from books or lectures, where there’s time to tell a longer story.  We have to make some sort of agreement that when we watch anything that purports to present history, if we want to know more, which is to say if we really want to know the history, we’re going to have to read something. There’s no getting around that. When the movie begins with the printed statement, “Based on a true story” or “Based on actual events,” it’s a reminder that we’re not watching the actual events. There will be so much missing necessarily due to the constraints. Understanding those actual events will require some study, in the same way that if you really want to understand a novel, you’ll need to read it.

When it comes to history on the stage, things are going to be left out. To be fair, even if we are talking about a written history, like a biography or a description of an era, the author isn’t telling you everything that happened for the simple reason that there’s no time to read everything that happened in the past while we continue to live in the present. A lot happened in World War 2. How do you convey it all? Do you write a book that takes six or so years to read? Where would you find the time? The historian is selective. The historian is looking for what is meaningful as much as what should be remembered. And the playwright has to be even more selective.

As audience members, we’re demanding, too. We might not actually want to watch two hours of history unless that history is somehow entertaining. And so a theatrical production doesn’t need to be perfect, because the aims of theatre are not the same as those of historical study. The latter we might say is about getting the story straight. The theatre is about, not to be too cute, setting a stage. It’s about grabbing attention.

It’s hard for me to get too worked up about discrepancies between actual and dramatic history. One of the great problems in this play is that one of the scenes that all the commentators say was by Shakespeare, the picking of roses in the garden, is a complete fabrication. But it’s an important moment in the action. So do you say, “That’s not true!” Or do you, instead, see the dramatic truth in the fact that there were allegiances to a certain house (York or Lancaster) and the picking of the roses visualizes the whole thing for the playgoer. So that while Shakespeare wasn’t telling the historical truth, he was telling an emotional truth about the era. There were two factions that were beginning to go to war with one another. And however individuals may have indicated which side they were on, there was no question that people chose sides.

It helps to know that there is an accurate history that we can compare to, though even “accurate” histories have problems. I remember watching an episode of Booknotes years ago that featured the historian Paul Johnson talking about his book, A History of the American People. The interviewer, Brian Lamb, pointed out a number of minor little flaws. As I recall, Johnson answered that he would correct things in future versions, but that mistakes in detail were tough to avoid, at least entirely. Excellence is not necessarily perfection.

Shakespeare was writing in a difficult political climate. He had to be careful about how he presented history. (No point in being controversial, because you might be jailed or dead, at which point you’re no longer in the business of writing histories.) Telling history in a dramatic way in Shakespeare’s time meant you had some boundaries to stay within:
—England good. France bad. Italy exotic and warm and dreamy.
—Don’t mess with the monarch or the government. Make the sovereign look good.
—Don’t incite riots.

Within these boundaries, then, the primary job is to be compelling. One of the thing the playwright may have been doing is portraying a moment in England’s history when things were chaotic and in decline in contrast to the present age of Gloriana. Shakespeare does need to exercise caution as he tells British history. I’ve heard Elizabethan England described as a kind of police state (with disloyalty ruthlessly dealt with), so he needs to be careful what he says about the Crown, particularly in the case of this play as it relates to the ancestors of the reigning English monarch.

 

 

 

King Henry VI Part One | William Shakespeare | The Story

by Glenn on July 29, 2018

This is a pretty good explanation, save the spelling of Gloucester.

This is less helpful:

 

ACT ONE

1.1

Things are bleak as the play begins. King Henry V has died in France and members of his court attempt to outdo one another with statements of how good Henry was..

Duke of GLOUCESTER offers hyperbole:

“England ne’er had a king until his time …
His brandished sword did blind men with his beams;
His arms spread wider than a dragon’s wings;
His sparkling eyes, replete with wrathful fire,
More dazzled and drove back his enemies
Than midday sun fierce bent against their faces.
What should I say? His deeds exceed all speech:
He ne’er lift up his hand but conquered.”

I’ve never been much for astrology. It’s fascinating to see how it is used to explain Henry V’s demise. Duke of BEDFORD declares that “bad revolting stars / … have consented unto Henry’s death.”

Duke of EXETER wants revenge: “We mourn in black; why mourn we not in blood?” Then he asks if we are to blame the alignment of planets or magic “contrived” by the “subtle-witted French.”

Bishop of WINCHESTER, representing the Church, borrows Biblical allusions: King Henry V “was a king blessed of the King of Kings” and fought “the battles of the Lord of Hosts.” He declares, “The church’s prayers made [Henry] so prosperous.”

So far, everyone has seemed united in grief, but now we get some indications of tension. GLOUCESTER doesn’t like what he has just heard from WINCHESTER:

“The church? Where is it? Had not churchmen prayed, [a play on “preyed”]
His thread of life had not so soon decayed:
None do you like but an effeminate prince,
Whom, like a school-boy, you may over-awe.”

This is a deep insult. WINCHESTER and GLOUCESTER engage in some back and forth until BEDFORD commands them to stop. He is concerned about civil war since Henry V’s son, the heir to the throne, is a child. (In real life, he’s nine months old, but the action compresses a number of years into the 2 1/2 hours of stage time and HENRY VI is presented as at least a teen.) Before the conflict developes, a series of messengers arrive with bad news from France.

The first MESSENGER brings “sad tidings … / Of loss, of slaughter, and discomfiture” and a list of cities which are no longer in English control.

EXETER asks for reasons and makes an assumption in the process: “What treachery was used?”

The MESSENGER describes a broad problem that includes lack of resources abroad and factions at home resulting in no clear strategy in France. His answer feels impertinent, but he says the generals in the field are getting mixed messages from the English leadership:

“One would have ling’ring wars with little cost;
Another would fly swift but wanteth wings;
A third thinks, without expense at all,
By guileful fair words peace may be obtain’d.”

A SECOND MESSENGER arrives to say that the Dauphin—the heir to the French throne and known in this play as CHARLES—has been crowned king.

A THIRD MESSENGER arrives “to add to your laments” the news that the great English warrior, Lord TALBOT, has been taken prisoner.

BEDFORD decides he needs to go to war. GLOUCESTER will get weapons together and announce the new king, HENRY VI. EXETER will head to the residence of HENRY VI to create a plan for his safety. WINCHESTER sees all this action and decides he needs to take control over HENRY VI so that he can control the government.

1.2

Things are looking good for the French, especially near Orléans. The English army, in siege mode, has weakened and the conflict with the English has become manageable because they attack so little. The French also favor the astrological explanation for things.

CHARLES (the Dauphin) says,

“Mars his true moving, even as in the heavens
So in the earth, to this day is not known:
Late did he shine upon the English side;
Now we are victors: upon us he smiles.”

No contemplation about why Mars has changed sides, but since things are going well, the French decide they might as well attack the English and break the siege on Orléans. This turns into a moment of comedy. (Remembering Shakespeare is not writing history; he is telling a partisan and patriotic story, which means it’s appropriate to make fun of the French.) As the French prepare to attack, Charles shouts,

“Sound, sound alarum! We will rush on them.
Now for the honor of the forlorn French:
Him I forgive my death that killeth me
When he sees me go back one foot or fly.”

In essence, “Let’s go; kill me if you see me retreat.” So then he retreats. The French lose the subsequent battle and CHARLES explains,

“Who ever saw the like? What men have I!
Dogs! cowards! dastards! I would ne’er have fled,
But that they left me ‘midst my enemies.”

The French engage in some quality blamestorming. “Their” conclusion, once again noting the play was written by an Englishman, is that England has sent superior warriors to battle: “Samsons and Goliases,” an odd metaphor considering Goliath was killed in battle by a much smaller opponent, David. But there is some good news for the French. The BASTARD of Orléans says he has “a holy maid,” JOAN DE PUCELLE (Joan of Arc) who is going to change everything. CHARLES is skeptical,  so before she enters the room, he decides to put her to the test by changing roles with one of his men, who now acts like he’s the Dauphin.

JOAN figures it out immediately and explains she has a kind of omniscience: “Be not amazed; there’s nothing hid from me.” She, herself, is a type of Samson. Where Samson had great powers because of his long hair, JOAN has great powers because she is a virgin. CHARLES tests her strength in battle and tells her,

“Thou art an Amazon
And fightest with the sword of Deborah.”

JOAN’s explanation is that “Christ’s mother helps me.”

And now CHARLES is in love. But JOAN tells CHARLES she must remain pure to remain powerful.

Some of the French leaders talk about whether they should give up Orléans. JOAN says no. She is “to be the English scourge” and promises good things for the French with this word picture:

“Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself
Till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.
With Henry’s death, the English circle ends.”

1.3

The action moves back to England where tensions are heightening. GLOUCESTER and his men have gone to the Tower to have a look around, but WOODVILLE, the chief officer of the Tower, won’t let him in because “The Cardinal of WINCHESTER forbids.” (This, incidentally, is a small error in the play. WINCHESTER doesn’t become a cardinal until the end of the play. He is currently a bishop. Sadly, “Bishop” can’t replace “cardinal” because it affects the poetry.) As GLOUCESTER’s and WINCHESTER’s men prepare to do battle with each other, the MAYOR of London has to break things up. Tensions haven’t eased, though, and WINCHESTER promises,

“Abominable Gloucester, guard thy head,
For I intend to have it ere long.”

1.4

Back to France and a short scene that is a puzzle for how you would present it on stage. Not only is there the choppiness of the action—England to France to England to France—but now we have this really short scene that features a French MASTER GUNNER and his son. The point of this brief dialogue is for the MASTER GUNNER to explain to his son that he’s discovered a place where the English are coming and going and has placed some explosives there. The son is to tell his father when he sees the English.

Immediately we jump to the English soldiers. I wonder to what extent these scenes of Shakespeare would be realized easier with a cinematic approach rather than sending groups of people on and off stage. Nevertheless, this scene is significant for the next.

1.5

Back with the English, they have some good news. TALBOT was released in a prisoner exchange. He is the counterpoint to JOAN and doesn’t mind telling you how much he frightened the French guards:

“My grisly countenance made others fly;
None durst come near for fear of sudden
death.In iron walls they deemed me not secure—
So great fear of my name ‘mongst them were spre
ad,That they supposed I could rend bars of steel.”

Now the English head to the place where the explosives have been set. SALISBURY and GARGRAVE are killed. And things get worse when the French attack.

1.6

The French attack is a rout because JOAN DE PUCELLE is scattering the English troops. TALBOT confronts JOAN. They battle long enough for TALBOT to learn what he is up against before JOAN announces, “Talbot, farewell thy hour is not yet come,” and departs.

TALBOT is overwhelmed: “My thoughts are whirled like a potter’s wheel.” There are more skirmishes. The result is that the English lose the battle and the French retake Orlèans.

1.7

It’s party time for the French. CHARLES is pretty happy with the outcome and has promised to share power with JOAN and make her a French saint.

ACT TWO

2.1

French soldiers are in place watching for movement. TALBOT is planning an attack. The problem for the English is how to explain what JOAN has accomplished. BEDFORD insists that the French Army isn’t strong,

“Coward of France! [the Dauphin] how much he wrongs his fame,
Despairing of his own arm’s fortitude,
To join with witches and the help of hell!”

The English strategy is to attack the French from multiple directions while they are dissipated by excessive celebrations. TALBOT will attack in the name of SALISBURY, to avenge his death. The Dauphin barely escapes the attack. BASTARD thinks “this Talbot be a fiend of hell.” RENÉ replies, “If not of hell, the heavens sure favor him.” The blame is put on JOAN who complains that while things go well when she’s around, she’s not omnipresent. Another moment of comedy follows. An English soldier enters shouting, “A Talbot” (a euphemism for the English soldier). The French flee and the soldier takes what they leave behind.

2.2

The English rejoice. SALISBURY’s death has been avenged, but TALBOT wonders why they didn’t see CHARLES or JOAN. A messenger arrives from the COUNTESS of AUVERGNE to invite TALBOT over for a visit.

2.3

The COUNTESS of AUVERGNE is setting a trap and uses a rather obscure allusion in a simile,

“The plot is laid: if all things fall out right,
I shall as famous be by this exploit
As Scythian Tomyris by Cyrus’ death.”

(One wonders how this was received by Shakespeare’s audience. Were there people in the audience who understood the reference so that the comparison made sense? Or was it enough just to have the simile, with some irony in the fact that he would be as famous as something obscure?)

TALBOT arrives. The COUNTESS mocks him. “I thoughts I should have seen some Hercules.” She thinks she has trapped him, but he laughs. When he blows his horn, soldiers arrive. He was clearly too smart to fall for this. He knew what was coming and had planned accordingly. Subtext: The English are much smarter than the French. The COUNTESS apologizes. TALBOT says as long as there is food and wine, all is well; she won’t be hurt.

2.4

Back in England there’s a gathering and an awkward silence. The earlier conflict between Winchester and Gloucester was just the tip of the iceberg. This is a tough scene to visualize. It’s hard to know who’s one who’s side without some sort of chart. YORK is in conflict with SOMERSET. SOMERSET tells WARWICK to “Judge between us” and WARWICK asks, “How can I?” We have a complicated legal situation, but for YORK and SOMERSET it’s clear as day. This feels like a highly technical scene, with lots of legal language and genealogical references. This is the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, where two significant English families with claims to the throne of England, fought with each other. I once made a genealogy chart to try and track this, but that was several laptops ago and I’ve lost it to the digital abyss. The following is a pretty good chart:

The backstory for this scene and play is this: Everyone close to the throne is a Plantagenet, dating back to King Henry III. But with King Edward III that family line breaks into York and Lancaster lines (factions). Edward III had thirteen children. More accurately, his wife, Philippa of Hainaut, had the thirteen children. Of these children, four factor into this play.

Edward, the Black Prince died while his father was still in power. When Edward III died, the throne then went to the Black Prince’s son, who became King Richard II. Richard II didn’t have any children, therefore, the line should have followed a descendant of Edward III’s next son, Lionel, Duke of Clarence. That would have been eight-year-old Edmund Mortimer (not shown on the chart) who, eventually, would begin the Yorkist line.

But that didn’t happen. The reign of Richard II ended when he was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, the son of Edward III’s third son, John of Gaunt. Henry Bolingbroke became Henry IV, the father of Henry V, the king who is dead at the beginning of this play. And now with a nine-month old baby on the throne (though, in this play, that infant is quite articulate), people are looking for strong leadership. So, on one side you have people (Yorkists) who believe the throne has been taken from them or people closely related to them.

On the other side are people (Lancasters) who have the throne and don’t want to give it up. (I think the principle of “possession is nine-tenths of the law” factors in here. In this scene everyone will choose sides. A white and a red rose bush are part of the scenery. The York family is symbolized by a white rose and the Lancasters are red. Those gathered around are going to pick roses to indicate what sides they are on.

On the York side, picking white roses, you have:
YORK
WARWICK
VERNON
LAWYER

The Lancaster side is picking red roses:
SOMERSET
SUFFOLK (William Pole)

SOMERSET lightens the mood somewhat as he tells VERNON,

“Prick not your finger as you pluck it off,
Lest bleeding you do paint the white rose red
And fall on my side so, against your will.”

But this is serious stuff and WARWICK makes a prophecy:

“this brawl to-day,
Grown to this faction in the Temple-garden,
Shall send between the red rose and the white
A thousand souls to death and deadly night.”

2.5

The scene shifts to the Tower of London and the death of MORTIMER, YORK’s uncle, who one may argue was the rightful heir to the throne, explaining why he is locked up in prison. We get a picture of his demise:

“These eyes, like lamps whose wasting oil is spent,
Wax dim, as drawing to their exigent;
Weak shoulders, overborne with burthening grief,
And pithless arms, like to a wither’d vine
That droops his sapless branches to the ground;
Yet are these feet, whose strengthless stay is numb,
Unable to support this lump of clay,
Swift-winged with desire to get a grave,
As witting I no other comfort have.”

MORTIMER offers an interesting image of death as “Just death, kind umpire of men’s miseries.” YORK tells his uncle about how he is despised. MORTIMER tells his own story of being locked up trying to take the throne. Then MORTIMER dies.

ACT 3

3.1

In court there is more conflict. WINCHESTER and GLOUCESTER have it out. WARWICK and SOMERSET join the fray. YORK remains silent. KING HENRY VI may be young, but he shares a profound simile:

“Civil dissension is a viperous worm
That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth.”

There’s a fight outside that gets the MAYOR OF LONDON involved. WARWICK’s and GLOUCESTER’s men were forbidden to carry weapons so now they’ve been throwing rocks at each other. (WARWICK’s men wear tawny-colored clothing; CLOUCESTER’s men wear blue.) Three members from the melee are hauled in and it’s clear they are committed to open hostility. HENRY VI begs for peace and once the principals agree to calm down, the SERVINGMEN have a brief comedic moment:

First Serving-man: “Content: I’ll to the surgeon’s.”

Second Serving-man: “And so will I.”

Third Serving-man: “And I will see what physic the tavern affords.”

HENRY VI thinks he resolves the RICHARD of YORK problem by restoring his title and lands. (GLOUCESTER is on the White Rose—York—side of things.) WARWICK and WINCHESTER agree. RICHARD of YORK is restored and there is a unison proclamation,

“Welcome, high prince, the mighty Duke of York!”

But SOMERSET isn’t happy about this development and in an aside says,

“Perish, base prince, ignoble Duke of York!”

GLOUCESTER says the KING should go to France. EXETER sees that a fire is still smoldering and that competition among the nobles in court means that things don’t look good for HENRY VI’s reign.

3.2

Back to France. JOAN is in disguise and sneaks into Rouen to find a way in for the Dauphin. It’s amazing how many little aphorisms pop up in Shakespeare. Here’s one uttered by RENÉ:

“Defer no time: delays have dangerous ends.”

TALBOT enters the stage fighting while he curses JOAN. TALBOT, BEDFORD, and BURGUNDY are trapped. The French appear on the walls of the town and taunt the English. TALBOT tries to persuade BEDFORD to go rest. FALSTAFF runs away to save himself. Somehow the English are victorious (that’s how great TALBOT is!), though BEDFORD dies. Now it’s on to Paris to install HENRY VI as king in France.

3.3

JOAN is not concerned about the loss of Rouen. She is playing a longer game:

“Let frantic Talbot triumph for a while
And like a peacock sweep along his tail;
We’ll pull his plumes and take away his train,
If Dauphin and the rest will be but ruled.”

Her plan is to get BURGUNDY to change sides. CHARLES asks for a parley with BURGUNDY. JOAN pleads with BURGUNDY on behalf of France,

“Strike those that hurt, and hurt not those who help.”

BURGUNDY changes sides. Again, JOAN is portrayed as evil. BURGUNDY says,

“Either she hath bewitch’d me with her words,
Or nature makes me suddenly relent.”

He suggests JOAN’s words have extraordinary power:

“I am vanquished: these haughty words of hers
Have battered me like roaring cannon-shot
And made me almost yield upon my knees.”

Again the Englishness of this depiction of Frenchmen is pretty obvious. JOAN says,

“Done like a Frenchman, turn and turn again.”

3.4

TALBOT speaks to the English court that has arrived in France. He recounts how he has retaken 50 castles, twelve cities, and seven walled towns, and taken 500 significant prisoners. VERNON is wearing a white rose and he and BASSET, who is loyal to SOMERSET get into it. BASSET insults VERNON who, then, strikes BASSET. There is a plea to settle things once and for all. BASSET would have drawn his sword, except that there is a law against dueling.

ACT FOUR

4.1

HENRY VI is crowned king of France. FALSTAFF shows up with a letter from BURGUNDY. TALBOT confronts FALSTAFF and rips off his symbol of Knight of the Garter. HENRY banishes FALSTAFF. Then the letter from BURGUNDY, where he announces he has changed sides, is read aloud. TALBOT goes to confront BURGUNDY. VERNON and BASSET ask for permission to duel, which HENRY doesn’t like. HENRY puts on a red rose and heads back to England. WARWICK and YORK try to make peace with the fact that the king is not wearing a white rose. EXETER thinks a child king makes for rancor and a power struggle.

4.2

TALBOT tells BORDEAUX he should surrender, or else. I love TALBOT’s picturesque language, here:

“You tempt the fury of my three attendants,
Lean famine, quartering steel, and climbing fire;
Who in a moment even with the earth
Shall lay your stately and air-braving towers,
If you forsake the offer of their love.”

The General of BOURDEAUX tells TALBOT his reading of the situation is wrong. 10,000 French soldiers have just taken communion with the oath to kill TALBOT. TALBOT realizes that he was too hasty to go to battle and includes a graphic image of an English hunt, metaphorical for his own situation.

“How are we parked and bounded in a pale,
A little herd of England’s timorous deer,
Mazed with a yelping kennel of French curs.
If we be English deer, be then in blood;
Not rascal-like to fall down with a pinch
But rather moody-mad: and, desperate stags,
Turn on the bloody hounds with heads of steel
And make the cowards stand aloof at bay:
Sell every man his life as dear as mine,
And they shall find dear deer of us, my friends.”

4.3

YORK learns the situation is dire for TALBOT. He was supposed to send supplies/reinforcements. He blames SOMERSET. LUCY tells him that TALBOT’s son is headed to be with his father. YORK assesses the situation:

“Alas, what joy shall noble Talbot have
To bid his young son welcome to his grave?”

4.4

SOMERSET blames YORK for a “too rashly plotted” plan—this is why he isn’t supportive of the attempt to help TALBOT.

4.5

TALBOT tells his son,

“O malignant and ill-boding stars!—
Now thou art come unto a feast of death.”

He warns his son to leave, but his son will not go. They realize they are going to die. TALBOT says,

“Come, side by side together live and die.
And soul with soul from France to heaven fly.”

4.6

TALBOT tries one more time to send his son away. JOHN TALBOT returns and resolves to die with his father.

4.7

JOHN TALBOT is dead. TALBOT says, touchingly,

“Now my old arms are young TALBOT’s grave.”

LUCY comes to take their bodies and prophesies,

“But from their ashes shall be reared
A phoenix that shall make all France affeared.”

 

Act Five

5.1

Back in England, HENRY is dealing with a letter from the Pope calling for peace between England and France. GLOUCESTER says it’s the way to go plus the French Earl of Armagnac has promised his daughter to HENRY, which will be great for an alliance. WINCHESTER is now a cardinal. They send a jewel to the French girl.

5.2

Word comes to CHARLES that the Parisians are fighting against the English. The English army is preparing for battle. JOAN isn’t concerned:

“Command the conquest, Charles, it shall be thine!”

5.3

JOAN attempts to consult spirits, but the spirits aren’t cooperating. YORK captures JOAN.

5.4

SUFFOLK has taken Margaret, a beautiful, French girl, as his prisoner. He thinks she would make a great queen for HENRY VI, but he’s also attracted to her, so he decides she should be both his mistress and the queen. He is playing a dangerous game and knows it:

“O, wert thou for myself! But, Suffolk, stay;
Thou mayst not wander in that labyrinth;
There Minotaurs and ugly treasons lurk.”

There’s a funny moment in this scene where SUFFOLK has a number of asides. Clearly MARGARET can’t quite hear what he is saying, but he appears thoroughly distracted and can’t engage with her. Then she does the same thing.

5.5

JOAN has been captured and is going to be burned at the stake. Her father, the SHEPHERD insists she was born out of wedlock. She insists she is highborn. Then, to try and get out of the burning, she says she is with child. WINCHESTER shows up to share the plan for peace. YORK wonders what it was all for. A truce is arranged. Initially, CHARLES doesn’t like the terms, but in conversation with RENÉ decides that peace is better than war.

5.6

SUFFOLK tells the king how great MARGARET is. He is smooth. GLOUCESTER reminds HENRY that he is betrothed to another French girl. He argues that the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac is a better match because she is more closely related to the Dauphin. There are arguments over dowries. SUFFOLK says the king should marry for love, because

“For what is wedlock forcèd but a hell,
An age of discord and continual strife?
Whereas the contrary bringeth bliss,
And is a pattern of celestial peace.”

SUFFOLK gets permission to go back to France and ask Margaret if she will marry the king. He gets the last two lines of the play, which set up a sequel.

“Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king;
But I will rule both her, the king and realm.”

The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon

by Glenn on July 22, 2018

I enjoyed 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2018) by Jordan B. Peterson so much I went back and listened to the audio version. It is a remarkable work, with lots to think about.

Read the rest of this entry »

12 Rules by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson

by Glenn on July 17, 2018

The following are the 12 Rules from Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2018).

Rule 1 | Stand up straight with your shoulders back.

Rule 2 | Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.

Rule 3 | Make friends with people who want the best for you.

Rule 4 | Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

Rule 5 | Do not let your children so anything that makes you dislike them.

Rule 6 | Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.

Rule 7 | Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).

Rule 8 | Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie.

Rule 9 | Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.

Rule 10 | Be precise in your speech.

Rule 11 | Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.

Rule 12 | Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

Dr. Peterson’s 12 Rules are part of a longer list of rules posted as an answer to the question, “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” on the website, Quota.

Tell the truth.
Do not do things that you hate.
Act so that you can tell the truth about how you act.
Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.
If you have to choose, be the one who does things, instead of the one who is seen to do things.
Pay attention.
Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you need to know. Listen to them hard enough so that they will share it with you.
Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationships.
Be careful who you share good news with.
Be careful who you share bad news with.
Make at least one thing better every single place you go.
Imagine who you could be, and then aim single-mindedly at that.
Do not allow yourself to become arrogant or resentful.
Try to make one room in your house as beautiful as possible.
Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.
If old memories still make you cry, write them down carefully and completely.
Maintain your connections with people.
Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or artistic achievement.
Treat yourself as if you were someone that you are responsible for helping.
Ask someone to do you a small favour, so that he or she can ask you to do one in the future.
Make friends with people who want the best for you.
Do not try to rescue someone who does not want to be rescued, and be very careful about rescuing someone who does.
Nothing well done is insignificant.
Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
Dress like the person you want to be.
Be precise in your speech.
Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
Don’t avoid something frightening if it stands in your way — and don’t do unnecessarily dangerous things.
Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
Do not transform your wife into a maid.
Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.
Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.
Read something written by someone great.
Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
Don’t let bullies get away with it.
Write a letter to the government if you see something that needs fixing — and propose a solution.
Remember that what you do not yet know is more important than what you already know.
Be grateful in spite of your suffering.

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson in Portland, Oregon

by Glenn on July 10, 2018

One of the great moments at the Jordan B. Peterson lecture here in Portland, Oregon (June 25, 2018, Keller Auditorium) happened just before the program began. An announcer told the audience that had gathered that “a zero tolerance policy for heckling and disturbances will be strictly enforced.” The audience erupted with applause and cheers. I remember thinking in anticipation of the event that one unruly audience member could ruin this for everyone else. I wasn’t sure who the others were in the audience. Conservative? Liberal? Religious? Irreligious? We were all together on the desire to hear someone speak without worrying about them getting shouted down. We had paid money to hear Dr. Peterson, not protesters, and so it was a relief to know that should someone try to grab attention, it would be dealt with. Security was taken very seriously for this event. Each attendee was searched carefully upon entrance. There was a significant police presence both inside and outside the building.

The event was hosted by Dave Rubin of The Rubin Report. I had never heard of him previously, but I live in a basement, both literally and figuratively. I enjoyed him immensely in this context. His opened the evening and conducted the Q&A with Dr. Peterson at the end. Among whatever other skills he has is a particular genius for relating to crowds. (He is a stand-up comedian, which makes sense. Here is a short clip.) He didn’t appear to have a set speech and his role seemed to be to get the house ready for Dr. Peterson rather than appear for himself. Rubin noted that this was the first time in all his appearances with Dr. Peterson that the house announcer earned applause for the no heckling announcement. He assumed we were pretty tired of protesting. Yes!

I suppose the first take-away from the evening was the assumption that at least the nearly 3,000 Portlanders in attendance were fed up with protests. This is the age of shouting down those you disagree with or don’t think should be heard. It’s wearisome.  It’s not enough to ignore the people whose views you don’t like, you have to denounce and disrupt them. But in the same way that someone’s right to swing their arm ends at my nose, one person’s right to free speech can’t be at the expense of my right not to have to listen. Further, it is my right to choose to listen to someone speak, and someone who interferes with that is violating my rights.

In his opening remarks, Rubin mentioned the protest that was going on outside, across the street, in anticipation of this event. (I noticed it as we approached Keller Auditorium.) This was the first time I recall attending an event that was protested by others. Rubin told us that the protest was by Antifa against violent men. He wondered aloud (to applause and laughter) what that had to do with those of us who were inside Keller Auditorium. What there was to protest remains a mystery to me.

Rubin’s funniest line didn’t elicit the loudest response from the audience. It was subtle and may have caught his audience off guard. He mentioned how his appearance at a previous event led someone to accuse him of being “anti-gay”. He followed that with, “My husband was sure surprised to hear that.” Perhaps tolerance and respect doesn’t quite equate to acceptance and affirmation. Hard to know what happened there.

Rubin didn’t speak very long. I got the sense that his sense was we were ready to listen to the headliner. Rubin’s introduction of Dr. Peterson and his subsequent appearance on stage was greeted by a standing ovation and raucous cheering. The idea of college professor as rock star is really odd.

Here are some highlights from Dr. Peterson’s talk that night:

1. He is trying to understand why so many people are flocking to hear him speak at these public lectures and why the YouTube phenomenon of people like Joe Rogan is exploding. He contends there is a hunger for long-form, intellectual discussions. He believes we are in a Gutenberg-style revolution in communication. For the first time in history, the spoken word has the same reach as the printed word. He talked about television’s problem of “narrow bandwidth,” which he explained is the one- to six-minute opportunity you have to make a point before you have to go to a commercial. This is the sound-bite world where if you can’t make a point quickly, you fail. (A related point, which I’ve heard Dr. Peterson make elsewhere is that the narrow bandwidth requires a certain kind of charisma, which becomes more important than—and perhaps takes away from—what you’re actually saying.) He recounted recent events where he and Sam Harris had public debates that were on the intellectual level of a PhD defense, and where audiences seem quite engaged with it all.

He talked about the theory some have offered that television has made us stupid, but he thinks that is incorrect. To the contrary, television has brought a lot of people along who would have missed out on education. And he notes that HBO and Netflix are demonstrating that people are willing to binge-watch hours and hours of one television program and that those programs are nearing the quality of written literature in terms of the number of characters and the complexity of their stories, requiring a level of sophistication to engage with them. And so people are turning to YouTube to watch long intellectual discussions. His own experience with YouTube was having posted many of his lectures there and discovering one day that there were over one million views. “That’s a lot.” (I think he referred to a million books and then said, without a trace of irony, “That never happens.” As a warning to writers in the room he said, “It will never happen.”) By way of metaphor, he says he is riding a wave but is not the wave.

This technological revolution of long-form intellectual discussions means that where reading and videos both require single-minded attention, a podcast means you can recover time spent doing other things—driving, exercising, washing dishes, etc. The entrance barrier to embracing the technology is low and people can enrich their lives with perhaps as much as two hours of high-level intellectual engagement. For the first time in history, the spoken word has the reach of the written word.

Dr. Peterson referred to his fellow Canadian, Marshall McLuhan, who coined the expression, “the medium is the message.” What I understand of McLuhan’s arguments has come to me via Neil Postman. Something I’ve heard Postman say (or, rather, seen him write) is that new technologies mean there will be winners and losers. The Gutenberg revolution left you behind if you could not read. One of the things I’ve been trying to think through is what, if anything, is the downside to this new revolution. The closest I’ve come to is that you do need access to internet bandwidth, which has a cost. And the equipment you need to listen to anything on the internet also has a cost. So while the content is “free,” the way you listen to it certainly is not. Another possible downside is the fact that the internet is not edited like, say a book or a newspaper. On the up side, you have the free expression of ideas; on the downside is that you have an ocean of content to wade through, much of which is prurient or inane. Taking advantage of this new revolution requires a disciplined search for the ennobling, or else you drop hours watching cute cat videos and the like.

Further, that idea of “free,” while true, is misleading. True, you can upload and listen to a YouTube lecture for free (assuming you have internet access and a viewing platform), but it’s not like Google is not exacting a cost. In addition to fairly unobtrusive ads, the price we are paying is that we are giving over our data to internet companies. The YouTube lectures are not the product; we are the product. Perhaps the price is insignificant compared to the gain.

2. Dr. Peterson referred to the “intellectual dark web,” which was an unfamiliar term. Here is a website. The New York Times offered this report. Of all the people mentioned in these articles, I am most familiar with Dr. Peterson. It is odd for me to think of him as “dark” in any sort of way.

3. Dr. Peterson offered an interesting view of the political landscape. One of Dr. Peterson’s gifts is his ability to frame things well so that there is actually something to talk about and consider. He talked about politics this way: Most of us think that we are very enlightened when we vote. Whether we’re on the left or the right we think we have come to our opinions rationally. Really, though, we tend to select our sources for information, which have points of view we agree with. Dr. Peterson maintains that much of our approach to politics has to do with temperament. On the right you have people who appreciate structure. Republicans are organizers. They know how to build and manage things. They manage well. The problem is that those structures can get old and stale and you can spend resources maintaining structures that shouldn’t be maintained. On the left you have people who know how to create new structures. They have an idea for how things could be different and they create. The problem for these types is that they aren’t very organized and don’t know how to set up and maintain these structures. And, of course, the end of a structure is painful for those who benefit from that structure.The people on the right need to recognize that structures sometimes need to be ended so that new structures can emerge. Dr. Peterson’s point is that both sides need each other. The left has these ideas, but they need people on the right who can put the ideas together. There are visionaries and there are managers.  Dr. Peterson told a great story out of Egyptian history and mythology that stressed the importance of having both perspectives. I wish I had been taking notes. (I’m sure I will find the story in his book, Maps of Meaning, when I get into it.)

4. The political discussion led into a riff on the importance of dialogue. Since Left and Right need each other they need to talk continually with each other. The truth comes out in the talking. The goal is not to win. In fact, it’s bad if either the left or right wins. If the right wins, the inequalities that emerge from hierarchical structures will be ignored. If the left wins, we won’t have any structures and our culture falls. He placed the importance of dialogue in the context of marriage as well. There, again, the goal is not to win. The goal is to talk and discover the truth together. If you win an argument, that means your partner loses, and “who wants to be married to a loser?”

5. It was nearly a throw-away line, but one of his most affecting statements for me was about Donald Trump. He related an experience he had listening to a comedy icon talk about his work in movies and television. He was loving the conversation and then this person turned to talk of Donald Trump, which Peterson found dreadful. He commented that it doesn’t take much “perspicacity” (probably the first time I’ve ever heard this word used out loud) to find something negative to say about Donald Trump. I don’t have the exact words, but it was to the effect that it’s too easy to criticize; that, obviously, Mr. Trump is a deeply flawed person in a self-evident sort of way. It takes no special insight, really, to point this out and doesn’t really accomplish anything to do so. He imagines a number of American voters going into the voting booth in 2016 saying, “Ah, the hell with it” and “voting Trump.” His point is that there are more important and interesting things to talk about.

6. I liked Dr. Peterson’s rule of three when it comes to managing people. When someone does something you don’t like, you give it a pass the first time, you note it the second time, and then the third time you confront. If you confront after the first occurrence, the person can argue their way out of it, denying it happened or making it about you. But if, when you confront, you have three examples, it’s hard for the person to explain away all three.

*  *  *

Dr. Peterson doesn’t bring a product, he offers a discussion, which he says is possible even in the context of a lecture. He doesn’t show up with a prepared talk; he wants every lecture to be different. His goal, even as he does all the talking, is to engage the audience—and he is relentlessly focused on the people in the front few rows. (I’ve heard him say that the lights make it impossible to see any farther back.) He is to academia what jazz is to classical music. Because he can riff it’s a mistake to think he doesn’t know what he’s doing or talking about, in the same way that it’s a mistake to think a jazz musician hasn’t practiced long tones or scales. What appears improvisational, is only possible because of years of dedicated study. I’ve heard people get up in front of people and not say anything. What’s extraordinary is how Dr. Peterson can hold the attention of 3,000 for a couple of hours and, at the end of it, you can point to specific things he said and reflect on them.

A beautifully written account of the evening, including the protests, can be found here.

Holiness Unto the Lord

by Glenn on July 6, 2018

It was fascinating to spend time this past weekend at the quadrennial meeting of pastors and lay leaders of The Evangelical Church, a denomination known until recently as The Evangelical Church of North America. The national meetings occur every four years, at which point its supervising leader (the General Superintendent—a position more of influence than actual authority) is elected through an open ballot with the names of all eligible candidates. (In this case the national leader was re-elected to a third four-year term on the first ballot, with 65 out of 118 voting members selecting him.)  Regional meetings are held annually and regional leaders are selected by a similar election process within the context of those meetings.

The Evangelical Church is a small denomination within the larger world of evangelical churches and denominations. Each evangelical group, including, for example, The Evangelical Church, whose meetings I attended this weekend, and The Salvation Army, the church in which I grew up, have their own emphases, which is one of the reasons why there are so many denominations. My sense is that all the churches that make up the larger evangelical church movement have a relatively broad consensus on the following:

—The Bible is God’s revealed voice to people.
—God is both one and three—Father, Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit.
—Human beings are sinners headed toward destruction.
—The death of Jesus on the cross provided the way for human beings to be saved.
—Salvation means life change, both within, through inner transformation, and without, through relationships with others.

All of these statements need to be defended, but are assumed here. And while I’m sure there are quibblers, I think these things are broadly accepted by evangelicals, even if they may be spoken of in different ways.

Within the evangelical group are a number of churches and denominations that are part of a holiness movement. (Yes, a movement within a movement.) The Evangelical Church, The Salvation Army, the Wesleyan Church, the Nazarene Church, and the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), for example, make (or at least at one time made) one of their emphases the imperative, “holiness unto the Lord.”

It’s important to note, these churches that identify (or identified) as holiness churches would not necessarily have an easy time merging, if that were something they even wanted to pursue. While they share evangelical underpinnings and may have similar beliefs about holiness, they have widely differing views about governance and the roles of women, to name just two.

One of the priorities of the current leader of The Evangelical Church is for its pastors and, by extension, their churches to embrace their heritage as part of the holiness movement. He was, of course, speaking directly to this denomination and not other holiness churches let alone the entire evangelical movement. But talk of “holiness unto the Lord” is familiar to me from my days in The Salvation Army.

As the leader spoke this weekend about the need for holiness I was reminded of some thoughts from childhood. There are two:

One, the need for holiness is beyond dispute. There are many, many verses that provide (and, in this case, were used to provide) ample proof-texting for the need of holiness in a person’s life. There’s no question that the Bible speaks about and emphasizes holiness (for starters, Ephesians 1:4 and 4:24, 1 Thessalonians 4:7, Leviticus 11:44, 1 Peter 1:15–16, and Hebrews 12:10 and 13:12 quoted in his talk.)

Two, what exactly holiness means and how it is achieved are problematic and, therefore, hard to talk about.

To frame the issue, I think of salvation as occurring over time. When we talk about salvation we are actually talking about three time frames. First, there is the moment we put our faith in Jesus and are saved. That is the day our salvation begins. Last, there is the day we die and our salvation is finalized for all eternity.

The second is the time between when we are saved and when we die.

To put it in chronological order: We were saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved.

What does it mean that “we are being saved”? (Noting that some might object to the present participle,  indicating that it is accomplished over time.)

Holiness churches sometimes stress the need for a “second work of grace,” which seemed to be the case this weekend. While this idea is derived from the Bible, it’s not a Biblical term. This seems to align the holiness churches with, say, the Pentecostal movement, which talks about the baptism of the Holy Spirit (a Biblical term), which may occur when you are saved, but often occurs later and is sometimes associated with water baptism. The reason they don’t align is that the holiness churches and the Pentecostal churches differ in what the second work of grace/baptism of the Holy Spirit means in terms of outcome. The Pentecostal churches would stress the gifts of the Spirit, beginning with speaking in tongues. The holiness churches would stress a holy life.

Here’s one quote that was used by the leader this weekend.

“Entire sanctification is a state of righteousness and true holiness, which every regenerate believer may attain. It consists in being cleansed from all sin, loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.” (The Discipline: The Evangelical United Brethren in Christ, 1947)

I have a problem with that first sentence. First, sanctification and holiness are synonyms. Second, holiness and sanctification are different from righteousness. Holiness (sanctification) has to do with being set apart; righteousness has to do with right actions. So this first sentence is a bit like saying, “A is B and A,” which is a contradiction and a tautology.

Still the larger truth is there. After you are initially saved, you’re not done. There’s more saving that God wants to do in and through you until the day you die. But now the complications begin:

1. Is a holy life accomplished over time or in one moment? Some will talk about sanctification/holiness as a process; others will insist it’s an event accomplished in a moment of surrender, often public at an altar.

2. What is this “state” of being? Is a holy life the end of sinning? If not, what has changed? Some will insist that a holy life means you no longer sin, or at least are no longer tempted to sin. Is this even possible? What is possible in terms of living a holy life? Or, what does a holy life look like?

3. What is the difference between sanctification and “entire” sanctification? My sense of the scriptures that talk about holiness is that they refer to it in a binary way. Something is or is not holy, meaning it’s unnecessary to call something (or someone) “totally” or “entirely” holy. If it is binary, then we don’t need to talk about “entire” sanctification, because sanctified is what it is. If it is not binary, how do we differentiate Biblical sanctification from so-called “entire sanctification”?

4. How do we talk about holiness without describing it as righteousness? Holiness is often presented as a list of things you do and don’t do, which is righteousness. It was interesting, as this particular leader spoke, he emphasized that holiness is not legalism. That was a relief, frankly. I grew up in a legalistic environment, which I now see as a kind of self-righteousness. But once you begin to talk about holiness not in behavioral terms, the meaning gets a little fuzzy.

5. Who is doing the work of holiness? When a person is saved, most evangelicals would be careful to stress it’s God’s work. We are saved by grace through faith and even that faith comes from God is how Paul formulates it in Ephesians 2:8–9. If God saved us and will save us, isn’t it possible that he will be instrumental in our present saving? As it was presented this past weekend, God saves us initially, but now we need to live a holy life, so get to work! Be holy. God saved you so you could save yourself.

6. How do we preach holiness in a way that communicates well. Is there a way to describe holiness that is both concise and invites consensus? In other words, can it be defined simply and will a large group, for example the pastors in a denomination, understand and agree with the definition. Further, is there a way to communicate “holiness unto the Lord” that may be understood and practiced pragmatically by lay people so that it may be communicated to and demonstrated to others? Finally, is it possible that “entire sanctification” has a whiff of jargon about it? It might make sense to some of us in our little group, but will not be understood by people in other, even Christian, groups. It seems to me that I should be able to explain what it means to follow Jesus so that people who don’t follow Jesus or follow him within another Christian tradition will understand what I am talking about.

None of this is meant to be critical of any particular individual or organization as much as to identify that my own thinking on the subject is rather muddy. This is most decidedly an area where I need to spend some time reading and thinking and writing. It may or may not be a confusing issue, but I don’t have to be confused about that.

Some working principles, initial hypotheses, and thoughts:

1. Differences need to make a difference. We shouldn’t play games with semantics to try and differentiate what is essentially the same thing as something else.

2. Distinctions should not be pursued in isolation. Nor should we be elitist about our faith. We should be convinced it’s true, but we need some intellectual humility to acknowledge that other people from other Christian traditions are thinking about what it means to follow Jesus and are convinced of truth as well.

3. The distinctions between Christians and non-Christians is paramount to distinctions between one group of Christians and another. Obviously, we need to talk about holiness, without which “no one will see the Lord,” (Hebrews 12:14) but a life of holiness may be anathema to someone who is hell-bound.

4. Avoid majoring on the minors. Given the choice of major doctrine or minor distinctions, we should focus on the former. One of the useful aspects of the many denominations is that their individual emphases may affirm our particular emphases or point us to something that we are neglecting.

5. We need to pay attention to the danger of pride.  If I call people to a certain experience with God, it can be a little condescending. The call to be holy shouldn’t be separated from the call to follow Jesus, so that what is called a holy life cannot be construed as “Look what I have achieved. I have become holy. You people better get your acts together and be holy like me.” We should not talk about holiness apart from God.

6. Perhaps holiness is talked about more than we think. Rather than look at verses that mention holiness in isolation and try to formulate an extra-Biblical idea of what they might mean, perhaps pursuing holiness without which no one will see the Lord is more widely discussed in the Bible than we think.

7. We are talking about both an experience and a theory. I see a couple of dangers. First, the person talking about holiness needs to be careful not to make their experience with Christ the measure of what it means to follow Christ. Second, this is something lived, not theorized about.

More to come.

Munk Debate on Political Correctness

by Glenn on June 25, 2018

I discussed a thread on a volleyball message board that turned into an unresolved argument about what is and is not racist language and what constitutes basic respect for others vs. what is political correctness.I think it all began with a simple question of whether or not the Japanese Women’s National Volleyball team is good, at least potentially. Eventually, the President’s name was mentioned and the argument became thoroughly politicized.

It wasn’t a sophisticated discussion and nothing much was resolved. But even in sophisticated discussions, things don’t always work out well.

Recently, I watched the Munk Debate on Political Correctness: “Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress …”

For the resolution were Michael Eric Dyson and Michelle Goldberg. Against the resolution were Stephen Fry and Jordan Peterson.

This was a sophisticated discussion, but it, too, had some heated and unpleasant moments.

The two-hour debate is well worth the time watching (through their website, linked above, or on YouTube, below) to, at the very least, understand where things go awry when talking about progress/political correctness.

I think I understand the opposition’s point of view. Stephen Fry, who for me was the highlight of the debate, is a self-proclaimed contrarian. In his pre-debate interview he said he stands against “sanctimony, piety, self-righteousness, resentment, anger, orthodoxy, accusation, denunciation, shaming.” A “soft lefty,” he stands against these things whether they come from the right or, as they do on this issue, from the left. He wants to “achieve the golden aim of making a more tolerant society,” but he doesn’t want it to happen by, for example, prescribing language or tearing down statues. His simple argument is that it doesn’t work and fuels the anger of the right. He wants to see a day when people relate to each other in respectful ways, but insists that “saying what is and is not correct to say … delays the day.”

This issue of speech is what I think brought Jordan Peterson onto a larger stage and, as a result, this stage. He is a psychotherapist and a college professor at the University of Toronto. But when Canada wanted to compel certain forms of speech for people who don’t identify as either male or female, he spoke up rather forcibly, decrying the agenda of “the radical left,” which he maintains has “dominated” the humanities and the social sciences in the universities. He does think you need a left. The left speaks for the people who aren’t making it in the culture. It’s a voice of empathy. But his grave concern is two-fold: that the left “can go too far,” and that their aims are “ill-defined.” He thinks “the conflation of empathy and ideology” is dangerous and doesn’t like how “everything transforms into a polarized political argument.”

It’s unfortunate that the weakest debater was for the motion. My current sympathies were with Dr. Peterson and Mr. Fry and I was interested in hearing the argument for the things that they are against. Unfortunately, Michelle Goldberg, a writer, including columnist at the New York Times, stood against the opposition, but not necessarily for the motion. She doesn’t like, in particular, some of the things that Jordan Peterson has said. But that’s not the same thing as advocating for progress. In the end, it seemed like she was against people who are against “political correctness,” where the word is used pejoratively.

The other problem with Ms. Goldberg was that she has too many tics in her speaking style. She has adopted the contemporary habit of often ending sentences with “Right?” Once in a while it’s appropriate to check in to see if you are connecting with your audience, but too often makes you sound needy. Add to that a generous supply of “um”, “you know?”, “kind of”, “sort of”, and it all becomes exhausting. (I note that the transcript of the debate removes all this chaff from her spoken language. She is much better on the printed page.) She also may be the most imprecise speaker, though I haven’t done any fact-checking. At several points in the debate she said she was quoting Dr. Peterson and he interjected, “That’s not what I said.” I’ve listened to a number of interviews with Dr. Peterson and I think he really tries to be precise in his speech because he worries about being misquoted. My initial reaction is to believe him.

Michael Eric Dyson, therefore, was the only person really advocating for the motion. In his pre-debate interview he said the idea of political correctness was created by the left as an ideal but was taken by the right to mean “everything I’m mad about that I can’t be bigoted about anymore.” His essential point is that there are people who have benefited from privilege. They tend to be white and male. It’s time for them to share. Dr. Dyson is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University. Interesting, in the debate he will say exactly the opposite of what Dr. Peterson did regarding the radical left in the universities:

“The radical left is a metaphor, a symbol, an articulation. They don’t exist, their numbers are too small. I’m on college campuses, I don’t see much of them coming.”

Dr. Dyson is also a minister and has an obvious gift for public speaking. There’s a line that he used in both the pre-debate interview and in the debate. He points out Thomas Jefferson’s essential inconsistency in that he advocated for human freedom and had slaves. And when it came to Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s “loins trumped his logic.” It’s a clever line that got an audience reaction, but what is he saying? Yes, Jefferson was not consistent, but it was his ideals not his failings that were appealed to by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement. You can complain about Jefferson, but didn’t Jefferson identify the very principle that ended slavery and introduced Civil Rights? My main complaint, then, about Dr. Dyson during the debate is that he sounds good, but what is he saying? This is a point that Mr. Fry would make in his closing statement, referring to a

“classic, if I can call it that, huckstering, snake-oil pulpit talk. It’s a mode of discourse, a rhetorical style that I find endlessly refreshing and vivifying, but I’m not sure that we actually focused on the point in question.”

Ms. Goldberg was the first speaker. It was just four paragraphs in that she suggested Dr. Peterson was insane and brought Donald Trump into the debate:

“In the New York Times today, Mr. Peterson says: ‘The people who hold that our culture is an oppressive patriarchy, they don’t want to admit that the current hierarchy might be predicated on competence.’ That’s not particularly insane to me, because I’m an American and our President is Donald Trump, but it’s an assumption that I think underlies a worldview in which any challenges to the current hierarchy are written off as political correctness.”

This, though, is where the debate hinges. Those for progress or political correctness (not intended as a pejorative, here) maintain that there is a power structure, a pyramid or hierarchy, that leaves minorities at the bottom. They merely want the power and wealth to be shared.

The questions that the other side are wrestling with are:

1. How true is this? and

2. What do we do about it?

And the problems begin with asking that first question. On one side, people want to think about to what extent they have benefited from privilege. On the other side, people want to say that it’s axiomatic. If you’re even asking the question, you’re clueless. And we get stuck as we did in this debated. In one of the more heated moments of the debate, Dr. Peterson will engage with Dr. Dyson.

Dr. Peterson:

“Let’s assume for a moment that I’ve benefitted from my white privilege, okay? So let’s assume that.”

Dr. Dyson:

“That’s a good assumption; that’s a good assumption.”

Dr. Peterson:

“Yeah, well, that’s what you would say. So let’s get precise about this, okay?”

Dr. Dyson:

“Hmm, was that very individual of you?”

Dr. Peterson:

“Let’s get precise about this, okay?”

Dr. Dyson:

“Mm-hmm, let’s get precise.”

Dr. Peterson:

“To what degree is my present level of attainment or achievement a consequence of my white privilege? And I don’t mean ‘sort of.’ Do you mean 5 percent? Do you mean 15 percent? Do you mean 25 percent? Do you mean 75 percent? And what do you propose I do about it?

“How about a tax? How about a tax that’s specialized for me so that I can account for my damn privilege, so that I can stop hearing about it?”

The exchange continues and is worth watching because Dr. Peterson goes on to ask the question of when does the left go too far. At the same time, it feels to me as an observer that there is a bit of mocking in the way Dr. Dyson engages.

We never will get answers. This is where the conversation will break down. Dr. Dyson calls Dr. Peterson “a mean, mad, white man.” Dr. Peterson eventually responds,

“And with regard to my privilege or lack thereof, I’m not making the case that I haven’t had advantages in my life, and disadvantages in my life, like most people. You don’t know anything about my background or where I came from, but it doesn’t matter to you, because fundamentally I’m a ‘mean white man.’

“That’s a hell of a thing to say in a debate.”

Dr. Dyson contends,

“Let me just say that the “mean white man” comment was not predicated upon my historical excavation of your past; it’s based upon the evident vitriol with which you speak, and the denial of a sense of equanimity among combatants in an argument.”

I can say, having watched a fair amount of Dr. Peterson, is that he does communicate with a fair amount of intensity. And I do think it is just that—intensity, not anger—that you see when he communicates.

The point he wants to make is not that hierarchies don’t exist. There are people in power who have exercised power unjustly (Harvey Weinstein gets prominent mention in the debate). And there are people who are not participants in the hierarchy or speaking on behalf of those who are not or have been injured. The question remains, What do they want? And I do think it’s fair to ask How far is too far? Ms. Goldberg says violence and censorship are too far. But what about state-mandated speech? Dr. Peterson does recognize that inequalities are a problem. His argument is that correcting those inequalities can present a cure worse than the problem.

The finest moment of the night I thought belonged to Mr. Fry. In his closing statement he said this:

“It’s a strange paradox, that the liberals are illiberal in their demand for liberality. They are exclusive in their demand for inclusivity. They are homogenous in their demand for heterogeneity. They are somehow un-diverse in their call for diversity — you can be diverse, but not diverse in your opinions and in your language and in your behaviour. And that’s a terrible pity. So, I would say that I’m sorry that it got a bit heated in places, because I was hoping it wouldn’t. I was hoping it would be a shining example of how people of all different kinds of political outlooks can speak with humour and wit and a lightness of touch. As G. K. Chesterton said, ‘Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.'”

After the debate, Dr. Peterson said this about Mr. Fry:

“[I]t was a pleasure sharing the stage with him. I’ve rarely heard anyone ever deliver their convictions with such a remarkable sense of passion and wit and forbearance and erudition — it was really something.”

This is what happens on the internet

by Glenn on June 22, 2018

The U.S. Women’s National Volleyball team is one of 16 teams who are playing in the inaugural  Volleyball Nations League over five weeks this summer. (Preliminary rounds are over. Six teams, including the USA remain and are headed to China for the finals.) Part of my following their play is that I pay attention to a volleyball message board called Volleytalk. Read the rest of this entry »

Rules by Scott Stowell

by Glenn on May 24, 2018

From Print April 2013, p. 70 | Illustration by Scott Stowell

1. Pay attention.

2. The sooner you realize that nobody knows what they’re doing, the better.

3. If it’s not right, it’s wrong.

4. You think they can see through you, but they can’t.

5. Decide what you’re going to do. Do it.

6. It is about who you know, but I also know a lot of idiots.

7. Make sure you look good at the airport.

8. It doesn’t matter if anybody knows that you were right all along.

9. Don’t complain.

10. People are smart. If you keep that in mind, a lot of possibilities open up.