A Sea of Blistered Tongues

Richard III, Laurence Olivier

Laurence Olivier as Richard III

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt made an absorbing presentation last week, here in Princeton, based on his new book, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. What Shakespeare has to say about pretty much any domain of human behavior is worth thinking about, and Greenblatt’s current preoccupation was clearly shared by his receptive audience.

He edged into the topic by describing how Shakespeare has been used in many countries and settings as a screen on which people may project their views about their own leaders—views that very often would cost them their freedom or more, if stated directly. Shakespeare’s notable tyrants—Macbeth, Coriolanus, Lear, and, especially, Richard III—become stand-ins for narcissistic demagogues across time and geography.

He highlighted the would-be king (and real-life character) Jack Cade, who appears in 2 Henry VI, as a populist leader deploying eerily familiar tactics. In Shakespeare’s dialog, Cade makes blatantly absurd promises to the rabble he incites, to wit:

“There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny;

The three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops;

And I will make it a felony to drink small [weak] beer. . . .

There shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score;

And I will apparel them all in one livery,

That they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.”

This peroration is followed by what Greenblatt supposed (correctly in my case) was the only line most people can quote from that particular play, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Greenblatt says that, while the cheering rabble could not have truly believed these extravagant promises, their support for Cade was unwavering. Not until scheming Macbeth is exposed as a regicide and murderer, does Malcolm regret his former loyalty, saying, “This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues, was once thought honest.”

Shakespeare’s tyrants arise in eras when, as the book blurb summarizes, “Cherished institutions seem fragile, political classes are in disarray, economic misery fuels populist anger, people knowingly accept being lied to, partisan rancor dominates, spectacular indecency rules.” Such fraught times inspired Shakespeare, as did the tyrants’ narcissistic personalities and the “cynicism and opportunism of the various enablers and hangers-on” surrounding them. These same forces, personalities, and motives give his work continued relevance.

Greenblatt sounded a discouraging note in saying that, while Shakespeare was brilliant at portraying causes and effects in his history plays, he does not point a way to solutions. “There aren’t any good ones,” he said. Yet, remarkably, civilization survived these conflicts and setbacks. On a more positive note, he concluded that what Shakespeare also teaches us is, “We are not alone.”

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The First Amendment Revisited

Founding_Fathers

created by Matt Shirk, creative commons license

You know how you don’t get around to reading a book or article only to have it pop up on your radar at just the right time? I feel that way about the February 2018 issue of Wired, that I found buried in a stack of magazines.

The theme of the issue, “The Golden Age of Free Speech,” is meant ironically. In college I was journalism major  and received a heavy First Amendment dose. Courses on The Law of the Press might have tapped secondary topics like slander, libel, and plagiarism (privacy didn’t come up) on the shoulder, but they really shook hands with the issue of free speech.

These days, free speech absolutism needs some rethinking. I’d rather reflexively subscribed to the Louis Brandeis notion that the cure for bad/hateful speech is more good/uplifting speech. That’s not good enough anymore, and I recall that Brandeis also said that “sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” Too many people dangerous to good public order are lurking in the dark corners of the Internet where the light never reaches. It’s like having nests of rats in the basement. One of these days, they’re going to burst into the kitchen.

In Wired, Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, who is also an op-ed writer for the New York Times, provided a way to rethink my own conflicts on the First Amendment. Here’s the key passage:

The freedom of speech is an important democratic value, but it’s not the only one. In the liberal tradition, free speech is usually understood as a vehicle, a necessary condition for achieving certain other societal ideals: for creating a knowledgeable public; for engendering healthy, rational, and informed debate; for holding powerful people and institutions accountable; for keeping communities lively and vibrant. What we are seeing now is that when free speech is treated as an end and not a means, it is all too possible to thwart and distort everything it is supposed to deliver (emphasis added).

Thinking of free speech as a means, not the end, lets us look at the ends we are achieving now and judge whether free speech is helping or harming. She goes on to say that “today’s engagement algorithms . . . espouse no ideals about a healthy public sphere.” It’s become obvious that big social media platforms’ purposes do not extend very far beyond commercial self-interest and cannot be relied upon to make those judgments.

Tufekci gave examples of society’s aims, but we also can find them spelled out in the U.S. Constitution’s preamble: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

It’s time to ask ourselves and our politicians whether those aims are served by unfettered speech, hate speech, propaganda masquerading as truth, and misinformation peddled by people who pretend to be other than who they are. The free speech banner isn’t big enough to hide them all.

Vacation Reading, Italian Style

chalk outline, body

(image: pixabay, creative commons license)

Seventeen days out of the country, two eight-plus hour air flights, how many books should I pack? Always the burning question. This time, it turns out, not enough. I packed six and had to raid the hotel guest discards shelf for the return flight. Picked a good one too.

Here are quick reviews of five of them:

****Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine – The nearly 200 pages of this bi-monthly is like reading an entire book, one where you sometimes meet old literary friends, as in:

  • J.Rozan’s tale about the quick-wittedness of an elderly Chinese woman in “Chin Yong-Un Helps a Fool.” One of Chin’s previous escapades garnered Rozan a 2018 Edgar Award nomination.
  • Doug Allyn’s Dylan LaCrosse from Valhalla, Michigan, P.D. in another entertaining story steeped in the ethos of the Upper Peninsula.
  • Richard Helms’s Pat Gallagher, an unlicensed P.I. who roams New Orleans’s French Quarter, toting his cornet and stumbling into trouble. And
  • Lou Manfredo’s Sgt. Joe Rizzo, dealing with a “Brooklyn playboy murdered.”

**The Third Act, by John Wilson – This book which turned out to be YA, I hadn’t realized, blew an interesting premise. An Ohio drama program director writes a concluding act for an unfinished play by the program’s most illustrious graduate. The play is set in China at the time of the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, and the scenes in China create the sense of reading a play—little scene description, a few gestures. But the modern-day framing story is weak, and its grim conclusion sends an unsuitable message for young audiences, in my opinion.

****Faithless Elector by James McCrone – This is a look at one of the ways the U.S. Electoral College might be manipulated to propel a losing candidate into the Oval Office—entertaining and bone-chilling at the same time. Well-written with a bit of a logic stretch here and there. Particularly unnerving (and plausible) is that the conspiracy was discovered only by a fluke.

*****Twice Buried by Steven F. Havill – I love these evocative Posadas County Mysteries, which are fine-grained police procedurals. In this one, Undersheriff Bill Gastner takes great care investigating the apparently accidental death of an unexceptional old woman whose death (and life) law enforcement might tend to write off, and that makes all the difference.

****Half a Chance by John Perrotta – A quick read, this book is steeped in the action and lore of the thoroughbred race track. Someone’s playing fast and loose with big wads of cash, and can he keep all his financial transactions afloat while he rides out of town with the greenbacks? Lots of fun, strong characters, some redemption, and a fine evocation of horse-racing’s arcane world.

When Words Have a Long Tail

Independence Hall

Dan Smith, creative commons license

At a time when the U.S. Senate is considering a new member of the Supreme Court, the wisdom of viewing today’s problems and challenges through a 250-year-old lens is once again under scrutiny. No words put on paper today are likely to have as long and as consequential a tail for Americans as the Constitution of the United States.

In this month’s Language Lounge for Visual Thesaurus, linguistic provocateur Orin Hargraves returns to Independence Hall to consider the Founding Fathers’ accomplishment. In contrast to the typically fleeting nature of oral pronouncements (perhaps of the kind delivered in Senate hearings), Hargraves says, written language can have a “practically unlimited” afterlife. At the same time, it has weaknesses. It is missing context (quill pens versus the Internet) and, in the case of something written in the 1700s, people of today—our Senators, for example—cannot query the Founding Fathers for clarification and relevance.

Hargraves says the Constitution’s drafters of significant documents, like the U.S. Constitution, are aware “that the force of their words will long outlive them.” As a result, they choose those words with extreme care and provide a way to alter and update it, not easily though. Our Constitution now has 27 Amendments.

Despite the founders’ care, debate over the context and meaning of some of the Constitution’s provisions, especially the Second Amendment, is virulent. Even within such a presumably sedate setting as the Language Lounge, Hargraves says, past posts on this topic have inspired reader rants requiring “editorial intervention” by the Language Lounge masters. The prospects for consensus on a range of divisive topics seems remote, and The Washington Post says the first day of Kavanaugh’s hearings provided “a world-class display of bickering across party lines.”

Alice in Wonderland, words, Humpty DumptyOne helpful resource ought to be the Corpus of Founding Era American English, based on some 100 million words of text from 1760 to 1799 from various sources. (See how one source suggests this body of work should inform the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Judge Kavanaugh.) Yet, a historical perspective on the meaning of language in the late 1700s may not satisfy partisans “deeply invested in one view or the other,” Hargraves says. I suspect he’s correct. However much the advocates claim their interpretations are based on long-ago principles, in fact they serve current interests.

While no one would insist on using an owner’s manual for a Model T Ford to repair their Fusion Hybrid, the Constitution is not given room to breathe and grow to serve society today. That was then. This is the uncomfortable now. Attempting to return to some earlier meaning (if we even were clear what that was) may be just another way to avoid doing the hard work of making our systems and even our brilliant Constitution work in the 21st century.

Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus

Robberson, Cuccioli, & Cromer; photo: Jerry Dahlia

“A society drowning in violence and seemingly bereft of civil thought or action” is how the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey describes the setting for Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, now in a riveting new production, directed by Brian B. Crowe, through August 5. First performed January 24, 1594, it was one of the revenge dramas so popular among Elizabethan audiences and fans of the Death Wish franchise. Here, the desire for revenge trumps every other human feeling, with no possibility of compromise or negotiation.

It’s well worth seeing, not just because the opportunity comes about so rarely and not just because of Shakespeare’s thought-provoking content, but also because of the high quality of this production. The acting and production values are top-notch.

The title character (played by Bruce Cromer) returns to Rome a hero after his conquest of the Goths. His chained prisoners comprise their sultry queen Tamora (Vanessa Morosco), her three sons, and her advisor, a moor (Chris White). When Titus arrives, Roman brothers Saturninus (Benjamin Eakeley) and Bassianus (Oliver Archibald) are vying to replace their late father, the emperor. Given the opportunity to choose between them, Titus chooses Saturninus, who proceeds to claim his brother’s betrothed, Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Fiona Robberson). Skirmishes break out, but Lavinia and Bassianus flee.

Two of Titus’s sons were killed in the war, and the remaining sons demand the sacrifice of the Goth queen Tamora’s eldest son, despite her desperate pleas. Though she speaks honeyed words to Saturninus, her desire for revenge against Titus and all his children is clear.

The moor connives with Tamora’s remaining sons (Torsten Johnson and Quentin McCuiston) to kill Lavinia’s new husband, ravish her, and, so that she can’t reveal their identity, cut off her hands and cut out her tongue. Titus has lost five sons in the play so far, and his last son Lucius (Clark Scott Carmichael) is banished. He is devastated to see the wreck of his daughter. Only the counsel and forbearance of his brother Marcus (Robert Cuccioli) saves him from total madness.

Near the end of the play is a speech by Marcus that for me was the most relevant to politics in our own time: “O! let me teach you how to knit again this scatter’d corn into one united sheaf, these broken limbs again into one body; lest Rome herself be bane unto herself, and she whom mighty kingdoms curtsy to, like a forlorn and desperate castaway, do shameful execution on herself.”

Fine performances of Cromer as Titus, Cuccioni as Marcus, Morosco as Tamora, and her two reptilian sons (Johnson and McCuiston) were excellent. For me, though, the most moving performance came from Robberson, the handless, tongueless, young widow. And White delivers the moor with relish.

It’s fun seeing such a luxuriously large principal cast—16 actors—ably augmented by 11 members of the theater’s 2018 Summer Professional Training Program in multiple roles.

Dick Block created a memorable set, featuring giant swords and an enormous warrior’s helmet, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

****The Greek Wall

razor wire fenceWritten by Nicolas Verdan, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson –The European refugee crisis has been front-and-center in the news media for so long it’s become easy to tune it out. In award-winning Swiss author Nicolas Verdan’s literary crime thriller, all the horrifying consequences of what happens when groups of people are ripe for exploitation are on display. And he doesn’t stop there, underscoring how wide its ripples have spread in European society.

It’s 2010, and Agent Evangelos of the Greek National Intelligence Service is sent to investigate a severed head found outside the northern city of Orestiada on the border separating Greece and non-EU Turkey border. Is it the head of a Westerner? That’s what Evangelos’s superiors want to know, and they want the answer to be ‘yes.’ Something else to blame on the refugees.

Finnish members of the European Border and Coast Guard (Frontex) found the head near the bank of the Evros River. This strip of land is not only Greece’s border but that of the EU’s passport-free Schengen Area—in a sense, all of Europe. It’s the main crossing point for refugees into the European Union. Greek politicians want to build a Trump-like border wall there, and they want the EU to pay for it. Greece certainly can’t. (In real life, a 10-mile wall—actually a razor-wire fence—was eventually built.)

Verdan’s novel – his first available in English – is part political thriller, part police procedural, part mystery. A brief prologue offers hints regarding who has lost his head, but the circumstances are murky.

Much of this literary, sensitively written novel adopts the close-up point of view of Agent Evangelos, who takes the constant reversals of policy in stride simply by ignoring them. His focus is on solving the crime, and he moves doggedly forward, even when he’s told not to push his inquiry too hard. Novels based on current events risk becoming outdated, but the essential humanity of Verdan’s characters make this story timeless. An extra star here for humanity.

Hollywood in the White House

LBJ - Harrelson

Woody Harrelson as LBJ (2017)

Most of the time, Hollywood moguls and the pols inside the Washington Beltway hold each other “in mutual contempt,” said film historian Max Alvarez in an entertaining talk this week at the Princeton library. Yet politicians need Hollywood’s money and clout, and filmmakers need the government for such things as copyright and First Amendment protections and favorable trade regulations. And occasionally, they look to Washington—and the White House—for juicy story lines.

Screenwriters don’t overlook our Presidents who’ve been tragic characters worthy of Shakespeare. Lincoln has been most often portrayed, with Nixon second-most. Alvarez showed three clips back-to-back from movies about our 37th President: Anthony Hopkins in Nixon, Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon, and Kevin Spacey in the comedy Elvis and Nixon. Hopkins was the smarmiest, Langella the most tightly wound, and Spacey (I know, I know)—hilarious.

At least until recently, films about presidents and the presidency mostly flopped at the box office, and early on, not many were made. There was a bit of a burst in World War II, in films that had a propaganda message. If a president did appear in these early films, he was an upstanding, respected figure. That’s sure changed.

Alvarez suggested that because Presidents Kennedy and Clinton were younger and “cooler,” the creative types in Hollywood were drawn to material that included a president or presidential candidate in the early 60s and again in the 90s. (Note that the industry insider—Ronald Reagan—did not spark such ideas.) Television contributed, too, with 156 episodes of The West Wing from 1999 to 2006. Now we have Veep.

The movies have stopped treating presidents as paragons, with Wag the Dog, Primary Colors, Absolute Power, and Clear and Present Danger examples Alvarez cited. Why the shift? A scene from the Netflix program The Crown suggests an answer. In an episode set in 1957, Lord Altrincham, a small-time newspaper publisher, editorializes against Queen Elizabeth for being priggish and out of touch. In a meeting with her, he explains that the root of the problem is that, since the war, everything has changed, but the monarchy hasn’t. “What’s changed?” she asks, and he replies, “Deference.”

House-of-Cards

Kevin Spacey’s bloody hands in House of Cards.

Does exposure to charismatic, but dysfunctional characters on, say, House of Cards (not to mention such shows as Dexter, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men) normalize dysfunctional behavior? Alvarez thinks it may. Not that we have to go to the cinema or watch tv for that.

From the Department of Free Association . . .

. . . and so we have this recent Atlantic article about how continued exposure to the perfidies of the current administration is causing ‘outrage fatigue.’ Say it isn’t so.

 

****Stasi Child

Berlin Wall

photo: Department of Defense

By David Young, narrated by Julia Barrie – In a sense every person in this novel is a candidate to be the “Stasi Child” of this book’s title, so pervasive is the influence, the spying, and the danger posed by the Stasi, the State Security Service of the former German Democratic Republic. This is Cold War fiction at its most chilling.

Not even Karin Müller, the book’s main protagonist, a detective in the murder squad of East Berlin’s Kripo, is exempt. (The Kripo is the nickname for the Kriminalpolizei.) In fact, she is very much in the Stasi’s sights for several reasons. Closest to home, her math teacher husband has been fraternizing with “fascist elements,” risking a spell in jail, or worse. Already he was sent for a time to teach at a remote youth detention center as a warning. One he hasn’t heeded.

Mysteriously, detective Müller has been called on to investigate the death of a teenage girl whose body was found in a cemetery at the foot of the Berlin Wall. Dead bodies near the wall were not uncommon in winter 1975, when the story is set, as would-be escapees were shot on sight, but it appears this girl was shot in the back while attempting to escape into East Germany, not out of it.

The case is a minefield of political elements, as well. Müller is told that Stasi agent Klaus Jäger will actually be in charge of the investigation, though Müller and her Unterleutnant Werner Tilsner will do the work. Moreover, their remit is confined to discovering the girl’s identity, not seeking to find out who murdered her.

Whether the Stasi knows they are violating the terms of their assignment, whether they know she and Tilsner have been indiscreet, whether her husband is in jeopardy—everything could become a threat. Author David Young is an expert at ramping up these tensions, with one or two too many twists and turns nearing the end.

Interwoven with the chapters about the investigation are first-person chapters, set seven months earlier, told from the point of view of Irma Behrendt, a fifteen-year-old inmate at the youth work camp where Müller’s husband was sent. She dreams of escape and wants to take her best friend with her. It would be dangerous, of course, but desperation breeds courage. Eventually, the two narratives converge. Irma’s tale has been, all along, vital backstory.

With a female protagonist and first-person narrator, Julia Barrie was chosen to narrate the audiobook. Perhaps to give the many male characters distinctive audio personalities in her lower registers, she pitched Karin’s and Irma’s voices rather high. That sort of works for Irma—she’s young, after all—but not for Karin. She sounds too light, too immature, not forceful enough to be heading a murder squad. A benefit of audio is that Barrie handled all those multisyllabic German words with admirable ease.

 

Darkest Hour

Perhaps you feel about Churchilled out, what with Netflix’s The Crown and his memorable words floating over the disheartened British soldiers in Dunkirk, but director Joe Wright’s new film (trailer) is absolutely mesmerizing. I wish the film had gone on to present the whole rest of the war as vividly and thoughtfully, not just those desperate early days of the title.

Gary Oldman as Winston looks more the role than did John Lithgow, but the power of his performance comes from truly inhabiting the part and having a script by Anthony McCarten that shuns the clichés. Kristin Scott Thomas is brilliant as Churchill’s ever-supportive wife Clementine (resembling not a little Harriet Walter in The Crown). Lily James (Downton Abbey’s Rose, brunette this time) is sweet as his long-suffering secretary Elizabeth.

What this film provides that so many gloss over is scrupulous candor about the political facts facing Churchill. He was a compromise candidate for the role of Prime Minister, and people in his own party mistrusted him. They didn’t want him. The king didn’t want him. His predecessor, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), and a strong faction, led by Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), advocated a peace deal with Hitler, which Churchill adamantly opposed.

While today’s viewers may side with Churchill on the question of whether a good treaty could have been achieved with the dictator, Wright never over-eggs the pudding by weakening Halifax’s arguments. Both sides of this consequential debate are principled and passionate.

Churchill was new and shaky in his position, the entire British army was stranded at Dunkirk, the European countries were overrun, France was about to fall, and America could not help (yet). It was truly Britain’s Darkest Hour.  How the PM deals with it all reflected his genius. “If it’s a history lesson,” says reviewer Godfrey Cheshire at RogerEbert.com, “it’s one that plays like a tightly wound, pulse-pounding thriller.”

And Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography offers many nice touches, too. The slow-motion views of people in the street (which you realize is Churchill’s view as he passes in his car), the isolation of the elevators, the pockmarked French countryside from the air. Wonderful.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84% ; audiences: 83%.

****Kompromat

newspaper headlines

CC BY-SA HonestReporting.com, flickr/caseydavid

By Stanley Johnson – If you’re one of the millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic who look back on the elections of 2016 and say, to yourself or at the top of your lungs, “What just happened?” this satirical new political thriller is for you.

Its characters are such thinly disguised versions of today’s leading political figures, you can be forgiven for thinking you’ve inadvertently picked up a recent copy of The Times. Much-needed is the list of its many characters—from the US, Russia, Germany, China, various other countries, four “key animals” and, most numerous of all, leaders of the UK. “Kompromat” is a Russian word—a portmanteau meaning compromising material, and in this novel—as, possibly, in real life—most of these countries hold plenty of it on each other.

As the book opens, a 2016 US presidential candidate is participating in an international wildlife expedition that hopes to radio-collar a tiger. Events go wrong almost immediately. The candidate ends up in a hospital where the Russians plant a bug in his body. The CIA, ever on the ball, figures this out, and replaces it with their own bug. And they’re not the only ones. By the book’s end, America’s new president unwittingly has unwittingly become another “Voice of America.”

Meanwhile, the British have problems of their own. Its Secretary of State for the Environment is approached by the Russians, who have singled him out as a leading light of the “Eurosceptic wing” of the Conservative Party. He learns the Prime Minister agreed to the Referendum on EU membership (the “Brexit” vote) for a reason no more complicated than money. Apparently, the PM believed the vote would never actually occur and, even if it did, it wouldn’t succeed, and the Party would receive money for doing nothing.

Author Johnson devises numerous amusing and convoluted scenarios in which the hapless politicians become entangled. In his scenario, these byzantine schemes are organized and carried out by the Russian Security Service—the FSB, heir to the KGB—“ to change the whole structure of international politics.” The book is not only entertaining, it makes you think “what if?” and, as more news drifts out of world capitals, perhaps “why not?”

Johnson is a former politician and member of the Conservative Party, and a former employee of the World Bank and the European Commission, who has held a number of prominent environmental posts as well as being an environmental activist. In the time preceding the Brexit vote, he co-chaired Environmentalists for Europe. Although he’s on record as opposing the Referendum, his son Boris was a key leader of the “leavers.” The book is in development for a six-part television series too.