Opening remarks of "On Poetry and Performance" (At the Athenaeum Theatre Thursday, September 20th through Sunday, September 23rd)
Tickets can be purchased at the following: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/993119
We must wonder how Shakespeare did it, rather enviously if we are writers ourselves. Reading the thirty-nine plays, the sonnets, and smaller works, we find that they are readily comprehensible. The fact and overwhelming evidence of their success in this, in ascribing to difficulties we merely intuit from our own lives a language, and the capacity by which it extends these principles to that broad domain called mankind, should appear not less than baffling; and yet nothing could be readier prepared for our witness. The best of the writing about Shakespeare does not attempt to make a staircase out of our inability to rationalize its existence. Nor should this lecture attempt to claim in any straightforward manner such academic things as “the motivation for literature is to make sense of life, or that all literature arises from its historical context, and that from this or the other principle we may deduce with greater clarity how the text has been spun,” as this might reasonably explain large tracts of literature and never touch upon the pre-eminence of our author in this case. The best writing about Shakespeare recognizes something incomprehensible about the bard, ascribe to the plays a mysticism, or ascribe to its writer an intellectual capacity that simply supersedes the ability of its students to transcend and fully come to terms with the body of work. The best I can contrive for myself in presenting a meaningful interpretation of the plays in question is to offer up for view a group of inextricable dualities, on which I find the strength of the literature stands, like buildings do upon columns, these columns themselves set upon foundations that are otherwise non-evident. We do see a man in the plays, a poet that develops from his earlier efforts, onward to his mature works. At a certain point in the development, it could be said we lose him, but enjoy far more the consequence of his seeming departure from the world of the plays, his creation. All the plays analyzed by this lecture are from that later era. Following the aforementioned duality between the mystic ascription and the intellectual apotheosis, we read the plays and feel they are either somewhat beyond poetry or that they are poetry’s perfect realization. Rather than argue one side or the other, I would bound up the idea of poetry with the act of performance, for which the texts are designed, offering the intellectual argument its cause in stating that the victory sought and won over his rivals for the foremost station in Elizabethan theatre impelled the poet and his poetry to certain immortality, offering, on the other hand, the mystic outlook a foothold to transcendence through the mirror performance inherits to our own action in life. Pursuing either outlook, we come to learn that the poetry can nary be divorced from its purpose, and the purpose of the poetry is performance. For the actor, and for their audience, the philosophical awaits in the text, as does the emotional, and the musical, but if that is a rational philosophy or a transcendent one it is not I can split the hair. Again, I harken back to my refrain ‘in either case,’ and note the sheer quality of invention present in the text and the efficacy of the text imply meaning and life could not well be put in order but through suitable invention, the idea being that life is meaning and meaning life. This should provide us sufficient room for meaninglessness as well, and yet the text does not fall victim to nihilism. Something, a quality, sustains it. I hope that speaks for itself and leave the discerning between the two, between our inextricable duality of the intellect or the mystic, up to your private deliberations. Through every age, and every interpretation since, the text has given reason and purpose to our daily pursuits of wrestling fundament from the scheme of language. There do exist compelling rationales for the general antagonism to meaning our society maintains, or else the manipulations inherent to these rationales would not be effective. By force of violence, to suppress the notion that human experience, in truth, has higher and more meagre qualities, we reduce ourselves in this age to an existential slavery. We cannot rest assured our one vital resource, life, has meaning. Yet it seems we are willing to forsake ideals in the hope that we can continue to contrive conceits and deceptions which reassure us of the false premise that life is good. Life can be good, but we are constantly encouraged to look for this in the wrong places. The inventions of language are a tool to this end.
As for today, if we are to lay claim to any poets, as well we should like, if then, and only if, we are to hold hope we live in a time that is not devoid of meaning or devoid of the poetic daemon, as well we should, so entrusting, our age can not stand apart from this tradition. The outlook of our age must come to terms with the continuity of experience inherent to the poetry. Unfortunately, it appears an ideal we are woefully unwilling to entertain. What grotesque manner our age will find its distillation in, and to whom we are to entrust this task, we are to learn. I have only a few points to make. In demonstrating these, and demonstrating their various nuances, an ethos will distill itself, or the lecture will fail trying. The first point, which, if it should prove itself untrue, would fundamentally undermine any purpose to my effort, is the assertion that the text of the thirty-nine plays comprise a consistency, such that to look with any validity at its parts will design a manner to look at its whole. I take from my experience that there is a purpose to these efforts, that to speak meaningfully about Shakespeare means something more than casual intellectualism, but it speaks to life in all actuality. The parts I will look at are branches to a universe; but I am the bush to which these branches have been affixed. The plays entire are a forest; and but that we do not have the funds or occasion to stage them, I offer myself up for observation, whereas, had unfortunate circumstances not prevented it, we might each have witnessed a new play’s premier in this space. Second of these points I am conscious of has already been stated implicitly. The poetry to which we are reverent is indistinguishable from its performance. Nary to be divorced in this analysis, the greater capacity of the writing lies predicated upon the unity of the poetry to performance. This second point will allow for the all-important concept of character to develop over the course of this lecture. Third, and final of these, I make an assertion about poetry itself, that it is the distillation of language into what its very principles can make of reality and do to supersede the same. The standing of these two ideas, the making of reality, and the superseding of reality, might very well grant us animation to the idea of art. If we are to ask what is art? For now, I would answer in the same, that art is the use of a medium to make sense of reality and to supersede reality. Physics, we might note, is not art for this reason, elegant and beautiful as it may be. If physics is true it gains permanence. If art offers us the capacity to look at its branches and gain an advantage on a universe, and if those elements are sufficient, and if the universe is profound, then art gains permanence. In Shakespeare we have the most tested document man has ever contrived. Hamlet may have already spoken to the same effect my introduction has and more, in this scene, to three players that are to enact his theatrical plot before the king.
Hamlet. Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.