Sympathists

Posts Tagged ‘Shakespeare’

Classicism in Arabia: On Classicism V

In Classicism on May 2, 2009 at 8:27 pm

byblosD. Hannah, Dubai

“Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this 40 degree + heat.”

Having recently been exposed to a couple of very good examples of classics, I thought I might share some thoughts on the idea of classicism – if not what compels people to put pen to paper, then at least to offer some commonalities that may help decide why we tack the label “classic” to things. In no particular order (i.e. chronologically) I have wandered through the ruins of Richard III’s court and the Roman Empire, stopping briefly along the way to peek Saddam’s Iraq and have a quick look at Phoenician artefacts displayed in a crusader citadel.

On the 19th of March I was fortunate enough to see a performance commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company of Richard III subtitled “An Arab Tragedy”. I was pretty excited about the prospect – Richard III is one of my favourite plays, and it liberally encrusts the cultural landscape (my kingdom for an adjective). How though, did a play written circa 1591 by a man widely regarded as the greatest playwright of the English language come to the Jahili fort in Al Ain, UAE, to be performed in Arabic by a cast of mainly Lebanese actors under a Syrian director?

The performance took place in a reconstructed fort, and was entirely in Arabic, with an underscore performed by live Kuwaiti musicians under an English musical director. Subtitles were provided on a large TV screen situated next to the stage. Interestingly, these were less of a text, than a running commentary – god was mentioned as both “god” and “allah” on different occasions, and metaphors reworked so as to capture the local equivalent and preserve Shakespeare’s “radical attack on language which makes him so modern” (director courtesy of the notes accompanying the play).

Richard III is the story of Richard of Gloucester, and how he murders and sleeps his way into supreme executive power merely “determined to prove a villain”. As such, I wondered how it would fit into an Arabic context – how could the Arab world find common enough ground to allow for a reworking of a play from a medieval christian background. I needn’t have worried, for the play spanned a broad history of the Arab world, particularly the 20th century, from fighting over boundaries to self made dictators determined to wreak havoc on their own populations (sporting bushy moustaches and military uniforms – ring a bell anyone?). Along side said dictator was the modern looking suit, definitely Arabic but with a French accent and affectations, providing “advice” and demanding payment in kind. Embedded reporters provided up to date reports, while a subdued populace was rarely sighted. The air was so thick with regional symbolism you could cut it with a chain-saw.

And it was here that I first thought of one prerequisite for being a classic – endurance. That is to say, something is classic because it endures, it doesn’t endure because it is classic. Power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely is a human theme, unconfined by region, religion or time. This is what makes Richard III a classic piece, the flexibility to be unbound and placed in any context. And it is the exploring of these enduring themes and characterisation of the people that inevitably inhabit these roles that make Shakespeare a classic.

Classic architecture was next on the menu. A trip to Beirut culminated in a trip to the world heritage site of Byblos (Jbeil) which has seen human habitation since the Neolithic period (5000 BC). A crusader citadel built with Roman columns stands on a Greek site built on a Phoenician city.  The remains of a town have been excavated, but the Roman ruins stand partially intact; the remains of a columned street (7 columns intact) and an amphitheatre amongst others. Again, endurance is the key here. The Romans departed Byblos in 395 AD yet their ruins stand where others did not. The lines and attention to detail stand the test of time, they endure and are now thought of as “classic” architecture – indeed are considered ‘architecture’  – design with some regard to aesthetic effect.

As Mr. Inch pointed out in an earlier post, “confronting my own lack of belonging” is at once a universal and I would argue enduring theme; indeed a classic theme – a question asked from earliest days, and increasingly re-asked in the modern dislocated world. Power, whether in the empirical Roman form – manifested today in its remains, or in the retelling of the history of a hundred different nation states is another.

Dive thoughts, down to my soul…

Image Credit: http://www.habeeb.com/lebanon.photos.74.html


On Classicism II: Edward Said’s “On Late Style.”

In Classicism, Edward Said on March 29, 2009 at 9:06 pm

M. Standfast, Kyoto

400000000000000102492_s4Edward Said’s On Late Style is as rich a book as an unfinished work can be.  Published posthumously, On Late Style expands on Theodor Adorno’s concept of “late works.”  Late works are works with fall toward the end of an artist’s career, but not those like The Winter’s Tale or The Tempest which “reflect a special maturity, a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of common reality” (6), but those like Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or Lampedusa’s The Leopard–works which, in Adorno’s words are “devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation,” or, in Said’s phrasing, are “uncoopted by a higher synthesis: they do not fit any scheme, and they cannot be reconciled or resolved” (12).

Said died in September 2003, before On Late Style was completed.  In the foreward, his wife, Miriam writes of how Said was planning to get to work and get it done: “{In late August} he said to me as we were having breakfast that morning, ‘Today I will write the acknowledgments and preface to Humanism and Democratic Criticism {…} The introduction to From Oslo to Iraq and the Road Map I’ll finish by Sunday.  And next week I’ll concentrate on completing On Late Style, which will be finished by December” (vii).  He didn’t make it, and the little quote is a moving reminder that we never know how much time we have left.  But Michael Wood, who arranged the various fragments Said had written on the topic of late style into this nearly seamless finished product, says that he doesn’t believe that Said ever wanted to finish the book: “Or rather, he wanted to finish it but was waiting for a time that would perhaps never have come.  There would have been a time for this book about untimeliness, but this time was always: not quite yet” (xvi-xvii).

What does Adorno, and Said, mean by “late style,” and why would Said perhaps have not wanted to finish his work on this topic?  Again, to understand what the term means we need to understand that late style is not simply synonomous with work accomplished late in life.  Wood puts it this way, the “type of lateness {that Said was interested in} is quite different {…} from the unearthly serenity we find in the last works of Sophocles and Shakespeare.  Oedipus at Colonus, The Tempest, and The Winter Tale are late enough in their way, but they have settled their quarrel with time” (xiii).  In other words, these works are transcendent yet resigned–the author, knowing perhaps that death is coming to claim them, moves to preempt death by surrendering his grasp on reality and moving in the direction of a “higher synthesis,” and in the process attaining “a remarkable holiness and sense of resolution” (6).  Said has nothing against such works at peace with themselves and with time, but these are not his subject.  Lateness here seems to take its raison d’etre from Dylan Thomas; it rages against the dying of the light.  As Said puts it, “Late style is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favor of reality” (9) and is “a form of exile” (8).

But if late style finds its power in a righteous rage against resignation, senescence, and serenity, it is at the same time complicit with disintegration and ultimately with death. In other words, an artist can embrace lateness in Said’s conception of the term, but can never be quit of it. Continue Reading

On Prince Hal

In Music, Reading on January 5, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post takes as its source the song “Prince Hal’s Dirge,” by Loudon Wainwright III. Wainwright, in turn, bases the song on the character of Prince Hal in Henry IV.  Let’s dive in. Prince Hal in Shakespeare deliberately consorts with riff-raff and drunks as a young man, so that his later conversion to an upright king may appear all the more sympathetic.  Speaking to Falstaff and assorted drinkers:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
Th unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein I will imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.

Hal continues:

So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better that my word I am,
By so much I shall falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’re my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Continue reading