Grits and Tamales

Life in the Deep South, by Gabriel Aguilera

Monthly Archives: January 2013

Macbeth Beyond Thunderdome at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival

This Macbeth may get lots of ribbing for its post-apocalyptic Mad Max feel. Visually, though, the play was stunning and austere. The stage was neither too cluttered nor too large for its intimate violence and sordid soliloquies. The music, props, costumes, and special effects rarely detracted from the narrative. Alabama’s Shakespeare Festival can boast of an excellent production.

The acting in this production, however, was uneven. In small measure, this was because it was opening night. The audience could feel that the actors were uneasy in front of a full-ish house. The actors seemed to be aware that the direction lacked gravitas and that they were being mishandled. Macbeth was competent and enjoyable, but too sensitive and insufficiently scary as the play accelerates. One senses that he had read one too many new age self-help books on how to be a better husband and butcher. Lady Macbeth, before she gets the crazies, is overwrought. She moved too much and was too physically imposing in her sultry costume; so much so that one wondered if Macbeth could become as terrifying as his wife (he did not). One could not help but think of Hamlet’s admonition: “Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus…” Lady Macbeth overacted, which detracted from her bone chilling lines. Actors and directors need to remember that their acting and directing cannot improve upon Shakespeare’s words. Both Mr. and Mrs Macbeth, as did the play, did get better as it moved relentlessly along. By the end one senses that the actors were more misdirected than miscast.

Perhaps the most disappointing parts of the play were the scenes with the witches and what passes for clowns in Macbeth. As with Lady Macbeth, the witches overacted and wound up detracting from their funny and creepy rhymes. More generally, the director failed to subordinate this play’s visual candy to the language. This applies with a vengeance to the pre-murder scene with Lady Macduff, played by a stunning black actress and a white boy. The boy was perfect but Lady Macduff’s enfeebled delivery vitiated what should have been a magnificent scene. It was clear when it was over that it lacked the emotional punch needed to set up Macduff’s wrath. Macduff, by the way, is well-casted as are Banquo, Malcolm, and Duncan. The Porter is an excellent comic actor who should be banished from all future Shakespeare plays for demonstrating a most pitiful ambition in efforts to garner cheap laughs from an over-eager audience. Shakespeare aficionados could not help but cringe at his antics, which again brought Hamlet to mind: “and let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them…”

I highly recommend seeing this production of Macbeth. It is particularly special to see it in Dixie, where the natural mix of black and white actors on the stage feels natural in ways that would be difficult to fathom in New York or London. Be prepared, though, to get annoyed with a most imprudent director who fails to suit the actions to the words.

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Read: “In Cold Blood”

Truman Capote is a master prose stylist who elevates journalism to high art, making a classic novel of the late 1950s murder of the Clutter family.  (I believe the same can be said of Shelby Foote, whose history of the Civil War is as much of a novel as it is a narrative history).  The story is not about who did it , we know who pulled the trigger from the get go, but about how they are tracked, put on trial, and executed.  Before these dramatic sequences, however, the author paints Western Kansas — and America — in the late 1950s and 60s for us. He does so as majestically as Harper Lee paints rural Alabama during the 1930s in To Kill a Mockingbird.

In Cold Blood is an American Crime and Punishment, but only of a sort. It’s also a profound meditation on capital punishment and the criminal justice system. Perry Smith, the book’s anti-hero, is a sympathetic sociopath who merited life without parole and an education. He says so himself and by the end thoughtful persons must take his pleading seriously, as does his chief pursuer, investigator Alvin Dewey. His partner, Richard Hickock complains that he and Perry did not get the fair trial to which all Americans are entitled. They deserved life in prison; this they would readily admit. Did they deserve to hang?

Read for yourself and decide.
In Cold Blood

The Manliest Dude Who Ever Lived: Teddy Roosevelt (TR) Books

American liberals tend not to like TR. They hold against him, too unfairly in my view, his late 19th century racist views, his blue blood, his dilettantish and capacious hobbies and interests, his imperialism, and his pseudo intellectualism. Never mind all the good he accomplished in many areas of policy including workers’ rights and safety, the environment, progressive views on the social democratic welfare state, and so much else. He confessed, in an honest moment as recorded by Edmund Morris, that he did not think himself particularly gifted at anything even while being passionate about many things.  He confessed, too, that if had any special talent it was his ability to lead.

I recently finished Colonel Roosevelt, the third volume in the Morris trilogy that begins with The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex. Upon reflection, he remains one of the most fascinating statesmen I have ever studied. I think what I like best of all is his energy and his peerless will to live well. One of my favorite factoids about him was his horrible diet. TR ate like a pig and it never occurred to him that he should ever curtail intake. The solution was always more exercise . Churchill, by the way, had the same problem with money; it never occurred to him to curtail intake either. Both men wrote prodigiously to fund their exuberant lifestyles.

Anyway, in addition to Morris, other TR books worth a read include Mornings on Horseback, by McCullough on his early life; When Trumpets Call, by Patricia O’Toole on life after the presidency; and River of Doubt, by Candice Millard on TR’s epic and remarkable journey into the bowels of the Amazon River, an expedition that nearly killed him. If you read enough about TR you’ll find it harder and harder to argue that he does not belong on Rushmore.

Of all these terrific books, The Rise of TR is my favorite.  If you have time for just one this is it.
TeddyA TeddyB

Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

Lincoln’s opening scene pits North and South at war, knee-deep in mud and blood. Lincoln’s two greatest speeches book-end the rest of this mighty film. A farcical scene, where White and Black soldiers recite the Gettysburg Address for the president, introduces its central problem: slavery. Lincoln is palpable on the big screen, whereupon he walks with his melancholy gait, flashes his quizzical smile, tells bawdy stories, and dotes on his youngest boy. Throughout the film Lincoln deploys his immense power and singular rhetoric to persuade family, politicians, and a reluctant nation to follow a righteous path. He does so amid daunting personal, political, and military constraints. Lincoln’s breathtaking finale pivots seamlessly from deathbed to the Second Inaugural, from mortality to posterity. The film ends with immortal Lincoln delivering his greatest speech with sublime pathos and aplomb.

The film’s creators understood that Shakespeare is central to understanding Lincoln. It acknowledges that the Kentucky bumpkin lawyer could not have become America’s greatest war president without his intimate knowledge of the great plays. These taught him about statecraft, politics, rhetoric, acting, humor, and — not least of all — the variety and vagaries of human nature. Lincoln quotes directly four times from Hamlet, Henry IV (P. 2.), Macbeth, and King Lear.* Stars from these plays are visible in Lincoln. Of these, Falstaff shines brightest when we see Lincoln’s wry smile, hear him laugh, and watch him debate in scene after scene. Falstaff, Shakespeare’s most intoxicating creation, is Prince Hal’s larger than life drinking companion in Henry IV (1 & 2). He is the embodiment of hedonism, wit, and humor. In tribute, Shakespeare ascribes these lapidary words to him: “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.” Prince Hal, like all Falstaff aficionados, is captivated by his humor, his capacious appetites, and his astonishing mastery of rhetoric. Before he ascends the throne to become King Henry V, Prince Hal and Falstaff are constant companions and foils.  The prince holds his own in debate, wordplay, and pranks. In Henry IV (1 & 2) we see Hal win over his father — with words and arguments — in the wake of brutal chastisement. He learned this rhetorical deftness in the tavern from his other father, whom he calls a white-bearded Satan and a “villainous abominable misleader of youth.”

Shakespeare sought to inspire and educate statesmen down through the ages, just as Falstaff prepares Prince Hal for the crown. Virtually all of Henry V — like Lincoln — is about the art of political persuasion and leadership. From beginning to end we see Falstaff’s tutelage as this mirror of kings leads and inspires armies, as he debates, jokes, and plays pranks on common soldiers; as he debates with and takes council from his ministers; as he wins over the audience with pious and passionate soliloquies; and even as he adroitly woos princess Kate after the war.  So too, Shakespeare’s tutelage educates, guides, and supports Lincoln. The film reminds us that Falstaff buoys the president during his hardest political trials and personal suffering. Lincoln hugs him hard; so much so that he frequently drives his austere ministers into a fit with antics they consider presidential buffoonery. So too, Falstaff lives ostentatiously in Henry V, in the King’s pranks, humor, and peerless rhetoric. King Henry V’s political virtues are Lincoln’s. None more than his humor and singular rhetoric – the Lincoln music to borrow Shelby Foote’s memorable phrase – that has permitted him to inspire and lead down to the present.

Lincoln’s triumph is that it permits us to see and hear the music that until now has only existed in the unruly fog of our imagination. Thanks to Daniel Day Lewis’ virtuoso performance, it is easier now to conjure Lincoln guffawing and slapping his bony knee while reading the witches’ rhymes in Macbeth, his favorite play. We can see him brooding at his desk, commiserating with Macbeth on questions of blood and vaulting ambition.  We are reminded of Lincoln’s furtiveness, which rivals Falstaff’s. We see the president manipulate ministers, allies, and lobbyists as he appeals to their vanity, patriotism, and greed. We see him discourse with telegraph operators in a manner reminiscent of the campfire scene in Henry V, where the king debates with and preaches to common soldiers in cognito. There is little doubt that Lincoln took delight, and quite possibly some horror, in these and many other parallels.

*“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…were it not that I have bad dreams.”; “We have heard the chimes of midnight, Master Shallow.”; “unaccommodated poor bare forked creature such as we all are.”; and “If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not . . . ” These are references to Hamlet, Henry IV [2], King Lear, and Macbeth respectively.  The screenplay can be found here.  I am grateful to Mary Allen Todd for pointing out the Macbeth quote, which I had originally missed. Let me know if I missed any please.

**For a contrary opinion on Shakespeare in Lincoln, see this excellent essay.  There are, of course dozens of reviews on the film worth consulting.  The one cited by Professor Bromwich is controversial in my view.  I think the good professor is dead wrong on a few things and that Kushner/Spielberg were right to portray the relationship between Shakespeare and Lincoln as they did.  I don’t, in short, believe that the artistic liberties that they took are contrary to Lincoln’s character and vision of himself as I understood it from Shelby Foote and others.  The good professor might be right but his is not the final word on the matter.  In my view, he underestimates Lincoln’s vaulting ambition.  His essay did bring to my attention the King Lear quote that I had missed.  Finally, I want to note that my essay was fully formed before I read Professor Bromwich’s review, which of course would reject the very premise on which I base my paean to the film.

Below are some of my favorite images from the film:

LincolnA LincolnB LincolnC LincolnD LincolnE LincolnF LincolnG

All Mexicans Should See “The Wild Bunch” (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)

Wild Bunch 1 Wild Bunch 2 Wild Bunch 3The Wild Bunch (Directed by Sam Peckinpah, 1969) 

Earlier this week I finally got around to seeing this wonderful film, which came highly recommended to me by Christopher Carr.  The film is book-ended with action and violence.  Sandwiched in between are magnificent portraits of the early 20th century Mexican American border that included a U.S. Southwest that was becoming less wild; the fringes of the Mexican Revolution in Northern Mexico; the life of American and Mexican outlaws, including the dissolute wild bunch gang and Mexican caudillos; breathtaking panoramas of Northern Mexico and Southwestern United States; and quotidian life in Mexican villages. I particularly love the countless shots of Mexicans throughout, particularly the women and children, as they carried on with their chores and activities. These were not over-glamorized thanks to the director’s impeccable and judicious choices. These are peerless period portraits the like of which I have not seen. For this reason alone I believe it is a film all Mexicans need to see.

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