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Samuel Beckett makes Arthur Miller look like an amateur.
Within 18 hours last week, I saw Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" (at the Apollo Theater in London, pictured left) and Samuel Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape" (at the Duchess Theater, pictured below). The plays are quite different. "All My Sons" has a relatively big cast and is about family and ideals. "Krapp's Last Tape" is a one-man show about alienation and mortality.
Nonetheless, the comparison is illuminating. The aim of both plays is to affirm for each audience member his or her connectedness with the rest of humanity. "They were all my sons," the father, Joe Keller, says of the twenty-one pilots who died because of faulty parts that he shipped to the military in "All My Sons." "Let me in," Krapp says
to a lover, whose half-moon slit eyes open all the way. Miller roots moral responsibility in our common humanity; Beckett finds solace from the inevitability of death.
Despite this similarity, the plays' methodologies could not diverge more radically. Miller works very, very hard to manipulate the audience in "All My Sons." The plot is painfully contrived and teeters on the brink of melodrama. The extreme compression of time and events forces the characters into hairpin emotional flip-flops that are tiresome and eventually strain credibility. Moreover, Miller is hectoringly didactic. Chris, the son in "All My Sons," resists his father's autocratic worldview, but Miller is just as autocratic with the audience: you will learn this, you will feel this, he intones in the play's subtext.
Beckett, on the other hand, endows "Krapp's Last Tape" with no plot, simply a scenario: Krapp, on this 69th birthday, listens to a tape he made on his 39th birthday, and then tries to make a tape to mark his 69th year. Krapp makes no decisions in the play, unless you count his decision to abandon any attempt to finish his 69th birthday tape and return, instead, to listening to the tape he'd made 30 years earlier. The play happens in real time: the audience peeks in on Krapp for 50 minutes of his life. Rather than didactic, Beckett is poetic: the play conjures a mood of terrible sorrow about being shut out from life, and holding oneself clenched and aloof from life.
All theater, of course, is contrived. The brilliance of the medium is the way the contrivance falls away, and the illusion takes over, allowing the audience a very intense experience of vicarious living - both for its pleasure and edification.
Miller doesn't trust the audience to be edified, and so he freights his play until the contrivance is too heavy, and suspension of disbelief becomes impossible. While I wouldn't hazard that Beckett trusts the audience more than Miller, he's more confident: the contrivance of "Krapp's Last Tape" utterly dissolves in the illusion of spying on Krapp's life. The result is testament to Beckett's genius: the light touch elicits a shattering effect.
(Image from "All My Sons" cast from The Telegraph
; image of Michael Gambon in "Krapp's Last Tape" from The Guardian
The New York Review of Books
is a superb publication. I therefore cannot describe the way it has glossed over Walter J. Ong as anything but shocking.
Ong posits that changes in human society and development is explained by the differences in human consciousness in oral and literate cultures. Current neuroscientific work is finding support of Ong's theory.
Ong may turn out to be the great and definitive thinker of the second half of the twentieth century, the person who laid the foundation for our understanding of our own consciousness in a technologized (and technologizing) world. And yet The New York Review of Books
contains merely two reviews of his substantial body of writing, the most recent dating from 1968.
The 1968 review
, of Ong's The Presence of the Word
, is by Frank Kermode, a writer I admire; yet Kermode doesn't strike me in this review as being at his best. (His gratuitous rudeness - "If one calls the style of [Ong's essays] highly typographic, it is only a way of saying that they have no style at all" - seems out of place, as well as out of character.)
The crux of Kermode's critique is that Ong's study of the impact of the transition from orality to literacy on humans and their societies sets forth a defective theory of history. In Kermode's analysis, Ong's theory fails for two reasons: (1) the evidence supporting the Ong's theory equally supports other theories, and (2) Ong organizes his evidence to promote a Catholic agenda.
Neither objection seems terribly cogent. Humans and their history are incredibly complicated, and the ambiguity of evidence supporting theories of human history is commonplace: we should neither be surprised, nor dismissive, when evidence can support multiple theories.
Moreover, The Presence of the Word
(which I have not read) collects adaptations of talks Ong gave as part of the Terry Lectures, the purpose of which is "that the Christian spirit may be natured [sic
] in the fullest light of the world's knowledge." That Ong's talks in this context have a theological agenda is therefore no surprise.
Ong's most important well-known (and probably most important) work, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word
, cannot be tarred with this brush. The book lays bare Ong's passion for understanding based on truth. The accusation of subordinating his scholarship to a missionary agenda is offensive - and unsupported: Kermode's claim that [get exact quote] "Ong values orality because it is holy" fades in the face of Ong's numerous assertions in Orality and Literacy
without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials . . . . Literacy is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself.
(p. 14-15.) Whether Ong fundamentally revised his theories since The Presence of the Word
, or whether Kermode simply misconstrues Ong, I cannot say; but that The New York Review
hasn't reviewed Orality and Literacy
(or any of Ong's prodigious output since 1968) is a lapse.
In our current globalized, post-colonial environment, we reject notions of historical change that rely on racial (and increasingly, religious) superiority. The reason for that rejection is not ideology: we believe it's true. Ong - like Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel
- offers us a theory of human social development that is race (and religion) neutral - literacy (not race or religion) is the provocateur. (For Jared Diamond, geography is the culprit.) No publication purporting to offer an analysis of our times can fail to engage Ong in some capacity. To ignore Ong is to court irrelevancy.
(Image of Fr. Walter J. Ong from the St. Louis University Walter J. Ong Archives website
Thinking Shakespeare above mistakes is a mistake. He's none less great just because someone should have asked for rewrites in certain plays at the time they were originally staged.
I don't count as "mistakes" aspects of the plays that appealed to Elizabethan audiences, but that are less suited to our modern tastes. Rather, I'm referring to issues that arise in theatrical productions cross-culturally and across centuries.Henry IV, parts 1 and 2
is prone to one such mistake: dead space onstage. People onstage waiting, or staring into space, sap energy from the scenes. Vast swaths of emptiness where the play calls for hub-bub can have the same effect.
Unfortunately, Shakespeare spring-loaded the Henry
plays with this trap. The plays include many pub and market scenes, where many people must be onstage, but only one or two (typically Falstaff and Prince Hal) are talking.
The plays also include battle scenes where, implausibly, only two people are onstage. Worse, the plays grind to a halt for inopportune monologues by Falstaff - e.g.
, his monologue on honor, just before a major battle; his monologue on sack, redundant and slowing of the already slow pace of Henry IV part 2
These scenes simply don't work as commonly staged. A pub containing people standing around, watching two people talk, doesn't come across as a real pub. Where are the ribald conversations? The games of chance? The flirting? Nor does a battle scene with merely two people in it work. Where's the noise and smoke of the battle? The movement of fighters and animals across the battlefield? The chaos of war?
As for Falstaff's soliloquies, the most promising way to minimize their plot-dragging tendencies is to set them in context - in the swirl of battle preparations, for example - rather than the clear the stage and ask poor Falstaff alone to bear the weight of the entire audience's expectation.
I appreciate the exigencies of cost and the pragmatics of staging a scene so that everyone in the audience can see it. Nonetheless, there's no point in having an enormous cast (as one must for the Henry IV
plays) and keeping them backstage when they could be put to work onstage. Nor is there any point in staging a scene that is visible to all, but compelling to none.
The pub and market scenes need real activity - waiters buzzing back and forth, patrons up to their own tricks, pub owners disciplining staff, pickpockets. The battle scenes need real action, whether offstage in sound or onstage with other fighting or troop movement. And Falstaff, sociable creature, needs people around him.
Otherwise, one ends up uttering of the bulky Henry IV
plays what Prince Hal cries
upon mistaking Falstaff for dead: "could not all this flesh/Keep in a little life?"
(Image of Roger Allam playing Falstaff in the Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
's 2010 production of Henry IV, part 1
from The Telegraph
On 24 September 2010, I gave a talk at the Karen Blixen Museum
in Rungstedlund, Denmark, about my process of researching Karen Blixen's life for purposes of writing my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband
. In my talk, I emphasized the differences between historical research to establish verifiable facts and literary research to spark the imagination. I described the reading, travel and blogging that formed the better part of my process, as well as the issues that arose in the course of my research and how I resolved them. You can listen to my talk here
(the full talk is an hour and thirteen minutes).
Throughout time, authors have found ways of challenging their audience, as if the egotism of authorship had caused writers to feel that the price paid for their books was insufficient to earn the entertainment gleaned from their pages.
Laurence Sterne, for example, intersperses the text of Tristram Shandy
with blank pages
. Samuel Beckett's Watt drags on interminably with redundant sentences
. Most people die without getting through all (or even any) of the volumes of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Time Past
But no author, I believe, has ever posed a greater challenge to the reader than René Descartes. I do not refer to his extremely long sentences with extended use of subordinate clauses. I am talking about his demand, in Discourse 5 of Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences
, that readers do the following prior to perusing his description of the circulation of blood:
I would like those who are not versed in anatomy to take the trouble, before reading [further], to have cut open in front of them the heart of some large animal which has lungs, because it is, in all of them, similar enough to that of man, and to be shown its two ventricles or cavities.
The only other creator, in my awareness, who requires his audience to sacrifice animals in conjunction with the partaking of his words is God.
Then again, the man who wrote, "I have hardly ever encountered any critic of my opinions who did not seem either less exacting or less equitable than myself," has never, to my knowledge, been accused of modesty.
(Image of dissected cow heart from University of Utah
For the first time, I am reading two books together to experience the way they illuminate and duel with one another. The two books are Walter J. Ong's, Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word
Descarte's Discourse on the Method of Properly Conducting One's Reason and of Seeking the Truth in the Sciences
. The result of this experiment in parallel reading is interesting: the experience is like setting my brain on fire.
One aspect of Ong's book that reliably throws sparks is his overview of characteristics of people from primary oral cultures - that is, societies that don't write or know of writing. Ong explains:
[A]n oral culture simply does not deal in such items as . . . formally logical reasoning processes [or] . . . articulated
self-analysis . . . which derive not simply from thought itself but
from text-formed thought.
(p. 55.) In respect of articulated self-analysis, Ong elaborates:
[I]lliterates [have] difficulty in articulate self-analysis.
Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking [typical to people from primary oral societies]. .
. . Externals [e.g., amount of land farmed, success of crops planted] command attention [in lieu of internal qualities]. . . . Self-evaluation [gets] modulated into
group evaluation ("we") and then handled in terms of expected reactions
from others [e.g., no one would respect our group if we were otherwise] . . . . Judgment bears in on the individual from outside,
not from within.
(p. 54-55.) Reading this passage, I immediately thought of Descartes, whose self-analysis as it pertains to the quality of his mind after it emerged from his education is one of the earliest important examples (second, possibly, to Montaigne) of the expansion of human capacities enabled by literacy. Here is Descartes describing his change in thinking about his education:
I was brought up from childhood on letters, and, because I had been led
to believe that by this means one could acquire clear and positive
knowledge of everything useful in life, I was extremely anxious to
learn them. But, as soon as I had completed this whole course of
study, at the end of which it is usual to be received into the ranks of
the learned, I completely changed my opinion. For I was assailed by so
many doubts and errors that the only profit I appeared to have drawn
from trying to become educated, was progressively to have discovered my
(p. 29.) In this short passage, Descartes illustrates the opposite of the characteristics Ong earmarks. Internals (ignorance vs. knowledgeability) matter. The self-evaluation is not modulated into a group assessment; on the contrary, Descartes distinguishes himself from the group and societal expectations: whereas "it is usual to be received into the ranks of
the learned," Descartes doesn't think he belongs there. Judgment doesn't bear in on Descartes from the outside (society would consider him "learned"), but from inside (he has discovered his own ignorance).
Formal logic, as much as self-analysis, is foreign to the consciousnesses of people in primary oral cultures. According to Ong,
[I]lliterate subjects seemed not to operate with formal deductive
procedures at all - which is not the same as to say that they could not
think or that their thinking was not governed by logic, but only that
they would not fit their thinking into pure logical forms, which they
seem to have found uninteresting.
. . .
A highly intelligent person from an oral . . . culture might be expected normally to react to [questions that require abstract thinking to answer, like syllogisms] . . . not by answering the seemingly mindless question itself but by trying to assess the total puzzling context . . . Is it a game? Of course it is a game, but the oral person is unfamiliar with the rules. The people who ask such questions have been living in a barrage of such questions from infancy and are not aware that they are using special rules.
Descartes, of course, was familiar with formal logic. He was also critical of it:
[R]egarding logic, its syllogisms and most of its other precepts serve more to explain to others what one already knows, or even . . . to speak without judgement [sic] of those things one does not know, than to learn anything new.
(p. 40.) Of course, Descartes' criticism is focused on the output of formal logic, not on the fact of its methodology. Descartes is in favor of such methodology: he has developed one himself that he hopes will replace the logical methodology of the ancients. Descartes goes on to eliminate all his received opinions in order to replace them with ones that were true, and not merely true, but
to include in my judgements [sic] nothing more than what presented itself so clearly and so distinctly to my mind that I might have no occasion to place it in doubt.
(p. 41.) But I went in a different direction.
My brain is not as airlessly sealed off from outside influences as Decartes, which no doubt explains why I wandered off track. These other influences include the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
, where research curator Jan Stubbe Østergaard recently showed me around the museum's impressive collection of Greek and Roman statues.
In discussing Roman copies of Greek statutes, Østergaard revealed that the Romans copied only the
heads. The Greeks didn't sculpt body-less heads; they believed that a head was not enough to reveal
the man. The Romans, on the other hand, prioritized the head (and the ideas within it) over
the body (and the viscera it encases).
I began to wonder if the prioritization of heads and ideas might parallel the literacy-related changes in consciousness between the Romans and Greeks. The Greeks, after all, transitioned from orality (in the time of Homer, 750 BC) to literacy (in the time of Plato 350 BC). The Romans were literate.
And then, because I've also been reading Jorge Luis Borges, I began to wonder about the connection between literacy, prioritizing ideas and immortality. Ong mentions a fascinating aspect of primary oral societies:
[They] live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.(p. 46.) The written word, of course, makes sloughing off memories more difficult.
The potential for the eternal preservation of memory takes humans a step closer to immortality: our bodies may fade, but our ideas can live forever. No wonder prioritizing ideas over viscera seems appealing.
Indeed, in Jorge Luis Borges' short story, "The Immortal," the race of immortals make this same choice. (If it were me, and my body could endure eternally, I wouldn't be prioritizing thought over bodily pleasures - quite the opposite; nonetheless, in Borges' world, immortals aren't hedonists.)
The immortals were
to pity. . . . [A] man fell into the deepest of . . . pits; he could
not be hurt, could not die, and yet he burned with thirst; seventy
years passed before he was thrown a rope. Nor was he much interested
in his own fate. His body was a submissive domestic animal; all the
charity it required each month was a few hours' sleep, a little water,
and a scrap of meat. But let no one imagine that we were mere
ascetics. There is no more complex pleasure than thought, and it was to
thought that we delivered ourselves over.
(p. 14-15.) Taken to its logical extreme, delivering oneself to ideas extricates oneself from one's humanness. We cannot be separated from our bodies, however tempting the notion may be. And immortality fundamentally severs a human from her body.
Only after I followed my thoughts in the manner described above did I understand this passage from "The Immortal":
Rome, I spoke with philosophers who felt that to draw out the span of a
man's life was to draw out the agony of his dying and multiply the
number of his deaths.
(p. 5.) Contrast Borges' insight with Ong's description of the paradox inherent in "writing['s] . . . close association with death":
The paradox lies in the fact that the deadness of the text, its removal from the living human lifeworld, its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers.
Immortality is for the books.
(Image of Father Walter J. Ong, S.J. from Wikipedia
; image of René
Descartes from The Telegraph