Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, now that I'm no longer the age of the stars

This post will possibly make no sense to anyone who is too young to remember the 90s. I make no apology. I am not speaking to The Kids here, but to The Eldritch, who remember a time when Leonardo DiCaprio reigned supreme on the silver screen, with his iconic hair and his cheekbones and (from the perspective of a now 42-year-old mother) his scrawny body. Somebody give that poor kid something to eat and put him in high school(googles DiCaprio's age)college.

Gentle readers -- and I call you "gentle" because it's just become obvious to me how old I am, so speak kindly to me -- last night I watched Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet for possibly the first time since I saw it in the theater in 1996, when I was 17. 

My birthday is in December, so in general I can calculate how old I was a given year by adding one and the appropriate tens digit. In 1996 I turned 18, which is more than Claire Danes did. Through the magic of IMDB, I've discovered that Claire Danes is about six months younger than I am, and it's just destroyed my whole paradigm. 

I never saw an episode of My So-Called Life, just as I never saw Beverly Hills 90210 or any of the other water-cooler TV shows. (Or whatever the equivalent of the water cooler is in high school, which I never attended.) But I heard about it, and I read about it, and I always wondered if I was missing out on something, if imbibing these touchstones of pop culture would give me some kind of panache, or some touch of Danes's flawless skin and acting savvy. I remember reading an interview with her, about the time that Romeo + Juliet came out, where she said that the rhythms of iambic pentameter worked themselves into her brain, so that she was saying stuff like, "Oh mother, will you pour the cereal?" at home. 

Mother. Cereal. Danes was 16 when she shot Romeo + Juliet. I now have two daughters older than 16, and one who's younger but looks older. Danes and DiCaprio passionately smooching, characters in the first flush of love? It's not sexy any more. What are they thinking, putting a 16-year-old actress in that kind of situation? 

And DiCaprio, poor emaciated waif. I wanted to pat him on his tousled head, stomp out that cigarette (not menacingly, like John Leguizamo's feline Tybalt, but in a maternal fashion), and feed him the meal that his Hollywood handlers weren't letting him have. Danes too. Honey, eat another bowl of that cereal, for Mother.

Danes and DiCaprio, interestingly enough, were the weak Shakespearean links in a production populated with heavyweights. Pete Postlethwaite as Friar Laurence, Paul Sorvino as Old Capulet, John Leguizamo as Tybalt, Miriam Margolyes as the Nurse, and Harold Perrineau's electric Mercutio in drag -- all give human cadences to Shakespeare's poetry. (And Paul Rudd, who must have Dorian Gray's portrait aging in his attic, looks the same now as he did 25 years ago as Paris.) The youngsters do yeoman's work, but they sometimes feel as if they're uttering lines. Both are exceptional actors, and compellingly watchable, but sometimes one wanted a bit more language and a bit less L.A.

But what a production! The whole decadent, decaying world oozes with the most toxic cultural Catholicism, and it works. Latinate Capulets outfitted by Dolce and Gabbana, Irish Montagues prim in the older generation, and punk in the youth. (For more on the costuming of the film and its effect on fashion, read Romeo + Juliet's Sonnet of Style.) Pious plaster Virgins and a technicolor Sacred Heart on a Hawaiian shirt. Whoring on Friday, confession on Saturday, and a deliciously gaudy Novus Ordo on Sunday, replete with lace-albed choir boys warbling When Doves Cry. And guns, guns everywhere, emblazoned with flowers and crosses and the Sorrowful Mother gesturing at her flaming heart. The veneer of aesthetic devotion covering a beating heart of lust: lust for power, lust for revenge, lust for blood, lust for beautiful young bodies. 

This veneer is thin. As Juliet waits for Romeo, before she learns of Tybalt's death, she rhapsodizes about their coming wedding night:

Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars
And he shall make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world shall be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun. (III.2)

I started when I heard Danes say this. The line as I'd memorized it is, "Give me my Romeo, and when he shall die..."* There is a world of difference between longing for Romeo to grace the heavens after his own death, and offering him up living as a suttee to grace Juliet's funeral pyre. As it turns out, I'm in the wrong here (see note below). But the world of this production does reflect this essential selfishness of Juliet's. Even the two innocents, Romeo and Juliet, are simply softer, prettier, cleaner versions of their feuding forebears. This is a world without grace or forgiveness, where "civil strife makes civil hands unclean". Action replaces hope, and prudence is more honored in the breech than in the observance.

My teenagers, for the most part, thought the movie an interesting look at the antediluvian world of the 1990s, and opined that their shaggy 12yo brother could benefit from Leo's hair stylist. "Why is everything so Catholic?" one asked, surveying Juliet's bedroom shrine. "Is this a particularly Catholic play?" 

"No," I said. "And can you believe that Claire Danes is about six months younger than me?"

The girls studied Juliet's eternally youthful face. "No," they said.

*My flaking paperback Folger Library edition, from which I must have memorized the passage, bears me out, but the historical record tells a different tale. Every early version from the Second Quarto (1599) on has "and when I shall die". The First Quarto (1597) does not, but only by omission: Act 3, Scene 2 has only four lines for Juliet before the nurse enters, cutting 25 lines of the famous monologue beginning with "Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night". The Folger Shakespeare Library has facsimiles of these early versions, and their online reading text has "when I shall die". Why does my old paperback say "he"? Alas, the book has lost the cover and all the front pages, so I don't even know when it was printed, but the price on the spine is 45 cents. It's probably as old as I am, which, as we have established here, is old.

Monday, May 03, 2021

Pope St. John Paul II, Modernist (theatrically speaking)

 I had the great good fortune this weekend to see a production of The Jeweler's Shop by Karol Wojtyła, Bishop of Krakow (best known, of course, for his later career as the Bishop of Rome, Pope St. John Paul II). A group of Catholic young adults in Columbus decided, in best theatrical tradition, that they wanted to put on a show, and tackled Wojtyła's dense text creditably, with several fine performances and original music. The Jeweler's Shop is a show that's rarely performed, so I was delighted to have the chance to see it so close to home.

It's not that The Jeweler's Shop is a difficult show to stage -- no large cast extravaganza, no big sets, no special effects tour-de-force. It is, in fact, deceptively simple. Most of the action is interior. Most of the script consists of monologues to the audience, with lyrical passages of "rhapsodic" mediations on love. Those rhapsodic passages are key to understanding Wojtyla's approach to theater.

When people hear that a Catholic pope was formerly an actor and a playwright, their understandable assumption would be that he was a classically trained, old-school showman, standing in the solid theatrical traditions of Shakespeare and well-crafted plays and big proscenium-arch acting. And so, it is perhaps a shock to encounter the actual work of the man. Karol Wojtyła was no traditionalist. He didn't act in the kitchen-sink realism style of Stanislavski, or write standard five-act dramas replete with old-fashioned stuff like dialogue and scenes and story-telling structure. As a man of the stage, he was an experimental modernist.

For Wojtyła, theater was a ritual, as stylized as a liturgy, a vehicle for the Word. The actor is on stage to convey not a character, but an idea, which takes root in the minds of the audience who hear the spoken word and grapple internally with the problem the play propounds. This style, in which the word becomes, in effect, a vehicle of the internal movement of the soul, is called Rhapsodic. As he himself explains:

The Rhapsodic company has accustomed us to a theater of the word. What does this mean? Is not every theater a theater of the word? Does not the word constitute an essential, primary element of every theater? Undoubtedly it does. Nonetheless, the position of the word in a theater is no always the same. As in life, the word can appear as an integral part of action, movement, and gesture, inseparable from all human practical activity; or it can appear as "song" -- separate, independent, intended only to contain and express thought, to embrace and transmit a vision of the mind. In the latter aspect, or position, the word becomes "rhapsodic", and a theater based on such a concept of the word becomes a rhapsodic theater. (Wojytła, The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, 372)

This rhapsodic vision is best realized in small-scale, experimental productions, with minimal set and a few significant props, and it was well-suited to the kind of underground resistance theater that Wojtyła spearheaded under the Nazi occupation of Poland. The rhapsodic group proclaimed the great patriotic Polish dramas and epics, stripped down to their essential ideas and staged not as dramatic scenes between characters but as ideas and themes presented directly to the audience:

[The Rhapsodic Theater] made of them not traditional 'adaptations for the stage', but always specific and authentic uncoverings of the very essence of the works, their thought and ideas, their authors' intellectual vision. This is a novel and revealing approach. (The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, 373)

The religious, intellectual Rhapsodic Theater troupe forged on after WWII, under the challenging conditions of the Communist regime, which favored experimental theater, but of the atheistic, psychologically intrusive style pioneered by Jerzy Grotowski. (Fans of cult cinema will recognize his name from My Dinner with Andre, in which Andre tells Wally Shawn [later of Princess Bride fame] about his time with Grotowski's theater troup in Poland.) Grotowski also saw theater as liturgy, but unlike the Rhapsodists, he wanted theater to be literally liturgical, embued with the power to evoke in reality what it proclaimed through the word. Wojytła's rhapsodism was confined to an intellectual experience, in which the audience members would grapple internally with an idea and let it come to fruition in them through personal conversion and then practical action. Grotowski wanted his actors to literally experience the suffering or the ecstasy they were performing on stage -- an emotional transformation rather than an intellectual one. Many of his actors went on to have mental breakdowns through the abusive theatrical workshop training Grotowski subjected them to. 

However, Grotowski was a card-carrying communist, and the Rhapsodists were practicing Catholics championed by Bishop Wojtyła, a thorn in the side of the Communist regime. In 1960, the year that Wojtyła wrote The Jeweler's Shop based on his years of pastoral experience with married couples, Grotowski's Laboratory Theater was just getting off the ground, with funding from the government. By 1967, the Communist government of Krakow had suppressed the Rhapsodic Theater, in large part because of its association with Wojtyła, newly appointed a Cardinal. Grotowski went on to great acclaim in theatrical circles, and Wojytła went on to become Pope, and we shall see who is remembered as more influential.

The Rhapsodic Theater did tackle more traditional styles of drama, but Wojytła himself realized that this style wasn't really suited to dramas built on standard theatrical elements such as characterization and plot. As bishop, he wrote a review of Actors in Elsinore, the Rhapsodic take on Hamlet using various scenes from Shakespeare:

This Shakespearian production has been a great effort for the rhapsodists, because Shakespeare, as I have said, is not at all rhapsodic but theatrical, dramatic, comic, and tragic in his own way. He re-creates life and does not evade its concrete events; on the contrary, he enriches his plays with them. It is not easy to isolate in Shakespeare a pure construction of ideas or to stylize the action in a rhapsodic fashion to give sway to the word. For this reason, while agreeing that this production... had its origins in the rhapsodists' profound need for self-definition and undoubtedly expresses that need, one must also state that it is a new confirmation and experience of the proper direction of this particular theater. (The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater, 378)

 So! Wojytła's plays are not well-crafted theater pieces in which the dialogue and plot does most of the work, independent of the skill of the actor (which is why A Mid-Summer Night's Dream can be performed by middle-schoolers and still be basically intelligible). And this is why you generally won't see the pope's play performed by your parish drama club, and why I was so excited to see any performance of it. It was written both as a Catholic meditation on marriage, to be contemplated individually by readers, and as an experimental piece of theater for a troupe trained in the particular and demanding style of Rhapsodic theater.  

(For all drama clubs: Wojtyła's most traditionally-crafted and accessible play is an earlier, more obscure work, Our God's Brother [1949], based on the life of Polish patriot, artist, and religious brother Albert Chmielowski.)