“I must have wanton Poets” (Edward II/Christopher Marlowe)

Oh dear, I’ve been very slack with regard to writing this blog lately.  I’ve been beavering away trying to prepare for my final year at uni, and have not managed my time properly – this does not bode well for the mania of finals.  Anyway, my pending exam failures aside,  I was wracking my brains trying to think of a theme for this post, when all I’ve been doing is studying.  Very dull, and does not make for lots of choices for a theme that relates to my life in any way.  But then I thought of something that happened recently and I want you stick with me when I tell you the theme of this post: its Renaissance theatre.  Wait!  For those of you groaning and having flashbacks to sweating over Shakespeare at school, let me say this: you were taught badly.  Renaissance drama can be the best drama there is, from a golden age of theatre when some of the greatest minds were so engaged with the art form they produced lively, innovative, downright entertaining plays.  Then generations of schoolchildren were tortured into trying to unpick it all bit by bit, whilst being told it was good for them.  I hope if that was your experience you’ll finish reading this post, and let me try and persuade you back into the theatre, because I love it.  The reason I’ve made it the theme of this post is because I went and saw Edward II at the National, and it was fantastic.  For those of you with ease of access to the South Bank, I highly recommend you try and catch it.  The production was so innovative and fresh (actors in the audience, multimedia approach, ad-libbing) but it still didn’t lose sight of Marlowe’s brilliant language.  Its iconoclastic approach may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for me it was one of the best adaptations I’ve seen.

So I thought I’d look at two more Renaissance plays, neither by Shakespeare, because there’s an abundance of stuff on him, no?  (This doesn’t mean I won’t opt to write a post on him at another time, he was a genius after all).  Firstly, Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.  I last saw this performed in 2011 at The Globe, and it was a great production.  I’m not always so keen on The Globe’s approach to things, but this worked well, and Arthur Darvill (Rory in Dr Who according to the excited audience members that surrounded me) was a perfect Mephistopheles.  Here’s the final scene from that production (filmed theatre is always a bit odd I think, and often does the production no justice, but hey ho):

Dr Faustus is about an academic who sells his soul to the devil, asking him to “Resolve me of all ambiguities”.  Ultimately however, Faustus does not use his devilish power to find the answers to anything, but instead uses his time to enjoy prestige and wealth.  This is the first time he and Mephistopheles (Lucifer’s servant) speak:

MEPH. Now, Faustus, what wouldst thou have me do?

FAUSTUS. I charge thee wait upon me whilst I live,

To do whatever Faustus shall command,

Be it to make the moon drop from her sphere,

Or the ocean to overwhelm the world.

 MEPH. I am a servant to great Lucifer,

 And may not follow thee without his leave:

 No more than he commands must we perform.

 FAUSTUS. Did not he charge thee to appear to me?

 MEPH. No, I came hither of mine own accord.

FAUSTUS. Did not my conjuring speeches raise thee? speak.

MEPH. That was the cause, but yet per accidens;

For, when we hear one rack the name of God,

 Abjure the Scriptures and his Saviour Christ,

 We fly, in hope to get his glorious soul…

This first conversation shows so much about the rest of the play.  Firstly, Faustus is a pompous idiot.  He’s just muttered all these complex Latinate incantations, entirely unnecessarily.  When Mephistopheles arrives it’s because he was hanging around, and dropped in “of his own accord”.  Faustus has not conjured  Lucifer, who would not concern himself with such a weasel.  Faustus asks for silly things, the moon to drop, a servant to obey his commands. Secondly, he has no real understanding of what he’s done, it is Mephistopheles who knows the true price paid with his “glorious soul”.  This devil explains:

MEPH. Unhappy spirits that fell with Lucifer,

Conspir’d against our God with Lucifer,

And are for ever damn’d with Lucifer.

FAUSTUS. Where are you damn’d?

MEPH. In hell.

FAUSTUS. How comes it, then, that thou art out of hell?

MEPH. Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:

Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God,

And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,

Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,

In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?

 O, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,

 Which strike a terror to my fainting soul!

That line: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it, to me is the killer line of the whole play.  It shows just how little Faustus understands of what he has forfeited, and makes Mephistopheles the most complex character in the play.  He is both malevolent, and deeply, tragically sad, a fallen angel.  It shows how the person you are enables the power you have, to create a heaven or hell of your own making.  Marlowe was a controversial figure in his time; a government informer claimed the playwright was an atheist, an extreme and dangerous view to hold in the late sixteenth century.  (The informer also claimed Marlowe said “All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools”, a slightly less contentious view at the time).  Atheism was equated with immorality at the time, but I would argue Dr Faustus is a highly moral play whether or not you believe in God.  It asks the questions: what do you worship? and what price are you paying for that worship?  In this way, I would argue it still has plenty to say today, whether you are religious or not.  And if that all sounds a bit heavy, well, the full title is The Tragical History of Dr Faustus, but there are plenty of comic scenes and the play is so artfully written that you never feel like you’re being preached at.

Secondly, a comedy after all that tragedy, by Shakespeare’s frenemy, Ben Jonson: The Alchemist.  Jonson is rarely performed compared to his peers, and I think that’s a real shame.  This play is fast, frenetic, has plenty of physical and verbal comedy and is hugely entertaining.  It’s set in London during the plague, when all those who can afford it have fled to the country.  A servant, Face, takes advantage of his master’s absence to team up with an alchemist, Subtle, and a prostitute, Doll Common, to con people out of their money.  Cue lots of scenes with the three in various disguises, spinning ridiculous stories and scenarios to a succession of gullible idiots.  One of the most colourful of these is Sir Epicure Mammon, who desires the Philosopher’s Stone, for the following dubious reasons:

MAM. For I do mean

To have a list of wives and concubines,

Equal with Solomon, who had the stone

Alike with me; and I will make me a back

With the elixir, that shall be as tough

 As Hercules, to encounter fifty a night.—

 Thou’rt sure thou saw’st it blood?

 FACE. Both blood and spirit, sir.

 MAM. I will have all my beds blown up, not stuft;

Down is too hard: and then, mine oval room

Fill’d with such pictures as Tiberius took

From Elephantis, and dull Aretine

But coldly imitated. Then, my glasses

Cut in more subtle angles, to disperse

And multiply the figures, as I walk

 Naked between my succubae. My mists

 I’ll have of perfume, vapour’d ’bout the room,

 To lose ourselves in; and my baths, like pits

 To fall into; from whence we will come forth,

 And roll us dry in gossamer and roses.—

 Is it arrived at ruby?—Where I spy

 A wealthy citizen, or [a] rich lawyer,

 Have a sublimed pure wife, unto that fellow

 I’ll send a thousand pound to be my cuckold.

Jonson was scathing of those who practiced alchemy (attempting to turn base material into gold) and the greed of both the tricksters and their tricks is scathingly skewered.  However, it is a comedy, and (SPOILER) no-one is severely punished.  Of course, nowadays we’re far too savvy to believe in such things as alchemy – now, where did I put that lottery ticket…..?

Here’s an example of sixteenth-century alchemical experiments in action:

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“Procrastinate now, don’t put it off.” (Ellen DeGeneres)

The Guardian newspaper has a series it runs on Saturdays, called The Q&A, short interviews with celebrities.  One of the regular questions is: “What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?”  I don’t even have to pause for thought to answer this one.  Having lived with myself all these years there are plenty of things I deplore in myself, but far and away is my enormous capacity for procrastination.  Since I’ve started this blog, my procrastination has developed two-fold: I use the blog to procrastinate from whatever else I’m meant to be doing, and the blog also provides something else I procrastinate over.  Let’s just say there’s some reading for next term not getting done right now, and certain members of my household facilitate my procrastination by indulging their favourite pastime of sitting on my laptop – how can I possibly work in these conditions?

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If you are fellow procrastinator, take heart from the fact that you are in great company.  Famous procrastinators include Leonardo da Vinci, Douglas Adams, Franz Kafka and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The last of these is who I turn to now, with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  You can read the full poem here. This famous long poem tells the story of a mariner cursed after he shoots an albatross that had brought a warm wind to his ship:

And I had done a hellish thing,

And it would work ’em woe:

For all averred, I had killed the bird

That made the breeze to blow.

Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,

That made the breeze to blow!

As a result of his actions, he has to wear the albatross around his neck (hence the phrase for a guilty burden) and the ship is taken into new waters by vengeful spirits where the crew begin to die.

Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

 

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

 

The very deep did rot: O Christ!

That ever this should be!

Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs

Upon the slimy sea.

 

About, about, in reel and rout

The death-fires danced at night;

The water, like a witch’s oils,

Burnt green, and blue and white.

As these lines show, there is an eerie, hallucinatory quality to the imagery that really evokes a feeling of desolation and disquiet on a vast expanse of ocean. The atmosphere of the poem is deeply unsettling.

When the mariner begins to appreciate the natural life around him, he prays, and the albatross falls from his neck, lifting the curse.

Beyond the shadow of the ship,

I watched the water-snakes:

They moved in tracks of shining white,

And when they reared, the elfish light

Fell off in hoary flakes.

 

Within the shadow of the ship

I watched their rich attire:

Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,

They coiled and swam; and every track

Was a flash of golden fire.

 

O happy living things! no tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessèd them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware.

 

The self-same moment I could pray;

And from my neck so free

The Albatross fell off, and sank

Like lead into the sea.

However, the Mariner is left to wander the earth, telling his story. It is not a comfortable resolution, and apparently Coleridge was in some sort of spiritual crisis when he wrote this poem.  But although it’s an uncomfortable read, it’s also Coleridge at his best, and the imagery is beautiful and arresting.  Definitely worth a read, and as a procrastination tool it should use up about an hour.

Secondly, back to the twenty-first century with Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Semple used to write for various television shows, including one of my all-time favourites, Arrested Development, so I approached this novel with high hopes.  I wasn’t let down.   The novel is funny, but not at the expense of the characters.  Semple manages to create people you really care about, even as you laugh at their foibles and delusions.  I chose it for this post because Bernadette is an architect who hasn’t created anything in years.  The novel is told from the point of view of her adoring 15-year-old daughter Bee, but also multiple viewpoints as we read letters, emails, notes and even a transcript of a TED talk.  Bernadette lives with her husband and daughter in a crumbling building:

“All day and night it cracks and groans, like it’s trying to get comfortable but can’t, which I’m sure has everything to do with the huge amount of water it absorbs any time it rains.  It’s happened before that a door all of a sudden won’t open because the house has settled around it.”

“I knew our blackberry vines were buckling the library floor and causing weird lumps in the carpet and shattering basement windows. But I had a smile on my face, because while I slept, there was a force protecting me.”

Bernadette hates living in Seattle, “this Canada-close sinkhole they call the Emerald city”.  She responds with antagonism bordering on aggression to the parents at Bee’s school who try and get her involved in the “community”.  Then one day she disappears.  As Bee tries to put together what’s happened and find her idiosyncratic, forceful mother, the various characters emerge through Bee’s impression of them and their own words in the various transcripts that make up the novel. They are all flawed, funny, recognisable and likeable.  Even the character I most wanted to throttle redeemed herself in the end.

Although it’s Bee looking for her mother, the title is Where’d You Go, Bernadette, not Where’d You Go, Mom.  Ultimately the novel is about Bernadette’s search for herself, because, as a friend of hers points out: “If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society”.  And funny though Bernadette’s menace is, you’re rooting for this eccentric and engaging character to find her way back to working again. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a reassuring, feel-good novel about how we’re all trying to get through life and not lose ourselves along the way.

Normally I end with a photo of the books, but I thought it was apt to the theme of procrastination not to get round to it.  Instead here is Tim from The Office exploring his favourite way to procrastinate, by torturing Gareth: