Millman's Shakesblog

A blog about theatre, literature and the arts, with a particular emphasis on the work of William Shakespeare.

Dear readers:

I am proud to announce that Millman’s Shakesblog is joining the Arts and Letters page at The American Conservative. I’ve been blogging for TAC for a few months now on other topics, and have been eagerly awaiting the moment, now arrived, when they bring my theatre criticism under their general wing.

Apropos of the name of the magazine, I should stress that I don’t particularly consider myself a “conservative” (certainly not as that word has been used in contemporary politics). When I first joined TAC, I introduced myself as their new “house liberal” - but that’s not quite accurate either; like most people, I’m something of a mish-mash. What appealed to me about joining TAC was the opportunity to be part of a magazine dedicated to the conservative virtues - attachment to place, to history, to the “little world” - and to pushing back against the notion that these virtues have anything to do with promoting an extremely aggressive foreign policy or an unregulated financial sector. And the defense of the “little world” has everything to do with my love of the theatre.

In any event, my continually-evolving politics aside, I hope those of you who have been following me here will continue to follow me there.

Posted by Noah Millman at 8:08am.

At the college I attended, history majors were required to write a thesis in their senior year. I was interested at the time in early colonial (16th century) Latin America, and in particular the attempts by Spaniards and native peoples to make sense of each other’s cultures in their own cultural terms. (I was very impressed by Inga Clendinnen’s study of this process in 16th century Yucatan, and had written a paper on Diego de Landa.) As I cast about for a thesis topic, I decided to write about the mysterious Taki Onqoy rebellion in Peru.

But as I researched the rebellion (or religious movement - there’s still debate about the degree to which it was one and the degree to which it was the other, or whether that distinction is even meaningful), I became more and more aware that I really didn’t understand anything about it - that, indeed, nobody understood that much about it, the main reason being that our source materials were mostly Spanish ecclesiastical investigation records, and the Spanish didn’t understand what they themselves were investigating. At one point, I came upon a modern paper that declared that all previous interpretations of the Onqoy were incorrect because they were premised on the assumption that the rebellion was motivated by Inca revanchism, whereas in fact (the paper claimed), the religious roots of the rebellion lay in pre-Inca astrology, and a revival of practices that the Incas themselves had superceded when they unified the Andes. Well, upon reading this claim, which I had absolutely no basis for evaluating positively or negatively, I realized that I was going to get nowhere with my attempts to make sense of the Taki Onqoy. I resigned myself to writing a shorter paper about the difficulties of drawing conclusions from such source materials, and switched to a different topic (and a different continent and millennium to boot) for my senior thesis.

Taking in the current production of Donald Margulies’s play, Time Stands Still, at Steppenwolf’s intimate upstairs theatre, I was reminded of my undergraduate dilemma. Not to disparage the play, which I thought was extremely finely crafted, nor even less the production, directed with great sensitivity by Austin Pendleton (eschewing the easy resort to satire that I am told marked the New York production) and designed with an exquisite attention to detail (I think I’ve actually been in that apartment in Williamsburg) by Walt Spangler, but there was something fundamentally unsatisfyingly critical and distanced about the experience that reminded me very much of my own struggles to see a world so far removed from my own, and through a glass darkly.

Time Stands Still is a drama about two couples and their relationship to each other and to the war in Iraq (and overseas dramas in general). The principal character, Sarah Goodwin (played by Ally Murphy with an expressive reserve reminiscent of Joan Allen) is a photojournalist who has just returned home from Iraq after being seriously injured, and nearly killed, by a roadside IED. The other characters are her longtime boyfriend and journalistic collaborator, James Dodd (Randall Newsome), her editor, Richard Ehrlich (Francis Guinan), and his new girlfriend and later second wife, Mandy Bloom (Kristina Valada-Viars).

But there’s also a fifth character, Tariq, Sarah’s Iraqi interpreter and, for a time, lover, who was killed by the same blast that nearly killed her. Tariq’s memory haunts Sarah, and, as a symbol, haunts the play, the purported locus of meaning that, like my Taqi Onqoy, ultimately becomes more the basis of hermeneutic dispute than a real source of understanding, for the characters on stage or for the audience.

The four characters we see, though fully rounded and real (Donald Margulies is almost Chekhovian in his skill at dramatic portraiture) also stand for a range of possible responses to far-away horrors (for which those on stage may or may not be understood to have some responsibility - we’re talking about four Americans and the horrors of Iraq, after all). At one extreme is Sarah, the photojournalist, has devoted her life to bringing news of these horrors home to a cynical and jaded American readership. Her boyfriend, who has begun to desire a more settled life and who fears for her safety (and who returned early from Iraq after a nervous breakdown - thereby making possible the affair with Tariq), semi-accuses her at one point of being an adrenaline junkie, but that’s not quite right. She doesn’t live for the thrill; she lives for the sense of meaning that she gets from her work. She cannot, she feels, stand idly by; she has to do something. Bringing the news home is what she can do - what she is good at doing.

Sarah derives meaning from being involved in something objectively important. She complains that James is wasting his time with a “trivial” book about horror films - fake horror created for entertainment - when there are real horrors going on in the world, and at the end of the play she leaves him, and the prospect of domesticity, to return to the war zones that he has abandoned. At the other extreme is Mandy Bloom, Richard’s new girlfriend, designated “lightweight” (though Richard is the real lightweight), an obvious “midlife crisis” relationship who turns out to be a considerably more serious commitment. She is, from a moral perspective, the localist. At the end of the play, she gives up her “trivial” job as an event planner to devote herself to motherhood; what could be more important? And early on in the play, she reacts with horror when she observes Richard and Sarah going through the gruesome photos of her most recent trip. How can she just take these pictures and not do something to help - get medical help, comfort the bereaved; something. How can she be so dispassionate? Sarah explains: she helps by doing her job, and her job requires dispassion. But that’s no kind of answer to Mandy. What kind of person wants to numb herself that way, even for an ostensibly good cause?

And how can we know the cause is that good? Later on in the play, when Richard finally admits to James that he has cut his piece on Iraqi refugees, and James explodes with fury about how important that piece is, Mandy is utterly dismissive: “they already had a downer article for that issue.” We can take this as another sign of her shallowness - except that she’s pretty representative of the intended audience for the news pieces James and Sarah are producing. If this is how their audience reacts, then just how much “good” are they really doing? How different is James from the people who put on a play about suffering Iraqis that James ridicules for making the audience feel good simply by having gone to a play, even though that action does absolutely nothing to change the situation in Iraq?

James’s bitter criticism doesn’t just redound upon himself; it redounds upon the author of the play. It was in the midst of this exchange, James critiquing the play about Iraq, that I realized just how “meta” this play was. It wasn’t just the obvious irony that we were watching a play about Iraq, so James is, on some level, criticizing us. Margulies was laying bare his own dilemma. How can you write about something like the Iraqi experience in a way that is at all meaningful? What can the audience possibly take home that will be of lasting meaning to us? Any such play, by definition, isn’t going to be about us, the audience. To make it about us, it needs to move us to action, which, in turn (if we are to agree with Joyce) it to make it a species of pornography. If, on the other hand, it moves us to contemplation, we can, in the end, only contemplate our the unbridgeable chasm of our remove.

So he wrote a play about that remove, and the results are fascinating but unsatisfying in the same way that I found the Taki Onqoy to be. There’s no answer, ultimately, to the question of how we “should” respond to far-from-home horrors. There’s a superficial satisfaction in both Mandy’s and Sarah’s answers, but only a superficial one. None of the criticisms of Sarah’s outlook are ever actually answered - her only answer is that she can’t accept any other answer than to go back to the zone, and we believe her. But the horrors haven’t gone away just because Mandy is good is not looking at them. Ultimately, the play has no forward movement: a problem is presented, and in the end the problem is the same as it was at the beginning, but the various characters have proceeded along their inevitable paths in their relationship to that problem. Their relationships to, in this case, Iraq, are about them, and the differences in their behavior are about the differences between them, and nothing to do with some kind of view of what is right or what is wrong.

Which brings me back to Tariq. Sarah’s affair with Tariq comes up over and over between her and James, but not because he won’t let go of it - she’s the one who holds on, who demands that the experience be accorded some transcendent meaning. He dismisses the affair as just one of those things that happens; she’s insulted, declares that she really loved him. Okay: but he’s dead. She’ll get over it. However intense, it was brief, and it’s over. And anyway, he wasn’t so much a person as a symbol of Iraq - she was in love with the Iraqi experience, a kind of colonialism of the left. She’s insulted again: James is the one who’s a racist, who can’t accept the idea that she could really have fallen in love with an Iraqi. Okay: fine: it was real. But it wasn’t central to their experience of the Iraq War. When James writes the copy for her book of photos, he’s perfectly justified in leaving out painful personal stuff that has nothing really to do with the subject. But no! She’s insulted again - Tariq was absolutely central to her experience in Iraq; her book is a memorial to him more than anything else; how could he whitewash Tariq out of the story? What is he - a member of the Politburo?

It’s not so much a case of the lady protesting too much, though it is that, too. What’s going on is that Sarah desperately wants to feel real, for her life to be about her, without also having to acknowledge its triviality in some objective sense. Whatever her experience was with Tariq, it was real, but it was also connected with that world away from her that has always, to her, seemed more real, more important, than the world at home. To deny its importance is to acknowledge the unbridgeable nature of that remove between us and them. She’ll sacrifice anything not to have to acknowledge that.

But we have to acknowledge it. We have no idea who Tariq is. We have learned nothing about Iraq. What we’ve learned is that it’s not clear how it would matter if we did learn anything about Iraq. Which is something to think about, but is a rather flat thing to be feeling as we leave the theatre, rather empty of catharsis.

I wonder what Brecht would have made of it.

Posted by Noah Millman at 6:59am.

And now for something completely different: Macbeth acted out by the voices of “The Simpsons.”

No, really.

Rick Miller is the inspired lunatic responsible for MacHomer, a one-man show in which Miller, doing the voices of dozens of Simpsons characters, acts out a version of Macbeth that is recognizably a version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Apparently, he got the idea during the copious free time afforded by playing the role of Second Murderer in a production of the Scottish tragedy, debuted at the cast party, and has been touring the continent with it ever since.

The show is genuinely funny, and the better you know Macbeth (and “The Simpsons”) the funnier it is. Indeed, if you don’t know Macbeth well, a great many jokes will fly right past you - but don’t worry, there will be plenty more where those came from.

I had the most fun contemplating the casting. Some was obvious - but still brilliant. The rivalry between Homer Simpson and his neighbor, Ned Flanders, combined with Flanders’s conspicuous rectitude, makes him an obvious choice for Banquo. And Crusty the Clown brings down the house as the Porter. (“Knock, knock, knock - Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of Hell Gate, he should have old turning the key. [Pause] Ah, I got nothing - here, try this one: Knock, knock. Who’s there?”)

Other choices were more surprising, but inspired. Duncan is another figure of innocent rectitude (if sometimes played as a bit dim), so casting Mr. Burns is a surprising and interesting choice, but one that makes sense structurally and pays marvelous dividends at the end of the play. But casting Barney as Macduff is nothing short of a miracle. The trickiest moment in a comic version of Macbeth is the one moment that cannot be played for purely comic effect without destroying the story: the moment when Macduff learns his family has been slaughtered. Miller handles it perfectly, the news delivered comically by Troy McClure (who plays several roles - that’s a “Simpsons” joke, but also a Macbeth joke, as the numerous plaid-clad secondary characters in the tragedy are awfully easy to confound), but received with utter earnestness by Barney’s Macduff. It’s a moment of real emotion, and precisely because of Barney’s distinctive quaver we’re able to feel the sting without being taken out of the overall comic mood of the piece.

The toughest casting, though, is Homer and Marge as Macbeth and his lady. And here, well, Miller frankly has a problem. Homer is certainly stupid and impulsive enough to be Macbeth. And Homer’s active but self-involved imagination provides numerous opportunities to mock Macbeth’s morbid but vivid waking dreams. (“Is this a dagger I see before me? Or a pizza?”) But “thou woulds’t be great; art not without ambition” is not exactly the way I would describe Homer Simpson. And while the differential in intelligence between Marge and Homer certainly maps onto the Scottish couple, Marge is notable for basically never pushing Homer to be something he isn’t. Indeed, Rick Miller needs to turn Marge into “evil Marge” whenever she has to act out of character, which is basically in most of Lady Macbeth’s scenes.

And then there’s Macduff’s line: “He has no children.” When Barney says this, it is totally convincing. But then we remember he’s saying it about Homer Simpson, and … well, Homer and Marge about as inconceivable without their children as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are inconceivable with them.

Notwithstanding this central difficulty, the show is an enormous amount of fun. It’s on perpetual tour (I saw it in New York, at NYU’s Skirball Center), currently playing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. It’s worth the trip to see it, and if you can’t get there, it may well be coming to a theatre near you.

Posted by Noah Millman at 12:21pm.

Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” … Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

The quote is the antepenultimate note from Susan Sontag’s famous essay, “Notes on Camp.” There’s an essential truth in the insight, but also something of the camp-enthusiast’s lapse of judgment. Camp, after all, rears its head most potently when it is not intended, and it is precisely such situations in which the line between what Sontag distinguishes as “ruthless” and “sweet” cynicism is difficult to discern. I once saw a small-cast (but lavish) “chamber” musical adaptation of Dracula that aimed to get at the “original” myth under all the “layers” of camp. The problem being that there is no original myth under the layers of camp - it’s camp all the way down. And staging the myth with deep earnestness gave the audience not a deeper emotional experience, but an experience of naive camp - the show was dreadful, and unintentionally hilarious. I almost had to leave the theatre; I couldn’t help laughing out loud in some of the most serious moments. This was a way of enjoying the show - no other way to enjoy it presented itself to me - but I most assuredly was not laughing with the show, or its creators. I was laughing at it. And the tenderness and generosity of spirit that Sontag identifies as essential to the camp sensibility depend upon that sensibility being shared.

The easiest way to ensure that this sensibility is shared is to engage in “camping” - in self-consciously creating something vulgar-yet-beautiful, something so-bad-it’s-good, something overdone yet just right - and let the audience know that you know what you’re doing, and that they should, too. But then, here comes Sontag (in her 18th note) to render a negative judgment on such efforts: “Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.”

I’ve been meditating on the uses and misuses of camp this morning, on account of two shows I recently saw that, in very different ways, treated of the double-vision that camp imposes - the “in-it” perspective that takes events seriously, and the “with-it” perspective that is aware of, and relishes, the artifice. I found both productions interesting, but neither entirely satisfying, and I wanted to figure out why.

*     *     *

The first production, which I saw late last month, was Jesse Berger’s production of Jean Genet’s The Maids at Red Bull Theatre. I am a huge fan of Berger’s work, and one reason is that he takes works - Jacobean tragedy, most prominently - that run a great risk of being turned into camp, and he seemingly effortlessly avoids that fate. I think of his production of The Dutchess of Malfi in particular, which can work exceptionally well as camp, and which can fail disastrously (and campily), if treated with operatic earnestness. Berger seemed to understand that this was a work about two very real human beings - the titular Dutchess and the cynical thug-for-hire Bosola - living in a world of campily over-the-top evil. And so he went with his wildest, most extravagant, even outright campy ideas for staging that world - the most extraordinary being the Busby-Berkeley-via-David-Lynch musical number inserted in the madhouse sequence - while demanding that those two principals remain real in their reactions to this insanity, never suggesting that they thought they were just in a play. It was a tour-de-force.

Berger approached Genet’s play in something of the same spirit. He staged it in a bedroom in a box, the audience placed just outside the walls of the room on all four sides. We become the voyeurs into this little hothouse world - and, as we see our fellow voyeurs all around, aware of ourselves as such. And the room is decorated in full camp style - blood red velvet and gladiolas everywhere. Claire (Jeanine Serralles) and Solange (Ana Reeder) come on, and begin to enact their S&M drama of master and servant, until the time runs out, and they must return to the real world, in which they are both servants to the so-far absent Madame.

So far so strong, and it continues with its visceral power - until Madame (J. Smith-Cameron) enters.

Madame, in this production, is the absurd, over-the-top reality that the two servants, the two true human beings, must accommodate themselves to. The servants change immediately - Ms. Serralles in particular, her Claire physically shrinking before our eyes in the glorious shadow of Madame. Madame must be a terrible force to have this impact on these two women.

But Smith-Cameron’s performance is fundamentally campy, and self-consciously so - it’s an example of “camping.” She flounces, she primps and powders, she throws her eyes and her arms about, she underlines every word she says. It’s impossible to take her seriously. More importantly, it’s impossible to be genuinely afraid of her. And yet, Claire and Solange are, quite patently, terrified.

I’ve never seen Genet before, and no doubt he thought this play was saying something important about the sado-masochistic dynamics of the master-servant relationship. But he originally intended for the play to be performed by male actors. To me, that suggests that the performance of femininity was at least as important to him as the class dynamics. And the (male) performance of femininity is very close to the heart of camp sensibility.

Madame’s life is transparently artificial - this is what makes her a camp creature. There’s nothing real about her world, her relationship with Monsieur, the crime for which he is in prison or the crime that the servants plot against her. But she feels more real, to her own servants, than they do to themselves. They melt in her presence; and when she is gone, they play at being her, and fantasize about destroying her. This scrambling of reality and artifice, the suggestion that the artificial is more compelling, more real, even, than the real, is also close to the heart of camp. But somehow, seeing these servants desperately loving and hating this camp creature, an obviously silly woman, just felt pathetic, rather than being filled with pathos. I began to pull away, and see Genet’s contrivance as itself a piece of artifice. The drama itself started to seem campy.

And I found myself wondering how differently it would play if Solange and Claire were played by men, but Madame played by a woman; if the campy, artificial dominatrix were the real woman, the servants, hating her and yearning to be her, enacting the pathos of men yearning to be what they could only be through the artifice of camp.

*     *     *

The final act of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream includes an almost perfect illustration of what Sontag was talking about when she praised camp. Peter Quince, Bottom and the rest of the Mechanicals have worked hard on their little production of “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby” but, as you might have guessed from the absurd description, the play is awful, and Theseus, the king for whom the entertainment is intended as part of his wedding feast, is duly warned of this. But Theseus will not be warned off:

I will hear that play;
For never anything can be amiss,
When simpleness and duty tender it.

 And so we are treated to what in most productions is a distinct pleasure: Sontag’s generous delight in something awful. You can’t say unintentionally awful, since of course Bottom and Snug and Snout and so forth are played by professional actors, deliberately performing badly (Sontag’s camping) - but, if the production is a good one, we forget that fact, and think we are watching Bottom and Snug and Snout, characters we have come to love and think of as real, and toward whom we feel as generous as Theseus does, and we love their play because they mean it so earnestly even as it is so awful (Sontag’s naive camp).

The current production of Dream at Classic Stage - another company of which I am very fond - takes a different approach. Director Tony Speciale starts his players camping almost from the get-go, and certainly by the time Taylor Mac’s inspired Puck appears - tearing his way out of an ape costume to reveal a red-and-white striped body suit and an enormous blonde Afro, the first of a series of marvelously outrageous costumes - we know this is a production that is taking the idea of “fairies” rather literally. (“You didn’t expect that!” he declares upon emerging from the ape suit, in one of a number of non-Shakespearean asides, the best of which was, to a woman in the front row, “would you reach under your seat darling and hand me my ukelele?”) The middle of the play is filled with inspired theatrical magic, all of it campy - the veritable deluge of rose petals that buries Titania; the swollen purple love-in-idleness flower that enchants the eyes of the lovers by squirting them; Oberon (played with panache by Anthony Heald) and Puck, eager to watch the confused lovers quarrel, settling into beach chairs with popcorn provided by hands reaching out from the mirrored back wall of the stage; and on and on. It’s wonderful.

But it leaves the production with a problem: what are the Mechanicals going to do for the finale? They certainly can’t top this. So they don’t try. For once, the play-within-a-play is played (mostly) straight, the rude players all in basic black, accompanied by a tuneful if unexceptional guitar strummed by Peter Quince (a bland Rob Yang). There are various bad jokes, but both Bottom’s Pyramus (a hearty Steven Skybell, last seen as Sagredo in CSC’s production of Galileo) and Flute’s Thisbe (a sorrowfully fey David Greenspan, last seen at CSC playing Queen Elizabeth in their production of Orlando) aim for genuine emotion in their performances. The result is a play that is bad, but not, unfortunately, so bad that it’s good; and the derision of the swells in the audience comes off as nasty in consequence. They can only enjoy the play, it seems, by making it out to be even worse than it is.

The production has other problems, in particular the lack of emotional clarity in the lovers’ performances (which isn’t helped by a contemporary setting that makes Hermia’s urgent flight from Athens to escape a death sentence frankly incomprehensible). The lovers ought to be silly, but I don’t think they should be trivial, and that’s how they feel here. I not only can’t believe anything bad will happen if the lovers don’t get properly sorted - I’m not even convinced they will feel that bad. But the big problem is this structural one, which stems from the production’s relationship to camp. Dream, normally, gives us wonder in the form of the fairies, and then a camp version of that wonder in the form of the Mechanicals’ bad theatre. And when we laugh with (not really at) the rude Mechanicals it is substantially because we have already been thoroughly charmed - as have the fairies themselves - by Bottom. Because he says stuff like this:

PEASEBLOSSOM
Hail, mortal!

COBWEB
Hail!

MOTH
Hail!

MUSTARDSEED
Hail!

BOTTOM
I cry your worship’s mercy, heartily: I beseech your
worship’s name.

COBWEB
Cobweb.

BOTTOM
I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good Master
Cobweb: if I cut my finger, I shall make bold with
you. Your name, honest gentleman?

PEASEBLOSSOM
Peaseblossom.

BOTTOM
I pray you, commend me to Mistress Squash, your
mother, and to Master Peascod, your father. Good
Master Peaseblossom, I shall desire you of more
acquaintance too. Your name, I beseech you, sir?

MUSTARDSEED
Mustardseed.

BOTTOM
Good Master Mustardseed, I know your patience well:
that same cowardly, giant-like ox-beef hath
devoured many a gentleman of your house: I promise
you your kindred had made my eyes water ere now. I
desire your more acquaintance, good Master
Mustardseed.

Unless I missed something, this entire dialogue, which is all about Bottom’s winning innocence, was cut in this production. I suspect it was cut because this innocence would disarm the fairies of their camp armor. And the director was saving that moment of disarming for the end of the production.

Puck is the only fairy who doesn’t vanish with the dawn, but who stays to plague and amuse the audience as it leaves the theatre, and he is granted the honor of the epilogue. In this production, Puck is double cast with Egeus, Hermia’s frustrated father, and he begins the epilogue (which is taken up by the rest of the cast) as Egeus, the sad man behind Puck’s clown makeup, who ends his speech by thrusting his face into his slice of wedding cake, thus reapplying his makeup in a metaphorical manner that makes clear just how angry he is at having to do so.

I’m not entirely clear what the director meant by this, but that anger is what came through to me, and what it said to me was: you’ve been laughing at the antics of these fairies, but we aren’t laughing; we’re crying, even as we’re making you laugh. Because (again, I presume) we’re not invited to have our own wedding feasts.

That’s a funny message for a New York audience, and perhaps I’ve got it wrong, but if I have then I really don’t know what the ending, with its abrupt shift of tone so completely against the text, means. In any event, to me, it calls into question the entirety of the production, asking us, in effect, to question our responses to the very parts of the production that worked best. I liked it, in its sobering Brechtian way. But even after meditating on it, I didn’t come to any settled conclusion about what Speciale thinks about the role of camp, and camping, in theatre, or in love.

Posted by Noah Millman at 3:53pm.

Two new installments in the weekly double-feature feature:

- Ian McKellen’s “Richard III” and “The King’s Speech”

- "A Serious Man" and "The Tree of Life"

Enjoy!

Posted by Noah Millman at 12:57pm.

My review of the CSC’s production of Brecht’s Galileois now up at The American Conservative website. Check it out!

Posted by Noah Millman at 4:09pm.

Over at my other blog I’ve started a new feature: the weekly double-feature, two great movies that you wouldn’t think go together, but that I argue do. This week: “The Philadelphia Story” and “Blue Valentine.” Check it out.

Posted by Noah Millman at 11:01am.

Regular readers know that my wife and I are long time patrons of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a landmark institution in the history of classical theatre and a key vehicle for the continuation of the classical tradition. Stratford just announced that Antoni Cimolino - the ultimate insider, having grown up professionally at Stratford from actor, to director, to Executive Director, to General Director - will be taking over next season as the new Artistic Director. It’s not exactly a surprise decision and it’s one that I’m pretty happy about - I like and admire Mr. Cimolino a great deal. But there are risks as well as opportunities to any choice, and I thought I’d articulate both what I’m nervous about and what I’m excited about with this one.

I’m nervous basically for the same reasons that I was excited about Des McAnuff’s appointment (and, before his sole tenure, the short-lived triumvirate). At the end of Richard Monette’s celebrated tenure at Stratford (the Festival’s longest-serving Artistic Director, and also a long-time insider who started as a member of the company), the Festival was in about as good shape as it had ever been financially, and had become an important institution for the training of not only a new generation of actors but also the whole panoply of artists and artisans that make theatre on Stratford’s scale possible. And yet, the Festival was feeling increasingly provincial. In particular, the same directors seemed to come around year after year, and there was a feeling in too many productions of “oh, is it my turn?” to doTwelfth NightorA Midsummer Night’s Dreamor another classical warhorse. I hoped that new leadership would bring Stratford more into the international theatrical “conversation” as it were. And to some extent that’s happened, but I fear that to too great an extent that’s been a function of Des McAnuff’s personal network, rather than something that has changed the perception of the institution. I worry, particularly with an insider in charge, of a reversion to some of the bad habits (along with the good habits) of the Monette years. Moreover, much of the “electricity” that I talked about from the McAnuff years accrued to his own productions - flying refrigerators and all that. Inasmuch as I think there’s something positive about that electricity (and I do), where will the funds come from in Mr. McAnuff’s absence to pay the electric bill?

But I don’t worry that much. Cimolino has invested much of his life in the Festival. I don’t think he’s going to be complacent now that he’s in charge. He wanted this job very badly, and I believe he wanted it to do something with it, and not merely to have it.

When I last opined on the subject of succession, I articulated a hope that the next AD pay particular attention to, on the one hand, stretching the canon geographically and temporally and, on the other hand, doing interesting (and not condescending) things on the “family experience” side. Given Mr. Cimolino’s history as a director, I think he’s a promising choice on both fronts. (Among other things, he’s got teenage children himself.) Now I’d like to add two more hopes to the list - both hopes that I think Cimolino is well-positioned to make real.

First, Stratford has experienced a dramatic decline in total attendance in the past decade. The drop from 2010 to 2011 was steep (13%) and took ticket sales below 500,000 for the first time in a long time - but most of the drop actually took place in the latter half of the Monette years. (The peak was in 2002, the 50th anniversary season; ticket sales have declined by nearly a third since then.) I’m inclined mostly to blame external factors for this decline rather than “mistakes” the Festival has made - but I don’t think those external factors are going away any time soon. Paradoxically, I think a key path to rebuilding that audience requires doing things to involve that audience outside of the central theatre experience. The Metropolitan Opera’s HD simulcasts are a controversial example of how to grow an audience, but a company of Stratford’s size has to be thinking about other media as a way of extending the audience (and thinking about how to extend it without cannibalizing it). Extending Stratford into new media is a very thorny minefield for intellectual property and labor-relations reasons. But Cimolino has, I believe, been an advocate for moving in this direction in the past.

Second, and going in the opposite - or, rather, complimentary - direction, there is a new generation of directors interested in classical texts who have an intensely visceral relationship with those texts and to the unique nature of the theatrical experience. Stratford already has a budding relationship with New York’s Jesse Berger - that’s a relationship I’d like to see grow. Another director with similarly grand ambitions and the confidence to absorb classical texts and make them his own is Chicago’s Sean Graney. These are directors who don’t have to work to make old texts relevant to new and young theatre-goers - because they already know why those texts are relevant to them, why they are passionate about them. They aren’t antiquarians and they aren’t popularizers; they are directors for whom classic works are still alive, and that vitality pours out onto the stage. These are the kinds of people Stratford needs to bring in to keep their own blood feeling young. And while Cimolino’s own theatrical sensibility is rather more restrained than directors like Berger and Graney, I believe theirs is the kind of work that excites him when he goes to the theatre - and based on the work Cimolino’s done on odd texts likeBartholomew Fair and his evident interest in nurturing young talent, I think he’d be very excited to see sensibilities like theirs play out on Stratford’s stages.

Posted by Noah Millman at 1:49pm.

This is really too good. Highlights:

"Peaseblossom and Mustardseed, bring me some brew!" said the Ass on the Grass to Thing One and Thing Two.

I do not bite my thumb at you. I bite my thumb, though. Yes, I do!

I sat there with Juliet./We sat there, we two,/And I said, ‘How I wish/I were no Montague.’

Oh look! Here comes Malvolio! Those yellow stockings have to go!

Why do you yet speak, Benedick? I hate your words, they make me sick.

Last week you spat on my beard and after that you jeered and jeered. And now you would be pals I see? Antonio’s no friend to me.

Here’s another, made of lead: which one? Quickly? Use your head!

I will not kill him with a sword. I will not kill my Scottish lord. I will not stab him in the back. I do not want to, Lady Mac.

Tomorrow once, tomorrow twice, I think I’ll say tomorrow thrice; this petty pace creeps day today until the time all goes away.

Scots with sticks come. Scots with stocks come. Scots with sticks and stocks and glocks come.

Cordelia loves me? No, I say!/Make my daughter go away!/But was I wrong? Was she not bad?/Maybe I am going mad!

Stop! You must not Hop On Top of Pop! Or divide his kingdom between yourselves and send him out alone into a raging storm.

Hamlet is particularly popular:

Who’s that, who’s there? I said, who’s there? Is that Horatio on the stairs?

Seems, dear madam? Seems, you say? I know not seems, I must say nay!

That ghost looks somewhat like my dad/ I thought he died, this must be bad.

To keep it up or call it quits?/These natural shocks give me the fits!/It seems to me that I forgot/Did I decide to be? Or not?

Would you, could you, while at prayer? Kill him! Kill him! He is there!

Do you see Dad? Not two months dead? I see him Mum, beside your bed.

Posted by Noah Millman at 10:00am.

My review of Ralph Fiennes’s movie, “Coriolanus,” based on the Shakespeare play, is now up at The American Conservative. Do check it out.

Posted by Noah Millman at 12:24am.