Social Distancing with Shakespeare

This week in North Philly Notes, Jeffrey Wilson, author of Shakespeare and Trump, writes about why people are cycling experiences with coronavirus through Shakespeare.

First came the meme to wash hands for the duration of Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot” speech.

Soon society was shutting down. “I’m worried about Covid-19 causing theatres to go dark,” tweeted theater-maker @MediocreDave on March 9, 2020. “Not because I’ll lose income, but because we’ll inevitably be subjected to opportunistic Shakespeare scholars making smug but superficial analogies to the playhouse closures of the late Elizabethan plague years.” That’ll be the end of that, I thought.

The next day, Slate ran a piece from Ben Cohen, “The Infectious Pestilence Did Reign: How the Plague Ravaged William Shakespeare’s World and Inspired his Work, from Romeo and Juliet to Macbeth.” Two days later, Shakespeare scholar Emma Smith was historicizing appropriations of Lady Macbeth’s hand-washing scene for Penguin Books. Another two days, and The Atlantic ran Daniel Pollack-Pelzner’s “Shakespeare Wrote His Best Works During a Plague.”

The content of these essays—Shakespeare born in plague, shuttered theaters prompting his poetry, Romeo and Juliet derailed by quarantine, playwrights sustained by wealthy patrons, disease threatening rival acting troupes, great art created in isolation—is not as fascinating as the questions raised by their method. Why are people cycling experiences with coronavirus through Shakespeare? What do we gain from comparisons between social distancing in Shakespeare’s time and in ours? How might our experiences with social distancing help us better understand Shakespeare’s? How can these examples help us think about academic work in 2020?

On March 14, @rosannecash caused a collective groan by tweeting, “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear.”

Twitter did its thing. “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” wrote @sydneeisanelf. “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he masturbated incessantly,” said @emilynussbaum.

With doors shuttered, some theaters offered plays and programming online, free to the public, including Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theater, the Public Theater, and the Folger Shakespeare Library. Then came pop-up performances like Patrick Stewart’s #ASonnetADay and The Two Gentleman of Verona on Zoom. What is the value of art in times of social distancing? How is social distancing changing the way art is done? Based on the analogy to Shakespeare, what might the art that comes out of coronavirus look like?

Academics followed suit. On March 23, Andy Kesson, Callan Davies, and Emma Whipday launched A Bit Lit, featuring open-access, of-the-moment interviews with early-modern literary scholars. What is the role of humanistic thought and conversation in times of social distancing? What is the importance—if any—of studying Shakespeare when society is in such turmoil?

Social distancing with Shakespeare soon became A Thing. Kathryn Harkup in The Telegraph on March 15; Andrew Dickson in The Guardian on March 22; James Shapiro on CNN on March 30. The genre was common enough to call for satire. On April 1, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner wrote “What Shakespeare Actually Did During the Plague” for The New Yorker: “Day 25: Definitely too dark. Keep the mood light! No one wants to see a tragedy after a plague.”

Emma Smith tackled that tension with a straight face in the New York Times, arguing that “[Shakespeare’s] fictions reimagine the macro-narrative of epidemic as the micro-narrative of tragedy.” Is our experience with coronavirus tragic? What makes something tragic?

Elsewhere in the New York Times, Ian Wheeler cited Shakespeare to argue that, in America, “We need a better patronage system for artists.” In The New Yorker, James Shapiro lobbed Coriolanus-shaped bombs at the Trump administration: “The casual insults, the condescension, and the refusal to accept responsibility will be familiar to anyone who has lately tuned in to the daily White House briefings on the coronavirus pandemic.”

Shakespeare and Trump_smThese various ShakesTakes sift into terms developed in Shakespeare and Trump, my recent book about the surprising—and bizarre—relationship between the provincial English playwright and the billionaire President of the United States. There are the ShakesMemes. There are the Politicitations. And there is the Shaxtivism.

Above all, the Shakespearean gloss on social distancing shows the power—and pitfalls—of Public Shakespeare, where scholars eschew peer-reviewed academic writing in favor of public engagement.

I come not to bury Public Shakespeare, nor to praise it. I want to ask what it is, where it comes from, how it works, and why it elicits simultaneous enthusiasm and nausea. What is behind the push in some scholars to filter current events through Shakespeare? What is behind the tendency in others to get annoyed when they do?

Why are Shakespeareans suddenly authorities on everything—from presidential politics to social distancing? At a time when Donald Trump nonchalantly disclaims, “I’m not a doctor,” then proceeds to use his power and platform to promote hydroxychloroquine, why are Shakespeare scholars going widely outside their areas of expertise surrounding a 400-year-old English playwright to comment on current events?

Four points:

  1. As an early-modern playwright who often represented medieval and ancient history, Shakespeare built into his texts the practice of engaging the present with the distant past.
  2. As artworks that often have scholarly sources, yet are performed for a broad audience of mixed social backgrounds, Shakespeare’s plays have public engagement built into them.
  3. The long tradition of modern-dress Shakespearean performance and adaptation provides a model for scholars looking to bring ideas that are old and artistic into conversation with current events.
  4. At a time when the humanities are said to be in crisis, Public Shakespeare gives scholars a platform to illustrate the practicality and utility of our field.

There is tremendous energy right now behind public-facing ShakesWork with an ethical if not activist edge. There is also legitimate skepticism of that endeavor. As @ClearShakes wrote on April 12, “Guys, sometimes there just isn’t a Shakespeare play that’s relevant to our situation.”

But recognizing Public Shakespeare as more closely related to Shakespearean performance than Shakespearean scholarship helps us understand why, like any show that takes creative risks, some cheer and some hiss.

 

Celebrating Black History Month with our African American Literature titles

This week in North Philly Notes, we focus on our African American books about books in honor of Black History Month

From Slave Ship to Supermax: Mass Incarceration, Prisoner Abuse, and the New Neo-Slave Novel by Patrick Elliot Alexander

In his cogent and groundbreaking book, From Slave Ship to Supermax, Patrick Elliot Alexander argues that the disciplinary logic and violence of slavery haunt depictions of the contemporary U.S. prison in late twentieth-century Black fiction. Alexander links representations of 2426_reg.gifprison life in James Baldwin’s novel If Beale Street Could Talk to his engagements with imprisoned intellectuals like George Jackson, who exposed historical continuities between slavery and mass incarceration. Likewise, Alexander reveals how Toni Morrison’s Beloved was informed by Angela Y. Davis’s jail writings on slavery-reminiscent practices in contemporary women’s facilities. Alexander also examines recurring associations between slave ships and prisons in Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, and connects slavery’s logic of racialized premature death to scenes of death row imprisonment in Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying.

Alexander ultimately makes the case that contemporary Black novelists depict racial terror as a centuries-spanning social control practice that structured carceral life on slave ships and slave plantations-and that mass-produces prisoners and prisoner abuse in post-Civil Rights America. These authors expand free society’s view of torment confronted and combated in the prison industrial complex, where discriminatory laws and the institutionalization of secrecy have reinstated slavery’s system of dehumanization.

Black Regions of the Imagination: African American Writers between the Nation and the World, by Eve Dunbar, a title in the American Literatures Initiative

Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes were all pressured by critics and publishers to enlighten mainstream (white) audiences about race and African American culture. Focusing on fiction and non-fiction they produced between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, Eve Dunbar’s important book, Bla2239_reg.gifck Regions of the Imagination, examines how these African American writers—who lived and traveled outside the United States—both document and re-imagine their “homegrown” racial experiences within a worldly framework.

From Hurston’s participant-observational accounts and Wright’s travel writing to Baldwin’s Another Country and Himes’ detective fiction, these writers helped develop the concept of a “region” of blackness that resists boundaries of genre and geography. Each writer represents—and signifies—blackness in new ways and within the larger context of the world. As they negotiated issues of “belonging,” these writers were more critical of social segregation in America as well as increasingly resistant to their expected roles as cultural “translators.”

Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing, by Justin Gifford, a title in the American Literatures Initiative

“Lush sex and stark violence colored Black and served up raw by a great Negro writer,” promised the cover of Run Man Run, Chester Himes’ pioneering novel in the black crime fiction tradition. In Pimping Fictions, Justin Gifford provides a hard-boiled investigation of hundreds of pulpy paperbacks written by Himes, Donald Goines, and Iceberg Slim (a.k.a. Robert Beck), among many others.

Gifford draws from an im2186_reg.gifpressive array of archival materials to provide a first-of-its-kind literary and cultural history of this distinctive genre. He evaluates the artistic and symbolic representations of pimps, sex-workers, drug dealers, and political revolutionaries in African American crime literature—characters looking to escape the racial containment of prisons and the ghetto.

Gifford also explores the struggles of these black writers in the literary marketplace, from the era of white-owned publishing houses like Holloway House—that fed books and magazines like Players to eager black readers—to the contemporary crop of African American women writers reclaiming the genre as their own.

Black Theatre: Ritual Performance in the African Diaspora, edited by Paul Carter Harrison, Victor Leo Walker II, and Gus Edwards 

Generating a new understanding of the past—as well as a vision for the future—this path-breaking volume contains essays written by playwrights, scholars, and critics that analyze African Americ1429_reg.gifan theatre as it is practiced today.

Even as they acknowledge that Black experience is not monolithic, these contributors argue provocatively and persuasively for a Black consciousness that creates a culturally specific theatre. This theatre, rooted in an African mythos, offers ritual rather than realism; it transcends the specifics of social relations, reaching toward revelation. The ritual performance that is intrinsic to Black theatre renews the community; in Paul Carter Harrison’s words, it “reveals the Form of Things Unknown” in a way that “binds, cleanses, and heals.”

Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara, edited by Linda Janet Holmes and Cheryl A. Wall

The extraordinary spirit of Toni Cade Bambara lives on in Savoring the Salt, a vibrant and appreciati1900_reg.gifve recollection of the work and legacy of the multi-talented, African American writer, teacher, filmmaker, and activist. Among the contributors who remember Bambara, reflect on her work, and examine its meaning today are Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Pearl Cleage, Ruby Dee, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Nikki Giovanni, Avery Gordon Audre Lorde, and Sonia Sanchez.

Admiring readers have kept Bambara’s fiction in print since her first collection of stories, Gorilla, My Love, was published in 1972. She continued to write-and her audience and reputation continued to grow-until her untimely death in 1995. Savoring the Salt includes excerpts from her published and unpublished writings, along with interviews and photos of Bambara. The mix of poets and scholars, novelists and critics, political activists, and filmmakers represented here testifies to the ongoing importance and enduring appeal of her work.

Yo’ Mama! New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes and Children’s Rhymes from Urban Black America, edited by Onwuchekwa Jemie 

Collected primarily in metropolitan New York and Philadelphia during the classic era of black “street poetry” (i.e., during the late 1960s and early 1970s) these raps, signifyings, toasts, boasts, jokes and children’s rhymes will delight general readers as 1453_reg.gifwell as scholars. Ranging from the simple rhymes that accompany children’s games to verbally inventive insults and the epic exploits of traditional characters like Shine and Stagger Lee, these texts sound the deep rivers of culture, echoing two continents. Onwuchekwa Jemie’s introductory essay situates them in a globally pan-African context and relates them to more recent forms of oral culture such as rap and spoken word.

Unbought and Unbossed: Transgressive Black Women, Sexuality, and Representation, by Trimiko Melancon, a title in the American Literatures Initiative

Unbought and Unbossed examines black women’s literary and cultural production of the 1970s and early 1980s. Considering texts in the socio-cultural and historical moments of their production, Trimiko Melancon analyzes representations of black women that not

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only transgress racial, gender, and sexual boundaries, but also diverge from both discourses of “whiteness” and constructions of female identity imposed by black nationalism.

Drawing from black feminist and critical race theories, discourses on gender and sexuality, and literary criticism, Melancon illuminates the complexity of black female identity, desire, and intimacy. She sheds light on a more complex black identity, one ungoverned by rigid politics over-determined by race, gender and sexuality, while also enabling us to better understand the black sexual revolution, contemporary cultural moments, and representations in the age of Michelle Obama.

Re-Viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen, edited by D. Quentin Miller, foreword by David Adams Leeming

This new collection of essays presents a critical reappraisal of James Baldwin’s work, looking beyond the commercial and critical success of some of Baldwin’s early writings such as Go Tell it on the 1463_reg.gifMountain and Notes of a Native Son. Focusing on Baldwin’s critically undervalued early works and the virtually neglected later ones, the contributors illuminate little-known aspects of this daring author’s work and highlight his accomplishments as an experimental writer. Attentive to his innovations in style and form, Things Not Seen reveals an author who continually challenged cultural norms and tackled matters of social justice, sexuality, and racial identity. As volume editor D. Quentin Miller notes, “What has been lost is a complete portrait of [Baldwin’s] tremendously rich intellectual journey that illustrates the direction of African-American thought and culture in the late twentieth century.”

African American Writing: A Literary Approach, by Werner Sollors

Werner Sollors’ African American Writing takes a fresh look at what used to be called “Negro literature.” The essays collected here, ranging in topic from Gustavus Vassa/Olaudah Equiano to LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, and in time from the Enlightenment to the Obama presidency, take a literary approach to black writing and present writers as readers and as intellectuals who were or are open to the world.
From W.E.B. Du Bois com2396_reg.gifmenting on Richard Wagner and Elvis Presley, to Zora Neale Hurston attacking Brown v. Board of Ed. in a segregationist newspaper, to Charles Chesnutt’s effigy darkened for the black heritage postage stamp, Sollors alternates between close readings and broader cultural contextualizations to delineate the various aesthetic modes and intellectual exchanges that shaped a series of striking literary works.
Readers will make often-surprising discoveries in the authors’ writing and in their encounters and dialogues with others. The essays, accompanied by Winold Reiss’s pastels, Carl Van Vechten’s photographs, and other portraits, attempt to honor this important literature’s achievement, heterogeneity, and creativity.

Ray Didinger on “Tommy and Me”

This week in North Philly Notes,  Ray Didinger, author of One Last Read and The New Eagles Encyclopedia, recounts bringing his play Tommy and Mebased on his life, to life on stage.

I didn’t know it was possible to have an experience that is both exhilarating and painful. But that’s what I was feeling Sunday night as Tommy and Me, my first—and probably last—stage play had its final performance at the Fringe Arts theatre.

It was exhilarating because the sellout crowd sent the play off with a standing ovation and afterwards people stayed around to say how much they enjoyed it. The story flashes back to the 1950s and ’60s and the career of Eagles great Tommy McDonald and dozens of people came up to me to relate their own memories of Franklin Field. Some still carried the ticket stubs in their wallets. Three bucks for a seat in the end zone. Yes, it was a long time ago.

TommyandMe SetThe painful part was walking back into the empty theatre and seeing the crew dismantle the set. During the two-week run from August 3 through 14, I virtually lived in that theatre. It became my world and each night when the lights went down and the actors took the stage, I was transported back to my boyhood when I was the freckle-faced fan who wanted nothing more than to carry Tommy McDonald’s helmet as he walked to the practice field. It brought a lump to my throat every night. But on Sunday, seeing it stripped down and silent, reminded me it was, indeed, over.

I knew this night was coming. I knew there would be that moment when I had to let go and Tommy and Me would become a memory, but it did not lessen the sense of loss. We sat at the bar for a long time—the cast, the crew, the whole Theatre Exile team—and talked about the play and how it grew into something larger than we first imagined. All 12 performances were sell outs and each show ended with a standing ovation that seemed to grow louder each night. Tom Teti, the veteran actor who played Tommy McDonald, said, “This was a rare one.” The others at the bar nodded in agreement.

Picture_r688x459Once we left the theatre that night we would be going in different directions. Joe Canuso, the director, is going back to work on Rizzo, the play he successful staged last year and is reviving at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre in September. Matt Pfeiffer, the actor who played me as an adult, is headed to Naples, Florida, to direct a play. Ned Pryce, the actor who played the young Tommy McDonald, is already in rehearsal for a role with the Iron Age Theatre. Tom Teti is rejoining the team at People’s Light and Theatre in Malvern. Simon Kiley, who played the 10-year-old me, is getting ready to start sixth grade at Girard Academic Music Program. I would return to talking about the Eagles on WIP Sports Radio and Comcast Sports Net.

The New Eagles Encyclopedia_smBut for a little while longer, we were sharing the bond that was Tommy and Me, the play I wrote about my boyhood hero and our unlikely 40-year journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I had never written a play before and when I started I wasn’t at all sure it would ever be produced. But thanks to Joe Canuso, who believed in the project, and Bruce Graham, the superb Philadelphia playwright who helped in its development, we were able to bring Tommy and Me to life. To sit in the theatre each evening and hear the audience laugh, sometimes cry, boo any reference to the Dallas Cowboys and ultimately applaud at the final curtain was a thrill unlike anything I had experienced before. I know I’ll never forget it.

Each night ended with the cast returning to the stage to answer questions from the audience. The very first night, a woman stood up and said: “I’m not an Eagles fan. I don’t even like sports…” I thought, “Where is this going?” Then she said, “But this story really touched me.” Several theatre critics [reviews below] made the same point: it isn’t a football story. It is a story about a boy, his hero and dreams coming true. It is a story I always wanted to tell and that’s why on Sunday night it was hard to let go.

Read the DC Metro‘s review. 

Read the Broad Street Review‘s review

Read Philly.com‘s review

Read NewsWork‘s review

Read Philadelphia Magazine‘s review 

 

 

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