Saturday, October 23, 2010

Male and Female Created He Them

                    Hamlet and Lisbeth
    Whether or not you have read Shakespeare’s Hamlet, you know the character, the man. Hamlet lives in our blood stream. We have all, in one way or another had to cope with his disruptions of our lives. We can’t avoid him; he’s everywhere. He has been elemental on the Periodic Table of our thought since Shakespeare discovered him. Now we have discovered his shadow, Lisbeth.
    You may or may not have read the sensational three Swedish novels about crime and attendant horrors by the late Stieg Larsson and so may want to dodge this diatribe in which I propose to compare and contrast Hamlet with Larsson’s main character, Lisbeth Salander. To know one is, I think, to know the other.
   Like Hamlet, Lisbeth, is also out there among us. Be warned.

   As in electricity, there is no value assessment attributed to  the factors, positive and negative, there should be no such values attributed to my suggestion that Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is the post-modern negative of the early-modern positive Hamlet.  They are opposite sides of the same narrative coin.  Hamlet came first on the waves of a new era:  Lisbeth at the end of one, of what many feel are dark, angry days on the verge of socio-cultural recession. Both these powerful characters are structural markings of our literature and subject of our endless, if lurid, fascination-- and dreaming.
   I should like to suggest a fist-full of comparative qualities that these two important figures of our imagination define. I wish to offer some bit of support for my free-swinging assertion.
 ~Hamlet and Lisbeth are preeminently models of the  alienation of young people. One a prince, the other a nobody-- and both Nordic.
 ~Each is a kind of dream-life for the reader-- the same set of dreams over and over again.
 ~The dream of Hamlet is the old dream of the perfection of brilliant, clear youth and all its entitlements.
 ~The dream of Lisbeth Salander is also the old dream, the panic-dream of the dark, dangerous female side of things, the diamond-carbon brilliance of her funereal persona in a minimalist body-- and our frightened male’s attraction to it.
 ~ Both of these “moderns” are badly injured in their life-experience.
 ~ Both emerge from dangerous, unwholesome family circumstances.
  ~Each dreams of  a father, a  father who is playing havoc in their lives.
  ~Hamlet dreams of a great father who appears to demand his self-destruction.
   ~Salander dreams of a monster-father on the prowl to kill her.
   ~Both want to love and be loved, but they cannot trust in it.
   ~And so both become “ironists”. They see the world as a ghastly system of ironies.
   ~They are expert in their particular “modern” technologies: Hamlet in his revolutionary university ideas, Salander as a past-master of the computer and all its extra-legal resources.
   ~ Hamlet has “connections” outside Denmark at the university at Wittenberg; Lisbeth belongs to an international underground of powerful underworld  hackers.
    ~Both are intellectuals on the razor’s edge of their times.
    ~Whatever else they are, both are brilliant.
    ~Both have a “global” consciousness and are at home nowhere.  They are sojourners in the poisonous environments that they once called home.
    ~They know every thing that’s to be known. They know our secrets.
   ~ Each lives in emotional turmoil.
    ~Unimaginably terrible things dog their every step.
    ~Both are cruel and ready for any violence.
    ~Sexual violence is one of them.
    ~They are killers.
    ~They hate categorically, each in his/her own new way.
    ~They are solaced by their crimes.
   ~ By definition, they are vengeful. They prowl about looking for revenge.
    ~They feel that they are at the center of things and appointed “to set it right” with their rough justice.
  ~ The madness attributed to them becomes a real possibility. Madness as strategy, or therapy.
     In the end, both Hamlet and Lisbeth Salander work a sort of salvation, a transformation of the horror  of their circumstances.  Hamlet will be “saved” and given new life by his  narrative, the  “story of Hamlet” that  Horatio will  live to tell to the ages.  Salander will live on in her money, on her stiletto heels and under a blonde wig-- in the millions upon millions of kronor she has stolen from an exposed criminal corporate giant she has destroyed, now a suicide.  It is a two-headed coin. Either way we win, with a good story or with the cash.
    But night or day, big or little, they are much the same character. Too dangerous to mess  with. How interesting it is that we are so drawn to them both and yet would find living with either of them unbearable.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Wagnerism of Recent Note

A report on the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Wagner’s
Das Rheingold, simulcast in high definition to the Cinemark Theatre 
at  Boulder,Colorado on 10/10/10-- 
by Gordon M. Wickstrom who…

   who has lived his life under the spell of this music and this drama, who has collected this stuff throughout the history of his imagination, and has lived to see this day.
   I was more than moved by what I experienced. I was shaken. I am not one to encourage crying: I leave that to television’s evening news. But this production came as close as I want to come to tears-- of joy.
   That great ending, when the gods cross over into Valhalla over the rainbow bridge, the staging of which failed to work on opening night last month (9/27), worked flawlessly yesterday afternoon. I think I have never witnessed a finer effect on any stage anywhere. One could only gasp at the daring and the magic of it. My wife grabbed at me.
    The dangerous mechanics of that wondrous setting: it was not an environment in the ordinary sense of stage scenery, but a machine for acting. It was a machine for our time.
    And there was James Levine getting that great and glorious sound out of that great orchestra, and he grown so frail and physically diminished by his recent surgeries! And those singers, busting a gut, for us, risking everything on that next note, that next phrase, coming at us straight on! One might call the afternoon a perfect riot of superb bass and base-baritone singing, all those accomplished men pouring it out. I have heard many of the great German Alberichs and have admired them immensely. But this American guy, Eric Owens, was phenomenally effective and persuasive.
   I put that word “guy” in italics because that’s what these people were, all regular “guys” for the working day, on a big job of work. Singing Wagner with what feels to me an American clarity and directness. It made me flush with pride. No “Bayreuth barking” here.
   And as if this were not enough, we have a new Wotan on our hands, to rival the international master of the role, James Morris, who must all too soon pass it on to the likes of this young Welshman, Bryn Terfel.
   It has always seemed to me that, after the brilliant orchestral introduction to the opera, the action opens only to drag on too long with the Rheinmaidens (or “dotters”) teasing poor Alberich about what must be his erection, hidden in that costume, and then about the gold itself. But not yesterday, not with these three Rheinmaidens, who were captivating, clever, intelligent and, again, with what I want to call that American clarity, vitality, and precision of voice-- and high  spirits.
   In fact, I want to say that there was a peculiar high spiritedness throughout the production, a certain “lift” and lightness of heart amid the most dire of existential circumstances. Call it “tragic joy”.
   I will never admit and always deny it, but I suspect that it is the very technology of this satellite performance that must contribute hugely to this extraordinary accomplishment.
   This mode of performance, electronic as it may be, manifests a new kind of audience, one readier for the intimacies of acting and singing, an audience who is let in on the  secrets of  production,
   I have always argued for the traditional decorums of performance. I have resisted the contemporary urge to demystify art. I have wanted to preserve, especially in the opera, its glamour, its ceremony, its privileges, and secrets. But I give up. I realize now that I have lived to experience the secularization, the improvisation, the democratization of the opera. I am now all too glad to be let in on the secrets, to see back stage, and to see what I knew all along, that it was not a mystery after all, but hard, hard work accomplished with an efficiency and dedication that is breath-taking.
   I understand now what made the traditional ceremony of opera possible. It was hard-working men and women, all the technical staff and support people, all the singers, even those acrobats who doubled the singers in Rheingold
   If the Met radio broadcasts, beginning in 1940, were the start of this secularization, it must be these HD transmissions to movie theatres everywhere that are accomplishing this cultural transformation. (There are those who feel that these transmissions take a toll on the production’s effectiveness in the theatre. One major reviewer suggests that the production was cast with lighter, inadequate voices in order to record them “easier”. )
    In any case, I am awed with admiration for those hundreds of men and women who worked at such a high level of accomplishment, all of it entirely “hand made”, depending on those theatre workers doing their jobs faithfully and precisely. I get so proud of it that I want to burst. I feel personally involved with them and what they are doing-- and don’t forget: it’s IN REAL TIME,  at the instant that I’m watching them.  Just think! And then wipe the dazzle from your eyes.
   This Rheingold reminds us of the meaning of work, of making something by hand, and for the first time, and knowing that it will have a continuing life in a community as a proclamation of its profoundest values.
    At the curtain-call, as those singers came forward to take their bows, there was gaiety on that stage, a sign of the oneness of performer and audience, of their having been somewhere together that afternoon, where their shared humanity reached its fullness-- in spite of everything. These best of workers for the working day had achieved something greater than any one of them, something in the total service of music and theatre that ennobles us all. Then, after their bows and getting out of costume, they could go out for a good dinner.
    Before this, back in the 80s, I had a seat in the house in New York for the complete Ring Cycle, the Otto Schenk ravishing “naturalistic” cycle. Levine was there, back then, working the pit, making music, and making me hold my breath with that exaltation peculiar to Wagnerites. Sometimes we are chided for our enthusiasm. But, look what we got yesterday: we got this stunning electronic transmission of Das Rheingold to our own local movie palace, live! It was not the old and dear ceremony of opera, but something else, not a substitute for the “real thing”, but a new thing in art and life. I, for one, welcome it.

    This production was haunted. A spook out of the Met’s Golden Age haunted the stage as Froh, and calling himself  Adam Diegel . But  we know better: this guy  is actually the re-incarnation of  the youthful Lauritz Melchior, whom, I bet, we will  one  day soon hear as Siegfried himself,  when he will  remove  the breast-plate of  the sleeping Brunhilde and  sing  out in  consternation, maybe  the funniest  line in all opera, “Das ist kein Mench!”