Archive for August 17th, 2011

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxborough as Yelena and Uncle Vanya

Dear friends and readers,

Last night at the Kennedy Center we saw a supposedly comic Uncle Vanya. The Australian company whose best known actor is Cate Blanchett is touring again. Upton, her husband, the translator, so it’s his text. Last year they brought Streetcar Named Desire. It was curious to see the play done for sheer nervous fibrillating laughter and the audience (natch) wanting to laugh along. When are there not such people in an audience? Polonius: “he’s for a gig or he sleeps.”

I bring it up because this rendition will be touring and it seemed to me that in 2011 yes these people’s troubles may seem silly (absurd) to many people. After all they are not being threatened with losing their houses, not having any income, being murdered or imprisoned for subversive activities. (The director, Tamar Asher, set the action not in the 19th century but during a communist regime.) The harder attitudes of today which preclude sympathy were also on display.

Something lost, a lot lost, a whole idea of what matters in life lost. The Louis Malle version (he was the director) with Wallace Shawm as Uncle Vanya and Julianne Moore as Yelena (he’s a tragic-poignant figure in the great movie, Vanya on 42nd street) was a real doing of the matter; so too a local DC rendition I saw some time ago done by the Arlington Washington Shakespeare company where a local fine actor, Brian Hemmingsen, played Vanya brilliantly as angry as well as depressed.

I remember we read a parodic dectective story by Chekhov on Trollope19thCStudies a few seasons ago: The Shooting Party. Chekhov had apparently been reading Dumas, Collins, Dickens, and other mystery writers — perhaps Poe in translation too. And he wrote a tongue-in-cheek version of this genre before it began to bloom and form with the full excrescences we see say in Sherlock Holmes — with the parodic or ironic aim of beating them all at their own game. Such novels include beautiful descriptions of rich landscapes and houses, well, he has them; they include super-smart detectives and investigators, well he has one but this being an ironic fiction, we are to see our narrator is a moral fool. They are male clubby in atmosphere (this being a work by a man of superlative perceptive he anticipates the feel of Sherlock Holmes). We are to have a victim heroine done in by sexual abuse, and she appears. The remarkable thing is this story appeared before the Sherlock Holmes series: Chekhov ferreted out the central features and absurdities of the detective story very early. There the comedy was intended, he saw the masculine tropes of the Sherlock Holmes paradigms — intuited them as they were just developing.

Uncle Vanya is by contrast a serious, inexorable and even grim play. The fine ethical idealism of Uncle Vanya helps destroy him. And Sophie chooses to stay by his side. If one were to generalize from this 2011 Sydney Theater treatment of this play, it would be a disbelief in the ability of human nature to do anything useful or feel for one another. Well, not everyone is quite this way even if the public structure of things just now and all rhetoric seems to embody this belief. Ruthless selfishness, performativity what is pushed on everyone if not as a good, as a necessity.

The way the play was done reminded me of Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939.” People remember and repeatedly quote lines from the first stanza which this morning seem to be a good description for what has been done in the powerful echelons of gov’t in the US and their result since the later 1990s and this first decade of the 21st century: “As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade:/Waves of anger and fear.” Auden though move away from the strictures of the world as he hears them:

“The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again,”

to add his voice to those raised in opposition:

“Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.”

Across the way, in the great hall itself at one end, between 6 and 7 there had been a countervailing force. On the Millenium Stage (for free), the Ebony Hillbillies, an all black band of people dressed down: shabby clothes worn with panache, hats with flare, hair done jauntily, the one woman in the group, heavy, and dressed extravagantly with lots of material swathing here and jewelry galore. The talk from the lead singer/talker was quietly honest: he spoke of slavery and the lies told about it: they were not happy campers and ran away a lot. The songs mostly rollicking, exhilarating forms of release. The music was marvelous, much percussion and bells. She got up to do one number half-dancing where she told us to get ourselves a “big fat daddy” (a fat lover) and enjoy ourselves in our kitchens. A high point. The audience had more black people in it than usual and most people appeared to be having a very good time. It was crowded; we found room on a stair. Two elderly black ladies not far from me, dressed very primly, hardly reacted; perhaps they disapproved, hard to say. The laughter of the Hillbillies was good-humored, kindly as opposed to the meanness to come of Uncle Vanya across the hall.

A promotional shot on the roof of a building (appropriately enough)

The sky comes through often enough. The evening outside in the portico and along the terraces was balmy, the colors of the air a lovely twilight coming on. This way of doing Chekhov’s play refused to recognize that heart-break has any validity. It must be laughed at. I cannot find any adequate stills on the Net of Shawm and Moore, only of her crying with the sneer under it “Julianne Moore loves to cry; she loves to be naked too”), just one thumbnail.

I didn’t get much to eat. The way the cafe was set up I was not permitted to pick and choose from different dishes, but must take sausage with the pasta (I dislike sausage, it makes me sick) and could not have the good salad unless I chose that. In the event Jim said plates near by showed there was little sausage. I didn’t want an expensive beef dinner and haven’t got the teeth to eat hard salad. So I had a small plate of butterfly-shaped pasta drowned down with lots of wine.


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