By Adam Katz
I decided to call this one “London Letters,” even though I’m not in London anymore, because “Shropshire Letters” doesn’t alliterate.
We had to give up Anuja’s apartment in Camden Town on Sunday, and, rather than move to a different part of the city, we decided to go elsewhere for a while. Good decision. We are in a literal village, surrounded by farmland, and that’s it. I am also of two minds going into this essay, as you will see. The first part is a bit dour. But I recognize that nobody reads a travelogue to be bummed out. So the second part picks up a bit.
The first part has to start on a note of discomfort, simply because the alternative would be taking for granted how lucky I am to be where I am. Even 2 months ago, before this trip was planned or even envisioned, when I hadn’t seen Anuja in 16 months and had no realistic sense of when I’d see her again, I may not have been happy, but I was at least comfortable and safe. But there are a lot of people who’ve been in more straitened circumstances these past 18 months. And my story, at least, has gotten better. So, yes, I do feel uncomfortable doing this. There are people in this world who sorely need a vacation and are not going to get one because they don’t have the family connections I have. They have not been saving money, for example, by spending the COVID epidemic living in a parent’s spare room. They don’t have extra money to buy a plane ticket to England, etc., etc.
It’s difficult to have my consciousness divided this way. Anuja does this, too. I actually think I am learning it from her. We were walking the other day, taking in the amazing scenery, and she said: “Why is this village so amazing? It’s in the middle of nowhere, but they have electricity, internet, plumbing, every convenience.” Then after a moment, she answered her own question: “Oh, right. It’s because they took money from our villages [meaning India] and brought it here.” We often have conversations like that, and I’ve learned to keep up both sides of the conversation when I’m on my own.
There’s a third strand, too. The first strand, as I said, is the natural beauty of my surroundings; the joy and relief I take in just looking out the window or out from the balcony. The second strand is the sad, frustrating, above-all inconvenient knowledge that the beauty of this countryside was paid for by slavery and worse. But the third strand is the synthesis of the other two, the voice telling me that, yes, I can acknowledge the misery that is, by implication, all around me, while not letting it dishearten me. I can relax here, perhaps five-sixths of the way, and prepare myself to return to the fray, to some kind of work on the side of justice. It sounds grandiose when I try to articulate it; but I don’t mean to be grandiose. When I look at this beautiful countryside, I see the beauty of the natural world and the injustice of the manmade world and I want the balance of my life to lean towards the one rather than the other. That’s all.
Part of what is difficult about trying to layer on this sense of post-colonial awareness is that the other types of ambivalence don’t go away. Being here, I miss my grandmother more than I have since she passed in 2016. She took such wonderful photographs. And she and I have such happy memories (well… I have the memories now for both of us) of tramping around in the wilds of New York and Florida, when I was young and she was still active. And looming over all of this is the date of my departure, when I don’t know exactly how long it’ll be before I see Anuja again. But I stand by my decision to embrace my post-colonial ambivalence about the English countryside, with the caveat that it’s not enough by itself. Feeling others’ pain needs to be the impetus to some action.
Thinking about being of two minds regarding the beauty of the English countryside actually puts me back in the Globe Theater, watching Twelfth Night. It was a production that felt like it had two different ideas and never made any particular effort to reconcile the two. It was such a weird production, but so amazing. The morning of the play, Anuja said: “Help me get excited, too.” Which is a fair request. Here I was on a cloud and not making an effort to help her join me up there. So we talked about all the fun and beautiful things that go with 16th-17th century London theater scene—cross-dressing, political satire, music, slapstick. I won’t say that we were both floating on a cloud by the time we got to the theater, but I will say I still was, and her feet had left the ground by at least a centimeter or two. And afterwards, she said: “I think I enjoyed that more than you.” Not possible, but I’ll take it.
Anyway. So we got to the theater. To that beautiful round building. We got close enough to see the grain of the wooden beams; the stamp of the Carpenters’ Guild and the Plaisterers’ (sic) Guild. We went inside and saw the amazing colors of the stage and the seats. And the gaudy chaos of the set-design:
-A bunch of old tires, piled haphazardly on and around the stage.
-A deer hanging head down from a rope suspended from the roof of the stage, as if it had just been hunted (for those of you not familiar, yes, the Globe and its siblings were open-air theaters, but the stage was always covered by a roof, not least because their costumes were very expensive and they could not afford to have them rained on. Beneath the roof was a balcony for… balcony scenes, but also for musicians, gods, special effects, etc. So the convincing-looking facsimile of a dead deer was hung from the roof, in front of the balcony).
-A sign that said: “Welcome to Illyria” but in a style that seemed deliberately to suggest “Welcome to Las Vegas.”
-The interior of the Globe itself. It was something I’d notice and then let fall into the background, and then suddenly notice again. Anuja said: “It’s smaller than I pictured it,” which is often true of places that loom large in our imaginations. And there were beautiful paintings on the walls. The roof of the stage was painted with the zodiac; there were colors and banners… It was really amazing. The people who reconstructed the decorations around the seating-area had done their homework quite as well as the more straightforward success by the architects and carpenters and plaisterers (sic) and thatchers who had labored to recreate the building itself. Standing there, I could well imagine the 17th century playgoers wearing their brightly colored coats and, resources permitting, their starched ruffles at throat and wrist, taking their seats in the three balconies as the more plainly but no less colorfully appareled groundlings took their places in between the seats and the stage.
-As we entered the theater, they were selling meat pies and nuts, just like 400 years ago. I didn’t buy any because back then they would have cost a penny, whereas today they cost a pretty penny (Ugh. I’m sorry. Wait–no I’m not. It’s Shakespeare. Bad puns rule the day).
-The two obvious historical inaccuracies were the presence of spotlights and the concrete floor of the pit, both, alas, inevitable.
When the play started, Duke Orsino was dressed like a wealthy cowboy, or rather, like a casino owner who wanted to affect a cowboy aesthetic. But then when Viola entered the stage, she was dressed like an Elizabethan lady. And when she changed into a man’s attire, her new outfit, likewise Elizabethan, consisted of a short jacket above the iconic doublet and hose. You may be itching to know: did they introduce this asymmetry between the cowboy-aesthetic and the Elizabethan aesthetic in order to explain it later? Reader, they did not. Feste, one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated jesters, came on stage wearing a cocktail dress and then changed into a baseball uniform. Why? I found I had stopped asking. For one thing, I was laughing too hard.
When I think about how dependent most jokes are on context, and yet how funny Shakespeare remains, I am humbled. Yes, Shakespeare’s comedies tend to be about relationships, not politics, and thus to at least stay a bit relatable through the centuries. But still, I would not be the first to point out that most of the jokes in Twelfth Night lose some of their punch in a society that has at least been flirting with recognizing queer people as full citizens. In a modernized Twelfth Night, Viola shacks up with Olivia and Orsino with Sebastian. Viola doesn’t even necessarily need to cross-dress, or, if she does, she does it because she’s into that shit, not that it’s any of your goddamn business. The possibilities of a modern Twelfth Night may be endless, but the central tension of the play evaporates. And without tension, there’s no comedy. Or is there?
Part of the reason this play stands up and remains funny is that we are not there yet. Viola can be seen as the type for the modern queer person still living a closeted double-life, for example. While easy-going Sebastian thinks nothing of marrying a woman on first acquaintance just because he likes the cut of her jib, Viola/Cesario pines in the corner for the person she loves, little knowing until the play’s last five minutes if they could love her back. I can imagine a queer person relating to Viola’s turmoil. I can also say that I, as someone who was spared all of that, but nevertheless had an awkward adolescence, could emphatically relate.
One of the biggest changes they made was to the music. Shakespeare’s plays are replete with song-and-dance numbers, most of which are cut from modern productions. Or just chanted as if they were poems without musical accompaniment. This version of Twelfth Night might as well have been a musical, complete with a small band (violin, piano, saxophone, drums) sitting up in the balcony. But the interesting thing is that most all of the songs were replaced with modern ones. I had literally never seen NOR heard a production of one of Shakespeare’s plays depart so radically from Shakespeare’s text. Previous productions I’ve seen take his text as a challenge, much like a poet does with a rhyme scheme. Directors will cut lines, but never add.
It would be hard to argue that the literal Globe Theater is failing to give due respect to their patron saint. And the use of modern songs in place of old ones does give the correct feel to the audience. The play is supposed to be fun and silly and the moments of song-and-dance are meant to be the same. It would have been odd had these characters begun singing a madrigal or badinerie. The one song they kept was the last one, sung by Feste: “When that and I was but a little tiny boy…” with its cheerful refrain: “For the rain it raineth every day.” I always thought that refrain was silly, but seeing the play in England reminded me that, for some people, it’s kind of true.
Anyway, I had a phenomenal time.
Why do I continue to come back to Shakespeare? One of the things I told Anuja to pep her up before the play is that Shakespeare just did not give a fuck. My two favorite plays of his are King Lear and Troilus and Cressida and I don’t think it’s an accident that both are supposedly historical plays in which Shakespeare changes the ending. King Lear comes to us from the History of the Kings of Britain, a semi-historical work written by Geoffrey of Monmouth during the 12th century (it’s also one of our earliest sources for the legend of King Arthur). Old Geoffrey gives Lear a happy ending, with Cordelia and the French swooping in to save the day and returning the 80-year-old Lear to the throne, where he lives a few more years in relative peace. So how scandalized must theatergoers have felt when the old man walks onstage bearing the body of his favorite daughter? We don’t feel that gut-punch because we know that King Lear is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies and we know how those end. But the sense of outrage in the theaters in the early 1600s must have been delicious. Likewise, Troilus and Cressida, which ends with a ‘duel’ between Achilles and Hector—this is perhaps the most famous duel in literary history and what does Shakespeare do with it? He has Achilles’ soldiers gang up on Hector and then, when their enemy is dead, they lie: “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.”
And then there’s Romeo and Juliet, which supposedly sophisticated Shakespeare-buffs look down upon as juvenilia, but which I persist in loving. In any other hands, that play would be about two stupid kids who get their just comeuppance. But in Shakespeare’s hands, we see an insoluble political standoff put into remission, not by the prince, not by the politicians, not by the magnificoes and grandees who supposedly run the city, but by two teenagers with a crush.
At every turn, Shakespeare seems to be telling us: don’t put your faith in gods and heroes and happy endings.
Put your faith in love.