Wednesday, September 28, 2022

20 hours at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

20 hours over two days was long enough to see both of the actual Shakespeare plays the self-designated Shakespeare Festival has seen fit to put on this year.

The Tempest had some good acting, but as a show it was dull, duller, dulles. This was partly the fault of the text, which is one of old Will's poorest: it's filled with people talking about what they're going to do later. But a good production can overcome that. This wasn't one. The direction was lax, the amplification in the outdoor theatre subjected the speaking to airport PA levels of unintelligibility, and the costuming was stunningly bad. The text specifies that Prospero has a sumptuous wardrobe, but he and Miranda looked like they were dressed in seaweed. How can Alonso be expected to welcome his new daughter-in-law if she looks like something the cat dragged in?

That Prospero was Black, his brother was Hispanic, and his daughter was Vietnamese is only what you expect of stage Shakespeare shows these days, and not a mental hurdle for the viewer, any more than was ...

King John, which was sort of guest-produced by a Seattle group calling itself the upstart crow collective, which "produce[s] classical plays with diverse casts of women and non-binary people." So this indoor-theatre production was mostly women - including a couple of OSF veterans, Vilma Silva and Kate Hurster - and a few non-binaries. And let me tell you, they were every one the most dynamic, vivid, engrossing Shakespeare cast you could hope to see. They'd all thoroughly thought through the words they were speaking, and their non-vocal movements were equally well chosen. Special credit to Jessika D. Williams as the sardonic Philip the Bastard and Aysan Celik as a thunderously vicious Constance. This little-known play is actually one of old Will's best, but it was the cast that really made it run.

The only disconcerting note was some bizarrely stylized fight scenes.

This is the first summer season OSF has put on since before the pandemic, and they're still not entirely geared up. The gift shop is closed, so is the members' lounge, and the display cases on the outside wall of the third theatre are empty. Maybe these things will be back in place next year. Maybe.

The other effect is that the theatres were half-empty. People just haven't been showing up. As a result of which, next season is cutting way back in number of productions. Masking and vaccination are strictly enforced inside the theatres, which we were comfortable with, but standards are a little loose outside in the businesses of Ashland. At least our favorite restaurants are still there, if sometimes closed over more days of the week than before.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

hobbit day

It was Bilbo and Frodo's birthday today, and going on an unnecessarily extended quest for fried chicken for lunch was an appropriately incongruous way to celebrate it.

In another world, one in which we all had better luck with health matters, I would have spent the later afternoon with a bunch of friends settling toastily into the auditorium at the Haggerty Museum of Art in Milwaukee, surrounded by its Tolkien manuscript exhibition, listening to Carl F. Hostetter talking about "Editing the Tolkien Manuscript." In the event, neither of us was actually there, and the whole thing was conducted by Zoom. Carl talked more about clues to dating the manuscripts and the characteristics, changing over time, of Tolkien's handwriting and penmanship, than about transcribing the text, defeating challenge though, he admitted, that can sometimes be.

So what should I then find but a post, a couple days old now, by John Scalzi on the decline of cursive writing. He says it's not being taught in schools any more. Oh really? Good riddance; I thought it made no sense when I encountered it (in fourth grade, not, as Scalzi reports as normal, second), some years before Scalzi was born. "Now we're going to learn a new way to write," the teacher said brightly, and I remembered how much trouble it had been to learn the old way to write - printing - and I was dashed if I was going to go through that again.

So I didn't. I just flatly refused to learn cursive, and I never have. Eventually my mother pointed out that I was going to have to learn to sign my name, so I learned enough cursive for that (though I never quite got the hang of the "v"), but that's it. The only things I handwrite these days are 1) notes and occasional first drafts for concert reviews; 2) annotations on printed out proofs; 3) memos to B. on the backs of old one-a-day calendar pages. And those are all printed, not cursive. As a result of which, any future scholars studying my manuscripts are going to have a lot less trouble reading them that Carl, or even sometimes the author himself, has or had with Tolkien's.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

we are bivalent

Yes, B. and I have received the new covid vaccine. Today was the appointment we'd made about ten days ago. I was anxious to get this done, because next week we will be seeing people and maybe having meals with them, so it's best to be up to date.

This is my fifth covid shot altogether; they had to inscribe it on the back of my vaccination record card, where there's room for just one more.

We drove down to the facility that had had the prompt appointments, were in and out in about 15 minutes with no fuss, and then stopped by the nearby excellent fish & chips place to pick up some lunch to take home.

And that was the exciting event of the day in this household, unless you were a cat.

Monday, September 19, 2022

in memoriam, monarchs past

I sing the Georges Four
For Providence could stand no more.

Some say that far the worst
Of all was George the First.

But yet, by some 'tis reckoned
That worse still was George the Second.

And what mortal ever heard
Any good of George the Third?

When George the Fourth from Earth descended
Thank God the line of Georges ended.

- Walter Savage Landor
(who was not a fan of monarchy at the best of times, and this wasn't the best of times)

(There are other versions of this doggerel, but I prefer this one)

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Berlin 1938: Broadcasts from a Vanishing Society

This was a concert I attended today, my first in the City since June. It was held in the post theatre on the Presidio, the old military reservation near the Golden Gate (now decommissioned and held by the NPS), and the reason it was held there was because the post theatre was built in 1939, making it vaguely contemporary with the show.

It was put on by the New Century Chamber Orchestra, normally a classical outfit but which remade itself into a 1930s cabaret band for the occasion. The idea was to convey an emotional understanding of a fraught time in world history through its popular music.

It was constructed as a series of news bulletins running through events of the Euroamerican year - including the biggies like the Anschluss, Munich, and Kristallnacht, but also cultural events - read by two announcers, seated at desks by the side of the stage, through microphones that distorted their voices to make them sound like they were coming over the radio. One was German (speaking with supertitles, but also sometimes in English) supposedly from Berlin, the other American supposedly from New York.

And every once in a while one or both would move to center stage and sing, undistorted, a song that reflected on the news they'd been reading, for both of them were actually singers only moonlighting as pseudo-announcers. The American was the noted baritone Thomas Hampson.

The songs were mostly sarcastic German cabaret songs, and at the end they rewrote Lili Marlene to turn it into a sarcastic German cabaret song. Imagine Tom Lehrer with a more brutal German sense of humor. (And in fact I learned while looking one of the composers, Georg Kreisler, up, that he also once wrote a song called "Taubenvergiften im Park," which, I swear to God, means "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park." But even translated, the song isn't as funny as Lehrer's.)

There were also a few American songs, Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" and a couple numbers from Kurt Weill's Knickerbocker Holiday (Weill being of course originally German himself, but you couldn't tell it from this).

Anyway, interesting show, if not quite what I was expecting, with parallels to current events left for the listener to discern.

And it was all the way up in the Presidio - that meant driving there and through its twisty unfamiliar precincts, though I've been to this venue before - on the first rainy day of the year. This was traditional California rain: no sudden heavy downpours; a cloud front just moves in and drops a heavy drizzle on you for the whole day. After running around with a lot of other customers trying to get parking permits from a series of broken machines (never mind, nobody ticketed us), I was both soaked through and plumbed out by the time I got to the hall.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

other minds

This came up in discussion again, so I might as well write it down now.

Tolkien made a statement that has often been taken as offering his imprimatur to those who wish to adapt and recast his works.

In 1951, in a letter to Milton Waldman of Collins, a publisher he was hoping would issue his work, he wrote of his intent in creating it, "to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story ... which I could dedicate simply to: to England, to my country." He explained that "I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and have many only placed in the scheme, and sketched." And then comes the key sentence:

"The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama."

All sorts of people have volunteered to be those "other minds and hands." They've even erected it as a motto. And they take this as his authorization.

It isn't.

There are several points which this interpretation leaves out.

1) Tolkien's description is of his former intent. He's long since given it up, disavowed it. The opening words of the paragraph, just before the "to make a body" I initially quoted, are these: "Do not laugh! But once upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind ..." And just after the key sentence he puts one word: "Absurd."

He's both boasting of and apologizing for his project at the same time, a peculiar approach. It's evident that in his heart he still wants to do it. But that's not what he writes: instead, he is not endorsing the description he is giving of his former intent.

2) His idea of what the "other minds and hands" would do does not include literary storytelling. It's other arts only. "Wielding paint and music and drama," he says, arts he did not aspire to. In writing to visual artists and composers inspired by his works, Tolkien consistently hopes for a work "akin to my own inspiration" (letter to Carey Blyton, 1964), but is not offended if it is not. (Unless it was in an edition of his book.) But he was infuriated by proposed sequels. "I suppose .... that there is no legal obstacle to this young ass publishing his sequel, if he could find any publisher, either respectable or disreputable, who would accept such tripe" (letter to Joy Hill, 1966). Tolkien is not endorsing fan fiction.

What about dramatic adaptations, though? It's evident, especially if you read Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-stories" (originally written in 1938/9 and published in 1947) that he considered drama an art separate from literature. But he changed his mind.

3) This letter was written in 1951. That's before The Lord of the Rings was published, after which Tolkien belatedly discovered through some painfully inept attempts at dramatization of The Lord of the Rings how naïve he had been in his description of planning to lay his legendarium out in the public domain in the Waldman letter.

Read the preface to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, which takes the perspective of a literary artist claiming ownership of and responsibility for his own writing. Read also the numerous letters expressing his dismay at early attempts at dramatization of the book in his letters for 1955-58.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

quick shot

A few days ago I got an e-mail from Kaiser, our health service provider, saying that the annual flu shot would be available on Monday. In past years, our local facility has put the stations for this in lobby areas on the upper floors of the medical office building. But on looking it up, I found these were now supplementary stations with limited hours, and the full 8/6 (you've heard of 24/7, this is 8/6) hours were to be in a drive-through station set up in the parking lot of a satellite building down the street (right adjacent to the Apple spaceship).

No appointment necessary, so B. and I drove in this morning to find no lines. We rolled down our windows, they checked our membership cards and jabbed our upper arms, and we were off.

While I had been checking, I also looked up the covid vaccine. The last time I'd checked, they hadn't had the new vaccine yet, and as my last booster was 5 months ago I was designated ineligible for a new one (usual threshold is 6 months). But now they do have the new vaccine, I am eligible and so is B., and after scouting listings for 3 facilities I found one where we could get an appointment for next week, before we go on a trip.

In other good news, the week-long heat wave broke on Saturday, and after a couple days of waiting for the sizzle to wear off, we're back to balmy late-summer weather. B. is now practicing violin without a fan on, for the first time in a while.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

a wizard's guide

A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking, by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon). Argyll, 2020.

The title might lead you to expect some kind of expository lump, a fictional cookbook, but no, this is a novel, with a first-person 14-year-old protagonist. Her name is Mona, and she holds a responsible position in her aunt's bakery in this not-quite-medievalish city.

Oh yes, and she's a wizard. In this world wizards, who have a talent they're just born with, are none too powerful and can usually do their magic on just one thing. Mona's is baked goods, bread and cookies. She can use her magic to encourage the bread to bake properly, or to animate things, e.g. make gingerbread men dance. She also has a sentient sourdough starter living in the basement.

So when, in the course of this novel - sorry for mentioning stuff from the last third of the novel in a review, but this is the only way the title will make sense - she is the only wizard available to help defend the city from an invading army, what can her magic do to help?

Well, what the senior wizards - who never condescend to Mona: they treat her with respect as a fellow practitioner - had told her is that it's not the power of your magic that counts, it's the creativity of what you do with it. So here's something: a golem soldier baked of bread isn't going to mind being stuck with a knife or sword, and as it isn't serrated it's going to be awfully hard to cut the golem down that way. Defensive baking. You get the idea.

I usually bog down in fantasy novels I read for our book discussion group. This one, while not aspiring to greatness, was enjoyable and interesting all the way through. It's well crafted. It starts as a murder mystery, with a body discovered in the bakery, but this ends up being directly related to the plot, and not a sideshow as is usual. The characters are all individual and memorable, even when they disappear from the story not to return until much later. Only once did I have to stop and think, "Now who was that person they just mentioned?" and look them up from earlier on, and that was an incidental character who doesn't appear on stage. Though Mona's magic is vital to the city's defenses, she doesn't save it single-handedly. And we never forget that, hey, she's 14 and having a lot dumped on her shoulders.

The only distractions were musical. There's a character named Elgar and Mona has an Uncle Albert.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

the all-time great QE2 story

I haven't tried linking to a tweet before, so I hope this works. It's a brief video of a former royal bodyguard telling a story of what happened when he accompanied the Queen on one of their regular outings, a picnic on the hills outside Balmoral.

Friday, September 9, 2022

in commemoration, Pauline Baynes

It's just now been brought to my attention that 9 September, which it still barely is here, was the centenary of the birth of Pauline Baynes. She was the young artist who was commissioned to illustrate Tolkien's Farmer Giles of Ham in 1949, and who turned in mock versions of medieval manuscript illustrations that wholly delighted all who saw them. Here, for instance, is the first page of the story:

Tolkien wrote, in a tone of pleasure you don't often get from him, "They are more than illustrations, they are a collateral theme. I showed them to my friends whose polite comment was that they reduced my text to a commentary on the drawings."
This led to further work illustrating other works by Tolkien including The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Smith of Wootton Major, as well as C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories. The grander side of Tolkien's imagination was considered a bit beyond her rather small-scale approach, but on the other hand she did draw the cover for the large one-volume softcover which for many British readers is the iconic edition of The Lord of the Rings:

Honor her today and continuously, eh?