Shakespeare real patron saint of England

shakespeare_2699766bApril 23 is St. George’s Day, celebrating the patron saint of England.

England is a secular society and the obvious fiction of George, a mythological figure whose “miracle” is slaying dragons. Actually, he was probably a crusader and the dragon was probably the Muslim faith, so the fiction is more fun.

Saint_George_and_the_Dragon_by_Paolo_Uccello_Paris_01But the fact that the saint is a fiction is appropriate because the greatest writer of fiction in history, William Shakespeare, is said to have been born on that day (actually, his birth was registered on April 26 so he must have been born a few days earlier, and St. George’s Day has a nice symbolism for this English treasure. He is also said to have died on the same day, 400 years ago this year, although that is also probably not exact, but he was buried that day, so close enough. As I wrote earlier this week, he shares his death week with Miguel de Cervantes, another literary giant.

What is it that makes the Bard of Avon so enduring? Sure, he is a master of wordplay. Just the words he is credited with coining, as I wrote recently, would be enough to justify his place at the top of the literary heap. But it is more than that. If one really wants to understand humanity, one only has to read the complete works. Every type of human foible — good and bad — can be found in a character somewhere.

137189147_453010cThe plays have a specific setting, but if one decides to take a chance and move it from Elizabethan times to present day, from traditional to post-apocalyptic, one can easily justify it without losing the plot (although I really don’t need to see another hippie-fied version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

One cannot imagine a Eugene O’Neill play set in a suburban house. The plays speak to a specific group at a specific time (which is not to say the plays are not great, they are). But when Josh Whedon filmed a version of “Much Ado About Nothing” in his house, it still worked. When Julie Taymor set “Titus Andronicus” in an apocalyptic future, it worked. When Kenneth Brannagh set “Hamlet” in the 19th century, it worked.

The flexibility comes from the fact that the themes are universal, which is also what makes the plays such a pleasure for the actor. When Ben Jonson wrote in the First Folio, “(Shakespeare) was not of an age, but for all time!” he was spot on.

So on St. George’s Day, let’s remember the real patron saint of England — hell, the real patron saint of mankind.

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Celebrating the ‘King of Wit’

This week sees the 400th anniversary of the death of two giants of literature, Miguel de Cervantes (believed to be April 22) and William Shakespeare (believed to be April 23), although Spains Gregorian calendar was 11 days behind England’s Julian calendar, but it is more poetic to think of the Bard and El Príncipe de los Ingenios (The Prince of Wits).

It is unlikely the contemporaries ever met, and there is no real evidence that either man was particularly influenced by the other, but in their respective cultures they set the literary standard.

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IND119216 Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547-1615) 1600 (oil on panel) by Jauregui y Aguilar, Juan de (c.1566-1641); Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid, Spain; Index; Spanish, out of copyright

The son of a deaf surgeon, Miguel de Cervantes was born on Sept. 29, 1547 inn Alcalá de Henares, a Castilian city about 20 miles northeast of Madrid. He became a soldier in 1570 and was badly wounded in the Battle of Lepanto. He was captured by the Turks in 1575 and spent five years in prison. Cervantes published the first part of Don Quixote in 1605.

The Spaniard’s influence on his language is acknowledged. In fact, Spanish has been dubbed la lengua de Cervantes (The language of Cervantes).

I shall address Shakespeare in a future blog, but Cervantes has been on my mind a lot over the past few weeks. Of course, the Spaniard is renowned for “Don Quixote,” which not only formed the template for the novel, but also gave us the adjective quixotic, meaning idealistic, unrealistic or impractical, as well as the concept of “tilting at windmills.”

But my dealings with the Golden Age giant are more personal. I have recently finished a book of translations of three short Golden Age plays with my friend Catalina Castillón, which will be published early next year. One of the entremeses, “The Election of the Mayors of Daganzo” is certainly by Cervantes, but the other two are merely attributed, and, in our research, have not been translated before.

An entremes is a short satirical comedic play that would be performed during the intermission of a larger work, often a serious drama. Reading these works really shows Cervantes’ skill as a social commentator.

Even four centuries later, Cervantes’ keen observation of human nature has relevance. “Daganzo” features a group of councilmen looking to elect a representative for the village. The sitting officials each have their own agenda, and the candidates are not what one would call overly qualified.

Even the most generous of readers would find parallels in the current election cycle. Each of the candidates is earnest in their belief that they are qualified, but earnestness alone does not a qualified candidate make.

“Daganzo” and the other plays in our collection will serve to highlight once again the brilliance and wit of the Spaniard’s wordplay.

Until the book is released,revisiting “Don Quixote” would not go amiss. Four hundred years have not dulled the sharpness of his satirical pen.

Chance encounter leads to 3D delight

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Three Alberto Giacommetti pieces at the Nasher Sculpture Center.

Life is all about finding unexpected moments, and in those moments, finding gems that educate, inform and delight.

One such unexpected moment happened during a trip to Dallas for the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association convention. Normally, the days are spent shepherding the students from one contest to another, judging or volunteering, or attending workshops. However, when Haley Bruyn, one of the Lamar students, went looking for a feature story in the arts district, she ran into Melissa Durkee, registrar of the Nasher Sculpture Center. One thing led to another, and the University Press contingent found itself at the museum for a flying visit.

And what a treat it was. My first thought was that the collection was housed in a stunning building, perfectly constructed to show off the art. It reminded me of the Menil Collection in Houston, so I was not surprised to find that both buildings were designed by architect Renzo Piano.

The grounds were beautiful and housed Richard Serra’s “My Curves Are Not Mad” and George Segal’s “Rush Hour,” as well as a smoke house by Ann Veronica Janssens. The smoke house is a contained room filled with fog such as one finds in a theater production of Macbeth or Hound of the Baskervilles. But where in the theater one finds the smoke wafting across the floor, the smoke room is completely full, so that the moment one entered, one is immediately cast adrift from all surroundings. Even an outstretched hand is invisible. I chose not to stray too far from where I presumed the door was, although after a few steps and turns I was not exactly sure where it was.

The highlight of the visit was to be found in one room. It is rare to find so many sculptures by so many of my favorite artists in one place. From Naum Gabo’s “Linear Construction in Space No. 1 (Variation)” to David Smith’s “The Forest” to works by Henri Matisse, Alberto Giacommetti, Pablo Picasso and Jean Arp, there was something exciting at every turn.

The plaster version of Constantin Brancusi’s “The Kiss” was a delight, made even more beautiful by the sun shining through the ceiling’s grid to create a wonderful shadow on the sculpture.

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Willem de Kooning’s “Clamdigger.”

I was especially fascinated by Willem de Kooning’s “Clamdigger.” As a big fan of what I consider to be the best of the Abstract Expressionist painters, seeing how easily his style transfers from canvas to 3D was a treat. The thick textured sculpture is dynamic and visually appealing.

Seeing a group of Giacommetti’s is never a disappointment. From the large “Diego in a Cloak” to the tiny “Two Figurines,” the Swiss artist’s heavily textured, elongated figures are both beautiful and, in their isolation, wistful — and always endlessly enticing.

There are so many more marvels in that one room, including Matisse’s delicate “Madeline” and Picasso’s “Head of a Woman” (also called “Head of Jacqueline”).

The museum is built from Raymond and Nancy Nasher collection and features more than 300 pieces in its holdings, and its rotating exhibition means that every trip will feature new discoveries. A visit to the center’s website shows the wealth of fabulous sculptures that were not available to view in the brief visit.

I can’t wait to go back again and again. Next time, it won’t just be a side trip squeezed in to a heavy schedule. I can’t wait to be thrilled again.

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For information, visit www.nashersculpturecenter.org.

Those Crazy Kids

A review of Lamar University’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’

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Romeo, played by Austin Jones, attempts to wake Juliet, played by Shelby Dryden, during a rehaersal for Lamar University’s production of Shakespeare’s classic play. Photo by Tim Collins, courtesy University Press.

Romeo & Juliet” is an odd play in many ways. It is held up as one of the great tragedies of doomed love, yet when one really thinks on it, what is it really about? A 15-year old and a 12-year old who fall in love after one dance (which Romeo goes to after proclaiming his love for the absent Rosaline), have pre-marital sex, get into a brawl, kill someone, then screw up and die.

Not exactly the best advertisement for the power of love.

Lamar University’s production of Shakespeare’s tale of “starr cross’d lovers,” held March 31 to April 2, in the Studio Theatre, was a nimble and slightly subversive take of the classic story.

Guest director Rutherford Cravens cast a woman, Sydney Haygood, as Romeo’s best friend Mercutio. Haygood stole the show with a performance of vitality and wit. She exhibited just the right amount of braggadocio when showing off in front of Romeo, but when she talks about Juliet, the gender casting suggested that she would be happy to be more than “just friends” with Romeo. Haygood was able to imply the pathos of her situation.

Thomas Gentry Jr. had just the right amount of menace as Tybalt, and the fight scene between Mercutio, Romeo and Tybalt was energetic.

Austin Jones and Shelby Dryden, as the titular characters, were serviceable, although really, as written, the characters are slight, just a pair of children lolling around in love-sick angst.

The show zipped along, running around an hour and a half with no intermission, and the supporting characters nimbly carried the show. Faculty members Catalina Castillón and Joel Grothe, as the nurse and Friar Laurence, were excellent.

Castillón was hilarious in her reactions, successfully implying that her years told her that these lovers, while earnest, were still just children, but also being the supportive mother figure that Juliet did not really have. Tracie VanLaw’s Lady Capulet breezed in and out like a storm, always brandishing a wine goblet. Her self-centered disregard for Juliet’s feelings nicely exposed when she finds her daughter dead.

Grothe’s Friar Laurence, complete with Irish accent, was so measured and wise that one thought, for a moment, that maybe these crazy kids would end up alright.

Alas, as we all know, the course of true love never runs smooth. When Romeo doesn’t receive Friar Laurence’s letter outlining the plan (dammit, Friar John, you had one job!), the pair end up dead — surely there was no need for a spoiler alert.

Shakespeare is often done badly. This was not one of those times. As Mercutio says, “We waste our lights in vain, like lamps by day.” Romeo and Juliet are wasted lights, although it is hard to feel too badly for such ridiculous shenanigans. The tragedy is Mercutio’s, a loyal friend whose love for Romeo killed him.

That’s love for you.