03 May 2010

Interview with Charles McMahon

This is the sixth interview of the “Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series and leave your thoughts in the comment box at the end of this posting.

Interview with Charles McMahon
at St. Stephen’s Theatre, home of the Lantern Theatre Company
14 April 2010

I attended the Company’s production of Henry IV, part one: a splendid performance! It is playing until May 9th; go and see it if you get a chance. Later this season, Lantern is hosting Anthony Lawton’s one-man show of The Screwtape Letters; you should try to catch that, too.

IA: The idea [of this series] is that because I teach at a historical program (every academic year we study a different historical time period), I feel as if I have a pretty good sense of the arts in past time periods. So I’m wondering: What time period are we in now? Three hundred years from now, what are we going to say [about the twenty-first century]? You can’t really say that when you’re in it, but you can take individual snapshots of people and companies and movements in the arts. That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been asking people in all different media: What are you doing specifically? and then: What do you see?

CM: It’s a fascinating idea. One of the discussions that we’ve have with doing this play [Henry IV, part one] and doing Shakespeare –this is true for Shakespeare in general, but it’s become part of our focus in talking about this particular play—is the sense of time. Not just the sense of the passage of time, but time as a factor that governs people’s lives and how we understand it. In our series of lectures and discussions about the play we have been talking about Shakespeare and his sense of straddling historical time periods in his own life. He’s born in, essentially, a small town in the English countryside which is a lot like a Medieval city-state and time in that period is a cyclical event, a seasonal, cyclical thing. The day is measured by the position of the sun; it’s noon when the sun is at its zenith and then it goes down. Then the Renaissance is invading London as he’s growing up, and when he moves to London he moves to the Renaissance. So it’s like you’re in a Medieval town with a sense of the roundness of things, the fullness of things, governed by seasons, by circles, and you move to the Renaissance and everything is straight lines, curves and arcs and it’s incomplete. Time is something you measure with a device. Time is now something that goes in a straight line. It has a direction. The day is broken into a series of chunks of time that you fill up and organize in a certain way. There are not names for all these things: historians and critics come along and they name them afterwards—but Shakespeare is just observing that there’s a new kind of paradigm that’s coming into being. In this play, you may have noticed that the very first thing we do in the play is we’re trying to take people out of their experience of being on the street and being in twentieth-century America. So we have a little margin there. There’s nothing specifically going on. There are impressions, there’s a little music, the lights do something interesting, some people come out and the cast of the play repeats lines from the first speech of the play as if they were just the many voice of the many people in England. The king is there praying. The idea is that these could be the things that are filtering into him while he’s in contemplation here.

IA: It’s a little bit nonlinear for that moment. We suspend time at the very beginning.

CM: Right. But in essence the function of that section dramatically is to let the audience wash out the impressions they just had, the conversations they just had, hurrying to get tickets and to get upstairs. Now we’re going someplace else. So we want to give you a moment to adjust. A little margin. It doesn’t have to mean anything, it just has to be a prologue of some kind. Then you’re in the play. Then the king speaks this line, he recaps everything that’s gone on, and he comes up with a plan of what to do next. You’re in the midst of the action. It’s very ongoing action, you’re thrust right down in the middle of it, and he says: OK, we’ve finally got a little bit of free time after all these wars and broils, and now with this little margin of calm that we have, we’re going to launch a crusade to Jerusalem, because that’s what I determine to be best for the country.

Note by IA: here’s the text of Henry IV’s opening speech:
So shaken as we are, so wan with care,
Find we a time for frighted peace to pant,
And breathe short-winded accents of new broils
To be commenced in strands afar remote.
No more the thirsty entrance of this soil
Shall daub her lips with her own children’s blood;
No more shall trenching war channel her fields
Nor bruise her flowerets with the armed hoofs
Of hostile paces. Those opposed eyes,
Which, like the meteors of a troubled heaven,
All of one nature, of one substance bred,
Did lately meet in the intestine shock
And furious close of civil butchery,
Shall now, in mutual well-beseeming ranks,
March all one way and be no more opposed
Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies.
The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife,
No more shall cut his master. Therefore, friends,
As far as to the sepulcher of Christ—
Whose soldier now, under who blessed cross
We are impressed and engaged to fight—
Forthwith a power of English shall we levy,
Whose arms were molded in their mother’s womb
To chase these pagans in those holy fields
Over whose acres walked those blessed feet
Which fourteen hundred years ago were nailed
For our advantage on the bitter cross.

CM: And he gives ostensible reasons for it. I mean, probably his main reason is he doesn’t want to be damned! This would have earned him an indulgence. It would have meant he had a get-out-of-Hell-free card from the pope. Although it’s historically inaccurate to assume that in the 1400s you could still launch a crusade to Jerusalem and anyone would even go (these things had been over for a while), it becomes a perfectly useful device in Shakespeare. He’s looking into the past. Time is a fluid thing in the play. He’s saying to the English Elizabethan people, the early Renaissance English people of Shakespeare’s time: Think of a time when things were different, when people launched crusades, it was a different time, not of this time. And then he compresses time, he pulls time apart. Hotspur and Hal become the same age when in fact in real life one of them was 16 and the other was 39; but everything is fluid and changeable for the purposes of telling the story.

So this play is now moving along. The king gets you up to speed; immediately someone comes in with important information: “We’re going to have to hold up on the crusade to Jerusalem. There’s just been a battle. It’s uncertain whether we’ve won or lost. There was even worse news that came in: By the time I got here, I found out that we’d definitely lost a big battle in Wales.” Then the king says: “Oh, wait; the battle that you didn’t know about earlier? Turns out we won that one. But now we’ve got other problems. All right.” And the king always gives a directive at the end of these scenes that has to do with time. He says: “On Wednesday next, we’re going to hold our council. In the meantime, between now and then I want you to do this and I’m going to do this.” Every time you see him he says I want you to do this by such-and-such a date. And he gives people clear directives of what they’re expected to do and when they’re supposed to do it. Interspersed between these scenes, which are very linear, very deterministic in the mechanical sense (one event is causing another, is causing another, is causing another) you’ve got these scenes with Hal in a bar—and time stops. It just stops. After the first scene, he’s hanging around with nothing particular to do, they come up with a scheme to kill time. The very first thing that Falstaff says is:

CM & IA simultaneously: “What time is it?”

CM: Hal says, “What do you care? Why would you possibly care what time it is?” And this is right after the king says, “We must do these things hastily.” Hal says, “Why, what do you care?” And Falstaff says, “Yeah, you’re right; I don’t care.” But people are always asking what time it is. And we finally get to the climactic bar scene, which is toward the end of our first act here: It’s about 27 minutes long. And in the course of it, people are coming in with information about what’s happening in the outside world and everyone in the bar is saying, “Eh, let’s just not pay attention to that right now.” So there’s a very, very different sense that these people are living in. Time is flowing in this very fast stream in part of the play and in the other part of the play it’s the shallows: things aren’t really flowing, they’re trickling.

IA: Is it immaturity and irresponsibility to step out of that flow into those timeless moments, and Hal has to step into it to realize that he’s going to be a cause rather than just an effect?

CM: That’s a very good question. It’s never as simple as it seems. Many of the characters in the play would certainly say that Hal has been wasting his time and that he needs to start taking responsibility and start doing things differently. What he’s been doing has been a bad road and he needs to set off on a different road. The same character, a couple of plays from now, in Henry V, says: “I can understand the Dauphin, how he comes over me with my former days, not measuring what use I made of them.” So the implication, then, is that these wild days are actually adding something to his experience that others don’t have. It becomes a genuine advantage in ruling a people, or maybe in commanding an army, or understanding of people.

IA: He says that: He has a speech in which he says he’s doing this as a foil of his later days and not wasting time, how he’s being so intentional—whether or not you believe him.

CM: Yes. Exactly. And I hope that when you watched this that you had a hard time believing him. Because typically I thought that that was a pitfall in productions [of this play], is that Hal comes out and says to the audience: “Don’t worry, I’m going to make everything good in the end.” And I think that if you believe him right then, A, it takes some of the drama out of it, and B, it takes some of the necessary character transformation out of this guy. He is a screw-up in a lot of ways and for him to just glibly say: “I’m simply going to put everything to rights at the last minute” and mean it—first of all it’s totally unrealistic. There’s no drunkard in the world who honestly and sincerely says: “I’m going to reform, real soon.” Unless it’s now, it’s not true, it’s not meaningful, it’s not sincere. The only time that you ever reform your life is NOW. It’s never in a week or a month or when I feel like it. St. Augustine with his prayer—

IA: —“Make me chaste, just not yet.”

CM: It’s a famously insincere prayer. Saint or no saint, it’s still an insincere prayer. It’s only sincere when it’s: “Make me chaste and pure NOW.” And Hal concludes by saying, “You know what, I’m going to start screwing things up even worse, because that’ll be even better for my plan.” I think that anyone who has seen addictive behavior or who has dealt with people who are self-deluding at that point will go, “Yeah, sure you are, pal. Yeah. OK. I’ve seen this; I’ve seen this all before.” So in a sense, Hal does not save himself through some great plan. Hal is essentially saved through some kind of grace. And Hal has to work. He has to make a very, very hard choice dealing with his father in the scene at the end of the first act. His father continues to press him. His father slams him for several minutes. He has this long tirade of grievances against the kid, and Hal doesn’t just come out and say: “No, Dad. Here’s the plan. I actually buy the whole party line, I’ve just been doing this and this and this for these reasons of mine.” No. The first thing he does is he makes a very equivocating, weak, semi-excuse, which the king simply brushes aside with contempt. And then he says, “I will henceforth be more myself,” which the king also elides over. And then finally he has this kind of cry from the heart, where he says, “I will redeem myself fully—or die. And I’m really sorry for how I’ve made you feel.” And that’s the beginning of a sincere moment. And he never really quite goes back to the guy he was earlier on. He tries to bring Falstaff along on his road (and ultimately Falstaff isn’t going to go), but he becomes a different person after that point in the play. He never really quite goes back to where he was earlier, and I think that’s an important thing.

But at the same time he does not disavow everybody. He doesn’t lose track of them, he doesn’t forswear their company right away. And I think that’s the important thing for Shakespeare: he’s making a point that this guy is different from the people who came before. So Shakespeare is, I think very consciously, saying: “There was a era of kings. There was an old law in which certain conditions applied, and then things changed and there was a new kind of person that was required.” Hal is in a way a transformational character. How? How is he different from the others that went before? Well, in one way he went down, in among the common man. He was the king by blood, by birth, by right, but he lived among the common people and was one of them. And the insights thus gained, the sense of kinship with these people, the sense of sympathy, meant that he was going to consider their needs more deeply. And if he was going to do something that was going to hurt, or if he was going to demand some sacrifice on their part, then it was going to be deliberate and necessary. That he wasn’t just going to take them for granted and sell them cheaply. They understood this and this is in fact all that they asked. Not only is he king of England; there have been many of those. But he can commend all the good lads in Eastcheap, and not many of the kings of England can say that. This stands him in some good stead. His following is scanted by Hotspur and Hotspur’s people, but he shows up at Shrewsbury with a bunch of roughnecks that have been out on the highways robbing people and now he’s turned them toward another path and they will march through hell for him, because he’s been there with them. He’s been one of them.

And in a sense, I think Shakespeare is taking sort of the totality of everything he’s learned in religious symbolism as well as just classic characters from storytelling and his own imagination and these three things (classic stories, his own imagination, and the deeper meanings of the religious mysteries that I think are frequently at the root of Shakespeare’s plays) and he’s turning Hal into a transformational figure. A guy who’s in a sense going down among the common people becomes this almost sort of transformational Act that to some degree redeems this generation of Englishmen. In later plays, Richard III and Henry VI, subsequent kings don’t really live up to the potential of Henry V. But it’s also probably true that he wrote those plays a good deal earlier. So he’s writing Henry V, he’s a more mature writer, and he’s suggesting that this is what real authority should be. Not out of touch with the people. Not simply peremptory and commanding (there’s that aspect to it), but that it also shares the common body with the governed. Which would have been something that was deeply suggested by Christian symbolism. The idea that God is not simply a remote and commanding being, but that God is among us. He’s the guy sitting next to you and the person at the other end of the bar. God has been here and exists among us and that you should treat your fellows as he….

IA: You’re reading Henry IV not as a Christian allegory but as a play that very explicitly draws on the archetypes and the mythic power of the Christian story?

CM: I would say implicitly. I’ve always assumed that there was a good deal of Christian resonance in all of Shakespeare’s plays and I’ve found it in working on them. There are moments like where, in the battle, Hal offers to fight with Percy in single combat. Well, this is essentially like sacrificing your life in order to save the life of your subjects, for the people you love. And the king says: “I would so far venture you.” And that’s a bit like the Lord Jehovah saying: “I will sacrifice my Son because I love my people.” And Henry [IV] even says, “We love our people, even those that are mislead upon your part, Worcester.” I think that could be a moment when the king is subconsciously trying to behave in a spiritually enlightened way, partly because he’s desperate for salvation himself, as a person. He’s sort of imitating the acts of the Divine because he’s looking for personal salvation. But nonetheless, if you’re watching it, I don’t know if you’re going to understand that, consciously, as a piece of allegory. but subconsciously, some aspect of it will resonate with you. You will say: “That is noble.” Because that is something that you have been taught at your parent’s knee to see as the ultimate kind of nobility: self-sacrifice for the good of those who are not as strong or less well-off.

And forgiveness: forgiveness of enemies. The king makes a big deal of trying to forgive his enemies. You could very easily say, “Well, the king isn’t sincere. He’s going to put all these people to death eventually.” And he might. It’s also very true that he might. But I think that you have to understand that at that point, he is very sincerely trying to be a different kind of man. He can’t be, quite. He’s not that kind of man. But his son can be. And he is. So I think that I don’t know if Shakespeare is consciously saying: “I’m going to use aspects of the Christ story to inform this.” But it would have been so rooted in his own understanding of what virtue was. And he is very consciously trying to write a story about a king who is trying to be good and make good choices.

So, veering back to your theme: I think that there is a sense in which Shakespeare is aware that the great organizing paradigms behind the way governments work and societies structure themselves, are changing, in his time. He’s seeing it. He’s seeing the different forces trying to steer the country in different directions and he’s seeing the tension that this causes. This is a play about civil war. Two guys trying to take the country in different directions. There’s a scene in which three guys are standing on a map and dividing the country in three parts. That is one direction. That is the idea of the feudal lords and barons having rights on the land and arguing about who has a right to this, who has a right to this, and, in a sense, none of them are asking: “Do I really have the right, in order to safeguard my inheritance, do I really have the right to put thousands of people’s lives in the hazard just to protect my property? What do they get if I win? Are they better off?” That is the law of the land and that has been considered justice up until now, but it’s clear that England is headed in a different direction. And in trying to divide the kingdom according to the feudal laws of the past and the feudal system and understanding of things, in some ways they’re kind of counter-historical. History is moving in a direction and the arrow of history is pointing towards unity. That’s ultimately good.

And Hal is guy who has an ability to unify the kingdom. He’s not walking on this map, dominating the landscape, and saying: “I’m going to dam this current up here, I’m going to change the directions of all the rivers, and I might change the coastline because I don’t like the way that bit sticks out into the ocean there”—which is a form of arrogance! That’s one of the reasons we have Hotspur, in this production, actually walking on the map. That’s arrogance. It’s presumption. Little shades of Agamemnon in the Oresteia. He tramples on the fine fabric, which angers the gods. So, these three guys are dividing up the kingdom. Similarly, in the other play in which you see the kingdom divided up into three parts, King Lear: again, things don’t go well for that plan.

IA: So Shakespeare, then, is drawing on the metanarrative of the Christian story, which is an intrinsic part of his society. Everyone was consciously trying to enact parts of it. Elizabeth was consciously trying to enact a Mary type of figure. So Shakespeare’s drawing on that to give his interpretation of what a good Christian ruler is?

CM: I think he’s referencing it, certainly. I don’t think you can understand these plays without some understanding of what the Christian story meant. The idea that you were a better ruler through hob-nobbing with the common people. Something that the king criticizes Hal very heavily for, saying: “Oh, Richard made himself stale and popular. And people didn’t respect him, ultimately. And you’ve done the same thing.” He’s completely missing the point of what his son’s doing. His son goes down into a room where a bunch of people are having a bunch of drinks, and he sits there, and he listens to them. “In a quarter of an hour I can now speak with any tinker in his own language. I can speak to them in their own language. They understand me, I understand them. They like me. And they follow me.”

IA: So it’s incarnational, in a small scale.

CM: In a very small scale, yes. It’s a kind of a distant overtone of the Incarnation. That’s my sense of it. Even though I am sort of predisposed to look for these parallels in these plays, at this point, that’s not something that even occurred to me until many weeks into the rehearsal. I went, “Huh! I think this might be what’s going on here.”

IA: Your reading of the change of time, as well, ties into this religious perspective, too. There’s some evidence that maybe when Shakespeare was a child he might have seen the Cycle plays, right before the Cycle plays were forbidden, he may have seen the York Cycle or [the Corpus Christi Cycle] or one of the other big Cycles [of Mystery plays]. They conceived of time that way, with seasonal cycles, with seeing Scripture and the Bible stories in that way. And then the Protestant, more individual view of time, I think ties into the liner view. And there is also a technological reading. They’re inventing the minute hand and the second hand develops and you get all these Carpe Deim poems: People are seeing their lives ticking away! So then you get Falstaff’s lines about “Memento Mori,” people are making watches with skulls on them and so on. So we can read the time element of this play technologically: we can read it with a Historical Materialist interpretation, but we can also read it with the religious change that’s going on in England as well.

CM: I think so. Everything that’s going on in England at this time is a country being torn between the past and the future: between Catholic and Protestant, between the Medieval time and the Renaissance, between the idea of time as this harmony of the spheres (everything is set in motion, everything is cyclical and eternal) versus everything moving in a straight line from a past here to a future here and we have this little tick! spot in between. Hotspur refers to that: “Our life is no more than an hour, ending at the dial’s point, to live that basely were too long” (paraphrasing, obviously, as I go along).

note by IA: the original reads:
…the time of life is short!
To spend that shortness basely were too long
If life did ride upon a dial’s point,
Still ending at the arrival of an hour.

CM: Shakespeare is very aware of time. He’s very aware of how future ages will look back on this and what they’re weaving for posterity. I don’t think he thinks for a moment that we’re going to be performing his plays and studying him and that there will be people who will have busts of him in their libraries; I don’t think he imagines that! But I think he’s definitely thinking about how future ages will talk about them and what they did, so that they need to make decisions and exemplify things and behave in a way that other people will find inspiring in the future. Henry V himself in his St. Crispin’s day speech projects into the future and says: “Let’s do something now that people in the future will find inspiring, the way we do about the past.”

IA: Well, and Shakespeare's writing about a couple of centuries previously as well, so he is immortalizing that past.

CM: Absolutely. And the other thing is, in other parts of Shakespeare’s canon, in The Tempest, for instance, Gonzalo talks about what he would do with this island. He would enact the Golden Age. He would set things as they were imagined to have been in the past, in the Golden Age when things were like this and things were like this, before things got so Modern. Before they got so New and Modern and New-fangled. The amazing thing is that Shakespeare is an incredibly contemporary author. The language is different but the ideas, the insights! To some degree there are things about Shakespeare that people would find appalling [today]. The lack of relativistic thinking about certain things. The sense that there are absolutes. And I think that there are definitely characters who, most of the time, see there being absolute good and absolute bad in most things. And that’s frequently, now-a-days, thought of as being sort of a quaint concept. Although it’s starting to come back around.

IA: Do you see that?

CM: I do, I do. I mean, it’s always very dangerous, because the trouble with saying that there is absolute good and absolute bad is that immediately one goes to the erroneous assumption that one knows what those things are!

IA: In every detail, in every particular.

CM: Right. Yes. One might posit that there is an absolute good but the instant caveat you have to make is: “And I don’t know what it is, and neither do you, nor anybody else! So I’m not going to blindly follow anybody who claims to know it, and I’m not going to preach it, because I have to be humble.” It’s a life-long struggle to try to apprehend what that might be. But simply to have the faith that it’s there and to try to reach for it; that’s one thing. Too many people are too afraid of the whole Jim Jones or David Koresh: that charismatic leader who claims to have an answer and then people follow them unquestioningly down this dark hole. That’s the ugly face of absolutism.

IA: Or a crusading king, for that matter.

CM: Yeah, yeah. But at the same time, it’s very difficult for people to stay in relativism. For instance, the scientific method is based on an incredible discipline of suspension of judgment. It’s always about adding new evidence and keeping one’s mind open. But almost nobody really applies the scientific method. It is too hard. It is too exacting, it’s too difficult, to simply say: “This could be. This is what the evidence seems to point to, now.” People ultimately tend to slip back into absolutism. The trouble with absolutism is that it leads to horrible excesses. The trouble with relativism is that it leads to too many compromises. The trouble with science is that it’s too difficult for people to stay with it. The trouble with religion is, I think, ultimately, people want you to have faith in what they believe in. Shakespeare is balancing all of these things. He’s aware of them all. Science is beginning to be born. Religion is beginning to come out of the shadows. It’s no longer just Latin Scriptures that are repeated by priests who have some kind of absolute power. And philosophy is beginning to be rediscovered as a discipline on its own, apart from the teachings of the Church. All of the sciences, religion, are going through this rebirth and they’re tugging at each other. They’re fighting for dominance in men’s minds. And Shakespeare is trying to find balance. All these things are necessary. Inside of us there are all of these forces at work and we have to find the balance point. I think that he, to some degree, recognizes that this is the challenge of his age. I would contend that it’s the challenge of ours.

IA: That’s what I was going to ask next.

CM: It is the issue with us. We have more power and control over the immediate conditions of our external world, but no more, certainly, over the long-term conditions of our external world. We can foul up the environment to the degree in which we won’t be able to live on the planet any more. We can do that. We can poison the water and the air. We can pollute and irradiate the land. And we can make large sections of the earth uninhabitable for ourselves. But we probably can’t destroy all life on earth. We probably can’t. We could destroy ourselves. But…we shouldn’t! We can control the temperature of the air in a room, but we can’t control the temperature of the earth. We can probably make it hotter if we really foul things up. But we can’t control it. We can’t make it bend to our will. To some degree we’re going to have to make an accommodation with the world around us. This is the place we’ve been given. To some degree we’re going to have to accommodate ourselves to it. To another degree, we’re going to have to say, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t live in the Sahara desert, if I can’t take that degree of light and heat.” And we haven’t figured out how to do that. We still think that we can continue growing the population of Las Vegas indefinitely even though there’s no water there. There’s enough water there to sustain a couple hundred thousand people maybe indefinitely. You get up to a couple million and you’re going to run out. It’s just going to happen. I think that trying to find this balance is a big thing for us. I think that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be saying: “This is what is happening here and now. Here is where we stand. We’re moving in a direction: I don’t know exactly where in that group of hills we’re going to end up, but we’re heading in that direction.”

IA: And if he were living right now, he could still be writing history plays and using them to comment on the current moment. Were you doing that in your directing? Were you commenting on today? Do we have a change in our concept of time right now?

CM: It’s a good question. I don’t think it’s as jarring, as transformational, as, say, the invention of the clock. Or getting to the point where everyone had watches or a clock in their houses.

IA: Although relativity was pretty big. And I suppose our new technology has sped up our relationship to time.

CM: Well, that’s true, but relativity doesn’t change that way you live your life everyday.

IA: That’s true.

CM: There are things that change the way we fundamentally see our world. For instance, the idea of circumnavigating the globe. Or Copernicus, obviously, later backed up by Galileo and Kepler. These guys changed the way we view the world and our place in it. And later on Columbus and his voyage. That meant that man’s place in the universe was fundamentally different from what we thought it was. And that went hand-in-hand with certain technological changes that made everything very different. But the question is, what have we seen in the meantime that had that kind of impact?

IA: Do you think Darwin had that much impact?

CM: Darwin had a lot of impact. I don’t know.

IA: How about the internet?

CM: The jury’s out on that. The internet is an incredibly valuable tool. But the things is that there’s a qualitative difference between the invention of, say, a knife and a gun. When somebody invents a musket, it’s very primitive, but it changes everything. The difference between the musket and the M-16 machine gun is a quantitative difference.

IA: A difference of degree.

CM: Right. But it’s not a game-changer. Everything is based on marginal increases in the efficiency or the speed of that piece of technology. But it’s still doing ultimately the same thing and it’s still providing the same class of advantage—

IA: --killing at a distance.

CM: Yup. And with no skill. Relatively little skill. An English yeoman archer was an incredibly skilled person at killing from a distance. The thing is, they had to spend ten years shooting arrows every day. If you took a dozen English yeoman archers and put them up against a dozen crack troops from the Northern army in the Civil War, the archers would have mopped the floor with them. No contest. The rate of fire was almost three times. The accuracy was significantly better. Their ability to move while loading was significantly better. But the twelve guys in the Civil War uniform: they may have had a week’s training, whereas the other guys had had ten years. So you were able to field a massive amount of guys. In a sense, the gun allowed the industrialization of warfare. Soldiers were interchangeable parts at that point. So the invention of a machine is a huge qualitative difference. The invention of better and better machines is quantitative. So the internet is an extension of the telephone, of the telegraph,

IA: of the telegraph, or the semaphore.

CM: It’s better. You can get graphics. But you could get information quickly at a distance where and when you needed it with those other technologies. So it’s difficult to say. I think the thing about the internet, though, is that it potentially connects people who can do things that they couldn’t do before. Eventually if you end up with everybody having a handheld internet device, you get a situation where it’s impossible to have a media-controlled totalitarian state. We hope. It’ll be impossible to create states like North Korea in the future.

IA: Google in China notwithstanding.

CM: How long can they continue to hold back that flood? The Netherlands work because they’re only a little below sea level. If they were enough below sea level—

IA: --they’d be Atlantis.

CM: Yes. It’s impossible to hold back the flood eventually. Where is that tipping-point? When do we reach that? Are we in a fundamentally different age now, or are we just in a somewhat speeded-up era? Are we seeing the remnants of the Industrial Revolution. It’s an accumulation of things. So many ideas that accumulate. Just take the idea of monotheism arising from polytheism. And then you take the idea of the Incarnation. Or the idea that the godhead is present in individuals. That the individual is no longer someone who had to go and supplicate to Zeus: “Please don’t tread on me, O mighty Zeus!” This Creator-Figure is fundamentally different. [We say to God:] “I am an act of your creation and I am a participant in it. I have a responsibility to You—and You have a responsibility to me. We have a pact.” And that’s a fundamentally different idea. And that continues to develop. And then in that situation how long can you ultimately have an all-powerful Church based on the polytheistic Roman Empire and the all-powerful state? How long can Leviathan keep control of the Body of Christ? Ultimately, no! It still thinks it can. Even now you’ve got the Pope and the College of Cardinals thinking, “Well, it’s all very unpleasant, this whole sex-abuse scandal, but at the same time we can’t let this shake the very foundation of the Mother Church.” Completely out of touch! They don’t know what it is! They think that they church is them! They think that it’s the power structure and the Cardinals and that divinity flows down through them.

IA: Rather than the individual with a relationship with God?

CM: Yes. Or that ultimately they are servants of the poor, illiterate, uneducated, grandson of a laid-off steel worker whose parents never worked in their lives, in a rust-belt town in Western Pennsylvania. That is their boss. That is who they are answerable to. They don’t understand that. Hal would, in a way. “I have a responsibly towards this guy. If he doesn’t have the opportunity to do something with his life, I’m failing.”

IA: Well, then, what about the contemporary relevance for right now, this moment in history, for the theme of redemption, and for the king who is essentially saved through an act of grace but also becomes at least an instrument of redemption himself, if not even possible a savior-figure? How does that work for 2010? Why did you do this play now? How do you see that fitting in?

CM: I think it’s partly, with us, there’s only so many Shakespeare plays, and we just keep doing them.

IA: Great, because I’m trying to see all of them in my life; as long as I live long enough I can come here once a year and get it done!

CM: We’re trying to mix up genres, styles. We did a couple of comedies, a couple of tragedies. This is the first real history. We did Richard III: that’s kind of the classic tragic villain play.

IA: Well, and yet, I can tell with you you’ve got artistic integrity and you’re such a thinker, a scholar of history and a scholar of ideas. Yes, you’re just going to go through the plays, but I’m sure that when you approach each one you’re asking yourself all these questions.

CM: We’re looking for the things in each one that are revelatory of human nature. With Shakespeare, you kind of just throw a dart at a map and you’re going to hit something incredibly relevant. You just need to study; that’s going to show you a lot. One of the things that we wanted to do with this play was that we wanted to work on a play that wasn’t quite so deterministically plotted. That had these sort of three different plot threads altogether. We thought that would create interesting design ideas.

IA: So sort of a non-traditional plot structure.

CM: Yes. In choosing this play we were attracted to the form; it was different from what we were doing in the past. When I started to work on this I was still working on Hamlet (last year), and I was looking at fathers and sons, equating Hal to Hamlet in some ways; Laertes and Hotspur; and then you have the competing father figures in Hamlet. Architecturally there are a lot of the same features.

IA: And you really brought that out with the fascinating double-casting here [of King Henry IV and Sir John Falstaff; virtuoso dual performance by Peter Pryor!]. The most recent Hamlet I saw double-cast Claudius and the ghost.

CM: We did that too. We had an actor who could play both very well. And they’re brothers, they’re never in the same scene; it was easy to do. A neat kind of acting challenge, too. But I think that ultimately we’re looking at war. And looking at it in a different way. Looking at a nation that’s utterly exhausted. And the king starts out the play talking about how it’s utterly exhausted. They’re spent. He’s spent. And a society that’s being torn apart in two different directions and it’s trying to come together and reconcile, but the forces that are pulling it apart are constantly stretching it and tearing at it. That was something that resonated. We didn’t have to highlight these things at all. We didn’t have to say: “Look, we’re commenting on this. This is like now!” I think that people get those things. They’re going to draw their own conclusions and they’re going to be more meaningful to them. I would say that those were the fundamental spurs that got us interested in it. But it really happens at a more intuitive level. You just get excited about it. You don’t know exactly why. You can articulate a few reasons that seem to be consistent intellectually, but they’re really more of a justification after the fact. You do this now and you don’t know why, but there’s just something. Some voice in you that says, This is the One, and you know it’s right.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating! I find your use of and consideration of time here especially intriguing. One little thought about what time period we are in now, combined with your discussion of the evolution of theological thinking & practice; that notion of the godhead being present in individuals, I believe I notice, is increasingly becoming characteristic in this age, but in a way vastly different from its original meaning. In this age, perhaps the individual is beyond supplicating God, or a holding a pact with Him, but the individual primarily seeks to tap into that essence within his or herself. The multiculturalism of this age has brought such a great number of highly divergent theologies to the fore, that a vague 'god-essence-power' idea seems predominate. I imagine this would be enough element interesting to explore in any of Shakespeare's works...

Iambic Admonit said...

Dear Anonymous:

Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I agree that what you describe is the dominant concept of "God-presence." Would you be able to give us a couple of instances of works of art (music, paintings, writings) in which you have encountered this kind of vague spiritual individualism?