"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Curried Cole Slaw, Braised Scallops with Bacon, Pasta with Shrimp and Red Pepper


Some more recipes from my cookbook – all different, all good; and as I hope those of you who have followed my recipes, not too complicated if not easy to prepare.

Curried Coleslaw

There are certainly hundreds of coleslaw recipes, and I have posted a few of my own on this blog.  There are two main but different foundations for coleslaw – one with a mayo-yoghurt base; and the other with oil and vinegar.  The former is more familiar and offers many more variations of ingredients, and therefore I use it more; the latter is more like a salad.  This recipe is interesting because it uses curry powder and sweet mango chutney:

* 1/2 head cabbage, chopped medium-coarsely.  I like the consistency to be pretty much like deli coleslaw.

* 3 Tbsp. mayonnaise

* 2 Tbsp. whole milk yoghurt

* 3-4 Tbsp. mango chutney.  There are many brands of chutney, but avoid the ones you find in the supermarket such as Major Gray’s.  An Indian store would be best.  They come either hot or mild, your choice

* 3-4 heaping Tbsp. curry powder.  I prefer Madras-style curry, but you can use any good curry powder.  The McCormick’s supermarket brand is quite OK.

* 1/2 lg. sweet (Vidalia or similar) onion, chopped medium coarsely

- In a large mixing bowl add the mayo, yoghurt, chutney, curry powder and mix well.  Taste – you may well want to add more of any or all of the above ingredients.  The nice thing about this recipe is that you can easily control the final product.

- Add the cabbage and the onion and mix well.  Again taste, and adjust ingredients if required.  Add salt to taste, and finish with ground pepper.  Serve.

Braised Scallops with Bacon

The combination of bacon and scallops is a classic one – they go perfectly together.  This recipe simply gives some tips on how to do it and a few things to add:

* 1 1/2 lbs. sea scallops.  Since this recipe calls for the searing of the scallops, smaller bay scallops are not right for it.

* 3 pieces of bacon

* 3 chopped green onions

- Fry the bacon until crisp, reserve

- Drain all bacon fat except 1 Tbsp. which is left in the skillet

- Heat the fat to very high heat, just beginning to smoke

- Place the scallops one by one, but quickly, into the skillet, and let them sear.  Turn over and sear on the other side

- Turn the heat down to medium, replace the scallops and let them cook for another 2-3 minutes per side

- Remove and plate (this is a good first course for four people or enough for two as a main course).

- Sprinkle with crumbled bacon, garnish with green onions and ground pepper and serve.

Shrimp with Cream, Sherry, and Red Pepper Reduction

This recipe has a number of ingredients and steps, but all are simple to manage, and the result is worth it.  The combination of the red pepper, cream, and sherry are good enough to serve over penne alone; but the addition of the shrimp stock made from the steamed shrimp make it memorable.

* 1 lb. jumbo shrimp

* 1/2 lg. red pepper, cut into 1” pieces

* 1/2 lg. onion, chopped medium coarsely

* 1/4 cup freshly grated Italian parmesan cheese

* 1/4-1/2 cup Amontillado sherry (good bourbon can be substituted)

* 2 Tbsp. unsalted European-style butter (easy to find, higher fat content, and much tastier)

* 2 cups white wine (this is for steaming shrimp, so ordinary wine is fine); 1 cup water

* 3/4 cup half-and half

* 2 Tbsp. sour cream

* 2-3 gratings from whole nutmeg

* 1/2 lb. penne

- Steam shrimp in white wine and water

- When shrimp is cooked (about 10 minutes at most, or when all shrimp are pink with no greyish uncooked portions visible), remove from the steamer, leaving the liquid

- Remove the shells and place them in the steaming liquid.  Boil over medium-high heat until liquid is reduced to about 1/4 cup.  Strain the liquid into a small bowl and reserve

- Melt the butter in a frying pan and sautee the red pepper until soft

- Add the reduced shrimp stock, stir well, reducing the liquid by about half

- Slowly add the half-and-half, sour cream, nutmeg, stirring frequently over low heat for about 10 minutes.  Take care to keep heat low and stirring frequent so that the milk products do not separate

- Slowly add the grated parmesan and mix well

- Taste for salt and add as required

- Add the shrimp to the sauce and heat over very low heat, only enough to heat the shrimp.

- Plate, and sprinkle some grated parmesan over each portion.  Grate black pepper and serve.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Penne with Sausage, Rosemary, and Mushrooms; Endive Salad; Spaghetti with Browned Garlic


I was going back over my cookbook, and find that there are a number of recipes which I have not yet posted.

Penne with Sausage, Rosemary, and Mushrooms

I had actually written this recipe for the Sausage alone, but have also cooked it with pasta and it is delicious:

* 3 links hot Italian sausage

* 1-2 Tbsp. rosemary leaves (they are not exactly leaves, of course, but to distinguish from powder which you do not want)

* 1 pkg. mushrooms (your choice, although I usually take the standard supermarket fare, the portobellos are best), cut in half or quarters if they are big

* 1/2 – 3/4 cup Amontillado sherry (I like Amontillado because it is not too sweet, not too dry, very good for cooking)

* 2-3 Tbsp. olive oil

* 1 cup half-and-half

* 1/2 cup whole milk (or nonfat) yoghurt.  I like the whole milk kind because it gives a more creamy consistency and does not break up over heat

* 1 cup grated parmesan cheese

- Fry the sausage until browned and well-cooked in a large skillet (iron is best)

- Let cool, then cut into 1-2” pieces and reserve

- Drain half of the fat from the skillet, add the olive oil, the rosemary, and the mushrooms

- Sautee the mushrooms until nearly done, then add the sherry, raise the temperature to high, cook until the sherry has almost evaporated.  Taste, and add more sherry if required, repeating the procedure.  Also add salt as necessary.

- Remove the mushrooms and reserve

- Add the cream and yoghurt and cook over low heat for about 5 minutes, scraping up the sausage and mushroom bits from the bottom of the pan to make a flavorful cream sauce

- Add the sausage and cook over very low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently to be sure that the cream does not separate.

- Boil the penne, plate, and put the sausage mixture on top of each serving, sprinkle with the parmesan, grind pepper over each serving, and serve.

Belgian Endive Salad

Belgian endives are not always available, but if you see them, buy them.  They have a slightly bitter taste – not unpleasantly bitter, but a bitter that you find, for example, in broccoli rabe.  This taste is perfectly complemented by the vinaigrette sauce and the honey – sweet and sour. 

* 4 endives (discard the outer leaves if they are discolored or wilted, but generally in a good store they will be ready to eat; and take off all the good leaves for the salad.  When you get down to the core (this will be something like taking the leaves off an artichoke), you will find a hard stem, which you can throw out or chop up and put in the salad)

* 2-3 Tbsp. olive oil

* 2-3 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar

* 1 tsp. Maille (or other French Dijon) mustard

* 1 Tbsp. honey

* 2 tsp. ground cumin

* 3-4 dried figs, chopped into small pieces, perhaps 1/4 inch

* 3-4 dried prunes, chopped into small pieces

* 1/2 cup roasted pecans (I prefer to buy the pecans unroasted, then roast them myself by placing in iron skillet over high heat, dry, no oil, until lightly browned on all sides)

- Make the vinaigrette by combining the oil, vinegar, mustard and mixing well (I use a wire whisk)

- Toss the endive leaves into the vinaigrette and mix well.  If you see that you have too little sauce, use a separate mixing bowl and combine more of the oil, balsamic, and mustard in the same proportions as above.

- Plate the vinaigrette leaves, and place the figs, prunes, and roasted nuts on the top, spreading interestingly

- Sprinkle with cumin

- Drizzle the honey over the mixture on each plate

- Grind black pepper over the mixture and serve.

Baba Ganouj

This is the classic Middle Eastern eggplant dish which is remarkably simple to make, and required only a few tricks to come out exactly like what you will find in the best restaurants.  The key is to leave the skin of the eggplant on, perforate it, and broil so that the skin blackens.  The smoky taste will permeate the meat of the eggplant through the perforations (punched with a fork).

* 1 lg. eggplant, halved, holes poked in the skin with a fork

* 1/2 lemon (juice)

* 2-3 Tbsp. tahini (tahini is available in most supermarkets.  Often the oil will be at the top once the jar is opened, so you will have to use a long spoon to stir well, and mix the more solid tahini with the oil before you use)

* 1 small clove of garlic, chopped

* 8 medium black olives (American ones, without the vinegar or brine)

* 1 Tbsp. olive oil

- On a baking tray, place heavy duty tin foil, and lubricate it with a little olive oil so that the eggplant will not stick

- Place the eggplant on the tray, place in an oven which has been preheated to 450F

- Bake for approximately 25 minutes or until the eggplant is soft to the touch

- Broil for an additional 10-15 minutes until the skin is very browned, if not blackened in spots

- Remove from oven, chop into large pieces, and put in a blender

- Add the tahini, lemon juice, and chopped garlic with a pinch of salt

- Blend until a creamy, smooth consistency.  If you find that there is not enough liquid for easy blending, add a little water

- Taste while blending and adjust for salt, lemon, and/or tahini

- Serve on a medium serving plate.  Smooth out the mixture so that it covers the plate evenly

- Place the black olives in any pattern you wish, drizzle olive oil over the plate, grind pepper and serve

Spaghetti al Aglio, Olio, e Peperoncino

(Spaghetti with Garlic, Olive Oil, and Hot Pepper Flakes)

This is one of the simplest and most delicious of all pasta recipes.  In fact I may have posted it before, but cannot find it in my cookbook, so I thought I would post again.  It requires only one trick and attention – browning the garlic.  If done properly so that the garlic browns, each piece has a lovely caramel flavor with no strong garlic taste and no bad taste of burning.  Too little cooking and the garlic is too strong.  Too much and it is blackened and you have to start over.  But just right……delicious!

* 10 lg. cloves of garlic, sliced into medium thickness.  In French these slices are called “rondelles”.  Try to get the size of the garlic pieces as equal as possible, for this will help the sauteeing to the right amount

Also called rounds, a type of cut that creates round or oval, flat pieces by cutting a cylindrical vegetable crosswise. A regular crosswise cut produces a round slice and if the cut is made at an angle, it produces an oval slice.

Rondelles Glossary Term

* 1/4 cup olive oil (approximately).  The oil should cover the bottom of a medium-large frying pan with about 1/8” oil.  You should be generous, don’t worry about too much oil because you will be using it for a half-pound of spaghetti

* 5 shakes of hot pepper flakes.  If you don’t like too much hot taste, then put in a few shakes, then taste while sauteeing

* 1/2 lb. spaghetti

- Place the rondelles of garlic into the oil with the pepper flakes and cook over medium-high heat in an iron skillet.  You can use other skillets, but since the amount and distribution of heat is important in this recipe, an iron skillet is best. 

- Stir the garlic frequently and WATCH CAREFULLY.  Since the garlic will continue to cook after you turn off the heat, you want to be sure that you turn it off before the garlic is completely brown.

- Cook the pasta, drain, and place into a large mixing bowl

- Pour the oil mixture over the pasta and toss well.

- Taste for salt, adding when necessary

- Plate, add grindings of black pepper and serve.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Twelfth Night–Nietzsche Again!


Twelfth Night is the first of Shakespeare’s ‘high comedies’ that I have read in my Second Coming.  As I have written, little of Shakespeare took hold in my first reading as an English major at Yale; and nothing at all of the comedies which I thought were senseless, silly and a waste of time.  I have put them last this time around after the Histories and the Tragedies – put them off is a more honest way of putting it, although a close friend of mine who has read and studied the whole of Shakespeare’s works said I had a treat in store.  He was right.

First, I found Twelfth Night actually funny.  I never found Falstaff funny – witty, yes, but funny ha-ha no; and in my first contact with Sir Toby – especially in the BBC 1980 video production – I found the same fat blowhard as I did in the Henry IV plays.  As Bloom points out, he knows Falstaff (perhaps his favorite character in all of Shakespeare, perhaps because he looks like him and fancies himself as witty, earthy, and vital), and Sir Toby is not Falstaff.

Shortly after this introduction Maria enters and concocts with Sir Toby and others the schemes to deflate the pompous buffoon, Malvolio.  Act II.5 is hilarious – Malvolio mouths utter, self-absorbed, nonsense about the presumed love of Olivia for him; and the reactions of  the concealed Toby, Fabian, and Andrew trying to stifle their exclamations of amazement at the pompous silliness uttered by Malvolio is real slapstick comedy:

Malvolio: ‘Tis but fortune; all is fortune.  Maria once told me that she [Olivia] did affect me; and I have heard herself come thus near, that, should she fancy, it should be one of my complexion. Besides, she uses me with a more exalted respect than any one else that follows her.  What should I think on’t?

Toby: Here’s an overweening rogue.

Fabian: O, Peace! Contemplation makes a rare turkey cock of him.  How he jets under his advanced plumes!

Andrew:  ‘Slight, I could so beat the rogue

Toby: Ah, rogue!

Andrew: Pistol him, pistol him.

Toby: Peace, peace.

Malvolio: There is example for’t.  The Lady of the Strachy married the yeoman of the wardrobe.

Andrew: Fie on him, Jezebel.

And so it goes.  It is even funnier when Malvolio finds the counterfeit letter, supposedly written by Olivia but really by Maria, which instructs him to do ridiculous things – to dress and act in exactly the way which will displease Olivia.  Act III.iv in which Malvolio acts out the instructions in the letter before Olivia is equally funny.

The humor of course comes at the expense of Malvolio.  His later treatment by Maria and her cohorts, putting him in a dark cell and making him think he is mad is considered by many critics to be cruel, going beyond acceptable social bounds (i.e. deflating a pompous fool) and entering a realm of psychological torture.  They carry the prank too far, say these critics, going beyond the already achieved goal of revealing to Malvolio his absurd pomposity, and simply exercising meanness.  Bloom comments:

What happens to Malvolio is…so harshly out of proportion to his merits, such as they are, that the ordeal of humiliation has to be regarded as one of the prime Shakespearean enigmas.  Even if a poet’s war with Ben Jonson was the occasion for creating Malvolio, the social crucifixion of the virtuous steward passes the possible bounds of playful literary rancor. The Invention of the Human

Other critics disagree.  A.D. Nuttall says:

I have said that Malvolio should not be there, but there is perhaps a sense in which he is actually needed.  Nietzsche wrote, “Not so very long ago a royal wedding or great public celebration  would have been incomplete without executions, tortures and auto da fe, a noble household without some person whose office it was to serve as a butt for everyone’s malice and cruel teasing…There is no feast without cruelty, as man’s entire history attests.  Punishment, too, has its festive features”

Nietzsche’s  blood-chilling observations can have a certain shrewdness.  One begins to wonder whether, when spirits are high, there has to be someone to suffer the impact of the aggressive element in all this joy.  Malvolio is “ill will” in contrast with the others, but Nietzsche implies that his description can be turned inside out: the butt is there to receive the malice of the happy persons.  Who better for such a role than one who despises merriment? Shakespeare The Thinker

I agree with Nuttall and find Maria the most appealing character in the play – she is the plotter and schemer with nary a thought to the possible immorality or simple wrongness of her acts of humiliation. “The house will be quieter without him”, is all she says when planning Malvolio’s demise.  She goes on:

The devil a Puritan that he is, or anything constantly but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass, that cons state without book and utters it by great swarths; the best persuaded of himself; so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him; and on that vice in him will my revenge find notable cause to work.

Maria holds nothing back in her assessment of Sir Andrew:

…He’s a fool, he’s a great quarreler; and but that he hath the gift of a coward to ally the gust he hath in quarrelling, ‘tis thought among the prudent he would quickly have the gift of a grave.

She schemes to do him in with as much trickery as that for Malvolio. She has energy, wit, passion – although negative – and is neither redeemed (as Malvolio is with his contrition and admission of his faults, thus convincing some critics that he is really a good but wronged person at the heart of the play) nor punished.  She is the Nietzschian hero of the play and therefore mine.

With the exception of Maria, I do not like the characters in Twelfth Night, and even she does not have the substance and power of Caliban in The Tempest (not officially a comedy but a romance) or that of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.  Leaving her aside, and leaving aside as well the wonderful language, quick reparties, and wit of the play, what is left?  The gender-bending for a modern reader is interesting, but not innovative, and great stretches, and willing suspensions of disbelief are required.  The satire of people being in love with love – especially Orsino, but also Olivia – is obvious; the double identities, coincidence, and circumstance are amusing, but again predictable. 

What saves the play for me is Maria and her malicious trickery – both of Malvolio and also of Sir Andrew Aguecheek who is almost as big of a jerk as Malvolio.  Her plotting with Sir Toby to engineer a duel between Aguecheek and Viola (Cesario) is not as ingenious but illustrative of a spirit who understands that she is more intelligent than anyone else, that she is stuck in a low-class position, and that only through plotting, gossip, and trickery can she possibly get ahead. 

I knew a woman like Maria – a secretary at the World Bank in the days before computers and when there were still secretaries, who was from a working class English family.  She knew that in the Bank there was a rigid class system – upper class English were the professionals, working class the secretaries.  Using gossip, innuendo, and very ingenious trickery, she exposed the pomposity of those English professionals who denied their working class roots, and did what she could to show the incompetence of the upper class.  She was a woman to be feared, and not unlike Maria who only had these resources with which to rise or succeed.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Shakespeare’s The Tempest–Ambiguity


My hero, Harold Bloom starts his criticism of The Tempest with the following quote:

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, the two visionary comedies – A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream and The Tempest – these days share the sad distinction of being the worst interpreted and performed….Ideology drives the bespoilers of The Tempest. Caliban, a poignant but cowardly (and murderous) half-human creature (his father a sea devil, whether fish or amphibian), has become an African-Caribbean heroic Freedom Fighter. This is not even a weak misreading; anyone who arrives at that view is simply not interested in reading the play at all.  Marxists, multiculturalists, feminists, nouveau historicists – the usual suspects – know their causes but not Shakespeare’s plays. (The Invention of the Human).

The Tempest is fascinating because of its ambiguity, and this, of course, is a hallmark of Shakespeare’s plays.  You are never completely sure of the “real” nature of his characters or their motivation.  You can be just about convinced that Cleopatra never loved Antony and only wanted him as a protector for their (and her other) children and to assure her Egyptian throne if not more; and then, after her attempts to ingratiate herself with the Emperor fail, she – sort of – expresses her love for Antony.  Was Othello really done in by Iago, or was it really the sexuality of Desdemona of which he was afraid, that twisted his judgment? Why did Hamlet delay in the killing of the king?  What changed Lady Macbeth’s mind, etc. etc.

The Tempest is probably the most ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays, and the figure at the center of the issue is Caliban.  He is interesting because although his mother was a witch and his father a sea-devil, he has the humanity and human capacity to learn language (we assume he was either pre-linguistic or spoke his own language), to appreciate beauty – his description of his island are poetic; and to have the very human ability to understand the nature of his freedom (from the tree), his enslavement, the seeming ingratitude of his savior, etc. .  Prospero treats him as a human – he is a very capable slave – but can vilify him as less than human.  Stephano and Trinculo first see him as a fish, a four-legged monster; but then recruit him as a very human conspirator in their desires to get rid of both Alonso and Prospero.

So, is Caliban a noble savage from a pastoral island – an innocent who can be civilized and reformed?  Or a brute who makes no excuses about wanting to rape Miranda and an animal that comes from a savage land which must be tamed?  Or a human spirit in a monster’s body?  A.D. Nuttall says it best:

If we decide that the final “message” of the play is that Caliban is evil, brute nature unredeemed by civility, we are saying that the central impulse of the play is anti-pastoral.  If we discern beauty within the savagery of Caliban and feel that this is destroyed forever by the morally tainted courtly intruders, we are asserting that the play is at bottom a true pastoral still. (Shakespeare the Thinker)

I do not like either of the alternatives.  As I have written previously in posts about The Histories, I espouse the Nietzschian philosophy of Beyond Good and Evil and the critical approach of Jan Kott and his Grand Mechanism of history repeating itself endlessly and therefore predictable and also beyond good and evil.  Caliban is not evil.  How could he be?  There was no one to whom to be evil on his island before the interlopers arrived.  The best word to describe him is not brutish, evil, or savage, but “natural” with a human spirit only waiting to be expressed.  His attempt to rape Miranda is natural – no different than one male animal mounting another.  His vituperation and animus against Prospero does not come from an evil or malignant spirit, but from an understandable human one.  He has been caught in a dilemma familiar to the rest of us humans – he has been freed from twelve years of imprisonment and therefore should be thankful; but he has the right to be resentful at the treatment he receives.

The situation is even more complex because as he becomes more humanized, he becomes more like the rest of Shakespeare’s characters.  He is a former king, albeit of a kingdom without subjects, who wants to be reinstated.  To do so he must bring down the current king.  His immaturity – some have called it his childlike nature or worse childishness – leads him to believe that Stephano will be a true and just king; but he still is as acquisitive and aggressive as any of the usurpers of the Histories or the Tragedies.

This has led some critics to say that the play is about the loss of innocence or the corruption of the natural by the “civilized”.  I maintain my stance that this is a magical play, or a play whose reality is distorted by magic.  Caliban was a natural being with a human spirit in this bi-polar world, and once his humanity supersedes his naturalness, he becomes like all human beings, beyond good and evil and part of the Grand Mechanism.

This ambiguity is mirrored in other ways in the play.  Gonzalo sees the island as green, lush while Antonio sees it as tawny and barren.  Nuttall wonders whether Shakespeare intended this difference in perception to reflect the nature of the characters – Gonzalo is not the idealistic romantic, but “good”; and Antonio not realistic but “bad”.

There is much made in the criticism about the lack of consistent morals among those who have been shipwrecked on the island.  Prospero has enslaved both Ariel and Caliban by his powers, character, and language – treating both as chattels with no sense of fairness but only his own interests in mind.  Stephano, Trinculo, Antonio, and Sebastian are plotters and schemers.  Again, I do not subscribe to this theory.  Antonio and Sebastian both prior to landing on the island tried to usurp the power of their older brothers and simply want to continue the quest.  Stephano and Trinculo are a (drunken) butler and jester who see only immediate and venal gain out of an opportune situation.  They are, in Nuttall’s words:

as vulgar as Caliban himself could never be, and There is no question of morality here, but predictable behavior. Ferdinand is a moral blank…

Nuttall suggests that Prospero, in addition to his enslavement of Ariel and Caliban, had incestuous feelings towards his daughter, and that what was cemented the relationship:

There is not a line in the play that supports this inference directly.  But if we think of the other late romances, the thought may begin to seem less wild.  Pericles begins with a full-blown tale of incest…..

Others have noted that there are “good” characters in the play – Ferdinand and Miranda; but others, such as Nuttall have suggested that real goodness needs to have come from a charity, a resistance to evil, a certain moral stance which is taken, not just inherited.  Miranda has known only her father before the arrival of Ferdinand and only has him – her protector and provider – as a touchstone for her “goodness”.  Even her innocence must be questioned because such purity has not been proven in a real world.  Ferdinand has no sex drive, observes Nuttall, and is a goody-goody rather than a good man who, like Miranda, has yet to prove his “good” worth. Again Nuttall:

It is as if Ferdinand is saying to Prospero, “You really don’t have to worry about me, sir; I’m not a bit like that frightful Caliban.  Actually I don’t have much sexual feeling at all”.  Ferdinand is hardly a blazing anti-type to the baseness of Caliban.  His virtue is almost comically limp.

In the final denouement of the play, the curtain is drawn to show Ferdinand and Miranda, not locked in a passionate embrace as one might expect, but playing chess!  Not only that, they are spatting like an old married couple.  So much for passion, romance, and desire.

Therefore to me there are no real good characters in the play, just as there are no bad ones who, as I have stated above, are simply following their very human nature. 

Of all the characters in the play, Prospero, next to Caliban, is the most interesting, the most ambiguous, and the most perplexing.  To what can one attribute his final reversal, abandonment of magic, and total – if perhaps slightly begrudging – forgiveness to his enemies?  Has he simply gotten what he always wanted – his throne, and more importantly the opportunity to return untroubled to his intellectual pursuits? Or has he somehow acted out his philosophy so eloquently stated earlier about the endless cycles of life which some have branded nihilism but are really a resolution to the ambiguity of the play?  Ariel’s song can be taken as his own philosophy:

Full fathom Eve thy father lies

Of his bones are coral made:

Those are pearls that were his eyes,

Nothing of him that doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell

Hark! I now hear them, ding-dong bell.

How has he made peace with his slave, Caliban?  It is unclear whether or not Caliban remains on the island to regain his throne; or goes with the party to Milan.  Stephano suggests that Caliban would be “marketable”, put in a freak show for money, if he went to Milan; but it is possible that Shakespeare was envisioning the wild child of a hundred years later, taken as an example of natural savagery and civilized (e.g. Kaspar Hauser).  In any case, Prospero leaves the issue unresolved, and again we are not sure what all this drama was all about.

In summary, I like this play which – like the ambiguity contained in it – is liked by many and not liked by many others.  It was the last play that Shakespeare wrote alone before his collaboration with another author for the last three minor plays, and critics have commented that the play is really about the art of creation and creativity.  I have to admit I don’t see this, but if the historians are correct, it adds a dimension to an already intriguing work of art.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Golf, or The Three Stooges–My Caddying Days


“Atta boy, Joe”, said Andy Squillacote, as the ball sailed skyward, straight and true.  Up it went down the narrow fairway alley between the river and the elms.  Suddenly it started to turn right, not a slow, gradual bank, but an abrupt shank, spinning around like a boomerang; and, before its eventual splash into the water, almost coming back to the 10th tee.

“Oops”, said Andy.  “Little fade you got there.  That’s OK.  Tenth tee.  Take a mulligan”

Joe Tortolani teed up another ball.  Pressure time.  No margin of error.  He placed the driver behind the ball, looked down the fairway, and when it looked like he was about to take the club back and begin his swing, he started the yips.  He did a little dance with his feet to get a better grip in the turf.  He waggled the club head back and forth, and at the same time raised and lowered his head, looking down the fairway.  More shifting of the feet, more waggling of the club, more peering, lining up, waiting for the feel of calm confidence necessary for the samurai Zen swing, the pure will and force of the club against the immanent and resident power of the ball.  It never came.  Once the yips take over, there is total paralysis and the impossibility of a golf swing.  There is only the panicked hack, the out-of-control, ferocious swing that God willing will take the place of the normal graceful, balanced, timed ballet of golf.

There was a solid thwack as the club hit the ball.  Maybe, just maybe all the wrongs of the swing – the little cribbed arms, the arthritic hip thrust, the flailing hands, the upturned head – might all turn into one big right and the ball would sail down the fairway straight and true.

But again, after the mighty contact with the club, and the first, hopeful soaring flight up into the blue sky and down the fairway, the ball, as if pulled by an invisible wire on some great winch in the river, shanked even more sharply than the first ball, and spun and twisted its way farther upstream than anyone thought possible. 

“Wow”, said Tony Grasso.  “It landed behind us, for Christ’s sake.  Did you see that?”, he said with admiration. 

It went on that way for all eighteen holes.  I was the caddy for two of the foursome, carrying “double eighteen”, two bags for two golfers.  Now, if you carried for two golfers, it was an easy round.  Both hit their shots straight and true, and both landed within a few yards of each other on the fairway.  If you carried for duffers, like the foursome of Grasso, Tortolani, Squillacote, and Pozzi who sprayed balls left and right, never in the same spot on the fairway - if they hit the fairway – and usually in the woods, the rough, the sand traps, or the water hazards.  On a course that measured 7000 yards I easily walked 14,000 or almost eight miles; and these duffers, to make up for their shitty play, bought the most expensive hand-tooled leather golf bags, embossed with brass buckles, heavy-duty zippers and stud bottoms; and loaded them up with the entire complement of the 14 clubs allowed by the PGA, a pocket filled with the best Titleist balls, plus an assortment of tools – telescoped ball scoopers for retrieving errant balls out of the water, wire brushes for cleaning fairway irons clogged with the wet sod that they always took with each shot.  Those bags must have weighed at least 40 lbs. each – the weight of a well-packed suitcase.

So, in addition to catching up to the few balls that landed in the fairway, most of my work was finding balls in the deep rough, in the woods, or in the water.  And these guys were stubborn.  Each stroke of the 100 or more they took to get around was important, and no one was willing to give up on a ball and take an extra stroke unless they had looked for a good fifteen minutes. 

“Didja see where it went?”, said Tortolani after his ball had banged and ricocheted in the woods by the 14th.

“Nope”, said Squillacote, “but it’s got to be there someplace”.  Following the etiquette of golf, the foursome plus the two caddies started the search.  Finding a ball under these conditions was nearly impossible.  There was a different sound to a ball hitting different trees – pine sounded different from oak, for example, due to the softness or hardness of the wood; but when the ball knocked three or four different trees, it was hard to pinpoint; and the ground cover of the New England woods was always thick and soft with pine needles, dead leaves  and twigs. 

“Well, guess you gotta take a stroke”, said Grasso, starting to walk towards the fairway.

“OK, just a few minutes more”, echoed Tortolani from deep in the woods.  Not even one of his impressive high and spinning shanks would never have made it that far; but we could hear him hacking away, clearing brush like a ranch hand.  The other golfers gave a few, final, desultory pushes at some low bushes and gave up.

“Better play it safe”, said Grasso to Pozzi as he lined up his tee shot, practice swinging his driver like a shillelagh.  “Use an iron.  Lay it up”.

“Nah”, replied Pozzi. “I can make it”.

What he meant was that he was sure that he could drive the ball over and past the brook that crossed the 15th fairway.  If you laid up, using a long iron, you had an easy five iron to the green.  If you drove it past the brook like the pros, you had an easier chip or at worst a nine-iron.  Either way, it was never worth the risk of hitting it in the water.  But these were not pros, not even good golfers.  They were duffers; and they all had a wildly exaggerated vision of what they could do.  The water hazard on the 15th was the duffer’s challenge.  Getting across it looked so easy.  The fairway at that point was wide and inviting.  You could hook or slice and still be in the fairway once you crossed the brook.

For once Pozzi’s drive went high and straight and did not hook or slice.  It was probably the best-hit ball of the round.  “Way to go, baby”, shouted Grasso as he admired the swing, and the high arc of the ball.  Nevertheless and inevitably, as the ball lost its upward momentum and started its drop to earth, it fell directly towards the brook.  “Come on baby”, shouted Pozzi.  “Give Daddy a break”; but the ball mercilessly dropped into the water. 

Despite the pocketful of Titleists in his bag, Pozzi insisted on dragging for his ball.  He got out his new, but well-used telescope scooper and headed straight for the point where we all saw the ball drop.  “Gotta calculate for drift and current”, advised Grasso.  “Go downstream.”  The brook was clear and fast-running.  It babbled and crested over the rocks and stones, and went on its way down to Martha’s Pond a few holes up-course.  By the time the golfers got to the brook the ball certainly had made its way many hundred feet from the point of impact.  None of this deterred Pozzi, and again, given the rules of golf etiquette, we all poked around the reeds and bulrushes to take a desultory look. 

Pozzi, like Tortolani in the woods on the previous hole, strayed far from the rest of us, so far that we had to holler to get his attention.  He kept expanding the telescope handle of the scooper to reach far into the stream.  Nothing.  Not even other golfers’ balls, for they too had made their way down to Martha’s Pond where the local kids just waited for them, and sold them at 25 cents apiece (1960 prices) at the 18th hole.

Putting was another drama.  The standard rule of golf on a Par 4 was on in two and two putts; but none of this foursome had ever made two putts in many summers unless by some freak of the golf gods, one of their errant iron shots had made it to the hole.  They always misread putts, going to the high side of the hole when the low side was called for.  They hit their putts with the power of a croquet send when a tap was required; and they piddled their ball in four putts when one confident shot would have done the trick.

Of course they did the pro thing, and lined up their putts forever, crouching at the green’s edge, shielding their eyes, squinting down the tunnel vision to the hole.  They would get up and get a line from the other side of the green, careful not to score the path of the other golfers’ balls with their cleats.  Then came the wiggling and waggling over the ball, the same up and down jerking of the head from ball to hole, the same shaking and wiggling of the legs; and the final moment of truth – the badly struck, errant, wild putt.

I loved to caddy, especially for this foursome.  Despite the extra miles (for which I was tipped handsomely), it was one hilarious four hours on a beautiful golf course in a perfect setting.  I never learned to play golf well.  How could I have, caddying for these duffers? Mainly it was because I never had the temperament to play golf well.  To have patience, to forget the bad shots and concentrate on the next, to master the seeming hundreds of factors that went into the perfect swing.  I preferred to watch, to laugh, and to enjoy the camaraderie of my duffers.

Tennessee Williams Maggie the Cat - A Shakespearean Woman


I have written (From my blog Shakespeare’s and Tennessee Williams’ Women) before about the women in Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams and expressed my admiration for Shakespeare:

Shakespeare’s women were all subservient to men and in today’s lingo “second class citizens”, but all of them understood that they could achieve great power within this system.  They schemed, they fought, they protected their interests and especially those of their children.  In other words, it is hard to have sympathy for the wilting and shrinking violets of Williams when the women of Shakespeare were heroic.  Think of Margaret who fought for the instatement of her son to the throne of England, despite the machinations of her weak husband, Henry VI.  Think about the mother of Richard III and Edward IV who was strong and outspoken in her virulent condemnation of Richard.  Think of the mother of Elizabeth, the wife of Edward IV; or the mother of the murdered (by Richard) Henry VI.  Think of Cleopatra; Portia, the wife of Julius Caesar; Lady Macbeth; Goneril and Regan; and perhaps especially Cordelia who mounts an armed invasion to vindicate her father although he has spurned her.  And then there is Joan of Arc, La Pucelle.  The list goes on.  These women were all born, raised, reared in a “repressive” society and rather than wilt under its repression, thrived under it.  Whether they were successful or not, they were undaunted in their aims.

Maggie the Cat, heroine of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is very Shakespearean and unlike any of the “wilting and shrinking violets” of Williams.  She embodies not only the ambition of  the above-cited women, but of the men in Shakespeare as well – especially Richard III; but also Iago, Edmund, and Aaron the Moor.  These characters all reflect the philosophy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, characters endowed with an indomitable will to succeed, to overreach beyond the constraints of conventional morality. 

Maggie, in Williams’ own words, is obsessively in love with Brick and will do anything to keep him; and, like her Shakespearean counterparts, eliminated all competition.  By forcing the homosexual, but conflicted Skipper into a sexual encounter she knows he will not be able to complete, he commits suicide, presumably because of the final recognition of the sexual reality he has been trying to hide; and by Brick who, in his own sexual confusion, rejects his close friend.

In a lengthy speech of justification, [Maggie] describes how she ended the dream by confronting Skipper about his homosexual love for Brick, "telling him the truth," which ultimately destroyed him.  It was … she recalls, Skipper's "pitiful, ineffectual little attempt to prove that what I had said wasn't true". Brick's response to this is violent. He twice attempts to strike his wife and finally "hurls his crutch at her" in an impotent rage and ends up sprawled on the floor. Kenneth Elliot 2010

Despite Maggie’s revelation and the fact that she has been the principal catalyst for Skipper’s death, Maggie continues in her obsessive love of Brick, and in the final act locks up the liquor cabinet of her alcoholic husband, and blackmails him into sleeping with her and resuming their married life.

Much has been written about Brick’s suffering and pain, his nobility and the noble, pure, friendship he had with Skipper, about his conflicts, his moral angst about mendacity and the ways of the world, but in reality he is a weak, indecisive, crippled person just as his friend Skipper was.  Even in an era of sexual repression, revelation of a fact that must have been obvious to him, should not have been cause for Skipper’s suicide.  Williams does not explore the nature of Skipper, and he is used as an unseen vehicle to propel the action of the play; but we have to assume that a more normal, health individual – homosexual or straight – would not have been driven to such despair.  Skipper must have been imbalanced, unable to deal with reality, and weak.

Brick is a frustrating character.  Throughout the play, he thumps on the stage with his cast and crutch, drinking, or looking for a drink, and offering cynical comments about life, mendacity, and responsibility.  Yet, he does nothing.  What is noble about this kind of whining suffering, this search of the elusive ‘click’ which is no more than a desire for alcoholic oblivion?  What is noble or strong about his capitulation to Maggie. “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was true?”, he says in response to her “I do love you, Brick.  I do!”

Maggie, on the other hand, never wavers, and although her success – reinstating her marriage with a weak, romantic, drunkard – is slight compared with Shakespearean heroines, she at least has will, desire, and singular vision.  In away, she is similar to another of my favorite Williams’ women – Maxine of Night of the Iguana.  Both women are earthily sensual, strongly heterosexual, and direct and clear in the purpose of claiming the men they love.  Again, in the case of Maxine, it is not clear why she wants to reclaim a broken-down, defrocked, weak whisky priest; but she does and triumphs in the end.  I also like Mrs. Venable, the smothering and destructive mother of Sebastian in Suddenly Last Summer for the same reasons of singularity of purpose, will, and control.

There are a few strong men in Williams’ plays and attractive for their villainy – like Jake in 47 Wagons of Cotton; or Jabe in Orpheus Descending – and a few more with some allure, such as Val in Orpheus, the unseen Rosario, Serafina’s husband in Rose Tattoo; or the much more developed, but still inconsistent Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth; or Williams’ favorite, Big Daddy, in Cat who is less a dominant male character than a caricature of one; but a strong, male one nevertheless, and a refreshing presence in Williams’s world of ambiguous and weak men.

I prefer Shakespeare because of its balance of men and women, especially in the Histories where both are strong.  Both are important.  Both are decisive and focused.  Both are vying for power in their own ways within the social context of the times.  The balance is often undone in the Tragedies – Antony and Cleopatra seem equal but ultimately are not.  The women in King Lear are as strong or stronger than the men (not Lear himself, but Edmund, Edgar, Gloucester, Albany and Cornwall, Kent).  Lady Macbeth is stronger than her husband, but the tables turn.  Gertrude is the equal of her husbands and stronger than her son, Hamlet. 

I have liked the lyricism of Tennessee Williams.  Zhang Min has eloquently described the best of this lyricism as arias – individual flights of beauty and fantasy marginally connected to plot and movement.  I have liked the sets, the symbols, and the coherence of all elements of the plays.  But I do not like the characters, do not identify with their conflicts and crises.  After three months of immersion into the works of Tennessee Williams, criticism, and personal acquaintances (men and women who knew Williams), I vastly prefer Shakespeare.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Hedda Gabler, Tennessee Williams, and Shakespeare


As I have written in a previous blog (Shakespeare’s and Tennessee Williams’ Women), I have been immersed in Tennessee Williams for the last three months or so in preparation for the Centennial Festival of his birth here in Columbus, Mississippi.  I have loved his women for their delicacy, frailty, and sensibility.  Williams has said that these delicate women had strength and courage – Amanda for her efforts to keep her family together; Laura for her foray into the threatening outside world; Blanche for her battle of wills with Stanley; Alma for her struggles to break out of the world which has been defined for her; but I always think of them as frail, struggling with their idealism (Amanda) or mental weakness (Blanche, Alma, Laura ) and ultimately failing. 

Williams has, of course, created more classically strong women – Maggie the Cat is the most notable in her obsessive, manipulative love for Brick – but I like her less because they fall far from my theatrical ideal of the aggressive, compulsive women in Shakespeare who accepted their socially inferior role in life and in the palace, but who used every bit of intelligence, wiles, cunning, deception, and duplicity to get what they wanted.  In fact, there is no reason why women should be classified in their own sexual category.  Goneril and Regan, my Nietzschian heros as “evil” as Richard III, Aaron the Moor, Iago, or Edmund (or Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, the ur-villain who inspired Shakespeare), are certainly the equal of their male counterparts in their ruthless, amoral, and ceaseless pursuits of power.

As I have also written, I re-read Chekhov’s Three Sisters because it was such an influence on Williams (as well as The Seagull, which he adapted).  The women in this play were not so much weak or debilitated by their fantasies and inability to cope with the real world; but unable to act to effect changes in what they clearly saw were the constraints on their intellect, spirit, and independence.  While they could have made dramatic changes – like return to the Moscow which had become their ideal – they did not.  Irina does make an attempt – she agrees to marry an older, spiritless man in her hope to change her life; but he is killed in a senseless duel.

Ibsen, however, more or less a contemporary of Chekhov, gave his female characters strength and will.  Nora, in A Doll’s House finally overcomes her reticence, frustration, and strict notions of society and propriety to leave Helmer; but it is Hedda Gabler in the play of that name that rises to my ideal of evil stardom.  She is a true Nietzschian character – “For once in my life”, she says, “I want the power to shape a human destiny” –and she goes through any means to attain her goal.  Lovborg is her project.  Although Mrs. Elvsted has recognized Lovborg’s genius and devoted herself to reforming him from his profligate ways to restore his talents, Hedda has a much more insidious plan in mind.  When she realizes that she cannot take credit, as Mrs. Elvsted has rightly done, for Lovborg’s new book of revolutionary ideas, she decides she must destroy Mrs. Elvsted in a spiteful, hateful and disgraceful way:

HEDDA: (She throws part of the manuscript [Lovborg’s new book] in the fire and whispers to herself): Your child, Thea – your child and Ejlert Lovborg’s.  Darling little Thea, with the curly hair. (Throws more of the manuscript into the stove). I’m burning your child, Thea. (Throws in the rest of the manuscript).  I’m burning it – burning it -

In doing this she quite realizes that hopes of positively influencing the destiny of Lovborg (“vines in his hair” for glory based on his book), she becomes focussed on destroying him, but gloriously.  She gives him one of her pistols to honorably end his life.  He botches the affair, associates himself with a local prostitute in so doing, and ends whatever dreams of power Hedda has (One thinks of the botched suicides in Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, so we can’t be too harsh).   Hedda is quickly found out by Judge Brack who blackmails her about the ownership of the pistols, and Hedda replies:

That means you have me in your power, Judge.  You have me at your beck and call from now on.

She kills herself – shoots herself in the temple, in her way, a death and a statement.

Hedda’s plotting was a bit dodgy.  How could she not have thought about the incriminating evidence of the pistols; or perhaps figured out some way of using the recovered manuscript as an instrument of power?  She changed strategies in mid-stream – at first she thought she would be seen as the power behind Lovborg, and when that changed, she became arch-villainess.  I don’t hold this against her, or rather Ibsen.  He has created a woman beyond good and evil, and one of the more interesting characters in Scandinavian theatre.

In many ways, Hedda Gabler brought me full circle to Shakespeare’s Histories after this long interlude with Tennessee Williams.  Williams and I are too different, I suspect, in our sensibilities and outlook to have connected.  I love what Jan Kott has called The Grand Mechanism of the Histories – the unstoppable movement of events that are moved by power, greed, aggression, she-bear protection, and the abandonment of morality for personal gain.   Tennessee Williams is writing of a different environment.  The world is threatening and qualitatively worse than the inner worlds created by his characters.  For Shakespeare the world simply is, and it is the stage on which his players act.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ and Tennessee Williams


Tennessee Williams admired Anton Chekhov more than any other playwright, and when asked who were the three writers he admired most, he said “Chekhov, Chekhov, Chekhov”.  Williams is best known for his adaptation of THE SEAGULL (Notebook of Trigorin), but he also expressed admiration for Three Sisters, and I will therefore look at this play and the work of Williams, using the comments of three critics (especially Borny) as points of departure.

Juan Zhao gives a general summary of the influence of Chekhov on Williams:

Among his [Chekhov’s] innovations were his economical husbanding of narrative resources, his concentration on character as mood rather than action, his impressionistic adoption of particular points of view, his dispensing with traditional plot, and as Charles May declared in an essay collected in A Chekhov Companion, his use of atmosphere as “an ambiguous mixture of both external details and psychic projection.”

His elegant juxtaposition of the humorous and the tragic, his lonely characters,and his dark sensibilities, was a powerful inspiration for Williams. The newness of Chekhov was his portrayal of daily life and its encompassing crisis. He illustrated how the average person suffers, their imperfections, without making excuses for the characters.  ZHAO, Juan, Vol. 1, No. 3, 2010, pp. 35-38

I think that the ‘ambiguous mixture of both external details and psychic projection’ is of particular interest.  Glass Menagerie is a play in which the external details are very clear, but always indirect.  The threatening, dangerous world of the alley below the apartment and the world beyond is the environment from which Laura withdraws.  The world of Amanda’s idyllic past in Mississippi is frequently evoked and is the backdrop for the smaller world she has created and is trying to preserve in her home.  The psychic projection is related to this context – Amanda is as much in her past world as the present; and Laura with innocence and ignorance projects herself into an outside world of love and normality. 

Williams is a master of creating external, unseen, or past worlds which become part of his plays.  We do not know where Val comes from, or what Serafina’s husband’s life was really like, or the life at Belle Reve, or the real relationship between Brick and Skipper; but we feel we know.  Chekhov in Three Sisters is equally evocative about a life and a past that is largely unseen.  Moscow is like Belle Reve or the past of Amanda.  It is the symbol of culture, elegance, and dignity that the sisters feel they have lost in the provinces.  Taking place at the turn of the century, the play evokes the aristocratic past of the Czars, but also looks forward to the coming Socialist revolution – both are dealt with through the characters of Vershinin who is forward-looking and Tuzenbakh who feels that plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Zhao comments on Chekhov’s portrayal of daily life and how the average person suffers. I don’t agree with this nor with any application to Williams.  The characters in Three Sisters are not ordinary – they are aristocrats or of the haute bourgeoisie and are dealing with very different issues than ‘average’ Russians; and in the cases of Tuzenbakh, Vershinin, and Chebutykin, dealing with philosophical dilemmas.  Williams’ characters are more ‘average’ in an American, practical sense – the families are working class even if some of the characters (Stella, Blanche, Amanda) have a more genteel past – but they are not at all average in their concerns. They are concerned with purity, honesty, integrity, love; and as such are more ‘down to earth’ than Chekhov’s characters; but they still reflect upon and speak about higher values than ordinary citizens.

Alison Christy offers more insight and detail about Chekhov and implicit reference to Williams’ Work:

In his case and that of the sisters, it is their refusal to accept modernity that leads to their suffering. By their resistance toward them, scientific advancements do have an effect on their lives.

Williams was very concerned about modernity and considered it a threat, and a factor in the degradation of life – at least the idyllic life he envisages in his plays, one reminiscent of his childhood in Mississippi before he moved to St. Louis.   However, Chekhov in Three Sisters, offers three different views of the issue.  Vershinin is the optimist, adopted by the Soviets as seeing the improvement if not perfectibility of man.  Tuzenbach is the realist/pessimist, believing that while there will be changes in the future, the basic unhappy lot of man will not change.  Chebutykin is the pessimist/defeatist/Existentialist believing that there is no meaning to life.  To quote Hobbes:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short Leviathan XIII "Chapter XIII.: Of the Natural Condition of Mankind As Concerning Their Felicity, and Misery."

It appears that Vershinin speaks for Chekhov in his optimism, but this interpretation is by no means clear, given the compelling passages of other characters. 

Christy comments that the characters in Three Sisters do not accept modernity, and this refusal results in inertia and ennui.  They are the practical counterpoints to the more philosophical men, described above.  The sisters have longings, frustrations, and dreams that are very much like Tennessee Williams’ women; but one cannot say that they reject modernity.  They simply have an idealized and idealistic view of the past.  It is the men who take philosophical sides on modernity.

In this sense, I do see a strong similarity between the women of Williams and Chekhov.  Again, Christy:

The characters [Three Sisters] also resist accepting the present. The play begins with Olga remarking, “It’s a year ago today that Father died” (259). She continues to detail the day of their father’s death. She remembers everything from the weather to what Irina was wearing. Olga and her sisters have fear of forgetting as time moves forward. When Tuzenbach arrives, he tells the sisters that he knew their mother. Masha replies, “I’m forgetting what she looked like. The same thing will happen to us. Nobody will remember us” (267). The sisters see time as a threat to their memory, the sacred place that holds their memories of Moscow and their parents. The looming threat of forgetting and being forgotten continues to the end of the play

The theme, in this case, is that refusal to accept modernity results in inertia and ennui. The Prozorov sisters often speak about returning to their beloved Moscow. They desire it and they have the means and social connections to do it, but they do not do it. The question is not what is keeping them in the provinces but, rather, what is keeping them from Moscow. The answer is to be found in the city itself, a place that the sisters left eleven years before. Three Sisters: Chekhov’s Warning
Alison Christy 2009

Geoffrey Borny echoes Christy in his observation about time, the wasting of time, and the resulting absurdity of the lives of Chekhov’s characters.  There is no such philosophical reflection on time in Tennessee Williams; and it is depicted principally as times past (Belle Reve and the loss of past idylls), time passing (the loss of youth and opportunity), and a looming sense of a threatening future.  Time provides an important context for the plays, but is not discussed per se as it is in Chekhov.

Chekhov’s world….is deeply embedded in chronological time. His audiences are shown characters who are quite literally ‘wasting their time’. As I argued earlier, Chekhov’s play does not depict a world in which there is nothing to be done, but one in which ‘no one is doing anything’. Through their own inertia and passivity, the characters in Three Sisters make their lives absurd. They may abdicate their responsibility for action and even see themselves as ‘Beckettian’ fated characters…

However, Borny goes on to note:

…but this is not what the overall action of Chekhov’s play depicts. Chekhov employs the idea of time passing as a warning and, in this, is closer to Andrew Marvell’s concept of time than Beckett’s. Marvell was acutely aware of how short a time human beings have on earth and so wished to avoid wasting it.

This is indeed what Williams was writing about.

Borny goes on to say:

The play [Three Sisters] discloses a world in which people are lost … The active theme of the play is how people cope with failure, either by constructing fantasies of a future happiness, or withdrawing into cynicism, or by trying to pretend that all is well … There needs to be in performance too, an emotional danger, and a sense of a desolate emotional landscape…..Mike Alfreds’ ‘reactionary’ interpretation of Three Sisters delivered the clear message to the audience that hopelessness was the core feature of the human condition and that, as one reviewer put it, ‘Chekhov is really writing about the illusion of happiness, the absurdity of our quest for it’

I think this is very telling and appropriate for an interpretation of Williams.  Many of his characters are indeed ‘lost’, and do ‘construct fantasies of future happiness’ and do ‘withdraw’ (although not in cynicism); and yes, Williams also writes about ‘the illusion of happiness’, but not, in my opinion ‘the absurdity of our quest for it’.  I think that the quest for happiness, often if not always thwarted, does not deny the value of the quest.  Laura is deceived, disappointed with the outside world, so her quest is denied; and she returns to her narrow fantasy world; but in a way this disappointment has simply reinforced the fantasy world in which she lives.  Was this a totally bad outcome?  I don’t think so.

Borny writes about the influence of outside factors and that ‘human beings are as chess pawns in the hands of invisible players’.  While there are chance happenings in Williams plays – Val comes on the scene, a gentleman caller finally shows up at Laura’s house, Alvaro appears to Serafina – these are the chance happenings that occur all the time.  There is no sense of predetermination or destiny in their appearances:

The events of the play crept along even as life itself during this epoch, in a tired sort of way, without any visible logic. Human beings acted under the influence of chance happenings; they did nothing to build their own lives. Here is the substance of his first act: a birthday party, the spring, gaiety, birds singing, bright sunshine. And of the second act: triviality gradually takes into its hands the power over the sensitive, nobly inclined human beings. Of the third act: a conflagration in the neighbourhood, the entire street is aflame; the power of triviality grows intenser, human beings somehow flounder in their experiences. The fourth act: autumn, the collapse of all hopes, the triumph of triviality. Human beings are as chess pawns in the hands of invisible players. The absurd and the pathetic, the noble and the worthless, the intelligent and the stupid, are all interwoven

Certainly, the play continues the exploration of life as a constant struggle between hope and despair that had been so movingly dramatised in Uncle Vanya. It is easy to see why the tragic theme of loss and waste can easily overwhelm the theme of faith in a better future and lead directors to interpret the play as a lament. It remains important however to constantly attempt to present a balance between the darker and brighter elements of the play.  INTERPRETING CHEKHOV, GEOFFREY BORNY 2006