Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

A Play’s Reach Should Exceed its Grasp: A Commentary by Luke Wronski

September 17th, 2010 · 2 Comments

As a class, we have seen three very different plays during our time here in London, and tonight, I was finally satiated with The Habit of Art.  Before starting another heated argument equal to me being the only student on the program that enjoyed Mrs. Dalloway, I would immediately agree with all the primary critiques.  The play was indulgent.  The play-within-a-play theme did not really do much at all for the work as a whole except insert a few quick laughs.  The first act really tested my patience with the playwright.  However, after intermission, things changed.  Ideas became more fully developed and more ideas were brought forth.  Alan Bennett seemed to gain more control over his thoughts and presented them more clearly to the audience.  And, perhaps the most essential thing that occurred in the play’s latter half, it started to make sense.  When the play ended, not all the Quallms mentioned above were resolved; but, I kept thinking about the second set of qualities to the play and I was thoroughly intrigued, even if I did not have many clear answers.

The Habit of Art differs greatly from the other plays in that it tries very hard to achieve very difficult and complex goals and, ultimately, it misses.  But, it does not miss by much, and its attempt is an admirable one.  In The Merry Wives of Windsor and The 39 Steps we see the opposite.  Simple and clever ideas performed to their maximum potential in skilled productions with experienced actors in their own rights.  However, given the choice between the contrasting types of plays, I invariably side with the former.  I heartily enjoyed Merry Wives and found 39 Steps to be adequate; but, I feel that after watching The Habit of Art, I walked home with more than chuckles.   I’ll explain my reasoning.

Merry Wives easily comes in as my number two, but there are several factors that prevented it from claiming my top spot.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Shakespeare (I’m practically majoring in Shakespeare), but let’s be honest, Merry Wives is not one of Bill’s best works.  Merry Wives was conceived by Shakespeare after Queen Elizabeth asked the poet himself to write another play featuring the most popular Shakespearean character of his time, Falstaff.  This explains why the knight, known for his hilarious appearances in Shakespeare’s medieval histories (Henry IV I& II), is present in a play about contemporary Elizabethan Windsor aristocracy, about two hundred years later.  (Also, in my opinion, the popularity of Falstaff also explains why Henry IV part II was written, after pretty much every event of consequence had already occurred in Part I).  Merry Wives was written as another opportunity for Elizabethan playgoers to see their favourite debauched knight get into more hilarious hijiniks.  The play is decidedly funny, but ultimately lacks the substance along with the laughs typical of Shakespeare’s comedies and later romances.  What seems to me to be an even greater marvel of Merry Wives is trying to gauge the ease in which Shakespeare churned out this comedy, a product of popular demand.  Its plots, characters and laughs are all fresh and full of comic zeal, even if lacking that extra bit more.  Merry Wives is more along the lines of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies (think Comedy of Errors), but what I was really looking for in the course was The Winter’s Tale.

39 Steps treads along slightly different lines than Merry Wives.  It is not so much an effortless product of a brilliant playwright, as it is one simple, very clever idea executed to perfection.  Just the sheer thought of it:  a famous Hitchcock film, performed by a cast of four and played for slapstick laughs is a masterstroke.  However, the West End has seen this all before.  Many productions prove the point that, on the West End, a clever idea can be turned into a long-running hit that makes a lot of money.  You know, it reminds me … there’s this quote about cleverness … but, I forget what it is.  39 Steps was very crisply performed and played for maximum laughs, but I think that slapstick comedy falls on deaf ears after awhile.  I would suspect if we went to a production of similar character the very next night, it would not only diminish our collective opinion of the latter, but of the former as well.  39 Steps was funny, enthusiastic, but formulaic.  In my opinion, John Buchan, the playwright of 39 Steps, did not so much succeed in matching witty dialogue to an idea with potential as he did just not mess up a funny premise with the potential to be converted into a West End mega cash cow.  For me, I was looking for a play with a bit more.

The Habit of Art gave me that extra bit more, even without ignoring its problematic elements.  What excited me about that production were simply the play’s ideas.  The Habit of Art was full of them.  Ideas about Auden, about Britten, about the two of them.  Ideas about history, about remembering the great artists and about the people close to them that were forgotten.  Allegories to the aforementioned themes of greatness in the arts and the theatre may have surfaced amidst a puddle of murky water; but, in the end, they were drawn clearly enough to identify and appreciate.  Alan Bennett has not written a flaw-free play by any stretch of imagination, but he has thought long and hard, and presented those ideas to us adequately.  This is why I praise Bennett’s play; it has substance.  When I left the theatre (among other people leaving the theatre was Sir Ian McKellan … just saying) I thought about Bennett’s various arguments, as a I do now, and that is really why I go to see plays.  I view the theatre as a forum for one playwright’s insight on human nature, not as a source of diversion similar to television and film.  It is in this sense where The Habit of Art exceeds the others.  But enough of my pretension.  Basically, I agree with the saying (and this quote I do know) “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”  I feel that a play that nearly misses on something complex and intricate is more admirable (and in my opinion, more enjoyable) than a play that succeeds in its modest goals.  The Habit of Art (and Mrs. Dalloway) gave that to me and that is why I praise the production as my favourite among the trio and esteem it above the others.

Tags: 2010 Luke

I <3 London

September 17th, 2010 · 4 Comments

I went souvenir shopping recently on Oxford Street. Just like the streets of other major cities I’ve been to, there were shops and shops selling similar merch

andise boasting London’s places of interest and culture. The classic I <3 [enter city’s name here] shirts lined the walls of these stores. There were hats and sweatshirts, along with underwear and key chains. The shelves were lined with little figurines of London’s attractions. I bought my girlfriend a snow-globe with the London Eye, Tower Bridge, Big Ben, a red double-decker bus, and a red telephone booth inside of it. As I was in bed the other night, I looked over at it and I started to think…

What would New York have in it’s snow-globe? What about Chicago? Even cities like Athens, what would these places put inside to represent themselves? I could only think of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State building, and a yellow taxi for New York. Chicago would have the Sears Tower of course, and Athens would include the Acropolis. The fact is, London has many more recognizable places of interest and cultural emblems than any other city I can think of. This snow-globe I gave to my girlfriend could included only a few of the spots.

Because of its long history, London has been able to accumulate these over its existence. Just looking at the snow-globe, there are different eras of London’s history right inside of it. Big Ben, though there was a tower on the site since 1288, was raised in 1834. Tower Bridge was opened in 1894 to satisfy the increase in commerce in the East End. The red telephone booth, actually called a telephone box, was first introduced to the city in 1920 and the red bus has been a stable to the city since the early 1950s. And then there is the London Eye, which is extremely modern, in 1999, when it becoming the tallest ferris wheel in the world until 2006. Though the figures inside the glob are random, it shows how the city embraces all of its cultural icons. I’m sure that if the Roman walls were still standing, they would be included inside.

So, what would you put in your snow-globe? I would put the Tower of London, Westminster Abby, the Millennium Bridge, and I’d probably keep Big Ben in there too. I’d probably throw in a royal guard with that large black hat as well. London doesn’t make it easy to choose, but we all have our favorites.

Tags: 2010 David · Uncategorized

William, Winston, and Wayne: Meditations on Fame

September 17th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Dave Chappelle has an old routine where he talks about President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky: “I always wondered what it would be like to be that famous. Monica has a book out now, which made me think that nobody has a pickup line that good: ‘Sleep with me, there’s a future in it!’” Likewise, there are many writers whose work remains immortal. But only one is that famous that his childhood home is simply referred to as “The Birthplace”: William Shakespeare. It was cool to visit the place where Shakespeare (or, as one of the worst lyrics in the history of music refer to him, the guy who “wrote a whole bunch of sonnets”) was born and is buried. Nobody calls it Stratford, though. It’s always, in hushed tones, “The Birthplace.”

After a mere twenty days here, I can’t pretend to have a great feel for the national psyche of the Brits. But it seems that they have a special place in their hearts and minds for heroes. Other than Shakespeare, I’ve obliquely encountered two more people with massive social status in Britain: Winston Churchill and Wayne Rooney. A large group of us visited the Churchill Museum, which contains the Cabinet War Rooms that housed the British war effort during the Blitz. Despite the fact that Churchill was voted out of office nearly the second the war ended, he is treated as a demigod, repeatedly referred to (and we’ve heard this in other places as well) as “Britain’s greatest war leader.” A bold statement for a country that has been in many, many wars in its two millennia of existence. And then there’s Mr. Rooney. Just as we arrived, he found himself in the throes of a prostitution scandal. It did not help his cause that he employed said prostitute the night before he was to marry his pregnant wife Coleen, nor that he reportedly texted Coleen once she found out that it was “no big deal.” It seems easy to compare this case to that of Tiger Woods, but the difference here is that the mainstream papers (and not just tabloids) have relentlessly covered the case. And that’s the problem with heroes, in England, in America, or anywhere: they’re human, and when you find out, it’s a disaster.

Tags: 2010 Dennis