Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Hamlet

Shakespeare and the art of revision

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a piece from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on April 22, 2016.

When we think of William Shakespeare, we don’t tend to see him as an author who meticulously revised his work. His reputation as a prodigy of nature, pouring out raw poetry onto the page, owes a lot to Ben Jonson’s short reminiscence of his friend, which is still the most valuable portrait we have of how Shakespeare seemed to those who knew him best:

I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped…His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too…But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.

And even Shakespeare’s admirers admit that his sheer imaginative fertility—the greatest of any writer who ever lived—led him to produce bad lines as well as good, often side by side. (My favorite example is the last stanza of “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” I don’t think it’s possible to read “For these dead birds sigh a prayer” as anything other than one of the worst lines of poetry ever written.)

But he did revise, both on the overarching levels of character and theme and on the level of the individual line. Harold Bloom, among others, has advanced the ingenious theory that the lost Ur-Hamlet, which we know only through offhand references by contemporaries, was nothing less than an early draft by the young Shakespeare himself. We know that it wasn’t particularly good: the author Thomas Lodge refers to the king’s ghost crying “Hamlet, revenge!” in a way that implies that it became a running joke among theatergoers. But the idea that Shakespeare went back and revised it so many years later is inherently revealing. We know that the story was personally meaningful to him—he named his own son after Hamlet—and that the lost version would have been one of the first plays he ever wrote. And Hamlet itself, when we read it in this light, looks a lot like a play that found its final form through repeated acts of revision. F. Scott Fitzgerald once called himself a “taker-outer,” while his friend Thomas Wolfe was a “putter-inner,” which prompted Wolfe to reply:

You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.

And Hamlet stands as the one instance in which Shakespeare, while revising the first draft, put in everything he wanted, even if the result was close to unplayable on stage.

Timon of Athens

There’s an even more compelling glimpse of Shakespeare the reviser, and it comes in the unlikely form of Timon of Athens, which, by all measure, was the weirdest play he ever wrote. Scholars have attributed its stranger qualities—the loose ends, the characters who are introduced only to disappear for no reason—to a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, and textual analysis seems to bear this out. But it also looks like a rough draft that Shakespeare never had a chance to revise, and if we take it as a kind of snapshot of his creative process, it’s a document of unbelievable importance. In the speech by the servant that I’ve reproduced above, you can see that it starts out as prose, then shifts halfway through to verse, a peculiar transition that occurs repeatedly in Timon but has few parallels in the other plays. This suggests that Shakespeare began by roughing out large sections of the play in prose form, and then went back to convert it into poetry. Timon just happens to be the one play in which the process of revision was interrupted, leaving the work in an unfinished state. It implies that Shakespeare’s approach wasn’t so different from the one that I’ve advocated here in the past: you write an entire first draft before going back to polish it, just as a painter might do a sketch or cartoon of the whole canvas before drilling down to the fine details. It isn’t until you’ve written a story that you know what it’s really about. And the little that we know about Shakespeare’s methods seems to confirm that he followed this approach.

But his revisions didn’t end there, either. These plays were meant for performance, and like all theatrical works, they evolved in response to rehearsals, the needs of the actors, and the reactions of the audience. (The natural fluidity of the text on the stage goes a long way toward explaining why certain plays, like King Lear, exist in radically different versions in folio or quarto form. Some scholars seem bewildered by the fact that Shakespeare could be so indifferent to his own work that he didn’t bother to finalize a definitive version of Lear, but it may not have even struck him as a problem. The plays took different shapes in response to the needs of the moment, and Shakespeare, the ultimate pragmatist, knew that there was always more where that came from.) And the idea of ongoing revision is inseparable from his conception of the world. Bloom famously talks about Shakespearean characters “overhearing” themselves, which lies at the center of his imaginative achievement: figures like Richard II and Hamlet seem to listen to themselves speaking, and they evolve and deepen before our eyes in response to what they hear in their own words. But what Bloom calls “the depiction of self-change on the basis of self-overhearing” is a lesson that could only have come out of the revision process, in which the writer figures out his own feelings through the act of rewriting. As E.M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Shakespeare knew this, too. And thanks to his work—and his revisions—we can echo it in our own lives: “How can we know who we are until we hear what we think?”

Written by nevalalee

September 1, 2017 at 8:03 am

“Now show me something else…”

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Richard Burton in Hamlet

In 1964, John Gielgud directed Richard Burton in a famous stage production of Hamlet, in a collaboration that inspired intense interest, record box office, and mixed reviews. (The story goes that Burton and Peter O’Toole had agreed that they should each play Hamlet under the direction of either Gielgud or Laurence Olivier, with a coin toss deciding who ended up with whom.) In the book John Gielgud: A Celebration, we hear of a surprising piece of advice that the director gave to his actors:

William Redfield, the actor playing Guildenstern, revealed that he and others in the cast were alarmed to find that Gielgud as a director didn’t concern himself with “the play’s circumstances but only with its effects.” Gielgud quoted his old mentor Harley Granville-Barker to them in an attempt to encourage them to pace, shape, and color their performance rather than relying exclusively on circumstance and absolute psychological truth. “Granville-Barker once said to me, ‘You’ve already shown me that—now show me something else.’ It was a wonderful direction for me because I tend to be monotonous. After that, I always made sure that each scene I played had a different color, a new shape. Even the lines should change every few moments or so. If I do one line this way, then the next should be that way, and then the next should change and the next. It’s good to keep the audience off balance, you know—always interested—perhaps even a bit confused.”

Gielgud obviously deserves to be taken seriously, but it still comes off as a peculiar piece of direction. It helps, perhaps, to remember the context. In the early sixties, the influence of Brando, Lee Strasberg, and the Method school of acting—which was nothing if not concerned with “circumstance and absolute psychological truth”—was at its peak. What Gielgud is advocating here is a return to the classic British tradition of fakery, in which a few good tricks of voice, gesture, and mannerism go a long way. As Olivier put it: “I’m afraid I do work mostly from the outside in. I usually collect a lot of details, a lot of characteristics, and find a creature swimming about somewhere in the middle of them.” (The two great living masters of this approach are Anthony Hopkins, and, notably, Kevin Spacey, an American who outdoes even his British predecessors when it comes to sheer technical cleverness.) What Gielgud proposes is even more mechanical. In asking that each line reading be a little different from the one before it, he comes precariously close to endorsing the “superficial variety” that the Futurists saw as a feature of the theater of imbeciles:

For instance, to make one act a day, another an evening, another deep night; to make one act pathetic, another anguished, another sublime…Or else have the actors constantly move around from sitting to standing, from right to left, and meanwhile vary the dialogue to make it seem as if a bomb might explode outside at any moment…when actually nothing is going to explode until the end of the act.

Richard Burton and John Gielgud

But it’s important to remember the point of the exercise. Gielgud wants the audience to be “always interested—perhaps even a bit confused,” which is the ideal state for watching a play, particularly Shakespeare. As anyone who has ever seen a bad production of Hamlet can attest, if you aren’t actively engaged by it, all of that rich, overly familiar language has a way of smearing together into one long Elizabethan blur. Gielgud’s approach is designed to keep the audience awake, and also to create the optimum degree of alertness for processing the reversals of the dialogue. Shakespeare uses contradiction as a practical tool: his characters, especially Hamlet, are always questioning and overhearing themselves, and the mood can change drastically within a single line. When Hamlet says “About, my brain!”, he’s only drawing attention to his own rapid twists of emotion and perception. (In many cases, those quick tonal shifts stand for the larger patterns of the drama itself. At the beginning of The Winter’s Tale, when Leontes switches so unexpectedly from warmth toward his wife and friend to icy jealousy, it sets us up for the even greater contrast between the scenes in Sicilia and Bohemia.) But it takes a certain attentiveness for this to register, and Gielgud’s approach amounts to a kind of training for the audience, so that it becomes more aware of the variety in the text itself.

And like all the best theatrical tricks, it ultimately forces the actor and director to go deeper, until they arrive at the same psychological truth that the Method sought from a different direction. Elsewhere, Gielgud listed the essential qualities of a Shakespearean director:

Industry, patience…sensitivity, originality without freakishness, a fastidious ear and eye, some respect for, and knowledge of, tradition, a feeling for music and pictures, color and design: yet in none of these, I believe, should he be too opinionated in his views and tastes. For a theatrical production, at every stage of its preparation, is always changing, unpredictable in its moods and crises.

This kind of flexibility is crucial for finding the truth of a scene, and the remarkable thing about the tonal experimentation that Gielgud encouraged in his actors is that, when honestly pursued, it leads to the exact mindset that he describes above. You can’t be too dogmatic or opinionated when you’ve been conditioned to try something different each time. Not every experiment pays off, but in the process, you’ve turned yourself into a machine for generating variations, and the best ones survive, in a kind of natural selection, to live on in performance. The result, which proceeds from the outside in, looks a lot like what the Method discovered by going from the inside out. And as long as the result is truthful, it doesn’t matter how you got there.

The comedy of survival

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Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Yesterday, I was browsing at a local used bookstore when I stumbled across a copy of The Comedy of Survival by Joseph W. Meeker. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, ever since encountering an extended treatment it in the ecological classic Muddling Toward Frugality, and I’ve even shared an excerpt from it here before. This is the quote that I posted more than four years ago:

Comedy demonstrates that man is durable even though he may be weak, stupid, and undignified. As the tragic hero suffers or dies for his ideals, the comic hero survives without them. At the end of the tale he manages to marry his girl, evade his enemies, slip by the oppressive authorities, avoid drastic punishment, and to stay alive. His victories are all small, but he lives in a world where only small victories are possible…Comedy is careless of morality, goodness, truth, beauty, heroism, and all such abstract values men say they live by. Its only concern is to affirm man’s capacity for survival and to celebrate the continuity of life itself, despite all moralities. Comedy is a celebration, a ritual renewal of biological welfare as it persists in spite of the reasons there may be for metaphysical despair…Comedy muddles through, but seems to care little for such weighty matters as progress and perfection.

And although I wasn’t deliberately looking for Meeker’s book, it seemed like a sign that it happened to fall into my hands when it did. As I read the chapter “The Comic Mode” in its entirety for the first time, it struck me that its message is one that both liberals and conservatives ought to take to heart. Meeker points out that tragedy, as a literary genre, is based on a grandiose view of mankind: it assumes that humanity occupies an exalted place in the scheme of nature, that life comes down to a choice between moral absolutes, and that the perfect hero would destroy himself, his loved ones, and plenty of innocent bystanders rather than stoop to a compromise. Comedy, by contrast, is more concerned with keeping as many people alive as possible, even if we often look ridiculous in the process. The comic hero’s willingness to accommodate himself to the world has affinities to natural selection, which will try anything that works. Yet despite the fact that the tragic mode invariably ends badly for all concerned, there’s something weirdly attractive about heroes like Hamlet or Oedipus, who drag everyone around them down to a universal catastrophe. As Meeker shrewdly observes:

If there were moral philosophers among the lungfishes and peppered moths, [their] innovations would very likely have been condemned as threats to the continuity of tradition, or perhaps as shameful immorality. All admiration would no doubt have been reserved for the heroic fish who would rather die than give up his gills and for the moth who faced his end wearing customary gray.

Jeanne Moreau and Orson Welles in Chimes at Midnight

And this sheds a surprising amount of light on the dynamics of the presidential race. Donald Trump, to put it mildly, is no Hamlet, despite his recent attempt at his own version of the Yorick scene. But he obviously sees himself and his campaign in tragic terms, even as he endlessly predicts his own victory. He claims that he alone can save us, that our salvation lies in the destruction of the old order, and that America needs to be made great again—in a return to the idealized past. And if the result has often been more grotesque than inspiring, Meeker helpfully explains why:

If people generally see themselves in the tragic mode, it is perhaps because it satisfies their vanity and makes their actions seem important. It is gratifying to see oneself as a hero, a great sufferer, a martyr, or an oppressed idealist…But unfortunately, the tragic heroes preserved in literature are the products of metaphysical presuppositions which most people can no longer honestly share…Moderns can only pretend to tragic heroism, and that pretense is painfully hollow and melodramatic in the absence of the beliefs that tragedy depends upon.

This is a perfect description of Trump, a moral pygmy whose attempt to model himself after the great leaders of the past is both farcical and profoundly frightening. He’s laughable, but he isn’t a comic figure. If we know anything about Trump, it’s that he’s a spectacularly humorless man when he’s the butt of the joke. And as his story nears its end, he seems more than willing to invite the kind of catastrophe that accompanies the fall of a hero.

Which doesn’t mean that he’ll get it. If we’re going to find a way forward, regardless of the outcome of this election, we need to take a page from Meeker, who rejects the tragic or apocalyptic in favor of the comic:

Evolution is…a shameful, unscrupulous, opportunistic comedy, the object of which appears to be the proliferation and preservation of as many life forms as possible without regard for anyone’s moral ideas. Successful participants in it are those who remain alive when circumstances change, not those who are best able to destroy competitors and enemies. Its ground rules for participants (including man) are those which also govern literary comedy: organisms must adapt themselves to their circumstances in every possible way, must studiously avoid all-or-nothing choices, must prefer any alternative to death, must accept and encourage maximum diversity, must accommodate themselves to the accidental limitations of birth and environment, and must always prefer love to war—though if warfare is inevitable, it should be prosecuted so as to humble the enemy without destroying him. The events depicted in tragic literature cannot occur if these principles are observed. Comic action follows naturally from them.

Frankly, this sounds a lot like politics—which implies that it requires an actual politician. Luckily, there’s a good one available. And even if her opponent is a tragic hero only in his own imagination, we can still give him the ending that he so richly deserves.

Written by nevalalee

November 8, 2016 at 8:44 am

Hamlet’s birthday

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Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Last year, on my birthday, I wrote a post reflecting on how it felt to turn thirty-five, drawing liberally on The Divine Comedy, which opens when Dante is the same age—or, as he puts it, “When I had journeyed half of our life’s way.” When I look back, the comparison seems even more forced now than it did then, but it came out of a place of real feeling. I was going through a rough period as a writer, after a number of projects had failed to gain traction, and I was thinking more intensely than usual about what might come next. “A human life,” I wrote at the time, “makes a pattern that none of us can predict. And even as we reach the halfway point, its true shape may only be beginning.” When I typed those words, there was an element of wishful thinking involved, but they turned out to be more true than I could have guessed. Today, I’m working on a book that I couldn’t possibly have anticipated a year ago, and I’m already feeling the impact. In startup jargon, it was a career pivot, or a course correction, and although it emerged naturally from my background and interests, it still took me by surprise. In all likelihood, Astounding will turn out to be the most interesting book I’ve ever written, or ever will, which means that when I wrote that birthday post, I was on the verge of providing an inadvertent case study of how even the most considered plan can continue to generate surprises long after you think its outlines have been fixed. Which, I suppose, is what Dante was saying all along.

It might seem strange to use the age of a literary character as a benchmark for evaluating your own life, but it’s no weirder than measuring yourself against peers your own age or, ugh, even younger, which all writers inevitably do. (My favorite observation on the subject comes courtesy of Tom Lehrer: “It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.”) And it isn’t just Dante who inspires this kind of reflection. You can hear an echo of it in the trendy notion of “the Jesus year,” which, if anything, is even more pretentious. Most intriguing of all is the case of Hamlet, whose age is as vague as Dante’s is precise. In the first four acts of the play that bears his name, Hamlet strikes us, as Harold Bloom puts it, as “a young man of about twenty or less,” which squares neatly with the fact that he’s a student at Wittenberg University. Yet in Act V, the gravedigger explicitly says that the prince is thirty. This has been explained away as a mistake in the text or an artifact of Shakespeare’s repeated revisions, which overlooks how psychologically and dramatically sound it is: the Hamlet of the last act seems far wiser and more mature than the one we’ve met before, and I actually prefer the joke theory that he somehow ages a decade or more in his brief trip overseas. Hamlet has undergone a dramatic change in his absence, and his illogical increase in age is a subliminal clue as to how we’re supposed to perceive his transformation.

Illustration by Gustave Doré for Dante's Inferno

And that curious fusion of the twenty- and thirty-year-old versions of the prince hints at one of the most unforgettable qualities of his character, even as it also explains why the actors with the ability to play him tend to be closer to forty. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom notes that “no one else in all Shakespeare seems potentially so free as the crown prince of Denmark,” and he goes on to list a few of the possibilities:

There is a bewildering range of freedoms available to Hamlet: he could marry Ophelia, ascend to the throne after Claudius if waiting was bearable, cut Claudius down at almost any time, leave for Wittenberg without permission, organize a coup (being the favorite of the people), or even devote himself to botching plays for the theater. Like his father, he could center upon being a soldier, akin to the younger Fortinbras, or conversely he could turn his superb mind to more organized speculation, philosophical or hermetic, than has been his custom. Ophelia describes him, in her lament for his madness, as having been courtier, soldier, and scholar, the exemplar of form and fashion for all Denmark. If The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is “poem unlimited,” beyond genre and rules, then its protagonist is character unlimited, beyond even such precursors as the biblical David or the classical Brutus. But how much freedom can be afforded Hamlet by a tragic play? What project can be large enough for him?

But that’s how everyone feels at twenty. Or at least it’s how I did. You think you’re capable of anything, and there were times in my twenties when I felt as potentially free as Hamlet at the beginning of the play. But age closes off the number of paths available, one by one, until you’re more like Hamlet at the end: resigned, with equanimity or otherwise, to the role that fate has assigned to you. That’s why Hamlet continues to fascinate us. He’s our greatest image of youthful potential, until he isn’t, which is why he somehow manages to seem both twenty and thirty within the span of a few weeks. Yet that juxtaposition, for all its absurdity, gets at something fundamental in how we all see ourselves: as a superimposition of all the people we were in the past, coexisting together in the more limited person we necessarily embody today. (Or as Frank Sinatra says more eloquently in Sinatra at the Sands: “Now I guess you folks have heard, or read, or been told somewhere that recently I became fifty years old, and I’m here to tell you right now, it’s a dirty Communist lie. Direct from Hanoi—it came right outta there! My body may be fifty, but I’m twenty-eight!” Sinatra goes on to add: “And I would further like to say that I’d be twenty-two if I hadn’t spent all those years drinking with Joe E. Lewis, who nearly wrecked me.”) Shakespeare, as it happens, was thirty-seven when he wrote Hamlet, or just a year older than I am now. That’s enough to make a mockery of anyone’s ambitions, but it also gives me hope. We’re all walking the same path through the forest—and our greatest consolation is that Dante and Shakespeare have been there before us.

Shakespeare and the art of revision

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

When we think of William Shakespeare, we don’t often see him as a writer who meticulously revised his own work. His reputation as a prodigy of nature, pouring out poetry unaltered onto the page, owes a lot to Ben Jonson’s short reminiscence of his friend, which is still the most valuable portrait we have of how he seemed to those who knew him best:

I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped…His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too…But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.

And even Shakespeare’s admirers have to admit that his sheer imaginative fertility—the greatest of any writer who ever lived—led him to produce bad lines as well as good, often side by side. (My favorite example is the ending of “The Phoenix and the Turtle”: I don’t think it’s possible to read “For these dead birds sigh a prayer” as anything other than one of the worst lines of poetry ever written.)

But he did revise, both on the overarching levels of character and theme and on the level of the individual line. Harold Bloom, among others, has advanced the ingenious theory that the lost Ur-Hamlet, which we know only through passing references by contemporaries, was nothing less than an early draft by the young Shakespeare himself. We know that it wasn’t particularly good: the author Thomas Lodge refers to the king’s ghost crying “Hamlet, revenge!” in a way that implies that it became a running joke among theatergoers. But the idea that Shakespeare went back and revised it so many years later is revealing in itself. We know that the story was personally meaningful to him—he named his own son after Hamlet—and that the lost version would have been one of the first plays he ever wrote. And Hamlet itself, when we read it in this light, looks a lot like a play that found its final form through repeated acts of revision. F. Scott Fitzgerald once called himself a “taker-outer,” while his friend Thomas Wolfe was a “putter-inner,” which prompted Wolfe to reply:

You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.

And Hamlet stands as the one instance in which Shakespeare, in revision, put in everything he wanted, even if the result was close to unplayable on stage.

Timon of Athens

There’s an even more compelling glimpse of Shakespeare the reviser, and it comes in the unlikely form of Timon of Athens, which, by all measure, was the weirdest play he ever wrote. Scholars have attributed its stranger qualities—the loose ends, the characters who are introduced only to disappear for no reason—to a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, and textual analysis seems to bear this out. But it also looks like a rough draft that Shakespeare never had a chance to revise, and if we take it as a kind of snapshot of his creative process, it’s a document of unbelievable importance. In the speech by the servant that I’ve reproduced above, you can see that it starts out as prose, then shifts halfway through to verse, a peculiar transition that occurs repeatedly in Timon but has few parallels in the other plays. This suggests that Shakespeare began by roughing out large sections of the play in prose form, and then went back to convert it into poetry. Timon just happens to be the one play in which the process of revision was interrupted, leaving the work in an unfinished state. It implies that Shakespeare’s approach wasn’t so different from the one that I’ve advocated here in the past: you write an entire first draft before going back to polish it, just as a painter might do a sketch or cartoon of the whole canvas before drilling down to the fine details. It isn’t until you’ve written a story in its entirety that you know what it’s really about. And the little we know about Shakespeare’s methods seems to confirm this.

But his revisions didn’t end there, either. These plays were meant for performance, and like all theatrical works, they evolved in response to rehearsals, the needs of the actors, and the reactions of the audience. (The natural fluidity of the text on the stage goes a long way toward explaining why certain plays, like King Lear, exist in radically different versions in folio or quarto form. Some scholars seem bewildered by the fact that Shakespeare could be so indifferent to his own work that he didn’t bother to finalize a definitive version of Lear, but I’m not sure if it even struck him as a problem. The plays took different shapes in response to the needs of the moment, and Shakespeare, the ultimate pragmatist, knew that there was always more where that came from.) And the idea of ongoing revision is inseparable from his conception of the world. Bloom famously talks about Shakespearean characters “overhearing” themselves, which lies at the center of his imaginative achievement: figures like Richard II and Hamlet seem to listen to themselves speaking, and they evolve and deepen before our eyes in response to what they hear in their own words. But what Bloom calls “the depiction of self-change on the basis of self-overhearing” is a lesson that could only have come out of the revision process, in which the writer figures out his own feelings in the act of rewriting. As E.M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Shakespeare knew this, too. And thanks to his work—and his revisions—we can echo it in our own lives: “How can we know who we are until we hear what we say?”

Written by nevalalee

April 22, 2016 at 9:00 am

“He had played his part admirably…”

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"Laszlo, the bosun of the megayacht..."

Note: This post is the forty-first installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 40. You can read the previous installments here.

A few weeks ago, I briefly discussed the notorious scene in The Dark Knight Rises in which Bruce Wayne reappears—without any explanation whatsoever—in Gotham City. Bane’s henchmen, you might recall, have blown up all the bridges and sealed off the area to the military and law enforcement, and the entire plot hinges on the city’s absolute isolation. Bruce, in turn, has just escaped from a foreign prison, and although its location is left deliberately unspecified, it sure seems like it was in a different hemisphere. Yet what must have been a journey of thousands of miles and a daring incursion is handled in the space of a single cut: Bruce simply shows up, and there isn’t even a line of dialogue acknowledging how he got there. Not surprisingly, this hiatus has inspired a lot of discussion online, with most explanations boiling down to “He’s Batman.” If asked, Christopher Nolan might reply that the specifics don’t really matter, and that the viewer’s attention is properly focused elsewhere, a point that the writer John Gardner once made with reference to Hamlet:

We naturally ask how it is that, when shipped off to what is meant to be his death, the usually indecisive prince manages to hoist his enemies with their own petard—an event that takes place off stage and, at least in the surviving text, gets no real explanation. If pressed, Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox out-foxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to…

Gardner concludes: “The truth is very likely that without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter, refusing to let himself be slowed for an instant by trivial questions of plot logic or psychological consistency—questions unlikely to come up in the rush of drama, though they do occur to us as we pore over the book.” And while this might seem to apply equally well to The Dark Knight Rises, it doesn’t really hold water. The absence of an explanation did yank many of us out of the movie, however briefly, and it took us a minute to settle back in. Any explanation at all would have been better than this, and it could have been conveyed in less than a sentence. It isn’t an issue of plausibility, but of narrative flow. You could say that Bruce’s return to the city ought to be omitted, in the same way a director like Kurosawa mercilessly cuts all transitional moments: when you just need to get a character from Point A to Point B, it’s best to trim the journey as much as you can. In this instance, however, Nolan erred too much on one side, at least in the eyes of many viewers. And it’s a reminder that the rules of storytelling are all about context. You’ve got to judge each problem on its own terms and figure out the solution that makes the most sense in each case.

"He had played his part admirably..."

What’s really fascinating is how frequently Nolan himself seems to struggle with this issue. In terms of sheer technical proficiency, I’d rank him near the top of the list of all working directors, but if he has one flaw as a filmmaker, aside from his lack of humor, it’s his persistent difficulty in finding the right balance between action and exposition. Much of Inception, which is one of my ten favorite movies of all time, consists of the characters breathlessly explaining the plot to one another, and it more or less works. But he also spends much of Interstellar trying with mixed success to figure out how much to tell us about the science involved, leading to scenes like the one in which Dr. Romilly explains the wormhole to Cooper seemingly moments before they enter it. And Nolan is oddly prone to neglecting obligatory beats that the audience needs to assemble the story in their heads, as when Batman appears to abandon a room of innocent party guests to the Joker in The Dark Knight. You could say that such lapses simply reflect the complexity of the stories that Nolan wants to tell, and you might be right. But David Fincher, who is Nolan’s only peer among active directors, tells stories of comparable or greater complexity—indeed, they’re often about their own complexity—and we’re rarely lost or confused. And if I’m hard on Nolan about this, it’s only a reflection of how difficult such issues can be, when even the best mainstream director of his generation has trouble working out how much information the audience needs.

It all boils down to Thomas Pynchon’s arch aside in Gravity’s Rainbow: “You will want cause and effect. All right.” And knowing how much cause will yield the effect you need is a problem that every storyteller has to confront on a regular basis. Chapter 40 of Eternal Empire provides a good example. For the last hundred pages, the novel has been building toward the moment when Ilya sneaks onto the heavily guarded yacht at Yalta. There’s no question that he’s going to do it; otherwise, everything leading up to it would seem like a ridiculous tease. The mechanics of how he gets aboard don’t really matter, but I also couldn’t avoid the issue, or else readers would rightly object. All I needed was a solution that was reasonably plausible and that could be covered in a few pages. As it happens, the previous scene ends with this exchange between Maddy and Ilya: “But you can’t just expect to walk on board.” “That’s exactly what I intend to do.” When I typed those lines, I didn’t know what Ilya had in mind, but I knew at once that they pointed at the kind of simplicity that the story needed, at least at this point in the novel. (If it came later in the plot, as part of the climax, it might have been more elaborate.) So I came up with a short sequence in which Ilya impersonates a dockwalker looking for work on the yacht, cleverly ingratiates himself with the bosun, and slips below when Maddy provides a convenient distraction. It’s a cute scene—maybe a little too cute, in fact, for this particular novel. But it works exactly as well as it should. Ilya is on board. We get just enough cause and effect. And now we can move on to the really good stuff to come…

“Whose locker is this?”

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"Wolfe headed inside..."

Note: This post is the forty-eighth installment in my author’s commentary for City of Exiles, covering Chapter 47. You can read the earlier installments here

There’s a point in the audio commentary for one of the Bourne movies—I think it’s The Bourne Ultimatum—when director Paul Greengrass admits that he made things a little too easy. Bourne has narrowly avoided being assassinated at London’s Waterloo railway station, escaping with nothing but a dead reporter’s notebook, and he has no way of knowing who ordered the hit. Fortunately, the notebook happens to contain the name of an investment advisory firm that bankrolled the operation in question, so Bourne does what any of us would do in that situation: he googles it. He comes up with an address in Madrid, confirms it against a receipt in the reporter’s notes, and then he’s off to another big action scene. Needless to say, this all seems a bit too simple, and if we weren’t caught up in the movie, we might object to it. But Greengrass argues, and with good reason, that in this kind of story, it’s more important to move from one beat to the next as quickly and economically as possible, rather than derailing the momentum with a more plausible sequence of events.

I think he’s right. It’s easy to make fun of certain stories, especially thrillers and action movies, for the leaps of logic that the hero has to make to get from one stunt sequence to another. Even superficially more realistic procedurals are grounded less on real crime scene technique than on sudden flashes of insight, and if you were to cut all of them together, they would start to seem even more ridiculous. Yet it’s a convention that arises less out of a lack of concern about “realism” than from the set of rules that the movie itself has established. Plenty of films, from All the President’s Men to Zodiac, have made riveting cinema out of the tedium of ordinary reporting or investigative work, but they’ve been conceived before the fact in a way that prepares us for the kind of story we’re about to watch. A Bourne movie presents us with very different expectations: the only logic that matters is that of restless movement, and to the extent that the film presents certain elements more or less plausibly, it’s only to facilitate our larger suspension of disbelief. Bourne googles his way over a bump in the script because it was the most efficient way to get from point A to point B.

"Whose locker is this?"

We see this kind of compression and elision even at the highest levels of literature. I’ve always loved what John Gardner had to say about Hamlet, which includes a moment of high implausibility: the fact that the normally indecisive prince has no trouble sending Rosencrantz and Guidenstern to their deaths offstage, and with almost no explanation. “If pressed,” Gardner writes, “Shakespeare might say that he expects us to recognize that the fox outfoxed is an old motif in literature—he could make up the tiresome details if he had to.” He continues:

But the explanation I’ve put in Shakespeare’s mouth is probably not the true one. The truth is very likely that almost without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter…Shakespeare’s instinct told him, “Get back to the business between Hamlet and Claudius,” and, sudden as lightning, he was back.

In other words, it’s a question, like so much else in art, of prioritizing what is truly important. And sometimes realism or plausibility takes a back seat to advancing the overall narrative.

Many of the same factors come into play in Part III in City of Exiles. The previous section ends with Wolfe in London, helpless to prevent the crash of Chigorin’s plane; Part III concludes with her final confrontation with Karvonen in a tunnel beneath Helsinki. To get from one point to the next involves covering an enormous geographical distance and an even more tenuous chain of associations. Wolfe needs to figure out that the plane was sabotaged in Finland, find Karvonen’s contact at the airport, track her down, interrogate her, and preemptively think ahead throughout to anticipate where Karvonen will go now, all in exactly fifty pages. Pulling this off in a way that also kept the story going involved a fair number of shortcuts, as we see in Chapter 47, in which Wolfe identifies Karvonen’s accomplice thanks to the lucky glimpse of a volume of John Donne’s poetry in her locker. If this feels like something of a cheat, well, maybe it is. Still, I had little choice if I wanted to keep things moving. Playing this kind of card too often can strain plausibility to the breaking point, which hurts the story more than it helps. But here, it seemed more important to get Wolfe as soon as possible to her appointment under the city…

Written by nevalalee

September 11, 2014 at 9:01 am

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