Thursday, March 24, 2016

Encountering Shakespeare in Los Angeles: Art as Religion

In late 2006 I moved into a new neighborhood in West Los Angeles. I didn’t know a single resident, but I knew my Shakespeare fairly well and brought my Oxford Complete edition with me like a talisman. A former professor of English and a mostly secular Jew, I had been told that I would have been a Rabbi had I been born a century or two before. Such clergy provide pastoral care, to be sure, but their identities and professional lives are often centered on textual exegesis. Hermeneutics has, after all, twin sources in Jerusalem (where the interpreted text was the Torah) and Alexandria (where it was the poems of Homer). Instead my texts were the canon as taught at the colleges and universities where I had worked (especially those chosen for inclusion in introductory humanities courses), and these included plenty of Shakespeare.

Essential elements of my cultural equipment travelled with me into the new neighborhood where I was a stranger, conferring a vague faith that guarded me from the loneliness I feared. The move confronted me with a piece of social problem-solving, made harder by the well-known disappearance of mid-sized social institutions (those larger than the nuclear family but smaller than the state). In his lauded 2001 book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam chronicled that shift from community to isolation in American life since the Second World War. My solution was twofold: find a bookstore (I was fortunate to discover the Sam Johnson’s Bookshop on Venice Boulevard), and go to a Shakespeare play. Soon enough I found a production of Julius Caesar just a few miles outside the zip code. I’d never heard of the company—the Porters of Hellsgate—and I had no notion of just how a solo trip to the theater could possibly enhance my social life, but I had to roll the dice and hope for the best.

What I walked into that night in early 2007 was the first production by a new company of young players, full of heart and passion, neither paying to play nor expecting a dime for their work. The actors were competent and impressive, but one stood out head and shoulders above the rest: Charles Pasternak, who starred as Mark Antony and directed the show. His handling of the blank verse was impeccable, mellifluous, and nuanced. Each word was phonically eventful, because Pasternak’s voice filled out the syllables with meaning, music, and dynamic crescendi and decrescendi. He knew exactly what he was doing, and when his heart was “in the coffin there with Caesar,” mine was, too.

After the curtain call I approached the 23 year old actor and said, “listening to you handle blank verse is like watching a boxing match; it’s that eventful in each moment; they’re all loaded with subtleties and yet it all flows. Thank you for an inspirational performance.” He seemed moved, and I ventured a gesture that might help me with my isolation: I had translated Sophocles’ Three Theban Plays for Wordsworth Editions, and the book had been published in 2005. A devotee of Shakespeare and of the inventor of blank verse, Christopher Marlowe, I had rendered the great Athenian in that meter because, due to the Elizabethans, blank verse is the standard metrical form for the tragic drama in the English language. The process had been strangely spiritual, even numinous; despite my skeptical cast of mind, I continually felt as if Sophocles (whom I began to call “the Old Man in the ground”) were speaking through me. Pasternak was a bit taken aback by my zeal, but he saw something in me and decided it would be worth reading the book. So I returned the next night and saw the play a second time, handing him my Sophocles at the end of another great performance.
It took three years, but eventually the company produced my Oedipus the Tyrant for its premier. By that time I was a member of the company, and I played the blind seer Teiresias, in Biblical robes with white contacts in my eyes, leaning on a crooked staff. I played opposite Charles Pasternak’s Oedipus, under his direction. The run got extended and we received a glowing review in the L.A. Weekly, from its best critic, Stephen Leigh Morris. What had gotten me there was Charles’ faith in me: shortly after we met, the Porters began gearing up for their second production, Much Ado About Nothing, and after an audition I was given the small role of Antonio. That went well enough to help win me more and larger roles in subsequent productions, until eventually I was made a company member. Today (2016) I’ve done eleven productions, nine of them with that company.

My story is one of many thousands in which the works of Shakespeare serve as a social medium of contact and cohesion. It is a discourse of the past, through which we access not only the events of vanished dynasties and legendary figures, but also the lost relational life that held sway before we were atomized by car culture, electronic devices, apartment living, and the decay of social institutions. Perhaps the closest analogy is that other atavistic cultural practice—religion. The house of worship is the theater; the liturgy is the Shakespearean text; the ritual is rehearsal and performance; the priesthood are the scholars and directors; the votaries, monks and nuns are the actors; and the population in the pews are the theatergoing audiences who show up for plays they’ve seen and heard again and again.

As I used to tell my students when I was a professor of English, texts of a certain quality are rich enough to repay even the devotional mode of attention we bring to the Bible, the Vedas, or the Koran—with the difference that literary texts (or sacred texts approached in a literary way) do not require doctrinal commitments. At no point need one trouble oneself about one’s degree of conviction that Henry the Fifth really gave that speech at Agincourt, nor about just how many children Lady Macbeth had nursed. All that is required is the Coleridgean “willing suspension of disbelief.”