So. Here you are. Thanks. Apologies in advance. For everything.
Gonna start things off real nice and highbrow: I took in some theater this past week. Seriously. Technically it was for school, but really that's only my excuse. You see, Dr. Wikander at UT managed to secure a small number of tickets for the Royal Shakespeare Company's residency in Ann Arbor this week, and he offered them to his students first. I snapped one right up as quick as I could, and not just because I'm a literature dork. On this particular evening they were doing The Tempest, and the marquee star, doing his farewell tour with the RSC as Prospero, the retiring magician, was one Patrick Stewart.
That's right. Jean-Luc Freakin' Picard, in the flesh, hamming it up for the upper crust of the midwest. Good stuff. So much lovely pop-cultural resonance that you hardly know where to start. (Professor Charles Xavier, of X-Men, with his loyal army of mutants - how is he like Prospero with his spirits? Discuss.) What a lucky guy, Patrick Stewart, who took his stage training and admittedly awesome voice and did really, really well for himself out of American geek culture. But who can begrudge him? He totally carried Star Trek on his back for all those years - they'd never had a real actor before! - and he never passed up a chance to spout some Shakespeare whenever the galactic situation called for it. Does anybody remember him reciting Hamlet's "what a piece of work is man" speech at Q, the scenery-chewing alien supervillain who just wouldn't leave the Enterprise alone? (From a certain angle, that whole series was about the enmity between those two. Discuss.) Picard's trying his best to defend the human race's interstellar reputation, so he pulls out this well-worn set piece - "in form and moving how express and admirable," and so forth. But here's the thing: Hamlet didn't really mean it. He was a miserable guy, he'd lost all his mirth, and he was being sarcastic in front of his college buddies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He wasn't any more fond of humanity than Q was. And it's only my surmise, but I think that Stewart knew this, and that it was he who insisted that Picard preface his speech by intoning "and what [Hamlet] said in irony, I say with conviction!" It was such an awkward, pedantic thing to say; nothing like what a Star Trek writer would have put there, but absolutely correct. I remember being very impressed by the whole thing, as a fifteen-year-old.
And it wasn't just Star Trek and X-Men! What about Gurney Halleck, from David Lynch's incomprehensible 80's Dune movie? Or Guinevere's Dad in John Boorman's bizarro Arthurian epic, Excalibur? Now that's a resumé. But put Dune and Excalibur together, and you just might have a story as ape-crazy-bananas as The Tempest.
What are we to make of this thing, now? It's beloved, we know, and not without reason, but what, exactly, is the deal? Shakespeare got a bit flaky there towards the end. He'd had a hell of a decade - who's had a better one? - doing stories about startlingly real people doing sort-of-realistic things while reciting some really staggering speeches. But as he wrapped up his career he wanted to do fairy tales and miracles. Was it just fashion? Because mostly it doesn't age well - only we specialists read A Winter's Tale or Cymbeline these days. But we have decided we love The Tempest - and I guess if you pin me down I can't blame us. Especially if it's got Captain Picard in it.
To begin with, they made it cold. That's almost perverse - so much of the poetry is about how lush and fertile Prospero's island is, but they set it in the Arctic. The set was made to look like fractured sheets of ice, and the shipwrecked characters spent the whole play shivering. And not only is it the Arctic, but it seems to be the American Arctic. The spirits chant in some lost tribal language, and Prospero is some kind of shaman; he summons the storm wearing a huge animal-skin robe with an elaborate pointy headpiece, his back to the audience. (It's an eerie moment that the play never quite lives up to.)
Ariel's not American - he's Goth. He's played as some sort of frost-demon in his white face-paint and floor-length Billy-Corgan-style trenchcoat, and he almost steals the show. The tense-but-productive relationship between him and Stewart's Prospero is the most convincing one onstage. He glides in and out of scenes without seeming to move his legs, and, in the show's one jaw-dropping moment, emerges dramatically out of the corpse of some kind of dead walrus-beast. (I wanted to check my text - where does it say "enter spirits with dead walrus?" I looked it up during the intermission; it turns out it was supposed to be a "banquet." I think Shakespeare would have dug the dead walrus.)
Anyway, Stewart is a bipolar kind of Prospero - he's erratic, he's moody. He's really powerful, and there's no telling what he'll do! His relationship with Miranda is sometimes touching and sometimes played for laughs. His most famous speech, "our revels now are ended," etc, is delivered in a state of distraction, half irritated, half in tears. Miranda un-selfconsciously hugs him when he hits "we are such stuff as dreams are made on," and it's a good, solid, lump-in-the-throat moment. The comic characters are not nearly funny enough for the amount of time they're onstage, but this is unavoidable. (Apparently this kind of thing was popular in 1610.) Ferdinand is a cipher, but that's how he's written. Antonio is a cipher of a villain, but that's how he's written. Alonso is confusing enough that he's kind of interesting, but he still doesn't make any sense. (He's sad his kid's dead, but not sad enough. He's happy his kid's alive, but not happy enough. And why is Prospero so eager to forgive him?) Sebastian is a little too good - he's one of those bad guys that Shakespeare couldn't resist giving the good lines to, and the actor made the most of it - but of course the character doesn't go anywhere.
And Caliban. What are we going to do about Caliban? We're stuck with him. He's a "thing of darkness," he's a slave who wants out, and you can't trust him with the white women. Shakespeare goes out of his way to make him not human - apparently he's kind of fish-like - but, honestly, does that really help the situation? He's a savage, created just about the time that white people started buying and selling them. All you can say in Shakespeare's defense is that at least Caliban's resentment is given to us bluntly, and at least he's allowed to speak in verse, which is more than can be said for his co-conspirators Stefano and Trunculo.
(Because the verse, after all, is why we care about this weird play, I suppose. "The isle is full of noises," and "I'll drown my book," and "our little life / Is rounded with a sleep." How can you argue with that? Especially me, who came at this thing all backwards - I got my Tempest and my Dante and my Ovid and my Spanish Tragedy and my Sanskrit when I was seventeen and fascinated with "The Waste Land." Eliot was trying to tell us that all of that was over, that he was the Last Word, but I guess I missed the point -- I remember those are pearls that were his eyes.)
...and do you remember the one where everybody thinks Data died in a shuttle accident but he's actually been kidnapped by some crazy gadget-collector guy? It's heartrending; everybody's in mourning. Picard is going through Data's personal effects, and he just can't help bringing Hamlet into it. "He was a man; take him for all in all," he muses. "I shall not look upon his like again." For sci-fi TV, a pretty effective, if pompous, moment -- especially since Data would be mightily flattered to be called a "man." But of course that's Hamlet on his late dad, which puts a whole new spin on the Picard-Data relationship. (And Data's miraculous "resurrection" has a real Shakespearean-romance flavor to it, doesn't it? "Weeping again the king my father's wrack..." We could do this all day.)
Which brings me back to the RSC, and the secret reason that Prospero and Ariel's labor-relations problem was so interesting. At the start of the last act, Prospero's got all of his enemies under his magical control; he can do whatever he wants to them, but he decides to be merciful and give everybody a happy ending. That's why it's a romance. It's hard to make this dramatic -- since nobody can really threaten Prospero, he's not much of a hero. You can make him tormented, like Stewart did. That's fine; it makes sense. But what they also did was unexpectedly make Ariel his conscience. It's there in the text, sort of -- Ariel does argue for mercy, and Prospero agrees. But this production really obviously made that moment the climax of the play. Ariel says: you know, if you could see how miserable these guys are now, your heart would just melt. Oh, do you think so? Prospero asks, and Stewart turns this into biting sarcasm; he doesn't believe it for a second. "Mine would," Ariel says, deadly serious, "were I [long pause] human." They stare at each other for about fifteen seconds, then Prospero starts weeping like a reformed drunk and talking about how he's going to kick the magic for good this time. Astonishing stuff, but especially astonishing because there had to be a significant part of the audience that, like me, was thinking: "Whoa! Ariel's Data!" He might be practically a god, but according to the creators of this show, (who must have watched Next Generation a time or two,) all Ariel wants is to be a real live boy. O strange new worlds, that have such people in them!