12 March 2010

Clarity After The Tempest

Last night, after work, I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see a production of The Tempest by Shakespeare. It turned out to be exactly what I wanted, and needed.

From the first time I read the play--more years ago than I'll admit!--I used to identify with Caliban more than any other character I have encountered in literature. Sometimes I still do. After all, he is reviled simply for being: he is the deformed child of Sycorax, a witch long dead by the time Prospero arrives in exile. He is also the only non-spiritual native of the island.

Ron Cephas Jones, the actor who portrayed Caliban, was amazing: He conveyed so much of his character's anger, subversiveness--and humanity--through his eyes alone. With his performance, even someone who's never before read or seen the play could be convinced that "You have taught me language/And the profit on't is, I can curse" can come out of the same mouth as the one who, not much more than an hour later (The action in the play takes place in real time, in contrast to most of Shakespeare's other plays, in which the action can take place in several locations and time frames.) would give us the speech that begins with "Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not." To me, that speech is the single most beautiful piece of writing in the English language.

I used to identify with Caliban because I long felt like the "ugly duckling" of my family, school, and of just about any group, institution or situation of which I was a part. I was always under suspicion and therefore expected anyone who had any sort of authority, or simply any kind of approval that I didn't have, to abuse it--against me. Sometimes I still do.

Perhaps some of you will think that I am painting myself as a victim when I say that to get through any given day from the time I was about five until I was forty-five, I had to lie, connive or in some other way be untruthful to myself or deceitful to others. Some people would say that I'm living a lie now: They have said, and continue to say, things like "Just accept that you're a man and deal with it!" Well, that's exactly what I told myself for all of those years--that I am a man and would have to deal with it. Turned out that the first part of that statement wasn't true and that "dealing with" what is true involved doing things that have cost me relationships, not to mention material wealth.

Now, I am not going to get into some discourse in post-colonialism, mainly because I think a lot of the so-called postcolonialists , or people who fancy themselves as such, say some completely absurd and sometimes offensive things, which is a consequence of generating and disseminating arguments that have little, if anything, to do with the issues some postcolonialists suppose themselves and their arguments to be about. (Then again, one can say that for just about any other school of literary criticism or any other "ism.") However, while I am not entirely convinced that Shakespeare was writing a critique of colonialism, slavery or the oppression of women (Miranda, Prospero's daughter, is the only female character seen for any significant amount of time throughout the play.), I think that no one better understood human dynamics, particularly in relation to power and the way it is used and abused. Plus, I can't see how Shakespeare--who, though brilliant, was still a product of his place and time--could not be concerned with issues of revenge, forgiveness and redemption. They are the underlying powers of The Tempest, as they are of so many of his other plays. In fact, it now occurs to me that in that sense, Les Miserables--which, I believe, is still the best novel ever written--is a sort of great-great-great-niece or -nephew of The Tempest.

Anyway...A great thing about the production I saw was that it gave a clear sense that Prospero's relationship with Ariel was, in some ways, as exploitative as his relationship with Caliban. Of course, that was not something I could see when I was addled by the anger I used to feel so strongly that for a long time I could not understand the real source of my anger. Prospero released the "airy spirit" from a tree and keeps him in his debt with a promise to release him from it one day.

It's odd that last week, I was taking the "E" train home from work and saw it as a modern-day slave ship. It runs underground for its entire length and is usually full, which made me think of slaves chained to each other in the lowest levels of the ship. And everyone on that train was going to or coming from a job that was serving someone who had power--sometimes of life and death--over them. And they continue to go to and from those jobs, and submit to the rules and sometimes caprices of their employers out of a fear that they and/or those they love will not survive if they don't submit. Finally, some of them have some vague belief that if they work long and hard enough, and continue to "keep the faith," they and their loved ones will one day be free from worry and want. Their employers--or, more precisely, the culture they represent, if unwittingly--promulgates those beliefs. Anyone who questions, much less challenges, them won't be long for his or her job, and possibly this world.

But this is not to paint such people--or Ariel--as naive simpletons. Rather, they instinctively understand that rebellion and subversion are, by definition, the loneliest of enterprises. Also, sometimes people don't have any choice but to avail themselves to some "rescue" or another, none of which ever comes without some price or another.

I don't know whether it was the production I saw that caused me to finally understand what I've just described about Ariel and his relationship to Prospero. But that relationship was clearly and fully realized in that production. That alone made it worth seeing.

And I now realize that, whatever scars and resentments we have had in common, I have finally become, at least in one way, fundamentally different from Caliban--or, for that matter, Ariel: Now that I have freed myself, at least in a spiritual and psychic sense, I want to do what I can to help others--or, more precisely, help them to develop their means--to break from whatever's enslaving them. I also hope that they'll understand that life is, among other things, an unending process of liberating one's self. Whether we are liberated through pardons, forgiveness, redemption or our own enterprise, there is always another box to emerge from. And for each one there is a different way out.

Now, if I could only do it all as perceptively, and in such beautiful and precise language as Shakespeare rendered it all!