Thursday, September 26, 2019

Boys will be cats

Gizmo, surveying his domain. 
   When former colleague Kara Spak mentioned a column where the boys were allowed to eat like cats, I drew an utter blank. I almost didn't believe her. But that SOUNDED like us. Fortunately, the Nexis machine is a tireless birddog, and dredged this up. It's from 14 years ago—I'm encouraged to think that anything I wrote would stick in the mind that long—back when the column was a thousand words and filled a page, and I'm keeping the first two non-cat items, for the heck of it. You can, if you like, jump straight to the cat part. Though I still maintain the appeal of performing Merchant of Venice as the comedy it was intended to be by Shakespeare. Oddly, just Monday, at the Goodman dinner, I sat with Bob Falls and Canadian actor Colm Feore, and I mentioned the idea to the latter—Bob's probably sick of me urging him to do that. It would catch people's attention. 

Opening shot

     Like you, I was glad to see President Bush finally put to rest the idiotic debate over whether New Orleans would be rebuilt. If we can rebuild Iraq, we can -- we must -- rebuild New Orleans.
     So the will is there. And so is the money, apparently -- from whatever magic source federal money now pours.
     But what I don't understand is the logistics; where are the carpenters going to come from? How is it going to be done? I don't know if you've ever tried to get someone to come by your house and rebuild a shaky fence. But you can be in Northbrook on a dry day, waving a fistful of cash over your head, and nobody will agree to do it.
     Now imagine thousands upon thousands of destroyed homes in an enormous blighted area covering several states. If they started building today, it would still take years, and by the time they were done, a big chunk of the displaced residents would have decided to stay where they were.
     The devil is in the details, and so far the federal plan reminds me of the classic 1941 New Yorker cartoon where the catcher advises the pitcher: "Strike him out."

The quality of mercy

     Shakespeare can be thick going for modern audiences. Thus, there is the temptation to spice up productions by yanking plays out of their tights-and-feathers context and dropping them somewhere unexpected. It can be merely gimmicky—Kabuki Othello, or the gay Richard III in "The Goodbye Girl" —or it can take overly familiar material and make it new again.
     I was lucky enough to have seen Robert Falls' groundbreaking "Hamlet" in 1984; I think of it as "Reagan Hamlet," since Claudius' speech is shown on a TelePrompTer, and Gertrude, in a red tailored suit, gazes with that same fixed Nancy Reagan smile at her husband.
     I remember exactly the thought that popped into my mind when Ophelia shows up on stage, late in the play, makeup scrawled on her face, hiking up her dress.
     "She's crazy," I thought, horrified, before smiling at myself because, of course, Ophelia is one of the more famously insane characters in literature, and it is a sign of Falls' genius that he could make it fresh again.
     "The Merchant of Venice" poses a similar problem: what to do when the central character is not only one of the most familiar parts in literature, but also one of the most offensive stereotypes: the money-grubbing, bloodthirsty Jew?
     Barbara Gaines solves the problem with mastery in the "Merchant" just opened at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. She places the play in the present. Her Venetians are jaded Eurotrash, swilling scotch and spitting lustily on Shylock, the moneylender.
     And she gives it an earthiness. The spit isn't polite stage spit, but real hocking spit that makes the audience cringe.
     As someone who constantly deals with people unhappy to see their own group maligned, I was glad to be able to enjoy Shylock, who despite Gaines' humanizing touches is no hero.
     It was only later, musing on the play—always a sign of a job well done—that reservations arose. Nobody dies in "Merchant of Venice," which seemed unique for a tragedy, until I remembered that it was not a tragedy, originally, but a comedy. Shylock is supposed to be funny.
     Perhaps the only way to stage the play nowadays is how Gaines did, to include all sorts of humanizing touches to explain why Shylock is the way he is. But it strikes me that we are ready for the play as written -- to be hit with the full grotesqueness of Shylock. Give it to us straight. Perhaps the most radical revision of all would be to present the play in all its original harshness, and force audiences to grasp the depth of the ancient hate on their own, while laughing.

"Meow," my son said

     We have rules in the house. No computer games in the morning. Homework gets done first thing after school, before the television goes on.
     The rules are especially plentiful around suppertime—if you can't preserve decorum at dinner, when can you? Thus I insist, for instance, that the boys wear clothes. I would not have cooked up this rule myself, understand, but, let's say, it became necessary. They also need to use napkins instead of shirts, and silverware—that's what it's there for. If they emit that saliva-gargle of food lust sound that Homer Simpson makes, I send them to their rooms.
     Still, we try not to be tyrants. Which is why my wife, in her wisdom, hatched the idea of an "anything goes" break from all the rules. One dinner a week, the rules are suspended. They can slurp and slobber their food all they like.
    Thus, I was not too surprised, at a recent chicken dinner, when one son said he wanted it to be an "anything goes" dinner. I figured he wanted to eat the chicken with his hands.
     "Sure," I said.
     Without a word he leaped up, went to the cupboard, found a bowl, returned to his seat, and poured his glass of milk into the bowl.
     "I want to drink my milk like a cat," he explained.
     Our younger son, recognizing fun when he saw it, followed, and got his own bowl.
     My wife began to protest—there are limits. I, intrigued, raised a palm to quiet her. This, I wanted to see.
     A few moments of silence, except for the sound of gentle lapping, both boys bent over their bowls, their tongues darting.
     My wife and I gazed into each other's eyes. I mouthed the words, "We're in trouble."

Closing shot

     God knows I have my problems with the president. But never so much that I'd take the time to Photoshop mocking pictures of him. But other people do. A lot. Bush, happily playing guitar for weeping Katrina victims. Bush, golf clubs tucked under arm, among a band of New Orleans looters. Bush and his father fishing in the devastated flood region.
     They're funny, sort of. But they also puzzle me. Isn't the truth insane enough? Why imagine new craziness to lay at his feet?
     Similarly, a caller phoned and began babbling about Bush's facial twitches. As soon as he paused for breath, I said something like, "Isn't this beside the point? It's like criticizing Hitler for bad posture."
     But he didn't understand.
     What's the point of being against zealotry if it makes you a zealot?

                          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Sept. 18, 2005


  1. Wow. This really took me back to when I thought Bush was the worst President I could imagine. My
    Imagination was obviously sorely lacking. I realized recently that if there was a vote between him and the current occupant I would run to vote for GWB so fast ones head would spin.

  2. Trying to downplay, mitigate or ignore the anti-semitism in "The Merchant of Venice" has always seemed like turd-polishing to me. Shakespeare had a blind spot, just accept it. Even the greatest of writers have them, often related to racism or sexism. Great writers are as vulnerable to inculcation of societal norms, including poisonous ones, as the rest of us.

  3. Shakespeare was a man of his time, and a negative treatment of a Jewish character would not have been a matter of controversy to his audiences. Jews were expelled from England by Edward the first in 1290 and not readmitted, largely due to Oliver Cromwell, a century after Shakespeare left the scene.



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