Sunday, March 14, 2010

We Happy Few

My wife and I are season ticket holders to the Shakespeare Theatre downtown and yesterday we saw their production of Henry V.  It was rainy and dreary outside and I was tired.  I had no desire to sit for three hours watching a play.  I would have preferred to take a nap.  I actually felt very sleepy and closed my eyes for a few minutes about ten minutes in.  When I opened them I felt refreshed and it was just about that time that I started getting in the flow of the play, i.e. when the rhythms of the Shakespearian language start to become understandable.  My wife and I both agree that in nearly all the Shakespeare we see it takes a few minutes of listening to the Shakespeare’s Elizabethan cadences before we start to get it.  After that, if the production and the acting are any good, we’re home free.

And boy was this one good.  The title of this post is taken from the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech Henry gives to his men before their decisive battle with the French:  

And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Michael Hayden plays Henry and he is very nearly perfect in the role.  The historical events of the play concern the English victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415 in which heavily outnumbered English, spurred on by Henry’s speech, soundly defeated the French and Henry has himself declared successor to the French crown.  But the play is really about the maturity of Henry into a great man and leader.  The former Prince Hal, a frivolous playboy, gives up his former ways upon becoming king and learns the lessons and burdens of leadership.  The speech is rousing not simply for its inspiring words but because we in the audience realize that Henry has now achieved true greatness.  Hayden does a wonderful job showing us this growth, aided by the simple production that lets Shakespeare do the talking.  I kept thinking all the way through (until the final scene) how well-structured the play was.  Each scene builds upon the last, telling the historical story while at the same time showing the maturity of Henry, the difficult decisions he must make, the way he handles power.  I had associations flashing through my head to other historical and theatrical events all the way through the play.  Considering the changes that come over Henry once he becomes king I thought of the changes that are said to have come over Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) when he learned that Caesar was dead and had chosen Octavian as his successor.  Two scenes put me in mind of Michael Corleone in The Godfather movies.  The first, when three former associates attempt to betray him, he hugs the one who he was closest with, and we know he will die: “I will weep for thee / For this revolt of thine methinks is like / Another fall of man”.  It reminded me of the scene on II when Michael learns of Fredo’s betrayal and kisses him: “You broke my heart Fredo.  You broke my heart.”  Later, when Henry’s old drinking buddy Bardolph (played by the marvelous Floyd King, who by now must be considered a Washington D.C. institution) has been caught robbing a church, Henry has him brought before him.  Bardolph, thinking his old friend will show leniency, greets him happily, “My King!” Realizing upon Henry’s silence the gravity of the situation, he utters with a catch in his voice “My Hal”, a plea to Henry to remember the good old days.  It does him no good and Henry orders his execution.  This reminded me of the scene in part one of The Godfather when Tesio, having betrayed Michael, stops and turns to Tom Hagen as he is being led off to his own execution: “Can you get me off the hook Tom?  For old time’s sake?”  Henry sobs over Bardolph’s dead body once everyone leaves and we realize with a shudder the burdens and sacrifices of a leader.  Finally, the night before the big battle reminded me of Washington with his troops the night before the Delaware crossing, when all seemed lost.  A play that can conjure up so many profound historical and theatrical situations is doing something right.  In Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Henry V, nearly all is right.

Only one part of the play seemed wrong, and that is Act V consisting mostly of Henry’s wooing of Katharine, the daughter of the French King.  Historically it points out the symbolic and literal union of England and France (which would be very short-lived) but as part of the play it seems out of place, a purely comic act after such a dramatic battle.  It dissipates some of the energy from the play, which would better have ended at the end of Act IV, after the final battle.  But this is a quibble.  This Henry V is not to be missed. 

The play runs through April 10 so you still have time to see it. 

Friday, March 12, 2010

Notes From the Underground

It's been awhile, I know. But it’s not like you can't live without this, my musings and ramblings. I mean, who cares? Most of the time even I don't. But, just in case anyone out there still checks in on this blog, here's a few of the random thoughts that having been running through my brain lately.
  • I’m very much looking forward to HBO’s The Pacific, which starts this Sunday night.  I’ve long thought that Band of Brothers, HBO’s 10-part series about the 101st Airborne’s experience in the western theatre, was some of the finest television I’ve ever seen.  Maybe the finest.  My wife and I are re-watching it in preparation for The Pacific and it’s as good as I remember.  If The Pacific can match its predecessor, we are in for a treat.
  • The Obama administration has apparently come to the conclusion that health-care must be passed if they are to have any future success at all.  Moving on to other things is not an option, they believe, because if health-care fails Obama’s presidency is as good as over.  He’ll suffer the same fate that brought Jimmy Carter down: the abandonment of an administration by the president’s own party.  People forget that it was the loss of faith in Carter by the Democrat-controlled Congress that finally made him a non-entity as president.  The Obama administration knows that the failure of health-care reform means they will suffer a similar fate.  The Democrats legislators who walked the plank for Obama on cap-and-trade and health-care only to watch him fail (over and over again) will never do it again.  They’ll know his political muscle has all but vanished and they’ll go back to looking out for their own skins.  So Obama and Reid and Pelosi are doing everything they can to get this monstrosity passed, damn protocol, damn Senate rules, damn the Constitution.  The “Slaughter Rule” of “deeming” a bill to have passed when it’s never been voted on, the use of reconciliation for purposes it was never intended, the contemplation of using a Biden override of the Senate parliamentarian’s rulings, are all outrages worthy of banana-republic style political thuggery.
  • Of course, if health-care does pass, especially using the tactics under consideration, the mid-terms could be Armageddon for the Democrats.  Dick Morris is claiming up to 80 house seats could switch to the Republicans if that happens.  I don’t know about 80 but I think 60 is a good bet, and the Senate would be up for grabs.  I’ve long argued that it would be the best thing that could happen to Obama because, like Clinton after the 1994 debacle, he’d be forced to govern from the center.  Rich Lowry over at NRO is arguing the same thing this morning.  But the question remains: can Obama govern from the center?  Can such a committed ideologue sacrifice his life-long beliefs and certainties and actually compromise?  I’ve said it here before and I’ll say it again: I don’t think he has it in him.  He said as much himself when he claimed he’d rather be a one-termer who got things done that a two-termer who didn’t affect much change.  His health-care gambit is his shot at history and he knows it.  If it passes, even if he doesn’t get re-elected, he believes he’ll go down in history.  I believe it will be more like infamy.           
  • I’m happy to hear that Tiger Woods is planning on returning to golf soon.  The game needs him.  While I was disappointed to learn of his behavior I was not overly surprised.  A young man, the most well-known athlete in the world, has dozens of beautiful women throwing themselves at him everywhere he goes and he succumbs, happily, to the temptation. Why is that surprising?  Surely it was wrong given that he is married, but the media coverage was more than a little creepy.  Moreover, why Tiger felt the need to apologize to anyone but his wife, his family, and his sponsors is beyond me.  He certainly didn’t owe me an apology.  For those who feel like he let down parents who’d held him up to their children as a role-model, well, I’d argue that those parents were being naive, knowing what we know about the behavior of the average athlete.  The whole thing was ugly, as much for the media’s behavior as Tiger’s.  I’m just glad he’ll be back on the course soon.  Hoping that the media will concentrate on his golf game rather than his personal life is probably too much to ask for.
  • American Idol has got a lot to answer for.  The wretchedness of the singers on the show have ingrained a certain style of singing into an entire generation of American youth.  You know what I mean, that cloying, over-emoting, hyper-melismatic style that most of these children employ.  They think it’s the way to show emotional expressiveness but of course it does just the opposite, revealing them to be the phonies that they are.  Add to that the song choices of many of them, the type that dominates in this musically-challenged age: dreary, lacking in melody and personality, lyrically without imagination, like reading pages from a diary.  Where have all the songwriters gone?  We watched one season of American Idol, the year when Carrie Underwood won, and then we swore off it. Until this season, which I am watching because my wife is forcing me to.  She is watching because her sister is forcing her to and she didn’t want to do it alone.  And you know what?  I’m glad I’m watching. Why?  For one reason only, and her name is Crystal Bowersox.  Have you seen her perform?  This girl is the real deal, a young lady just dripping with talent.  And, glory of glories, she knows how to sing. (There are many, many people with vocal talent who don’t know how to sing.)  This sweet young thing who grew up on a farm and had never watched American Idol before she appeared on it, is steeped in the style and aesthetics of mid-60s Atlantic Records soul and rhythm and blues. Her voice, her guitar playing, her very persona, are saturated in it. Toss in a little country rock and gospel, shake it up, and you’ve got Crystal Bowersox.  And she has taste – she knows a good song when she hears it, no doubt because she has grown up listening to good songs.  So far she has sung songs written by Carole King, John Fogerty, and Tracy Chapman.  And every song has had her own personal stamp on it.  I’m tempted to call her a natural but performances like those she has given so far are the product of much thought and practice.  To seem effortless takes hard work.  Whatever happens to her on the show from here on in doesn’t really matter – she’ll get a recording contract (I’ll be in line for her records) and she’ll go far, so long as America still has any musical taste whatsoever.  One of my favorite things about her is the way she looks at the judges when they are telling her what they though of her performance.  Rather than being giggly or intimidated by them, the look on her face is almost contemptuous, though it’s probably more accurately described as indifferent.  And she’s right to be indifferent.  There is nothing those judges can tell her that she doesn’t already know.  Single-handedly, Ms. Bowersox can help American Idol atone for many of its sins, simply by reminding Americans what good music sounds like.  She is the very opposite of everything American Idol has always stood for.
  • My own personal music education continues. I am well on my way to reaching my goal of learning fifty new classical music pieces during the 2010 year.  I’d itemize them all for you but it’s too much work.  Suffice to say I’m immensely enjoying much of the new music I’ve learned.  A lot of it is chamber works, string quartets mostly, by Beethoven, Schubert, and Haydn.  Beethoven is and always will be the master in my book but Schubert’s later string quartets, his piano trios, and his string quintet are all marvelous – he was a man of the first rank and he wrote music of astounding depth and beauty.  I love, love, love it. 
  • To end this thing, let me give you a little Beethoven, with whom I’m ending this post, and a little Band of Brothers, with which I began this post.  Episode 9 of BoB is the one where the 101st discovers the concentration camp.  Who else is the history of western music can evoke the sorrow and tragedy of such a thing but Beethoven?  The below is the beginning and the end of Episode 9.  The middle shows the horrors of the Holocaust and it’s what the music being played is referring to.  It’s music of utter beauty, sorrowful beauty, despairing beauty, set against the backdrop of human tragedy.