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A Wilderness of Queer Theorists? A Review of Titus Andronicus

The great themes of Titus Andronicus all remain and hold our attention, as ever.

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In Cormac McCarthy’s masterly novel Blood Meridian, the main antagonist, the Judge, has some dispiriting reflections on the human condition and its predetermined and inflexible capacity for barbarism:

“It makes no difference what men think of war . . . War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”

This bleak vision of the American West and its new and old inhabitants invites comparison with Shakespeare’s Rome, “a wilderness of tigers” as Titus Andronicus calls it. His military victory over the Goths has left twenty-one of his sons dead, and now, as ever, another war awaits him: a family struggle of revenge against Tamora, her children, and those who would rule Rome.

There are some scenes in McCarthy’s novel that defy retelling or summary. Words like violent and terrifying come to seem pallid and banal when set against the depravity and real horror of McCarthy’s world. Similarly, the practitioners of war in Shakespeare’s first tragedy treat us to decapitation, filicide, dismemberment, and cannibalism. It’s difficult even to imagine Blood Meridian being filmed or staged, and directors taking on Titus Andronicus have often felt the same. A particularly gory 2014 production at the Globe Theatre in London left a few audience members collapsing and vomiting.

While Blood Meridian is undoubtedly McCarthy’s masterpiece, Shakespeare’s tragedy has almost always been considered a shameful aberration, undeserving of mention in the same breath as Hamlet or Macbeth. The scholar Harold Bloom went so far as to wish that this “poetic atrocity” had never been written in the first place. Interestingly, many modern viewers, occasionally wiser than verbose academics, have finally come to agree with Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience, who bloody well loved it. Their hobbies, it must be noted, also included attending public hangings, so they weren’t exactly the squeamish types. Nor are we, I suppose, accustomed as we are to the daily brutality served up on TV, social media, and the news.

Can Titus Andronicus be rescued from neglect and disfavour? Bell Shakespeare’s production at the Sydney Opera House, in the hands of director Adena Jacobs, has made an audacious attempt to do so.

Jacobs cleverly and helpfully divides the play into eight chapters, each with its own title and focus on a particular character. The first, in which we are immediately transfixed by Jane Montgomery Griffiths as Titus, adds to the already high body count: Titus murders Tamora’s son in vengeance and knocks off another one of his own in a fit of rage. His daughter Lavinia becomes the marital plaything of the men around her, and in Chapter 2, The Forest. A Snuff Film, we are forced to imagine rather than witness her gruesome rape and the removal of her tongue and hands; in this way, her attackers, Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius, can remain unidentified.

Jacobs’s decision to restrain the depiction of violence is a striking and effective one. The silence in the opening seconds of this scene, in which Lavinia’s helplessness is met by Aaron the Moor’s pitiless stare, is more confronting and frightening than anything else in the play. Jayna Patel as Lavinia is impressive if underused, and Tariro Mavondo, with her purple hair and ever-present sinister allure, captivates as the play’s most interesting character Aaron, the lover of Tamora and the father of her bastard child. His immorality and villainy are splendidly contained in the great line, “If one good deed in all my life I did, / I do repent it from my very soul.”

Jacobs’s central focus is on the human body: the real physical wounds it can carry, and the penchant for violence it recreates, even across generations. A camera onstage records closeup shots of the characters’ bodily lacerations and then projects them onto the back wall. This has a startling effect, especially when combined with the eerie and constant sound effects.

The weakness in the play is the same one that afflicts most modern art and literature, often fatally: an obsession with identity politics and the importation of once recondite ideas from the academy into the mainstream.

In the show notes, and I tried to suppress an eye-roll as I read this, Jacobs tells us that her production “queers and re-dreams Shakespeare’s play”, and then she bangs on for a bit about the patriarchy.

Given the overall androgyny of the characters’ appearance and the gender-bending of the cast choices, such themes are always lurking about. It never irks that much, really, especially if the performances are truly excellent. There are only a few scenes, however, when things start to get muddled, to put it mildly. There’s the birth scene, in which Queen Tamora’s baby is delivered via an artificial womb strapped to the father, Aaron, played by a woman. This wasn’t quite as cringey as the Clown’s campy and incongruous striptease, a real exercise in pointlessness.

I failed to see the force of all this ‘queering’; it doesn’t serve to question or play with gender so much as abolish it. That’s another kind of nihilism, by the way, but not one the creators seem very interested in. Oh well. Score one against the cisheteropatriarchy, as the kids call it.  

If we are to “queer” great literature, as many artists of our moment would demand of us, it’s amusing to remember an old-fashioned meaning of that verb: to spoil or to ruin the success of something. The intrusion of wokeness into art has made a real stab at this: the removal of aesthetic criteria in favor of political point-scoring for minorities; and the replacement of universal themes with increasingly identitarian ones.

To truly achieve this, however, would be to despoil Shakespeare of all he has. Even the most earnest production couldn’t do that. The great themes of Titus Andronicus – political and family disintegration, the forever war, our return to barbarism – all remain and hold our attention, as ever. This isn’t a fair fight, come to think of it: the queer theorists never had a chance.

Bell Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is playing at the Sydney Opera House until Sunday 22         September 2019.

Sports

The Sad Demise of Bolton Wanderers Football Club

It is hard to believe the dismal state Bolton Wanderers find themselves in

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If you watched the English Premier League during the early 2000s, you would have been familiar with the plight of Bolton Wanderers. The long running club is now in absolute dire straits, bereft of resources, searching desperately for new owners as it staves away its seemingly inevitable end. It is truly a sad turn of events for a club that has been around for almost 150 years, once known as the plucky, never-die team of English football’s top flight.

The Greater Manchester club, gleefully nicknamed ‘The Trotters’, were always a group of ragtag underachievers who constantly overachieved. The club, under the tutelage of Big Sam Allardyce, spent several Premier League seasons languishing at the bottom end of the table staving off relegation before progressing to mid-table safety. It wasn’t that they were good, because, for the most part, they weren’t, but it was because they always found a gutsy way of surviving by sheer determination, miraculous last game results, and for finding the last remaining ounce of juice left in washed-up players looking for one last round of glory.

It’s the latter point perhaps, that endeared Bolton to fans who didn’t spend their weekends at the Reebok Stadium. Bolton was the home to many talents that found new life under Allardyce. Players that managed to thrill a mostly dull part of the footballing world with European flair and Nigerian spice. I have fond memories of the indomitable Jay-Jay Okocha and Youri Djorkaeff reminding fans of their class. Then there were the bruising, hard-hitting playing styles of Ivan Campo and Fernando Hierro- adding much-needed steel to that Bolton lineup. They complimented the steadfast if not boring quality that came with the ever-present Jussi Jääskeläinen and Kevin Davies. Atop them all sat Big Sam- who long before he became a joke in English football, was the no-frills, old-school English manager who took Bolton up from the old Division One to the Premier League. And during his run, he became known for being able to get Bolton out of trouble at the last minute, no matter how ugly the season had been. They made an FA Cup Semi Final and the Round of 16 of the UEFA Cup, somehow beating Atletico Madrid along the way.

As of July 21st, the club had a total of 7 first-team players. Barely enough to field a full first team.

Those days are sadly long gone as the club find itself languishing in the third tier of English football, once again ending the previous season relegated. Mired in financial disarray, the club has been in control of administrators since May, with its long-awaited takeover by new owners (whoever they may end up being) dragging on and on. The sad state of affairs has been punctuated by the club unable to pay its players and staff, canceled pre-season friendlies, and quite possibly the saddest team sheet in all the time I’ve been a fan of English football. As of this time, their official team page has but 7 players listed (no defenders), not even enough to field a full first team. If by the time you read this they’re able to pull their socks up and field a full team, it’ll be a miracle.

Their financial downward spiral hit breaking point in 2015 when the club found itself £172.9 million in debt. It only seemed to get worse from there. Unpaid taxes, transfer embargoes, manager changes, poor results, and most depressingly, non-playing staff having to use food bank donations to feed themselves (including donations from rival club Preston North End).

It really is hard to believe the dismal state Bolton find themselves in. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a true Wanderers fan to face the reality of their club in 2019. It’s not that the club has ever been successful (their last significant trophy was the 1958 FA Cup), but from the outside, their grit, their pluck, and their ability to seemingly escape the direst of circumstances made them endearing. They were the underdog team of has-beens, never-rans, forgotten souls, and Big Sam.

Now it seems their darkest days are closing in. Football fans surely would love for new owners to come in, reset the club, and start that long, arduous journey back into stability. But their new season hopes don’t even start on any positive note, with their financial failings they’ve already been docked 12 points before the start of the new season. Even with new owners, it will take a significant time to turn things around. The best they can hope for is to pull a Rangers and find themselves back on the up after 5 or so years… but the English Premier League is a far different beast to that of the Scottish Premier League, just ask Leeds United.

The long road back is never going to be easy. And for Bolton Wanderers, once a club that found its soul with players looking for one last spot of luck, may have run out of its own.

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Divided We Fail: How Individualism is Holding the U.S. Back

The bootstrap mentality is about as American as apple pie. But it’s destroying our already frayed social net and education system. Can we resist our individualistic roots to mobilize and enact progressive policies?

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To understand the swampy depths of American individualism is also to acknowledge that we have a serious inability to comprehend looming disaster. In fact, we’re uniquely terrible at it. 

Loosely defined, American individualism is the idea that prosperity and growth is overwhelmingly the result of an individual’s hard work, cleverness, grit, and all that. (It’s both hilarious and fitting that one of our most reviled and economically disastrous presidents, Herbert Hoover, was the main architect behind the notion of American individualism.) 

On one hand, this belief in individualism seems empowering. It tells us we are the captains of our own ships. It tells us we don’t have to be defined by our childhood traumas or underfunded school systems. It tells us that through scrappiness and ingenuity and discipline, we can rise above our circumstances and succeed, no matter what. 

The inverse, of course, is that our failures are also ours alone to bear—with little regard for the systems and circumstances that cause some people to spend lifetimes catching up to where others were simply born. 

American individualism explains so much of what we get wrong as a country, even in 2019. We downplay the systemic racism and violence of our police force through tunnel vision that tells us there are only a “few bad apples” rather than a flawed, oppressive police state. We’re unable to treat things like healthcare or housing as basic human rights, positing instead that those without access to food or shelter probably just haven’t “earned” it. And higher education—often treated as the great equalizer by meritocrats—is so expensive, it’s crippling our economy as a whole. Yet too many students are blaming themselves, and too many people are blaming students.

One is the Lousiest Number

These days, it’s hard to pick what to worry about more in the U.S. The list of societal threats certainly is long—climate change, the impending retirement crisis, the ongoing student debt crisis. These problems have been worsening for decades, and they’re all the result of failures at a systematic level. 

The climate crisis was ramped up by decades of poorly regulated industries that pumped carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The retirement crisis that will likely come full force when Generation X starts leaving the workforce was set into motion by a shrinking pension system and the increasingly uncertain future of Social Security. And higher education became outrageously expensive over years of unchecked soaring tuition and fee increases.

But not everyone recognizes these mass-scale problems for what they are. Instead, too many people are blaming individual choices for giant societal failures. And these arguments are distracting us from collective solutions. Realistically, no one should be arguing that student loan forgiveness is a “half-baked” idea steeped in self-interest. Or that climate change can be reasonably combatted through laudable (yet mostly insignificant) individual actions like going vegetarian.

The numbers prove just how puny our individual actions really are against these larger-than-us problems. For example, even the most generous, self-massaged estimates put a single company like ExxonMobil’s annual carbon emissions in the range of well over 100 million CO2 equivalent metric tons. The average American, through even the most radical lifestyle changes and discipline, would likely only lower their annual emissions from about 20 metric tons to 8 metric tons. It would take millions and millions of people selling their cars and going vegan to equate to just one ExxonMobil. (Spoiler alert: There are way too many companies just like it.) 

As Aaron Huertas of the Union of Concerned Scientists eloquently states: “We can’t ignore individual choice and responsibility; at the same time, we also have to recognize that our individual choices are constrained by corporate practices and government laws and regulations.”

A Way Out and Up

All is not lost, though. There is hope.

While the 2020 presidential pool for the Democrats may be a bit flooded, the makeup of the pool has revealed a trend: the ideas of sweeping economic relief and safety net programs are becoming more mainstream. If the Democratic party can just avoid spending its time strategizing against democratic socialism, we could enact policies that tackle these problems at the level they’re actually at.

Party insiders and centrists aside, it looks like voters are—even if just subtly and slowly—pressuring politicians to stop blaming individual choice for societal woes. The idea of multiple presidential candidates touting competing student loan relief programs would have seemed outrageous even a few election cycles ago—and now Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Julián Castro are all on board.

The point is, we’re getting there. And if we can fight against our very American instincts, we can realize—en masse—that our efforts to save our planet might be better spent organizing than remembering to recycle our empty salsa jars. We can take solace in knowing a liberal arts degree isn’t a personal failing that deserves financial punishment. We can accept that, as individuals, we may not be as powerful on our own as we thought, but we also may not be as much to blame for our struggles.

And then, we can mobilize. 

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