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.
Book Review: My Father Left Me Ireland – An American Son’s Search For Home
My Father Left Me Ireland should be read widely and thoughtfully, as both an example of outstanding memoir and as a political intervention.
Among those who think themselves wise, few words in our political vocabulary seem more likely to elicit a derisive scoff than nationalism. Little, as ever, do they know, as it is an idea whose importance, in our time of Brexit, Trump, and pandemic, has been somewhat rescued from neglect and disfavour. Nationalism, as any fair-minded thinker would allow, has both benign and pathological forms, and it isn’t inevitably guided or condemned to take one path over the other.
After pointing this out, one notices, with annoyance, more scoffs, the volume and contempt of which are calculated by the gender of the accused, the toxicity of his masculinity, his alleged racism, and, well, you know the list by now.
Perhaps such unthinking responses are best ignored, useless as they are, perhaps now more than ever. This almost seems to be the approach of Michael Brendan Dougherty in his memoir My Father Left Me Ireland, a serious and affecting reflection on fathers and sons, the nation and its survival.
Dougherty is, first of all, a masterly writer, and he so carefully interposes his personal narrative between the larger political, cultural and historical questions that one hardly notices the transitions. He writes:
“All nations are in some way dissolving, we’re told, and that the dissolution is a good thing. Ireland’s national pride is a font of violence, a spur to extremism and superstition. And besides, Ireland is a failure. It has always been a failure. After all, my ancestors left. James Joyce left. Ireland’s children still leave. They send back selfies from Bondi Beach in Sydney. They send back money from Vancouver . . . I have to laugh. They all leave, but you stayed.”
The addressee here is the father in the title, whose staying in Ireland left his son fatherless in America, loved at a distance. Now, the arrival of Dougherty’s first child prompts the collection of letters to his father which makes up the memoir.
The letters combine grief, humour, anger, reconciliation, and, perhaps most importantly, recovery:
“I am suddenly alive to the idea that I could pass on this immense inheritance of imagination and passion if only I could work up the courage to claim it for myself.”
First, however, his recollections must pierce the soul: all too brief moments of visiting his father and the tears that followed; and the abandonment and broken endurance of his heroic mother. “Your curse was in being so easy to love,” Dougherty tells his father, and it is that same love that compelled his mother to try to hold on to the Irish songs and stories, the political commitments, and even the language.
Despite the real hardship and the literary risks of the letter form, Dougherty never collapses into self-pity or sentimentality; his bigger themes wouldn’t allow it, anyway. He skilfully uses his own story to tell a more important one about the culture and its degradation. His insights are remarkable and convincing.
He contemns what he calls the myth of liberation: the combination of self-absorption and self-delusion by which his generational cohort has lived and suffered. This has led to the desecration of community and family institutions and their replacement with a focus on the self, who is always right. The preferred cliché, nowadays at least, is the exhortation to speak and live your truth, which is risible at first glance and nerve-wracking at the second.
Reflecting on the death of his mother, Dougherty ties this social deformation to his own mourning and anger:
“I was furious too at the ambivalence of our culture in the face of her death. This myth of liberation was like a solvent that had slowly and inexorably dissolved any sense of obligation in life. It dissolved the bonds that held together past, present, and future. It dissolved the social bonds that hold together a community, and that make up a home.”
For Dougherty, one part of the solution to this crisis is a return to the nation, and he finds solace and inspiration in the thought and words of Patrick Pearse, the teacher and revolutionary of the 1916 Easter Rising. Pearse averred:
“We must accustom ourselves to the thought of arms, to the sight of arms, to the use of arms. We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people; but bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. There are many things more horrible than bloodshed; and slavery is one of them.”
How easy it is to imagine such words shrivelling the tongue of some sanctimonious fool, the one who loathes the mere idea of borders, his nation, and, in the end, himself. We live in a time when speaking in defence of one’s inheritance is something like bad manners, and even the use of the word manhood is a social solecism. One easily notices a reproach in Pearse’s words, and we would do well to reflect on it.
For Dougherty, this reproach from the past means doing away with our present conception of the nation as mere administration, as a rank in terms of GDP or policy success or whatever. It means a recognition of what his father has truly left him – Ireland, with all its wonder and complexity. It means remembering that a nation has a soul, and we are haunted by its ghosts: our fathers and grandfathers from whom we inherit a tradition, as well as a responsibility to pass it on. It means that in such an act, sacrifice may be called for, and it should be given joyfully.
Some of these are old ideas, and we have forgotten them. That is why, in Dougherty’s arresting prose, they seem very much alive: “To dance up to the idea of idolatry, you might say the life of a nation proceeds from the father and the son.”
My Father Left Me Ireland should be read widely and thoughtfully, as both an example of outstanding memoir and, more importantly, as a political intervention: perhaps our etiolated debate over the nation and its soul can be brought back to life.
My Father Left Me Ireland
by Michael Brendan Dougherty
(Sentinel / Penguin Books)
My Father Left Me Ireland: An American Son’s Search For Home was published in April of 2019 by Penguin Books.
Malleable memories and transcending time: An interview with Joanna Howard
Author Joanna Howard talks about her new memoir, “Rerun Era.”
How many versions of my life are there?
Did other people see what I saw?
What really happened around me?
In a mesmerizing way, author Joanna Howard’s vivid new memoir, Rerun Era, nudges us to ask ourselves these questions — and reconcile what we think we know about time and our own experiences.
Narrated by Howard’s five-year-old self, Rerun Era paints a striking portrait of her childhood in rural Oklahoma. At the cornerstone of it all is trauma — as well as a connection to television that reveals more than pop culture taste. It serves as the foundation of time and memory.
While Rerun Era is a welcome return to a time of boxy television sets, VHS tapes, and radio dials, the story is relatable beyond generations and regions. It is the story of so many of our childhoods, spent seeking solace and stability in screens and laugh tracks.
When you started to write Rerun Era, did you think that remembering things in this fashion — attaching memories to, or grounding yourself in, pop culture — was universal or kind of unusual?
Howard: It felt universal for my generation, particularly. For a lot of people who grew up in the 80s and early 90s — it was the rise of the MTV generation. I did think there would be a lot of people who shared a kind of collective memory of what they watched. And it does seem to be the case. Since the book has come out, I’ve been hearing that from a lot of people. Even if we didn’t watch the same thing, it’s triggered people’s memories of what they watched when they were a kid.
Given how thoroughly media has changed in the past few decades — whether that’s speed, or the amount of media, or consumption habits — do you think it’s possible for late Millennials and Gen Z to experience the same type of solace and relationship to pop culture that you did?
Howard: I worry that they won’t. You know you’re getting old when you start worrying about how the youth consume culture, or whether they read or what they watch (laughs). I do think it’s hard now to watch anything we don’t feel we have complete control over. Like how we watch it, when we watch it, for what duration we watch it.
For me as a child, I knew it was time to go to dinner when one episode of M*A*S*H started, and I knew that dinner was over when another one started. That way in which television sort of cordoned off time? I just don’t think kids now can ever have that, because of streaming and downloadable platforms and binge watching.
It’s dramatically changed, that relationship with time. People can still escape into shows; it’s just a different kind of escape.
The memories that you wrote about seemed most vivid when they mimicked TV. For example, you wrote about going to an event called Frontier Days, where people were obviously dressed up and playing characters. In those types of scenes, everything seemed a bit more vibrant. Why do you think those memories were so vivid? The ones that — I don’t want to say they necessarily emulated TV, but they were obviously more character driven and almost played out like an episode of TV.
Howard: I do think if you grow up watching a lot of television, it really shapes the visual part of your memory. Like if I am reconstructing an experience in my mind or telling a story to someone out loud, I’m often sort of picturing it in my head like it’s a film or a television show, because I’ve done so much viewing as a kid. I still do this.
But that visual component is also super important to me in terms of seizing upon memories. I tend to be a person who, if I see an object, it triggers my memory much more than if I smell something or hear something, for example.
Do you think you were predisposed to having that kind of visual inclination, or was it shaped by TV? Or maybe both?
Howard: I definitely think it was shaped by TV. Movies, especially. Rerun Era focuses on television because it was in that moment right before we got a VCR. But when the VCR was introduced into my life, suddenly the longer form of stories was available . . . and I was just an obsessive watcher. I could do ten films in a row, no problem. I was really prepared for binge watching before it was a thing.
It’s all totally affected the way that I think. In my other writing, when I’ve done other types of fiction, people always say that image is the thing that unifies the style of my work. I’ve clearly been influenced by that visual culture.
In Rerun Era, television is really as much of a character as any of your family members, if not more so. At some points, it’s a caretaker. A reliable, comforting presence in your life. A window to somewhere outside of a small rural town.
Did it seem that way when you were younger, that TV was almost kind of personified? Or is it just now, in retrospect?
Howard: I really like the phrase “caregiver” that you’re using there. I was totally aware of the fact that my parents were cordoning me into this space to watch television, as their way of dealing with having a kid when they didn’t have time to deal with having a kid. The TV did absolutely feel like a babysitter.
I see it a lot with my friends who have kids now. They’re resisting putting the iPad or whatever in front of the kid, but there’s this way in which time opens up for adults when their kid goes into that zone. Even though you know it’s not a great idea, there’s something so seductive about the silence the parents get from it (laughs). That concept of “television as babysitter” or “VCR as babysitter” was my parents’ lifeline in many ways, and I was very aware of it.
But I don’t think I was worried about it, and my parents weren’t terribly worried about it either. Parents nowadays are obviously much more concerned with what screens are going to do to us in the future. My parents were not super worried (laughs).
I wonder how much of modern parents’ worry about screen time is because they themselves were babysat by screens. Which leads me to another thing I found really interesting about Rerun Era . . .I feel like, generally, people refer to latchkey kids or kids raised by TVs in a really negative light.
Howard: Oh, yes.
But you don’t do that. It’s very nostalgic. It’s very warm. TV is not, by any means, the enemy in your book.
Howard: Definitely not. If I have any kind of ethical core, it’s been partially formed by these clichés in these shows where the person does the right thing (laughs). Those shows sort of formed that tapestry for me.
But I also think it’s sad, the degree to which a parent now feels responsible for every aspect of their child’s life. I understand that comes out of seeing a lot of kids end up in very bad situations, or children who were susceptible to adults that were harmed or with bad caregivers.
For me and my friends, there wasn’t a lot of oversight into what we were doing (laughs). We were allowed to kind of run amok. My parents were working, and they didn’t have the time. And I’m kind of grateful for that. It meant I had a lot of freedom as a kid and as a teenager, and when I went to college, I didn’t freak out about the sudden freedoms you have when you become an adult.
I see it a lot with my students now, because I teach those Gen Z students, their parents have overseen just about every aspect of their lives and have been exactly what we think of as model parents. But it becomes so much harder for their kids to imagine their own independence in the world.
It seems like there are a lot of those types of experiences in Rerun Era that, while they’re still relatable, would be entirely foreign to later Millennials and Gen Z. Like one of the things from the book that I remember well were those uncertainties of who sang this song, who acted in that movie? That’s not an experience people can have now. Either passionately believing in a wrong answer for years, or not knowing what actor that was in that one thing. We have instant answers now.
It’s so interesting to think about how foreign the book could be to people who really aren’t that much younger.
Howard: That moment where the Internet made access to all answers possible, there was just no going back. There used to be a certain kind of charm that a person who collected trivia held in the world. If you were the guy who knew all of the records, and could identify who did that song — that person could even carve out a career from that. People would pilgrimage to try to get answers. You’d have these intense interpersonal exchanges where people would debate whether or not someone was in this particular Hitchcock film. Now you’re at a dinner party, someone asks “Who was in that?” and you Google it, and the conversation’s done (laughs).
Now, anyone can be an expert in, like, 20 minutes. There’s less of a need for people to collect up facts and learn now. Like I remember, we would play Trivial Pursuit, and whoever won was revered! (Laughs.) How amazing that this one person could answer all these questions in all these different categories? Sports, entertainment, history . . .
Oh, they were so worldly!
Howard: (Laughs.) It was amazing.
I feel like that instant access probably has something to do with why we’ve become so argumentative online. You can sit behind a screen and quickly Google things. Even if it’s something you didn’t know five seconds ago, you get so entrenched in it because you can find the answers to back up your opinions as fast as you need to.
Howard: Absolutely. And we also feel justified to call someone out for not knowing things because they should have Googled it before they posted whatever they posted. That’s a tough demand. And if you’re at all hot tempered, those things don’t go well together. (Laughs.)
To switch gears, you cover a great deal of trauma in the book. So much so that it seems as though more time lapses than the year you actually cover. How did you hone in on this specific period of your life?
Howard: You know, it just happened so quickly. I had been talking with a friend of mine, a poet from Arkansas, C.D. Wright. . . . she had been trying to get me to write about my family for a really long time. There are a lot of these parts of the world that are perceived to be backwards, and she thought that there weren’t enough stories from people who come from these parts of the world and have had a very vibrant relationship to culture and art. We didn’t necessarily grow up cut off from left-wing thinking or things like that. I set out to do this book because she was very much like, we need these voices in the world. And this book just immediately took off.
Originally, I hadn’t set out to do the voice how it is. I’ve never written anything with a child’s voice before. Once the voice was in place, it just started to write itself. The whole year came on in a tide; I’ve never had an experience like that with another book.
Did you uncover a lot of things you had forgotten about?
Howard: I sat down with my brother, who’s ten years older than me, and that helped. He was just a more fully formed thinker than me as a five-year-old. At five, I was prone to have gotten pieces confused or imagined things and my brother was very clear about things.
I found out that I had conflated some things and people. In a few instances, I allowed a bit of that fictional technique to rearrange some things.
People often write memoirs, even of their young childhood, with a great deal of certainty about details. In Rerun Era, that wasn’t really the case; you were upfront about the shifting or unsure part of your memories. Was that hard?
Howard: I definitely think it was helpful for me, that feeling of having articulated that. I didn’t go into the project thinking that’s what I was doing, because I didn’t think about my mind that way.
I think about the phrase “gaslight” a lot. We didn’t use that in the way we do now. We didn’t talk about it. My parents would often have a very different memory of something that took place than me or my brother did, and they would try to force that version on us. Because of that environment, where my memories have been challenged, I have always felt a bit vulnerable about what’s real and what’s not. It’s made me feel, at times, that I’ve needed to protect my own way of seeing things — even if it’s wrong. It can feel like your identity is being challenged.
What would you say to anyone who is struggling with that sense of being unsure of the details of what’s happened in their own life — particularly when it comes to traumatic events?
Howard: Well, I think it’s just really important to be gentle in the way that you deal with those things. I went into this book blaming my parents for a lot of things. My memory would sometimes shape things to re-emphasize that narrative of blame, or of the absentee parent. The process of writing the book really softened my view of my family, to know that we all had different ideas of what was actually going on.
Truth is really great when we’re talking about climate change, but when you’re dealing with your personal memories, that’s when we need to be gentle and a bit more lax. Those things can take time to figure out.
by Joanna Howard