Things I’ve been thinking about: Malls, Manor Houses, and Revolutionaries

I’m currently based in Hangzhou, China, and being in a new and unfamiliar city means that while I have much to discover, I have little to do–and a lot of time to spend reading. Here are three things that I’ve been thinking about this week:

Qiu Jin, The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake

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A few days ago I stumbled across a memorial to Qiu Jin near Hangzhou’s West Lake. I had briefly studied her in a college history class, and a quick online search reminded me of what a fascinating figure she is. Born in 1875, Jin was a Chinese feminist poet and revolutionary who left her husband in order to pursue her education in Japan, then returned to China to fight against the Manchu Qing dynasty (she was executed in 1907). I love these lines from her poem Capping Rhymes with Sir Ishii from Sun’s Root Land:

Ashamed, I have done nothing; not one victory to my name

I simply make my war horse sweat.

The image of accomplishing nothing except tiring out yourself and an animal who can’t understand the context for this exhaustion conveys a very specific sense of futility.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

I finished reading Brideshead Revisited a few weeks ago, and I’m still not sure what to make of the way Evelyn Waugh writes about romance, sex, and sexuality. Most of the sex in the novel—and especially queer sex—is subtextual. Is this just a function of censorship in 1950s Britain, or is it a calculated choice? And if it’s intentional, then is Waugh being subversive by refusing to label sexuality, or does his characters’ refusal to talk about sex indicated how repressed and self-loathing most of them are (and does that tie in to his views on Catholicism)?

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I’ve also been thinking about similarities between Brideshead Revisited and Atonement: I think Atonement might be the better book, but it might not have been able to happen if Brideshead Revisted hadn’t been written first. Both center on a country house and a family, both have a writer/narrator looking back on the past, both use WWII to mark the end of an era and the destruction of a class system and way of life.

I haven’t yet seen any of the movie/tv adaptations, but it’s now vaguely on my to-watch list.

Joan Didion and Malls

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Luxury malls are everywhere in China (apparently many of them are actually closing down because the market has become over-saturated). But the experience of going to a mall here is very different than going to a mall in the US—and very, very different from going to a mall in my hometown in Oregon. The mall where I grew up was ugly, with outdated 1970s architecture and stale, stuffy air. When I was older, I learned it was also a hub for local sex trafficking (which explains why my mother wouldn’t allow me to go there alone in my early teens). But reading Joan Didion makes me think that visiting malls in China must be akin to the experience of visiting a brand new mall in California in 1975. It is easy to get lost in these malls. They are vast, filled with clothes and sweet shops and luminous white melamine surfaces. In On the Mall, She writes:

Ala Moana, The Esplanade, and Edgewater Plaza are the same place, which is precisely their role not only as equalizers but in the sedation of anxiety. In each of them one moves for a while in an aqueous suspension… ‘It’s a hard place to run in to for a pair of stockings,’ a friend complained to me recently of Ala Moana, and I knew that she was not yet ready to surrender her ego to the idea of the center.

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On Our New Poet Laureate, Tracy K Smith

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This week, the news that Tracy K Smith had been chosen as the new poet laureate of the US provided me with a gleam of encouragement amidst the ever-worsening firestorm of current events. I first discovered Smith’s work in a college seminar on contemporary poetry. Smith’s Pulitzer-winning collection Life on Mars was required reading, and I immediately loved her powerful, clear-voiced, and accessible style. Many of her poems–The Speed of Belief, Eggs Norwegian, and The Good Life among them–have stuck in my head and prompted revisiting and rereading over the last few years. Last year, I taught The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to a class of middle school students.

In honor of Smith’s new role as poet laureate, I’d like to share some thoughts on Life on Mars. I’m also adding her memoir, Ordinary Light, to my reading list.

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Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith’s attempt to address death in the post-space age era, is an ambitious collection of poetry, spanning topics literally as vast as our ever-expanding universe.

Smith’s father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope during the 1980s, died in 2008, and his presence is felt throughout the book in Smith’s allusions to astronomy and outer space. If anything, Smith takes on too much. The book’s four parts chart a progression towards the internal, and Smith risks losing her readers along the way, but those who stay with her will find Life on Mars both thoughtful and thought-provoking.

Smith begins by examining the world in which we live on a massive scale. Part one of the collection is an amalgamation of astronomical facts and Cold War pop culture references drawn from Smith’s childhood.  “Sci-Fi” and “Museum of Obsolescence” offer Bradbury-esque visions of a future where “Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift / in the haze of space” or visit museums to stare at “an image of the old planet taken from space.”  In “It & Co.,” Smith searches for something unnamed, “vast and unreadable.” Those who remember Sylvia Plath’s “Death & Co.” might guess that Smith is referring to death, but the unidentified “it” appears throughout the book in a variety of contexts. Among other things, “it” sometimes stands in for death, but also for life, space, and sex. As I read further in the collection and grew accustomed to Smith’s ambiguous “it,” I found myself substituting new words and concepts for “it,” testing out possible meanings for the lines. Smith turns the reader into the astronomer, searching for something to explain the motions of the universe.

Life on Mars ranges in scope from the cosmic to the political to the deeply personal, and Smith is at her best when, as in “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” she successfully unifies these extremes. The ambiguous “it” appears again in this title, taken from a line from 2001: A Space Odyssey. “We like to think of it as parallel to what we know, / Only bigger. One man against the authorities. / Or one man against a city of zombies,” Smith writes, reminding us of the cinematic tropes that still shape popular conceptions of science and outer space. Smith goes on to describe a meeting with actor Charlton Heston, who, I learned from a visit to IMDb, starred in the 1968 sci-fi flick Planet of the Apes. Heston died in 2008, the same year as Smith’s father. Smith invites Heston inside, where, she writes, “I ask him to start from the beginning, but he goes only halfway back. / That was the future once, he says. Before the world went upside down.”  The scene underscores the vagueness of our understanding of time and space; Heston’s cryptic words sound like those of a movie character, and Smith’s notes at the end of the book give no hint as to whether their meeting is real or imagined. Here, Smith successfully uses ambiguity to force her readers to scrutinize the poem. The passage left me curious, but not disoriented.

When Smith describes her father for the first time in the book, she pairs her description of his work on the Hubble with the imagery of Cold War America:

When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope […]

He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,

His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,

When we lived with our finger on The Button […] 

Smith reminds us that the space race, which propelled humanity towards deeper and more complete scientific knowledge of our universe, was also driven by nuclear brinkmanship and fear of worldwide annihilation. Smith’s references to the Cold War set up her later discussion of the ongoing War on Terror, and by drawing a parallel between the two wars, Smith makes the Cold War allusions of part one more relevant to readers today.

“The Speed of Belief,” Smith’s elegy for her father, is one of two poems included in part two. The poem opens with a description of the hospital room where Smith and her family gather around her dying father, surrounded by “trays of food meant to fortify that silence.” The scene will be familiar to anyone who has visited a hospital death bed, where flowers and framed photos only partly mask the impersonality and sterility of the room. In the next section of the poem, Smith addresses her dead father, recalling her grandfather’s death:

When your own sweet father died

You woke before first light

And ate half a plate of eggs and grits,

And drank a glass of milk.

After you’d left, I sat in your place.

As Smith finds herself in her father’s place, this time metaphorically. Mourning her father’s death, she must once again ask the childhood question, “who were we / Without your clean profile nicking away / at anything that made us afraid?” As Smith struggles to explain her father’s death, she finds that she must redefine her own identity, both as a daughter, and as an individual. Who are we without the people we love? So much of our own selves are created in the context of our relationships that death forces us to examine ourselves. The final sections of the poem move toward increasingly abstract imaginings of death and life after death, closing with Smith’s prayer that her father is “what waits / to break back into the world // Through me.”

In part three, Smith’s poetry moves away from childhood memories to focus on recent tragedies. The book’s title poem, “Life on Mars,” is both luminous and chilling. As she tries to define “the space between people / When what holds them together isn’t exactly love,” Smith recounts news stories describing the torture of inmates at Abu Ghraib and a woman imprisoned and raped by her father. The horrors of life on earth, and in America today can be just as surreal and grotesque as imaginings of extraterrestrial life. In “Solstice,” a modified villanelle, Smith uses the gassing of geese at the JFK airport as an opportunity for political commentary. Smith criticizes the Bush administration’s obsession with the War on Terror and holds American citizens accountable for our passive complicity in injustice, our readiness to “back away from all we say / And, more or less, agree with what we should.”

Some of Smith’s strongest poems appear in part four, a collection of vignettes from daily life. Smith listens to the neighbor’s screaming children, refuses to walk the dog with her partner, goes for a frustrating walk with the dog, and contemplates the “the years I lived on coffee and bread.” Most of these poems, though beautifully executed, seem disconnected from the previous sections. The two final poems of the book, “When Your Small Form Tumbled into Me,” and “US & Co.” do return to earlier themes. In “When Your Small Form Tumbled into Me,” a sonnet to addressed to her child at the moment of conception, Smith asks, “From what dream world did you wriggle free?” The question calls to mind Smith’s earlier imaginings a nebulous afterlife where her father waits to break back into the world.

“Us & Co.” the book’s closing poem, harks back to part one’s “It & Co.” In “It & Co.,” Smith asks, “We are a part of It. Not guests. Is It us, or what contains us?” While “Us & Co. does not exactly answer the questions that Smith has posed to herself throughout the book, she does manage to find a kind of resolution:

We are here for what amounts to a few hours

a day at most

We feel around making sense of the terrain,

our own new limbs,

Bumping up against a herd of bodies

until one becomes home. 

“It,” once a single and foreign thing, becomes “us,” as we come to better know ourselves and the people around us. There is comfort in this. Yet Smith is well aware that this sense of familiarity with our world is at once real and illusory. We make our homes among particular people in a very specific society. There is so much beyond us that we ignore, and even more that is real, but which is also unknown to us.

“When the storm / Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing / after all we’re certain to lose, so alive —” or when we recall how the Hubble “saw to the edge of all there is — // so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back,” the reader, like Smith, will find herself in awe. Smith’s questions about death inevitably become a contemplation, and often a celebration, of life. After all, the book is not titled Death on Earth, but Life on Mars.

I loved Wonder Woman, but I wish it had been even better

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I am not a comic book buff or, very often, a fan of superhero movies, but I found myself enthralled by Wonder Woman. As many women have written in the past few weeks, there was something powerful about seeing Diana (Gal Godot) defending her home and then taking on injustice in the outside world. I do not often enjoy action movies, but I found the fight sequences exhilarating. Wonder Woman breaks new ground; I found it empowering and often smart. But it’s not perfect. Here are my thoughts on where the movie succeeds and where it falls short:

The film is at its most political in the London scenes, when it uses Diana’s confusion at the norms of 20th century Europe to highlight the absurdities of patriarchal society. Why do couples marry—and why do they stay married when they are no longer in love? Why do men—all of whom are far less skilled at combat than she—insist her that she is the one being protected? Why does her mere presence scandalize British lawmakers? Why will no one listen to her? Why must she fight so hard to prove herself? “I don’t understand,” she says, again and again, and we are reminded how nonsensical the rules of war, politics, and heteronormative, patriarchal society truly are.

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In one scene, Diana tries on a series of outfits in a London department store that are intended to help her blend in in 20th century Europe. One by one, she nixes the options that Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and his secretary Etta (Lucy Davis) present to her: they are too uncomfortable and constricting. “What do your women wear to fight?” she asks, leaving Trevor to stumble over his words, uncertain how he can explain that, in this world, women don’t fight.

The film’s attempt to make a point about the impractical nature of women’s clothing in early 20th century England is slightly undercut by its own costuming choices. Inexplicably, Diana and the Amazons wear boots with wedge-heels. Sure, wedges are more stable than stilettos, but they’re highly impractical for running, horseback riding, or rappelling from island cliffs. Likewise, the shoulder-baring, waist-nipping armor that the Amazons wear is slightly too similar to the corsets Diana scorns. Wedge-heels aside, I can see a case for costuming the women in outfits that echo the traditional (if sexed-up) iconography of wonder women past. The Amazons’ barely-there armor is reminiscent of how the Spartans supposedly trained in the nude and make their fearlessness that much more impressive. Who needs bulletproof vests? The Amazons’ righteousness, brilliance, and skill are their armor.

Whatever you think of Diana’s armor, it’s clear that Trevor is correct when he tells her outfit is inappropriate daywear for the streets of London. Yet when Diana emerges from the fitting room in a practical, loose-fitting gray suit, Trevor tells her that her looks are going to attract too much attention. Introducing a movie-makeover cliché, he suggests she put on some glasses. “Right,” Etta scoffs “Put on some specs and suddenly she’s not the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen.” I loved this subtle call-out: glasses don’t make Gal Godot (or any woman) less attractive.

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Last week, Christina Cauterucci of Slate’s XX Factor blog wrote about her discomfort with the way Diana’s male sidekicks ogle her and crack jokes about her sex appeal, and argues that “whatever chance Wonder Woman had of being some kind of feminist antidote to the overabundance of superhero movies made by and for bros was blown by its prevailing occupation with the titular heroine’s sex appeal.” While I agree that the men of Wonder Woman engage in some unquestionably icky behavior, I read these moments differently. For me, the leering jokes of men the “right” side of the war actually emphasized what Diana is up against. She’s suddenly found herself in a world where sexism, injustice, and violence are normalized and to a certain degree perpetuated by even the men who claim to be fighting against injustice, and who she considers to be her friends. Trevor, the most virtuous of the men Diana meets, becomes her truest ally and then her lover, but he knows as well as we do that he is not worthy of her. The audience’s realization that even the “good guys” are not wholely good aligns with Diana’s realization that ending the war or restoring peace to the human world will not be as simple as killing a single general or even destroying the God of War.

The second half of Wonder Woman explores the idea that both good and evil are a part of human nature, and director Patty Jenkins was able to underline this theme by setting the film in the final days of World War I. A devastating, brutal conflict fought over the concerns of dying empires and geopolitical alliances, World War I has become an archetype for the meaninglessness and wastefulness of modern warfare. A World War II-era Wonder Woman could have joined the Allies in rightfully punching Nazis, but rather than construct a narrative that placed Diana on the virtuous side of a moral war, Jenkins sets Diana in the midst of a war where no one is in the right.

Given this intelligent setup, I was mystified that the movie’s Germans, when we finally meet them, take the form of Nazi-esque clichés. If Wonder Woman’s true enemy is war and humanity’s inherent flaws that lead them into violence and cruelty, why does she also need to fight against two human supervillains: the twisted Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) and General Ludendorff (Danny Huston), who test mustard gas on prisoners and murder German officers committed to the armistice? While these characters act as an effective red herring (we, like Diana, never suspect that the god of war might be disguised as a mild-mannered British politician played by David Thewlis), their all-out wickedness weakens the argument that all humans have the propensity for both good and evil.

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We could have seen the devastation caused by poison gas without Dr. Poison’s torture experiments, and General Luttendorf need not be a supervillain—just a cruel man with a horrifying commitment to the ideas of total war. In making the Imperial Germans into the Huns of Allied propaganda, Wonder Woman missed an opportunity to subvert superhero movie tropes and created a more nuanced comment on the nature of war and violence.

How Mohsin Hamid used a 2nd Person narrator to build drama in The Reluctant Fundamentalist

A few years ago, I was at a party attended largely by Boston-area academics when two men got into an argument about whether there was any merit in using second-person point of view (really). The pro-second-person guy couldn’t come up with any examples to support his case, and soon everyone moved on to other topics of conversation. Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the example that would have turned that argument in favor of second-person narration.

Hamid has said the novel owes its unusual narrative structure to Albert Camus’ 1956 novella The Fall; though not written with the intent of theatrical performance, both works are structured as second-person dramatic monologues delivered by the narrator to a silent ‘other’, and Hamid and Camus both make use of dramatic techniques to maintain narrative tension. Hamid’s narrator, the former financial analyst Changez, shares characteristics with Camus’ ex-lawyer Jean-Baptiste Clamence. Like Changez, Jean-Baptiste admits to having once “earned my living by carrying on a dialogue with people I scorned.” Both men, too, are in a kind of self-imposed exile; Jean Baptiste from his native France, Changez from the United States, where he once believed he would make a life for himself. Yet as satisfying as these parallels are, they are most significant in that both men are the type of man who is convinced of the value of his own story, the kind of man who invites a stranger for a drink in a cafe and proceeds to deliver a dramatic monologue designed to win the stranger’s empathy, if perhaps not his sympathy.

The promotional summary on the back of the 2008 paperback edition of The Reluctant Fundamentalist reads: “Invited to join him for tea, you learn his name and what led this immaculate speaker of immaculate English to seek you out.” This is slightly misleading — Changez does not really address the reader directly — but the dramatic monologue does have the effect of forcing the reader to take on the role of the ‘other’ to whom the monologue is addressed. “Ah, I see I have alarmed you,” Changez says in the novel’s opening lines. “Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America.” Immediately, we know something about the “you” who is addressed. Changez’s theatrical ‘other’ is a burly American man with “short-cropped” hair and an “expansive chest” who keeps reaching under his suit jacket to reach for — something. Though this may be drama, it is not improv, and Changez’s monologue eaves little room for the American to respond spontaneously. This is not to say that the American is impassive, but that we only ‘see’ him through Changez’s responses to him. Changez interprets and re-iterates the American’s words before responding to them: “Creepy, you say? What a delightfully American expression — one that I have not heard in many years!” In The Fall, Camus allows his readers the occasional hint at Jean-Baptiste’s interlocutor’s language in much the same way: “Fascinating?” Jean-Baptiste says. “There’s an adjective I haven’t heard in some time. Not since leaving Paris, in fact, years ago.” Through a few, carefully chosen glimpses of the ‘other’, Hamid and Camus create an impression of dialogue, but they also highlight how the linguistic differences between their narrator and unheard interlocutor.

In both The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Fall, the dramatic monologue builds a world inhabited by characters with a multiplicity of voices — but accessible only through the voice of the narrator. The speaker describes other characters and even allows them to speak — but these other voices and characters are always presented through the speaker’s own voice. The structure of the dramatic monologue allows Hamid to showcase Changez’s voice — the hyper-articulate, sometimes idiosyncratic speech of an educated man who learned English as his second language. Changez, having rejected the ethos of post-9/11 America, no longer speaks like an American — and, he admits, he never really did. “I did something in Manila I had never done before: I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American,” Changez says. But when he describes how he was stopped by Homeland Security officials on his way back to the US, Changez disparages the immigration officer by describing her “mastery of English” as  “inferior to mine.” Changez occasionally slips into this slightly self-righteous arrogance — a tone Jean-Baptiste too takes on in The Fall — but it is an attitude that the structure of the dramatic monologue seems to demand.

When Changez acknowledges that the one-sidedness of his storytelling may be making his interlocutor uncomfortable, Hamid winks at the reader. The story is being told in this way for a reason, and we get to be in on it. “Possibly you find me crass for revealing such intimacies to you, a stranger? No?” Changez asks. The American across the table from him very well may, be we, the readers, don’t. Novelistic and theatrical works are meant to reveal intimacies. Even if we do not want to be made uncomfortable in our every day lives, many of us expect to be made uncomfortable when we read a great literary work or go to the theater.

Changez knows this, and so he tells his interlocutor what Hamid’s readers have already guessed: “Allow me to assure you that I do not always speak this openly; indeed, I almost never do. But tonight, as I think we both understand, is a night of some importance. Certainly I perceive it to be so — and yet if I am wrong, you will surely be justified in regarding me the most terrible boor!” Plays never take place on ordinary days; they are always set at the moment of crisis. Hamid has told The Guardian that, in addition to The Fall, he drew inspiration from the narrative framing of the classic western High Noon, “in which ‘the viewer is ‘living the film in the same time as its characters’. In imitation, the reading of his novel was to have the same duration as its action.” The plot of High Noon is propelled by the anticipation of a crisis: at twelve noon, a train carrying an old nemesis will arrive in town and Gary Cooper’s character must choose whether to fight for his life or stand by his commitment to pacifism. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, too is propelled by a sense of an approaching doom; but where High Noon reaches its shoot-out resolution, Hamid closes the book just before the big reveal. What is the “glint of metal” under the American’s suit jacket? A gun, or, as Changez politely suggests, “the holder of your business cards?” The tension is never resolved, and, as a result, we never know if Changez’s premonition is justified. Perhaps this night holds a terrible significance for one or both of the men. Then again, Changez may simply be the worst kind of boor.

Camus makes this kind of ending possible. In The Fall, Jean-Baptiste presents his own narrative as an explanation of his role as a “judge-penitent,” but he never quite manages to define what a “judge-penitent” is. “Are we not all alike,” he asks his interlocutor, in the novella’s closing paragraph, “constantly talking and to know one, forever up against the same questions although we know the answers in advance?” In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid, too, creates a sense that his characters already know the answers: “I have not, I suspect, entirely surprised you,” Changez tells the American. “Do you deny it? No? And that is of not inconsiderable interest to me, for we have not met before, and yet you seem to know at least something about me.” These lines read like foreshadowing, a hint to the reader that, if we wait patiently, the truth will be revealed. But in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, like The Fall, there is no ultimate revelation, only a quietly accumulation of suggestions. The theatrical principle of dramatic irony is inverted. Instead of a narrative in which the readers know more than the characters, the characters (both the speaker and the unheard other) conspire with the author to keep one another and the reader in the dark.

“You should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you American are all undercover assassins,” Changez tells the American, but this is almost what the book fools us into imagining: that these two men, Changez and the American to whom he is speaking, are a potential terrorist (or a man perceived as a potential terrorist) and an undercover assassin. We don’t really know; and we also don’t know how much of what Changez has told us is true. In the novel’s opening lines, Changez reassures his interlocutor that he “loves America”, but he also describes how, watching the twin towers collapse in New York City, “my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.” He also tells us that his own reaction filled him with “a profound sense of perplexity.” Changez might be lying; he also might be honestly describing complex and confusing emotions. The dramatic monologue leaves room for both truths.

Perseverance, but little nuance, in Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

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Yesterday evening, I went to see Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a new and inventive musical that has been nominated for Best New Musical for the 2017 Off Broadway Alliance Awards. I’ve included some initial thoughts in the paragraphs below, but I have much more to say about the production—I had a lot of fun watching the show and admired many aspects of it, but ultimately I felt that its thematic simplicity held it back.

Valerie Vigoda and Wade McCollum bring talent and spirit to Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, which bills itself as “an epic musical adventure.” Brought together by time travel, a mysterious refrigerator, and a dating site called Cupid’s Leftovers, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton (McCollum) and experimental composer and installation artist Kat (Vigoda) weather two antarctic winters and the cold indifference of the art world as Kat learns to face the uncertainties of parenthood head-on. Vigoda’s live looping performances and soaring electric violin are vivid, emotional, and technically impressive; McCollum transitions convincingly between the role of Ernest and a chorus of farcical supporting characters, gracefully balancing comedy with more poignant moments; the production’s use of multimedia—particularly projected historical footage from Shackleton’s real-life journey—succeeds in creating a sense of awe at the explorer’s against-all-odds story without overpowering the action onstage. 

Yet though I enjoyed myself immensely, I couldn’t help but wish that playwright Joe Pietro had pushed the plot and the characters further. In the ninety minutes we spend with Kat and Ernest, we don’t gain a nuanced understanding of what motivates them or how they gather the strength they need to do the seemingly impossible. In the opening song, we learn that Kat dreams of fame in the art world and fears she will be unable to support herself or her child as a single mother. Ernest is hungry for adventure and maintains a stoic, optimistic attitude in order to inspire his men. Full-fledged optimism, the two sing, is the answer to their problems. Yet while perseverance and optimism are inspiring, the show’s insistent focus on this one core theme feels a bit pat and one-note. Kat’s self-doubt upon finding herself a single mother is referenced throughout the show, but it remains oddly abstract and tangential to the central action of the plot. Similarly, Ernest only briefly expresses fear and doubt, and when he does, Kat simply tells him to “man up.” I would have preferred to see the couple discuss and explore their fears, giving the audience a sense of who their are behind their facades of bravery, and making their undaunted perseverance even more compelling.

Hippolyta shines in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw and the first Shakespeare play I ever read. When I was six, I attended a summer camp where I dressed up in a fairy costume and sang Titania’s lullaby. I’ve seen at least five productions of the play, but until last month, when I saw Shakespeare & Company’s Northeast Regional Tour of Shakespeare production of Midsummer, I had never paid much attention to Hippolyta. In act 1, scene 1, she usually stands to the side while Theseus explains the ancient law of Athens, and I wait for the action to pick up.

A Fight

Shakespeare & Company’s touring production opened with a ritualized fight scene. Hippolyta and Theseus, played by Brittany Morgan and Jordan Jones, circled each other as the chorus beat out a rhythm with wooden sticks. As the chorus continued to drum, the two actors began a stylized fight, Morgan’s Hippolyta matching Jones’ Theseus blow for blow. When Theseus knocked the weapon out of Hippolyta’s hands, she leaped at him and he caught her around the waist. Then, as the lighting changed, their eyes met. The actors stepped apart, and, after a brief on-stage costume change, act 1 of Shakespeare’s play began.

I was riveted.

If you pick up a copy of Midsummer, you won’t find the stage direction a fight italicized at the top of act 1. But it’s also true that the opening of Shakespeare & Company’s production remained grounded in the text, dramatizing Theseus’ lines 16-17: “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, / And won thy love doing thee injuries.”

In Greek myth, the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta married the Greek Theseus after he defeated her in battle. Theseus’ opening speech to Hippolyta sexualizes violence in a way that often makes modern audiences uncomfortable — ‘I wooed thee with my sword?’ Is that phallic? What does it mean? — and so perhaps it’s not surprising that, in many, productions, actors glide past them. Yet these problematic lines are the first to hint at Hippolyta’s identity, and the next hint doesn’t come until Titania and Oberon’s quarrel in act 2, scene 1 when, in lines 70-71, Titania refers to Hippolyta as “… the bouncing Amazon, / Your buskined mistress and your warrior love.”

By opening the play with a slightly abstract representation of battle, the production chose to emphasize Hippolyta and Theseus’ history as adversaries in war and refused to minimize the more troubling aspects of their relationship.

What Say You, Hermia?

The Shakespeare & Company production ran about an hour and a half without intermission, a time limit that had necessitated significant cuts to the script. The alteration that stuck out to me the most, however, was not a cut line, but a reassigned one.

In every other version of Midsummer that I’ve seen or read, Hippolyta has only five lines in scene 1. Though she remains onstage until line 127, when Hermia and Lysander are left alone, Hippolyta doesn’t speak after Egeus, Demetrius, Hermia, and Lysander enter to plead their cases to Theseus.

In Shakespeare & Company’s production, when Egeus and the lovers entered, Theseus moved downstage to speak with them. Throughout lines 41-45, Hippolyta remained slightly upstage, listening to Egeus demand that Theseus grant him “…the ancient privilege of Athens; / As she is mine, I may dispose of her; / Which shall be either to this gentleman / Or to her death…”

At the end of Egeus’ speech, Morgan’s Hippolyta suddenly crossed downstage to Hermia and spoke line 46, Theseus’ line: “What say you, Hermia?”

Reassigning Theseus’ line to Hippolyta transforms a gesture of paternal goodwill into a female challenge to patriarchal power. Like the opening fight scene, the reassigned line gave Morgan’s Hippolyta greater agency than many productions grant her. It was a strong choice, and an effective one, but I have to question if it was appropriate to make a choice that so clearly goes against the text.

If altering the text were the only way to portray Hippolyta as an active character, then I would say that she isn’t intended to be active. However, as the opening fight scene and Morgan’s strong physicality throughout the show demonstrated, Hippolyta’s agency can be conveyed non-verbally without altering the text. Since this is the case, the reassigning the line is unnecessary. While the opening fight was not included in the text, it grew out of events referred to in the text. Reassigning Theseus’ line to Hippolyta is, in my eyes, not an outgrowth but a distortion of the text.

However, both of these unconventional choices prompted me to reexamine Hippolyta’s role in Midsummer. In the talk-back after the performance, Morgan explained that, in adding the opening fight scene, the company had hoped to give the audience a better understanding of who Hippolyta is and what role she serves throughout the play.

Remembering to Listen

I realized that I had previously thought of Hippolyta, when I thought of her at all, an unimportant character present only as Theseus’ wife and Titania’s human counterpart. Too often, in minimizing or failing to address the uncomfortable details of Theseus and Hippolyta’s courtship, productions ignore Hippolyta’s rich mythological history.

Shakespeare & Company’s presentation of Hippolyta made me rethink how I read Midsummer. I also realized just how easy it is, when watching or reading something familiar, to stop paying attention to it, and I’m very grateful to this production for reminding me to sit up and listen.