Wednesday, December 30, 2009
O Happy Dagger! (Part 2)
Although it was developed centuries ago, ballet didn't really come into its own until the early twentieth century--that is, when it intersected with Modernism. Ballet is a quintessentially formalist art, which is why the Soviets had such an ambivalent relationship to it. What's wrong with formalism? Well, it erases history, for one thing. That's okay with me--I'm not one of those rabid materialist types. But from a Marxist point of view, this is a bad thing.
I could hold forth about Marxism vs. formalism here, but I'm not an academic anymore, so I don't have to. Suffice it to say that formalism won, history has ended, and Hegel was right about everything.
In real life, ballerinas develop eating disorders and really mess up their bodies by forcing them into all those painful, unnatural positions. Ballet is hell on living, breathing women. It exalts a certain ethereal idea of "the feminine" which has nothing to do with maternity and earthiness and all the stuff women were celebrated for in ancient times. Ballet celebrates women for being girls. For not becoming fertile and (therefore) earthbound. It celebrates women who are forever fifteen, who are lighter than air, who die in beautiful ways. Ballet helped create the modern, youth-obsessed, anorexic girl-woman. The eternal Juliet, who never grows up.
Now don't get me wrong--I love ballet. It's beautiful, and yes, sublime. But it's also unnatural in the extreme and a little bit evil, when you think about it. In that sense it has a lot in common with the ahistorical "formalist romance" that is Romeo and Juliet. Structurally and thematically, the play is a perfect vehicle for ballet.
Prokofiev's ballet first came to America in the 1960's, almost in time for Zeffirelli's operatic film. As I said, the 1960's were a perfect historical setting for this story of generational conflict. The 1930's, not so much. At least not in Stalinist Russia, where the new communist boss was in many ways worse than the old Tsarist boss. In one of Soviet communism's many ironies, revolutionary ideology quickly outlawed revolutionary ideas. It wasn't cool to say bad stuff about the Old Guard anymore, and romance was a pretty bourgeois concept anyway. The personal life was decidedly counter-revolutionary, i.e., good socialists weren't supposed to have one. See Dr. Zhivago if you don't believe me.
Interesting trivia: Prokofiev died on the same day as Stalin in 1953.
Well, anyway. Let's finish this thing.
Paris beats Romeo to Juliet's tomb in scene 3; he arrives with flowers, perfumed water, and a page to carry them. His obsequies consist of strewing the tomb with flower petals and sprinkling it with eau de parfum-- very old school. This is the first time the audience sees that Paris really grieves for his reluctant bride-to-be; it's a surprise, really, since the play never hinted that he saw her as anything more than a good match, a pretty cover for a very dull book. But of course Will needs to get Paris into the tomb, so the young County (i.e., Count) is suddenly stricken by grief and the need to express it. His lament takes the form of an Italian sonnet--or part of one:
Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew.
O woe! Thy canopy is dust and stones,
Which with sweet water nightly I will dew,
Or, wanting that, with tears distilled by moans.
The obsequies that I for thee will keep
Nightly shall be to strew thy grave and weep.
Romeo, meanwhile, arrives with Balthasar, whom he promptly sends packing. Easy to see why Juliet chose this literary bad boy over prissy Paris and his perfume bottle:
The time and my intents are savage-wild,
More fierce and more inexorable far
Than empty tigers or the roaring sea.
As Romeo pries the tomb open with a crowbar, he continues in the same vein:
Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death,
Gorged with the dearest morsel of the earth,
Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,
And in despite I'll cram thee with more food.
It's a horrifying image--the tomb as hungry mouth, sated stomach, womb of corpses. But it makes Paris's little sestet (six lines of a sonnet) sound effete and artificial by comparison. This poetry slam is no contest--but I'll say it again, Paris shouldn't be in this scene at all.
He isn't, for long. He assumes that Romeo, Tybalt's murderer, has come "to do some villainous shame/To the dead bodies." His challenge--"Stop thy unhallowed toil, vile Montague!" sounds so stagy it's almost laughable. Romeo, for his part, begs Paris to stand down, because he's in no mood to not kill someone:
Put not another sin upon my head
By urging me to fury.
Well, Paris lunges at him, they fight, and P. dies--but not before he begs Romeo to lay him in the tomb with his lady-love. So Romeo carries Paris to the tomb, all the while speaking his last words to Juliet. Really, what was Will thinking? This is just too silly. But the poetry is lovely, as expected:
Ah, dear Juliet, why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe
That unsubstantial death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?
Gorgeous stuff--and it's "abhorr-ed," for the meter. Let's read the rest:
For fear of that I still will stay with thee,
And never from this pallet of dim night
Depart again. Here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chambermaids. O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last.
Arms, take your last embrace, and lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death.
I don't think a teenage actor can speak convincingly of "world-wearied flesh." If the early parts of the play demand youth and wonder, this scene, I think, needs an older actor. I'm going to take a look at the Cukor film, to see what Leslie Howard (who will always be Ashley Wilkes to me, alas) does with it. But really, listen to it: "a dateless bargain to engrossing death." An eternal surrender to death's monopoly. An Anglo-Saxon poet might have said "death is foreclosing on my soul-house," or something to that effect. Very cool.
The end comes quickly after Romeo's death. Laurence realizes that his message to Romeo never arrived. His messenger was prevented from delivering it because of a plague quarantine--another metaphor literalized, if you remember Mercutio's curse. He races to the tomb. Too late, naturally. Juliet wakes up, finds out what's happened. Laurence tries to get her to leave because the watch is about to arrive. Rather than take responsibility for the mess he made, the cowardly man of God runs off, leaving her to her fate. She doesn't waste time:
O happy dagger,
This is thy sheath! There rust, and let me die.
This is overtly sexual, since "sheath" is a literal translation of the Latin "vagina." Sorry, sometimes a sheath isn't just a sheath. For all the sexual imagery of this final scene, however, it's important to remember that Romeo and Juliet die alone. It's the first rule of tragedy--comedy commiserates, tragedy isolates. Although songs and stalkers may celebrate the "together in eternity" aspect of the story, that's not really what the play says at all. In a tragic world, Everyman--and woman--stands alone, face to the wind.
There's a brutal, unwelcome truth to that.
All that's left is the clean-up, moralizing, and final thoughts from yours truly. I'll save that for next time.