Wednesday, December 30, 2009

O Happy Dagger! (Part 2)

Today, a few thoughts on ballet. As you probably know, Romeo and Juliet was made into a ballet by Sergei Prokofiev in 1935. Now, I'll be honest here--I'm not a ballet expert. I have seen quite a few of them, however--when I was younger and lived for a short time in Manhattan, I had a friend who worked for the City Ballet and was able to get me free tickets. I've always liked dance, although I think ballet is, like all "high romantic" art forms, somewhat pathological. More on this in a moment.

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.

Romeo and Juliet is a great vehicle for ballet, because it's about youth, and haste, and most of all, transcendence. Ballet is way into transcendence--transcendence of the body's limits, transcendence of history. Pure, sublime form. Ballet is also about freezing time--ballerina bodies must remain pubescent and girlish. (No breasts, please--they wreck that "hood ornament" look). Ballerinas stand on their toes and get lifted up to the heavens by male dancers who are, with a few exceptions (Baryshnikov) pretty much just place holders. Ballet likes dances of death. Most great ballets have dying ballerinas in them. Balletic dying usually means elegantly folding the legs and waving the arms about gracefully. It's pretty to watch, for sure.

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 original version, composed for the Kirov, had a happy ending--but it wasn't ever performed. A death scene was added a few years later. Romeo and Juliet demands death--it's nothing without it. Without all the dying, it would never have lived so long. It's vampiric that way.

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.

The last line reminds me of Book 21 of The Iliad, where Achilles, mad with grief, slaughters hundreds of men at the river--the stream is choked with death, and literally spits out dead bodies. Grief, like death, is a ravenous thing.

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.

As he goes gently into that good night, Romeo remarks that the apothecary's "drugs are quick." Instant dirt nap. Unlike a real death by poisoning, of course, which is a more drawn-out, painful, messy business. Poison is traditionally "the woman's weapon," the murder means of choice for black widow spiders and disgruntled trophy wives. Pointy objects, on the other hand, are masculine--yeah, in a Freudian sense, too. Men fall on their swords, commit seppuku (ritual disembowelment, for those of you who haven't watched enough Japanese films). So we have one of those thesis-antithesis moments in death, too. Juliet dies by the sword--or dagger--and Romeo by the cup.  Will wanted to make this point explicit, so he actually has Romeo pour the poison into a cup--which of course seems gratuitous. Why bother? It's all about the symbolism, that's why.

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.


  1. You are so clever, I hope one day to be as learned as yourself. I'm in my third year with the Open University, and am about to study 'medieval enlightenment to post modern Romantism', which I will try and romantisize with enlightenment! I like to study and love the knowledge aspect, and I am only sorry that I started so late on in life.

    Your article reads like a wonderful essay, and seems to be full of the obvious which in this moment in time is oblivious to myself! I struggled with shakespear early on in my academic journey, and wondered why he was accoladed so when it seemed so crytic, regardless of the story content. Perhaps now I am more familiar with words I should ressurect him? I will come back and have a look at some of your other thoughts and ponders in the realism of opinon, which can state the obvious of my oblivous oblivion of excellent litary content! Take care. Bye.

  2. Thanks for your comment! It's never too late to start reading Shakespeare (or anything, really). In fact, I think some things make more sense later in life. I'm not a real Shakespeare scholar, so I'm kind of doing this for fun...and it's so nice to have a new reader. Best of luck with your studies!

  3. My daughter has been dancing since she was just out of diapers and at 17 she's nearing the end of her ballet-career. As a pre-teen and young adolsecent she danced with many of the professional companies that came through town and inevitably the Nutcracker peerformances. Dropping her off at the stage doors you watch the professional dancers stand outside the exits sucking cigarettes like junkies shooting up. I figured, the smoking was weight-control.

    Ballet like so many of the formal arts cna be less than beautiful the closer you are to it--if you stand on stage, the thudding of feet, the grunting and sweat is less than sublime. Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin filmed a ballet Dracula--that puts the camera in the middle of the dancers. There are some You Tube clips, it was his intention to reflect to some degree the work and strain of the dancers.

    As ususal, you really mash together some wonderful ideas in this post, I particularly laughed at your observation that revolutionary ideology quickly outlaws revolutionary ideas. No kidding! Prokofiev and Shostakovich both suffered under the yoke of Stalinism.

  4. Dancers all smoke, even now. It's weird. Sounds like your daughter was pretty serious about it--it's a hard life. I had several dancer friends in my youth, and they all had eating issues. I studied ballet, too, but only up until age 14, at which time my teacher told me I had become too "top heavy" to be a ballet dancer. I switched to jazz instead. I liked the music better, and the teacher didn't care if I was too top heavy to be a hood ornament.
    Yes, close up ballet's not so beautiful--this reminds me of a funny line from that 1990's movie, Clueless (Jane Austen derivative about high school). The heroine looks at her nemesis, and remarks that "she's a full-on Monet." In other words, looks great from a distance, but up close "she's a mess."
    (At my age, I've become a Monet, too. I still look okay in photos, but up close...well, let's just say lighting matters. A lot.)

  5. Aw, gee Gayle--top-heavy, that just ruins the image for me! Now, full-on Monet, hilarious. Being 55, I'm amazed how beautiful 40, 50, and even 60-something women are wrinkles and all.

    I had lunch with a former paralegal of mine that I have not seen since I was 31 and she was 21. She looked, well, 45--and, despite an open and obvious scar from a cervical fusion--she looked great. Sitting around every morning with a bunch of old geezers, frequently joined by our former Playboy bunny, the manifestations of vanity are truly absurd and remarkable. At the same time there's a lot of acceptance and resignation in this silly crowd.

    You would be surprised, we talked about your blog. One of my friends was telling me he just watched a classic movie with Ronald Colman film, A Double Life--are you familiar with this work? Colman portrays a serious actor who loses his mind while playing Othello. Apparently it featured the young and "very hot" Shelly Winters, according to my friend Mark. It's noir and he says we followers of Gayle's Bard Blog need to put it on our Netflix lists.

    Hapy New Year, Gayle!

  6. I don't know that film, but I will rent it for sure--since I haven't seen that much live Shakespeare, I do like to write about any cinema that's out there (drawing the line at that awful Al Pacino thing on Richard 3). Re: Aging and vanity--I'm pretty happy with everything aesthetically--which relieves me no end. I'd hate to be one of those women who just couldn't stand getting old! Of course this play makes one think about youth and age a lot. I actually like my older face. It's mine, and I earned it. I can't imagine having it altered in the interest of some fantasy of being 25. I do hate the aches and pains and the radical reduction in calories necessary to maintain my (relatively) svelte self. That, quite frankly, just sucks.
    Well, one more post on this play and I can leave the adolescent realm behind. Happy New Year to you, too. And thanks for being my most loyal reader!