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Les Critiques Misérables: The Tears, The Book, and The Backlash

Les Miz BackgroundThe Revenge of the Blogosphere

“Last night I went to a showing of Les Misérables,” writes blogger Matt Walsh. “And when I say ‘went to’ I mean ‘hogtied and dragged at gun point by my wife, her sister and her mom’.” Walsh then summarizes Hollywood’s 2012 adaptation of the London/Broadway musical:

You don’t need to buy the soundtrack. I’ll sum up every song in the movie. Here you go: “I’m so lonely, I’m so alone, look at me my life is hard, I’m alone, I’m on my own, there’s this empty chair here, it’s empty because I’m alone, I’m lonely, all this bad stuff has happened to me because of my inexcusably stupid life choices, I’m alone, I feel so alone, on my own, on my own, on my own, did I mention I’m on my oooooowwwwwn?”

I guess that means he didn’t like it. And unlike the film’s characters, he’s not alone. A student of mine named Annabel, fed up with all the Les Miz hype, shared Walsh’s blog on Facebook with the following herald: “World, I give you someone who hates Les Miz more than I.” The responses to his blog and her share were immediate and enthusiastic: “I’m alone in a world of Les Miz lovers so I’m glad I’ve found someone else.”

Of all the possible targets for backlash, Les Miz is by far the backlashiest. The Sweeping Love Story. The Historical Drama. The Based-On-A-Novel Pedigree of Respectability. The Obvious Bait for the Oscars. The fact that it’s kind of European. There are so many pretty costumes. There are so many pretty actors magnificently endowed (for the most part) with pretty voices.  And above all, the film is ubiquitous; the hype for Les Miz is just about everywhere. Omigod, you have see it. And you have to like it. In fact, you have to love Les Miz, lest the film and its disciples pursue you like Javert right down to the sewer’s bottom as you scramble in vain for escape.

Put David Denby into the mix, and suddenly your backlash has the dubious hue of respectability. Here’s a critic who wasn’t even assigned to review Les Miz; Anthony Lane, The New Yorker’s other film critic, was given the task instead. But Denby’s is a voice that will not be silenced. The blogs of Denby and Walsh have pently in common, only Walsh is a much better writer. To be honest with you, there’s something kind of unsettling about reading Denby’s  There’s Still Hope for People Who Love Les MisIt’s sort of like coming downstairs and finding your uncle, the middle aged college professor, nursing a mean old hangover while he’s paddling around in his bathrobe shouting out at anyone who will listen about everything wrong with the world:

This movie is not just bad…it’s terrible…

 (Hugh) Jackman doesn’t sing, he brays.

The music is juvenile stuff—tonic-dominant, without harmonic richness or surprise.

 I was doubly embarrassed because all around me, in a very large theatre, people were sitting rapt, awed, absolutely silent, only to burst into applause after some of the numbers, and I couldn’t help wondering what in the world had happened to the taste of my countrymen—the Americans (Americans!) who created and loved almost all the greatest musicals ever made.

Wow. I guess people who love Les Miz must be really stupid, huh? Whereas Walsh’s manifesto is pure  Lester Bangs vitriol, Denby takes it upon himself to educate his ignorant readers of the finer distinctions between high culture and low, fine cinema and poor, good taste and bad. “I want to render a public service,” he begins in an apparent attempt at irony. But by the piece’s end, it is clear that the critic means business:

…our great musicals were something miraculous. They were a blessed artifice devoted to pleasure, to ease and movement, exultation in the human body, jokes and happy times, the giddiness of high hopes.

Gee, Uncle Dave, I guess things were a lot better back in your day. Denby’s public service is recommending a bunch classic American musicals (Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, etc.) as a cure for those of us who were dumb enough to be moved by Les Miz’s transparent sentimentality. Call me crazy, but I’ll bet Denby’s blog didn’t generate a run on Gene Kelly musicals at Netflix.

The Critic’s Curse

Oscar Wilde once warned us: “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.” And truth be told, I shouldn’t be so hard on Denby. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of spending more than five minutes with me at a party can probably tell you the moment he wished I was dead. “What do you mean you didn’t like (Forrest Gump, Shakespeare in Love, Dead Poets Society, Whatever)? Can’t you just sit back and enjoy it? Do you have get all analytical and think about everything? Aren’t movies supposed to be fun? They’re not? Oh Jesus, fine then, have your opinion, but for god’s sake, keep it to yourself, because I like this movie!”

Sorry. And I get it. I really do. The “I have a right to like this” response is especially intense when part of the package is music. Stacy Wolf writes in The Washington Post:

There’s a deep well of nostalgia for “Les Miz,” especially among women who came of age when it was on Broadway or on tour — even though it doesn’t reflect our feminist politics. Music is powerful when it’s connected to childhood; it reminds us of where we were in our lives when we first heard it. “Les Miz” feeds our hunger for familiarity in the present as well. The music is seductive because it’s repetitive, making us feel as if we know the songs, even if it’s our first time watching.

Of all Les Miz’s reviews, Wolf’s is the best. “Les Misérables should have feminists up inJackman & H arms,” she writes. “But I can’t help it: I love Les Miz.” She then proceeds to point out what should have been painfully obvious all along: women barely drive the plot. They live – and often give up – their lives for their men, their children, or both. Their roles are always subordinate, never primary. Rather than act, they merely “emote, propelling others to action.”

Yet unlike David Denby, Wolf never lectures us, or chastises. “Looking at culture through a feminist lens doesn’t mean that you don’t have fun or sing along. It means that you can also see what’s missing or what’s politically troubling.” For all her unflattering commentary, Wolf implicitly understands a little known cultural maxim: the critic who mistakes himself for a missionary is miserably doomed to fail. I’ll try to remember that the next time I go to a party.

Now Is The Time For Your Tears

But when it comes to a mega cultural event like Les Miz, passions prove hard to temper. I understand why Annabel and her posse feel so alone: the vast majority of my students love this piece. And when they talk with me, it seems pretty clear that they want me to love it, too. That’s why I simply can’t bring myself to tell them the truth: I find Les Miz phenomenon extremely troubling. It’s not so much the film itself, but the public’s response, which always begins with a confession that everyone makes after telling you they’ve just seen the movie.

“I cried.”

Almost without fail that is what leads.  I cried. Students, relatives, friends, and colleagues, they all tell me the same story. I cried, I cried, and I cried.

And, for the record: so did I. Lots of sad things happen in this story, so crying seems like a normal, healthy response. At least it was for me. But I’ve also cried during lots of other films like To Kill a Mockingbird and It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet in all the conversations I’ve had with people about both of these movies, I’ve never talked about my tears. I’ve never heard anybody else talk about theirs, either. No, the usual conversations center around what happened in the movie: the story, the performances, or a particularly exciting scene. That’s not to say that these things don’t get discussed with Les Miz, but they’re never the first to be mentioned. The first thing is always: I cried.

What’s going on here? Why is this movie different? Why does Les Misérables make you focus on the intensity of your own emotional response?

The answer is simple: that’s what the film is about. Your emotions. Not emotions in the general or the abstract, but your emotions, yours personally, the ones that you privately feel. Because in this case, it is all about you. The costumes, the sets, and especially the story’s historical context – these are all bait to get you hooked in on the movie’s real subject: You. Me. Us. We – and our capacity to feel, to hurt, to suffer. So don’t feel bad if you’re in the omigodIcried club, because you fundamentally get this film in a way that the likes of Denby never, ever will. Les Miserables understands your sufferings. It suffers with you. It embraces your suffering, and wants you to suffer more, and cry as you suffer together.

hathaway criesWhat is the cause of your suffering? A-a-ah, don’t go there! Shhhh. Les Miz doesn’t care about that. It doesn’t even care why its own characters suffer. Poverty and injustice are certainly part of the plot, but in this film they quickly recede to the background and prove to be little more than a MacGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for the thing that sets the plot in motion, but is ultimately of little importance). Hurry up and get to Fantine so she can just start singing and cry. Quick, get those strappingly handsome political activists up in arms so we can be inspired by their awesome, youthful commitment to whatever it is that they’re awesomely and youthfuly committed to. And for God’s sake, closeups! Get me closeups! More and more closeups so I can see the pores, the tears, the sweat, and every angsty crease of the sweet and indomitable pain. Let the space between the actor and me evaporate, let all else cease to exist, so there may only be us in our beautiful new bonded struggle. I am Fantine. I am Valjean. I am Éponine. My suffering is her suffering. Her song is my song. Our tears are one.

Les Misérables Buy The Book. 

Ok, wait. Isn’t all art manipulative? Aren’t we supposed to identify with a film’s or a book’s protagonists? Sure we are. So perhaps we can say that there’s nothing wrong with this spectacle of mega personal identification. That it’s ok to become lost in a cathartic world of escape that is uniquely and entirely personal. Yes, I think we can say that. Until we read Victor Hugo’s preface to his 1862 novel Les Misérables, and realize that once upon a time all of this was supposed to be about something a little bit bigger:

So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells Death of Fantine
amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century—the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light—are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of
Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.

Unless we all fail to make use of them. Whatever praises the Schonberg/Kretzmer musical adaptation has earned – and its strengths are certainly legit – no one can credibly argue that its current cinematic incarnation shows any real concern with pauperism or hunger, the plight of children or social asphyxia, and certainly not ignorance or poverty. The production budget for Les Miserables was $61 million. And even though it’s currently in fourth place at the box office (Texas Chainsaw 3D is now at the top) Les Miz is well on its way towards doubling its initial investment with a box office take of over $104 million.

That’s an awful lot of money. I mean, sure, it’s a lot less than Avatar (#1 box office earner of all time) or The Avengers (#3) or even Transformers: Dark of the Moon which is – would you believe it – the fifth highest grossing movie in the history of the world, coming in at $1,123.7 million (beating out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2 and The Dark Night Rises). I guess next to those behemoths, $103 million seems like a paltry little art house sum.

HugoStill, a hundred million’s nothing to sneeze at. And besides, the Transformers franchise is nothing but pure fantasy; it has no conscience to betray. Les Misérables is a different matter. Its creator Victor Hugo was an important political activist and infamous provocateur. His 1830 play Hernani was so ahead of its time that during the course of its two-month run fistfights routinely broke out in the theatre. After Napoleon III’s coup d’état, Hugo went into exile on the island of Guernsey for almost 20 years, where he wrote, among other works, Les Misérables. His commitment to social equality was clearly spelled out in his last will and testament, a five-sentence document that reads:

Je donne cinquante mille francs aux pauvres. Je veux être enterré dans leur corbillard. Je refuse l’oraison de toutes les Eglises. Je demande une prière à toutes les âmes. Je crois en Dieu.

Translated into English: “I give 50,000 francs to the poor. I wish to be carried to the cemetery in their hearse. I refuse the prayers of the churches. I ask for a prayer for all souls. I believe in God.”

Victor Hugo died in 1885, one hundred years before the musical adaptation of his masterwork Les Miserables premiered in London; 2 million people attended his funeral. Were he alive today, against what forms of social asphyxia, ignorance, and poverty might he turn the power of his pen? Perhaps he would write about infant mortality. In the world 6.9 million children under the age of 5 died in 2011. That’s 19,000 children dead per day of  entirely preventable diseases.

Or maybe the creator of prisoner 24601 might turn an eye to the United States, which has the highest incarceration rates of any country in the world. These rates are hardly equitable. Young black men make up a disproportionate number of  our prisoners: in 2008, 37% of America’s black men between the ages of 18-34 were behind bars. What’s more, it is clear that many American prisoners of all races are not guilty of the crimes for which they serve. As of today 301 people have been exonerated through DNA testing; 18 had been awaiting execution on death row. Those exonerations came at great cost; according the Innocence Project,“These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.”

Be honest. Did any of these issues cross your mind when you watched Les Miz? Or were you like me: crying with Hugh Jackman and getting carried away with the music, the spectacle, and the power of your own emotions. Besides, what do you expect from a blockbuster movie? It’s not a documentary; it’s entertainment. And of course it made millions of dollars. That’s what Hollywood movies are supposed to do. I don’t want to pay $10 to see some movie and think about infant mortality or how many people are locked up in American prisons. And it’s not that I don’t care. I do care, really, really I do. But those people, you know, the people who are dying or in prison or whatever, those people aren’t me. Fantine is. And Jean Valjean. And Éponine. I identify with them. And the other people? The ones out there, outside of my darkened world of crying? They’re not really a part of my life. They’re just…well, they’re different. They’re the Unfortunates. The Outsiders. Les Misérables.

Bad criticism seeks to inspire personal shame at our gauche and abominable taste. Great critics like Victor Hugo seek to inspire collective shame so society can get off its ass and make the world better . The tragedy of inequality is in our failure to act against it. Is it absurd to expect Broadway or Hollywood to bring about fundamental social change? Perhaps. After all, the business of show business is business. Or, as Lily Tomlin used to say, they don’t call it “show art.”

Besides, the fault is not with Hollywood. That hundred million dollars is our money. We spent it on Les Miz. And Transformers. And The Hobbit. And hundreds of other forms of escapist fare while children die and the innocent rot in prison. Victor Hugo never intended for Les Misérables (or Les Miz) to distract us from these inequities. His work was to be of use.

Well? There’s no reason why we can’t use it. Interested in working to end world hunger? Donate to UNICEF now. Does it bother you that taxpayer dollars are incarcerating people for crimes they did not commit? Make a contribution to The Innocence Project. These are admittedly small steps, but to my mind they honor Hugo’s legacy far more our drops of sweet cinematic tears. If Les Misérables does nothing else, it shows with stunning clarity and power the urgent need to work for justice and social equity. Because in the end, Jean Valjean’s compassion and generosity know no bounds. Through his relationships with Fantine, Cossette, Marius, and finally even Javert, he learns that the world is a place where we are never truly alone. He  and the rest of us have an obligation to society, and his tireless work on its behalf is transformative, even redemptive. Les Misérables was never meant to distract us from our social ills, but wake us up so we could fight them. If we rise to Hugo’s challenge, then we may still cry. But our tears might now mean something different.

If not? Well then, rest assured that when it comes to Les Miz….

…it’s really still all about you.

David Berkson

January 8, 2013

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Life After “Death of a Salesman”: The Loman Family Nightmare

  When I was eight years old my parents took me to see Death of a Salesman. You had to hand it to mom and dad, they knew where to find the fun. An entire childhood of Miller, Chekhov, Beckett, and Ibsen, and not one damn trip to Disneyland.  But I guess it made me the man that I am today. Which probably accounts for why I grew up hating Uncle Walt’s magic kingdom, falling in love instead with Arthur Miller’s epic tragedy of hubris, failure, suicide, and abyss.

It may seem weird to mention Arthur Miller and Walt Disney in the same paragraph. But they’re not as different as you might think. True, they occupied different ends of the political cultural spectrum. But the creators of Mickey Mouse and Willy Loman had identical artistic missions: understanding, interpreting, and to varying extents redefining our hallowed, tortured American Dream.

Every spring, I teach To Kill a Mockingbird to my sixth grade English class. We start by trying to define the exact nature of the American Dream, and I’m surprised at how many of these kids hearken back the 1950s and ’60s. “Perfect…everybody’s supposed to be happy…mom, dad, and the kids all smiling.” So says my student Grace, whose definition is every bit as revealing as the one that I eventually write up on the board: “The American Dream is the idea that unlimited prosperity and success are available to every person who works hard enough, regardless of his or her origins. Ability, ingenuity, and achievement determine your success.”

Now, every dream is its roots in reality; America’s is certainly no different. Don’t get me wrong; I like Finland as much as the next guy. But I’ve never heard anyone call it the land of opportunity. In 1820, 8,385 immigrants obtained permanent legal status in the United States. A century later, that number had grown to 430,001. In 2010, it was over a million. And these figures only tell the story of legal entry into the United States. America has had an “immigration problem” since 1492. “Gold is most excellent,” wrote Christopher Columbus. I’m no admirer of the Genoese sailor, but he is certainly the godfather of all immigrants; his American Dream was every bit as hypnotic as Willy Loman’s: “Gold is treasure, and he who possesses it does all he wishes to in this world, and succeeds in helping souls into Paradise.”  Even the most skeptical and cynical observers have to admit that America’s power to pull in a crowd remains historically uncontested.

But like every other nocturnal fantasy, the American Dream is not real. Forget about our history of slavery, sexism, and the European genocide of our native population. Let’s talk about today. Minorities continue to be statistically over-represented in our penal system.  The National Center for Children in Poverty states that “…higher percentages of minorities live in poor families.”  As of 2010, men out-earned women by 19%, even though women are now on average better educated.  Perhaps a country founded by white male slave owners shouldn’t be surprised by these disparities. But myth is a seductive thing, and far more digestible than fact. Even in the face of overwhelming data, the American Dream is one from which we stubbornly refuse to awake.

Disney's 1937 Film "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs  This is most definitely true in pop culture, especially when it comes to Disney. Isn’t the achievement of prosperity through hard work at the core of every one of his films? How many floors do Snow White and Cinderella have to scrub before their princes finally come? How cheerfully must these poor girls endure the abuses of their step motherly pseudo-European she wolves before achieving the Holy Grail of a big cash husband? And make no mistake: these princes are plenty nice guys. But their chief assets are their assets. Why marry the village blacksmith’s son when you can get a nice rich boy who’ll add a little sparkle to your brand new tiara?

Walt Disney Testifies Before the HUAC

Arthur Miller Testifies

No. Walt Disney and Arthur Miller were both in the same game; they were just playing on opposing teams. In 1947, Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was second only to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI in smearing Americans as communists and sympathizers.  Good ole Walt was all too happy to name the names of his former animators who’d had the temerity to strike against him years before. Disney loathed organized labor, and I’m sure enjoyed the opportunity to ruin the careers of the “trouble makers” and “Bolsheviks” who had made it so hard for him to get Dumbo completed right on schedule.

In 1952, Arthur Miller also appeared before the HUAC. But unlike Disney, he did not name names. He didn’t even invoke his Fifth Amendment constitutional right to remain silent, saying instead: “I could not use the name of another person and bring trouble on him.” A judge punished Miller by citing him in contempt, fining him $500, and handing him a suspended sentence of 30 days in jail.

The playwright’s hostility to red baiting should come as no surprise. As early as 1947 (the very year Disney testified) Arthur Miller’s All My Sons had the audacity to depict war profiteers as murderers. It is a wrenching piece of theatre. But Death of a Salesman is devastating. It’s almost impossible to describe the visceral impact of this sad and agonizing play, which is probably why Brooks Atkinson’s New York Times review of the original 1949 Broadway production came up short:

Original 1949 Production

“It is so simple in style and so inevitable in theme that is scarcely seems like a thing that has been written and acted. For Mr. Miller has looked with compassion into the hearts of some ordinary Americans and quietly transferred their hope and anguish to the theatre.”

True enough. But anybody who has seen or read Death of a Salesman can’t help but feel that Atkinson missed the burning immediacy and sheer pain of America’s greatest tragedy. Frank Rich did better (as always) in his Times review of the 1984 revival with Dustin Hoffman:

“In Death of Salesman, Mr. Miller wrote with a fierce, liberating urgency. Even as his play marches steadily onward to its preordained conclusion, it roams about through time and space, connecting present miseries with past traumas and drawing blood almost everywhere it goes.”

I’ll never forget the first time I saw Death of a Salesman. Even though the cast was comprised entirely of college students, I believed every moment of that American family nightmare. Seeing the salesman Willy Loman rail at his wife and sons while crumbling to pieces before me was like watching one of my parents bleed to death. And of course, as an eight year old with almost no concept of American history, I had to access the history that I did know. The history of my family.

I’ll bet that’s how it is for most of us. Most Americans can’t name the three great constitutional amendments of the reconstruction. But we all remember our families. How did Grace put it? “…mom…dad…everything’s perfect.” Why do we always leave that part out when defining the American Dream? Maybe because it’s so ingrained that we simply take it for granted. It’s not just the income, the car, the television, or the super awesome vacation that pervade our fantasies of status and affluence. It’s the myth that any of these things will ever make us happy. That our happiness is a thing to be purchased, itemized, and shared with a loving family who will shower us with endless appreciation for having made them rich. Small wonder that Death of a Salesman is still one of the most admired and recognized plays in the American canon.

But after a while, there’s only so much pain that an audience can take. Even Samuel Beckett knew how to tell a joke. Perhaps that’s why our greatest tragedians have always needed the help of a court jester. So Shakespeare has Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  For Mary Shelley, there is Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein. Ingmar Bergman can find countless parodies and homages in the films of Woody Allen. And Arthur Miller has Don Margulies’ The Loman Family Picnic, its rapid-fire one-liners and knock ‘em dead musical numbers both easing and illuminating the crushing disillusionment of the American Dream’s tragic betrayal.

The Loman Family Picnic is neither satire nor parody. In fact, none of the characters in Miller’s tragedy even bother to make an appearance. Rather, they are channeled through the imagination of Mitchell, an eleven-year old boy living in Coney Island during 1965. “For school, Miss Schoenberg made us read this play that Arthur Miller wrote a long time ago, before I was born, about this salesman with two sons who lives in Brooklyn? Sound familiar?” Noting the similarities between his ‘real’ family and that of the Lomans, Mitchell imagines the unimaginable: a musical comedy version of Death of a Salesman.

To be sure, this play draws up its own share of blood. “The Loman Family Picnic isn’t just after laughs,” says Sacha Reich, Executive Director of Portland’s Jewish Theatre Collaborative, which stages the play this month. And Margulies (like every playwright besides David Mamet) has a better understanding of women than Arthur Miller. The Loman Family Picnic, to paraphrase Psycho, is all about the mother. Her name is Doris, and she begins the play with, “On the day I was married the world showed every sign of coming to an end,” as we watch her cut her wedding dress to bits. True, Arthur Miller gives Linda Loman plenty of fine dialogue, but her entire character amounts to a mere adjunct (and co-dependent) to Willy. Not so with Doris. “That snoring,” she says of her husband, “if he doesn’t stop that snoring…it rips at my kishkas every time he breathes.” And so the play moves back and forth between Arthur Miller and the Borscht Belt. And just as the inevitable father and son is about to come to a head, the entire cast bursts into song, realizing Mitchell’s ultimate American Dream that anything can be turned into a musical, and redeemed with a happy ending.

My family knows all about those dreams of happy endings. My grandfather, Aaron Berkson, was the son of Mordecai Berkowitz, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe. (Some family members say he was Russian; others insist he was Polish). The family Americanized its name to Berkson, and my grandfather went on to become quite successful selling plumbing, and making a small fortune for himself.

But it came at a terrible cost. His relationship with my father was strained even in the best of times. After I was born, it reached the breaking point: my dad and grandpa fell out, and never spoke to each other again.

The year after I graduated from high school, I decided to pursue my own American Dream. I quit my job bussing tables and hitchhiked from Portland to Los Angeles. (To fend off any attacks from the Mike Daisey police, I should mention that I made part of the trip by bus.) While staying with some family friends in California, I looked up my grandfather and called him. I’ll never forget the terrible silence that followed my introduction by phone. But Aaron agreed to see me, and he and his wife Marge (my dad’s stepmother) took me out to dinner.

Whatever I was expecting, I sure didn’t get it. My grandfather kept asking if I’d run away from home; he somehow couldn’t quite grasp that his that his 18-year-old grandson was legally an adult. He went on to describe the weekend work I’d been doing in children’s theatre as “amateur.” (It wasn’t.) As dinner ended, he took stock of my appearance and said, “If you walked into my office, I wouldn’t hire you in a minute.” Handing me fifty dollars, my grandfather told me to go back home and get a haircut. Call me a bad grandson, but I only followed half the instructions. Like my father before me, I never spoke to Aaron again.

There’s an interesting footnote in our family history, although it may be apocryphal. Dad recently told me that as young men, Aaron Berkson and Arthur Miller briefly worked together in the linoleum business. I have no way of confirming this, but the story seems plausible. Like my grandfather, Arthur Miller’s parents were eastern European Jewish immigrants. The two men were born five years apart from one other, and both grew up in New York. My grandfather may have never known Arthur Miller personally, but he would certainly come to know the writer’s work. Aaron’s was the first generation to experience Death of a Salesman as live theatre. According to him, the audience was stunned into silence as the final curtain fell. Family legend has it that long after the crowd had left, my grandfather stayed alone in the theatre. I wonder what part of Willy Loman that man must have seen in himself. What force of will it must have taken for him to stand up and get the hell out of that theatre. To forget everything he’d just seen so he could go on living the terrible lie that there is anything more important than a loving human relationship.

I’ll never know. Aaron died in 2005, and with him the memory of almost a century of American history. Tempted as I am to judge my grandfather, Death of a Salesman has taught to refrain. No one dast blame this man. I spent a little time in sales myself, and I know all too well the adrenaline rush that comes with putting the close on a very big deal. When it comes to the American Dream, no one is safe.

Earlier in this piece, I wrote disparagingly about Arthur Miller’s Linda. Now, I’m beginning to regret it. There’s got to be a reason why the playwright gives her the last word. Maybe it’s because while all the boys around her dream big, Linda quietly tries to balance the family books, surely and carefully calculating the costs. Not coincidentally, she alone speaks to the American Dream’s human cost. Linda has one of the best speeches ever written for the theatre; it deserves to be quoted in full:

“I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

Good advice, that paying attention. It’s what live theatre does best: by putting us in the same room with real human beings, it stirs us up from all manner of dreams, and forces us to finally, finally pay attention and wake up.

Not that I would know, but I’ll bet you good money that never happens at Disneyland.

David Berkson

5/5/12

The Triumph Over Will: Why Educators Need to Get it Right About Who Wrote Shakespeare

Imagine that you’ve enrolled in a creative writing class. Perhaps it’s not the only course you’re taking, but for you it’s by far the most important. So you throw yourself into your work with passion. Every day you hit the page, and soon, you begin to stretch the limits of your ability and imagination. Characters leap out from nowhere. Your facility with language skyrockets, and your work as an artist matures. Even your classmates and instructor begin to take note of the scope and depth of your writing. And at the end of the year you are rewarded, because the incredible risks taken have paid off with an enduring and meaningful body of work.

But now pretend that after the class is over (perhaps a year or two has passed), you are abruptly called into your professor’s office. There, he accuses you point blank of plagiarizing every single word. “This can’t be your work,” he says. “I mean really! You lack the background, the breeding, and the life experience to write anything even approaching this level of talent and creativity. This is the work of another author.”

What would you do? Well, you might reasonably challenge this professor to conclusively prove his accusation. But he refuses, and instead has the temerity to put the burden of proof upon you, saying: “Enough of your lies! Prove to me that you aren’t a plagiarist.” Your reputation at stake, you scramble to retrieve notes that you’ve handwritten, or stored away on your computer or USB key, anything to get this professor off of your back and clear your tarnished name. But you’d better do it quickly, because in the meantime your former instructor is drawing up a lengthy list of alternative candidates as the work’s true author. You are guilty until proven innocent, slimed by association, and discredited by crass and baseless innuendo.

It’d be tough, but chances are that you could set the record straight by finding the necessary documentation. But what if a full decade passed before that professor called you in? Or two? Or even three? You might have to work a little harder. The evidence might be tougher to track down. But in the end, you’d probably still be able to advocate on your own behalf, and clear your name while looking your own accuser in the face.

But now imagine that the unfounded smear comes not during your lifetime, but almost two centuries after your death. There wouldn’t be a whole lot that you could do. The defense of your integrity would now be left in the hands of historians and educators, and the public’s perception of the truth might forever be clouded by a thick and impenetrable fog.

Welcome to the world of the authorship “debate.” William Shakespeare’s work and influence is ubiquitous. His plays dominate high school and college reading lists. There are over 115 Shakespeare companies and festivals in the United States alone. It’s all but impossible to count the number of film and television adaptations of his works, but they certainly number in the hundreds. Such an overwhelming cultural presence makes it hard to remember that four centuries ago, someone – a real live human being – had to sit down, pull out a quill, and pump those suckers out. Perhaps I’m speculating, but I’d be willing to bet that writing at least 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and two erotic poems must have been one hell of a chore. I think we can all agree that it involved painstaking hours of intense and exhausting work. And while scores of doubters edge their way into the market place of ideas, there isn’t one shred of reliable evidence to cast any reasonable doubt upon the author’s true identity: William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon.

You want me to prove it? Sure you do, and I’m happy to oblige. Declarative assertions demand nothing less. Those of us who celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday mark it on April 23, so the time seems awfully ripe. But before we get down to the case at hand, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the very backwardness of this scenario: any reasonable standard of jurisprudence establishes that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. But thanks to the legion of Doubting Thomases, all but demanding that Shakespeare rise from the grave and present an ink stained stigmata as proof of authentic authorship, the burden appears to have shifted to the Bard’s defenders. Thus, it falls to us to prove a case that was never raised once during the author’s lifetime.

William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564 (we actually don’t know his date of birth), and died on April 23, 1616 in the Warkwickshire town of Stratford. He was an actor and shareholder of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later The King’s Men) theatre company, which erected the Globe Theatre in 1599.  These facts are not in dispute. The “controversy” is over who actually wrote the plays, sonnets, and other poems that bear William Shakespeare’s name. But as earlier mentioned, no such controversy existed when Shakespeare himself was alive. Indeed, in 1964 William M. Murphy cited at least 23 historical documents establishing the man from Stratford as the author of virtually all the works in question, including diary entries and legal papers.  (This list does not even include the title pages of plays and poems crediting William Shakespeare as their author).

One of the most impressive of these is Frances Meres’ Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury, first published in 1598. Meres, a minister educated at Cambridge, was an avid enthusiast of the London theatre scene. He was especially taken with Shakespeare’s work, as evidenced in the following passage:

“…so Shakespeare among y’ English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Ge’tleme’ of Verona, his Errors, his Love labors lost, his Love labours wonne, his Midsummer night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice : for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin: so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English.

Palladis is one of several primary historical documents that acknowledges Shakespeare as the author of the works in question. (It’s also been an indispensable tool for dating his plays.) No one has brought this evidence together more concisely and authoritatively than James Shapiro in his book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Shapiro shows us a Shakespeare deeply rooted in a specific place and time. We see a well-known man of considerable accomplishment and reputation. More than seventy editions of his works appeared in print during his lifetime. Moreover, as we have seen above, Shakespeare’s contemporaries wrote about him, and they had a lot to say. Greene’s Groats-worth of Wit, written in 1592, lampooned Shakespeare’s ‘upstart crow’ pretentions. The author, Robert Greene, was shocked that a lowly actor might presume to be a man of letters, mocking his fellow poet’s “Tygers heart wrapped in a Players hyde…” Other writers appear to have been more positively disposed to Shakespeare’s work. Shapiro cites the Parnassus trilogies, performed at King’s College at the turn of the 17th century, in which one character exclaims: “We shall hear nothing but pure Shakespeare!”

Those of us curious about Shakespeare’s relationship with other writers would do well in turning to Ben Jonson. Shakespeare acted in more than one of Jonson’s plays, and appears to have cast quite the shadow over the younger writer’s career and psyche. Jonson’s reviews of Shakespeare’s works are decidedly mixed. He effusively praised Shakespeare in the First Folio, which was published in 1623. But Jonson could also turn on Shakespeare, as when he took the older poet to task for his geographical inaccuracies in A Winter’s Tale. (How can you have a shipwreck in Bohemia?)

But Jonson’s admiration for Shakespeare appears to have won out, as shown in this excerpt from his private notes, which were published after his death in 1641 as Timber, or Discoveries; Made Upon Men and Matter:

I loved the man, and do honour his memory (on this side of Idolotry) as much as any. He was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature; had an excellent fancy; brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that it was sometimes necessary that he should be stopped.

William Shakespeare of Stratford died in 1616 a wealthy, famous man. As an actor and shareholder in an incredibly successful theatre company, he’d experienced innumerable business and artistic interactions during the fifty-two years of his life. By his peers and contemporaries, he was both loved and hated. If all of the works attributed to him were actually written by another person, doesn’t it seem like somebody would have figured it out and said something? An Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre company was an extremely competitive business venture; the same was true with publishing. Proving, or even asserting, that a major shareholder and actor in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men didn’t actually write Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet would have been a major (and potentially profitable) coup.

Or let’s just say that this was a conspiracy astoundingly executed for a period of roughly 27 years. This means that virtually every literary, theatrical, and even major political figure in England was either a participant or a dupe. But what about after Shakespeare’s death? Was the awful truth finally revealed? After all, entire books questioning The Warren Commission’s findings on the JFK assassination were being published as early as 1964. If Shakespeare had been the front man for an authorial cover up and conspiracy, somebody would have surely let it slip.

But no one did. For over a century after his death, Shakespeare was universally acknowledged as the author of all the works that bore his name. So where did the controversy start? If the case for Shakespeare is so obvious, why would anyone ever believe otherwise?

To find the answer, we have to go back towards the end of the 18th century, when historians became extremely curious about the facts of Shakespeare’s life. But the discovery of historical documents can be a slow and tedious business; perhaps the lack of ready and immediate evidence seemed suspicious. In the meantime, William Shakespeare was becoming the victim of his own posthumous success. While many of his plays enjoyed great commercial and critical acclaim during his lifetime, his literary reputation ascended dramatically during the late 18th and much of the 19th centuries. Indeed, this rise caused George Bernard Shaw to coin the term ‘Bardolatry’ in derisive reference to the growing deification of Shakespeare and his poetic genius.

But the emerging biographical information discovered proved to be somewhat less than pleasing. It turns out that Shakespeare was not an abstract, idealized personification of genius. The man had many faults. The creator of Shylock was a moneylender himself: in 1609, when his neighbor John Addenbrooke defaulted on a six-pound loan, Shakespeare had the man arrested. Like Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare was self-educated (which I would consider a virtue, not a vice); the man from Stratford did not attend a university. His first child was apparently conceived out of wedlock. Shakespeare wasn’t much of a family man, living most of his life in London with only occasional visits to his wife and three children back in Stratford. He was probably not even present for his eleven year-old son Hamnet’s burial.

These facts didn’t sit well with some of the 19th century’s more prominent men and women of letters. Rather than abandon their preconceived notion of Shakespeare’s character, they chose instead to abandon Shakespeare:

 “I am… haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.” Henry James

“[Shakespeare] carries the court influence with him, unconsciously, wherever he goes… He looks into Arden and Eastcheap from the court standpoint, not from these into the court.” Delia Bacon

 “(Shakespeare) was a jovial actor and manager. I cannot marry this fact to his verse.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

The anonymous author of the Shakespeare Oxford Society’s FAQ page puts the case forward in no uncertain terms:

“Nothing about the Stratford man rings true: his character, his background, his education, his family, his friends, his behavior towards his debtors and his neighbors, his recorded conversation and his attitude to money and property. It would have been very surprising if someone like that had become the world’s greatest author.”

And there you have it. William Shakespeare was incapable of such genius. He was too ordinary. Too un-aristocratic. Too common. Too actorly. Too….just not exactly what I want him to be to have written the greatest plays on earth. If I can’t understand it, then I guess it just isn’t true.

The argument is not simply ridiculous. It is downright dangerous in its pernicious elitism. Worse yet, it’s an insult to the wondrous capacities of the human imagination. The mystery and miracle of genius is its sheer inexplicability. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but some people come into the world with astounding abilities and talents that the rest of us don’t have. If aristocratic background and formal education were the only prerequisites for sensational writing, we’d be reading masterpieces penned by the likes Prince Charles and George W. Bush.

But let’s put aside the obscenely classist premise of the “anti-Stratfordian” arguments. I am willing to assume for five uninterrupted minutes that the actor manager (how did Emerson know he was “jovial”?) did not write the works for which all of his contemporaries gave him credit. The accusation begs the question: who really wrote all of Shakespeare’s works?

Brace yourself, people, because answer is shocking. Ladies and Gentlemen, the real author behind the fraud of William Shakespeare is….Francis Bacon!

No, wait, I’m sorry, I got that wrong. It’s actually Christopher Marlowe. It’s not? Ok, wait, hang on, I got it, I got it, it’s, um…it’s Queen Elizabeth! Oh, Jesus (not him either), I’m sorry! It couldn’t be her. Or him. Ok, wait, I’ve got it now: the real author behind the Shakespeare conspiracy is…Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Go ahead. Pick one. You don’t like them? Don’t worry, there are lots more; keep looking, and eventually you’ll find a candidate who suits you. As long as you’re convinced that Shakespeare wasn’t capable of writing his plays and poems, you can twist any fact to fit your foregone conclusion. And you will have to twist a lot of facts. Of the candidates I just mentioned, only Francis Bacon had the good taste to die after Shakespeare passed away. The rest of them met their respective ends before Shakespeare had written some of his most important work.

The current favorite is Oxford, the misunderstood hero of Anonymous: that Roland Emerich film that everyone talked about and nobody saw. As with every candidate, there are numerous holes in the Oxford candidacy. For now, let’s just look at two. The most obvious is de Vere’s inconvenient date of death: June 24, 1604. Even the most conservative dating of Shakespeare’s works gives us eleven plays composed between 1605 and 1613 (including King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest).*

The second piece of evidence is more circumstantial, but to my mind, no less compelling. Edward de Vere was an avid patron of the arts. In fact, the 17th Earl of Oxford sponsored his own theatrical troupe, which existed from 1580 to 1602.   If Oxford really was the author of Shakespeare’s plays, why wasn’t he penning his best work for his own company, instead of its rival, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men? For it was Shakespeare’s troupe, and not Oxford’s, who staged Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and all the other works of the cannon. Doesn’t it seem odd that the anonymous earl didn’t use one of his own actors as a front man? Wouldn’t a more probable authorship candidate be someone who was a member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men? Perhaps an actor, and a shareholder in the company? Isn’t there a slight possibility that the real author of Shakespeare’s plays is William Shakespeare himself?

Examine the biographies of the other would be Shakespeares; as with Oxford, their cases fall apart.  And when you get right down to it, the sheer number of candidates (some count at least 70) tells us everything we need to know. The scramble for anyone but Shakespeare reveals the flimsy reasoning of his desperate nay-sayers. If I’ve already decided that Barack Obama simply couldn’t be an American citizen, then even a certified copy of his birth certificate will fail to change my mind.

It would be comical if nobody took it seriously. But last fall, a major Hollywood film touted this fiction as fact; once again, the authorship debate became part of our cultural conversation. At the time I was directing an 8th grade production of Hamlet, and for a while, I couldn’t get through a rehearsal without the issue coming up. Parents at my son’s soccer games began to ask me: “So! What do you think about the idea that Shakespeare didn’t really write all of those plays?”

I’m always happy to answer a student’s question. And when it comes to my son, I’ll always take one for the team. But my patience finally snapped several months ago during a chat with a friend, an educated man who is not unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s works. Perhaps I wore him down with the passion of my argument. Whatever the reason, I knew he was ready for our conversation to be over when I heard these words: “Well, in a sense, it doesn’t really matter who wrote these plays. They’re great. They’re beautiful. Why don’t we just leave it at that?”

I have heard this argument before, and I’ll be honest: I find it more troubling than the most improbable anti-Stratfordian dogma. Why? Because in fact, it does really matter. It matters because denying an author credit for his or her work is a slap in the face to basic fairness. It matters because what biographical information we have about Shakespeare does help us understand the world of his imaginary creations. And it matters because we know the author’s identity, and to pretend otherwise is simply craven and irresponsible. It isn’t hard to believe that Shakespeare wrote those plays. What’s hard to believe is that anyone wrote them at all. To inhabit the world of Shakespeare – be it as a teacher, student, actor, designer, director, or audience member – is to find yourself in the throws of a life long love affair. Those eighth graders that I mentioned earlier did astonishing work with Hamlet, giving me and a sold out crowd a wild and beautiful night at the theatre. As is so often the case with young actors, these kids tapped into the play’s crazy, angsty, and anarchic spirit with more zest and honesty than I’ve seen in most highly trained professionals.

Those kids in the Hamlet cast are my students. Were I to catch any of them plagiarizing, there would be serious consequences. So I would need to be sure before making the accusation. I couldn’t just draw up a list of alternative authors. I couldn’t just say to my student: “You didn’t write this essay. Nothing about you rings true: your character, your background, your education, your family, your friends.” No. I’d have to lay my prejudices aside and look at the facts. We all have our hunches. And conspiracy theories are always tempting. But the search for the truth demands a rational and coherent respect for the cold, hard facts.

I owe that to my students. And if you’re a teacher, you owe the same to yours, whether you’re looking at their work, or Shakespeare’s. For most of my career I sidestepped the issue with, “Well, some people believe that he wrote the plays, and some believe he didn’t.” I now realize that’s just as much of a cop out as saying Columbus might have proven the world was round, or that climate change might not be man made. There are times when impartiality imparts nothing, and some arguments are more equal than others.

400 years ago, the world was given a body of theatrical and poetic masterpieces that continue to delight, horrify, astound, and amaze. William Shakespeare was universally acknowledged by his friends, enemies, colleagues, and acquaintances as the author of these astonishing wonderworks. Since every effort to prove otherwise has failed, it’s time to stop asking who wrote them. Let’s get back to the business of asking the questions that will help us understand them.

David Berkson

3/26/12

* The dating of Shakespeare’s plays is a favorite line of attack amongst his doubters. The reasoning goes that because we can not always affix a precise date to his plays without absolute certainty, the entire process is no more than professorial conjecture. That’s sort of like saying that meteorology is not a science because the weatherman is sometimes wrong. Just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we know nothing.

For instance, many of Shakespeare’s later plays such as The Tempest call for special lighting effects that weren’t present in the earlier plays. Scholars attribute this to the fact that in 1608 Shakespeare’s company took possession of the Blackfriars Theatre, an indoor venue with different production capabilities than the outdoor Globe Theatre. Oxford died in 1604. While this in and of itself does not prove Shakespeare’s authorship, the burden still rests on the prosecution. Their best line of attack is that deVere wrote a number of the plays before his death that happened to be perfectly suited to a venue that Shakespeare’s company coincidentally acquired four years later. I guess that one of Oxford’s agents must have secretly fed these plays to Shakespeare’s company. Feel free to believe this line of reasoning if you like, but be sure to ignore the mountain of evidence supporting Shakespeare, especially the fact that no one during his lifetime challenged the universal acceptance his authorship.

Post Script

Well, if I wanted to end the debate on who wrote Shakespeare, I didn’t do a very good job, did I? For some reason, I just didn’t think asserting that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet would be very controversial. But as the responses to this piece clearly demonstrate, I was wrong.

And it’s been a fun debate, albeit one that I’d love to bring to swift conclusion. But since that probably won’t happen, and especially since my colleagues, along with my students and their families, are starting to read this, I wanted to make a few things clear:

  • I would never shut a student or anyone else down who disagreed with me on this or any other matter. Respectful debate is good, and I hope that the one we’ve had in the comments section of this blog has modeled that mantra. When I felt that my rhetoric bordered on disrespect, I tried to check in with the respondents to make sure that they felt welcome to come back and share their views, even (and I guess especially) when they disagreed with me.
  • I’ve learned a lot from the below discussion. “Edward” in particular gave me a run for my money. I had to do some extra research and fact checking when attempting to disprove some of his arguments. But perhaps more importantly, I’ve learned that two people can look at the same piece of evidence, and come up with completely different conclusions regarding what that evidence means.
  • I’ll speak only for myself on this one: the only reason why I sidestepped this issue in the past was because I felt as if I didn’t have enough information. Now, being better educated, I speak with a clearer voice. I believe that an informed educator with a strong view, and who acknowledges that view while inviting debate, does his or her students a tremendous service. To be sure, it’s not the only way to teach. But it can certainly lead to some interesting discussions. I’m looking forward to many more.

David Berkson

4/8/12

 

Cancer, Live Theatre, and “The Penguins of Ithaca”

There are…things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself.”

Notes From the Underground, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Every writer has stuff that’s off limits. There are some things we just don’t want to think about. They are too personal. Or painful. Or perhaps writing about them would be awkward, or even embarrassing. Eugene O’Neill waited until his father, mother, and brother died before writing Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and even then gave strict instructions to suppress the play’s performance until 25 years after his own death.

Writing is terrifying, especially when it requires us to relive any kind of pain. “Why do I have to go through everything again?” So cries Louis in Suicide in B Flat, Sam Shepard’s beautiful and bizarre mystery play about the fragile and explosive relationship between Biography and Art. The play is literally framed as a mystery: Louis is not an artist, but a detective who, while searching for the link between the artist and his life, falls prey to his own inner demons, until all that is left is the past.

That’s all well and good, but who of us can write as well as Shepard? I know I can’t. There’s a reason why creating art is called a ‘risk’: the potential for failure is enormous. You want proof? Look at The Onion: “Study: Family History of Alcoholism Raises Risk of One Man Show.” Pure satire, but the joke magazine’s description self serving ineptitude has the terrible ring of authenticity. “The study found that males raised by alcoholic parents are 40 percent more likely to someday force their friends to attend a self-penned theatrical production about their life experiences….To see them throw their lives away by performing an hour-and-a-half-long monologue for 15 people in a tiny black-box theater is just plain sad. Tragic even.” One man’s catharsis is another man’s kitsch. Maybe it’s easier to just not write at all.

Alright, fine. But what’s the alternative? Years ago, I read an interview with Paul McCartney. This was a long, long time ago, back in the day when journalists and reviewers criticized the former Beatle for putting out less than totally outstanding material. (It’s kind of hard to imagine anyone doing that now, isn’t it?) Frustrated, the future knight of the realm shot back: “What am I supposed to do? Take Polaroids of myself sitting on the toilet?” It’s a good question; and one that every artist needs to ask when feeling too chicken to get disciplined, sit down, and start telling the truth. One of the great pleasures of Notes from The Underground is watching the author undermine of the narrator’s false premise. We can admit everything. It is possible to speak the truth. Not just speak, but write it down. Put the painful thing on paper and relive that moment we thought we never could. Or should. In order to survive, we finally need to heed Danton’s heroic call: “L’audace, L’audace, tu jours L’audace.” Sooner or later, we must employ audacity, and finally emerge from the underground.

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Fifteen years ago, I began tutoring 9 year old boy named Eric. My new student had recently been diagnosed with leukemia, and was being homeschooled. Told by his family of a voracious appetite Shakespeare, I was asked if I could take an hour a week to help foster his burgeoning interest.

Eking out a living as a professional actor in San Francisco, I was happy for the work. And I was especially pleased to meet my new charge; even at our first interview, Eric wasted no time. He wanted to talk about The Merchant of Venice. Bothered and fascinated with the Bard’s treatment of the Jewish moneylender Shylock, Eric wrestled with the most troublesome issues in the play before finally asking: “Was Shakespeare anti-Symmetrical?”

Most malapropisms reveal ignorance. Eric’s revealed knowledge. And curiosity. I mean seriously, how many nine year olds do you know who have even heard of The Merchant of Venice? Not only that, this nine year old boy cared about Shylock as if he were a living human being. Eric was concerned that Shakespeare might have done his own character an injustice. Tutoring Eric was already proving to be an extremely exciting prospect, and within a month, he’d read A Midsummer Night’s Dream from cover to cover. Pretty soon we were tackling Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, and Eric’s personal favorite, Macbeth.

We had great fun together. And Eric was brilliant. Totally, totally brilliant. It wasn’t just that he could read Shakespeare, he understood it. Not just intellectually, but on a visceral, gut level. “Malvolio and Puck are basically the same person: they’re both just in love with themselves.” “It’s wrong for Antonio to treat him that way, Shylock has to do something.” Eric once told me that Macbeth was his favorite character from Shakespeare. When I asked why, he replied, “Because even when he knows he’s going to die, he keeps on fighting. Right until the very end.”

I should have paid attention. There were times when Eric was just fine. Better than fine. His white blood cell count improved. He was in remission. He had energy, tons of it, and everything seemed to be moving in the right direction. But then there were times when Eric was not just fine. The cancer came back. He had a stroke. And graft versus host. And a bone marrow transplant. And exhausting treatments. And…I don’t know. Disappointment? Fear? I’ll never really know what it must have been like. To be Eric, or his amazing family who loved and supported him every step of the way. But you don’t need a great imagination to guess that the worst of it must have been terrifying.

I knew Eric for five years. And pretty soon, it became clear that I was being called upon to do something besides teach Shakespeare. I did the best I could, but I made a lot of mistakes. The worst was a speech that I gave at a concert held for Eric while he was in the hospital. (The scope of this boy’s influence was unimaginable; you simply can’t count the number of artists who decided to be a part of Eric’s life). At the time of the concert, his condition appeared to be improving. I said to the audience that I had faith that Eric’s life would not finally be a tragedy, but a comedy. Yes, I said “comedy”. Sure, I qualified it with some clever remark to the effect of “not the slapstick kind that makes people laugh, but the comedy of life renewed, and blah, blah, blah,” but the fact of the matter is that the operative word, which I used more than once, was “comedy”.

Eric was not amused. He saw a videotape of the concert, and a month or so later, when he got out of the hospital, he sat down with me and made his feelings clear. His cancer was not a comedy. There was nothing funny about his struggles. And my use of the word had upset him. Eric was quiet, direct, and polite. I was devastated. But not as devastated as Eric must have been felt when he heard what I had to say at a concert that was, after all, supposed to be in his honor.

Instead of firing me (he certainly could have) Eric stated quite reasonably that he hoped that it would not happen again, and would like for us to continue in our work together.

When did I figure out that he was smarter than me? That I was running out of things to teach him? Was it when he started learning ancient Greek? (Homer was quickly replacing Shakespeare as his author of choice, and Eric was determined to read the original). I didn’t keep a journal of our time together, so I rely entirely upon my memory, which is fragmented, incomplete, and infuriatingly anti-Symmetrical.

Five years is a long time. And I am grateful for every minute. But I wish I’d had more. Eric died ten years ago, and hardly a day passes when I do not think of him. And I guess some part of me still expects to hear his voice when I answer my telephone. Indeed, for years I kept one of his last messages on my answering machine. Finally, a technical malfunction erased his voice, and with it the illusion that I would ever talk to my friend again.

But that’s not entirely true. In fact, it isn’t true at all. Because I do talk to Eric. All of the time. It started from the very day he died. About a year before, I’d moved from California to Portland, Oregon. Eric and I continued our lessons almost every week over the telephone. I even managed one trip back to California to visit him. But I wasn’t there at the end; Eric’s mother telephoned to tell me of his death. I hope that I was able to give some small measure of consolation to Eric’s grieving family. But, as is the case with so many other things, my memories are fragmented. I simply can’t remember.

Here is what I do remember. The day that Eric died, my wife and I had family visiting from out of town. Resisting the temptation to spend the rest of the day in a dark room, I kept the dinner date we’d made. We took our company to this place called The Kennedy School, a former elementary school in Northeast Portland that’s been refurbished into a pub and motel.  The school’s halls have been repainted by local artists, and part of the establishment’s charm is in its invitation to stroll around the grounds and explore every inch.

It was weird. I felt alone. Eric was dead, and all I could do was pace around some local brewpub and sip on an IPA. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing, but thiswas definitely not it.

I want to be careful how I describe this next part, because after a decade, I still don’t understand it. I also want to resist the temptation to guild the moment with any gratuitous drama. So the best I can say is this: as I walked around The Kennedy School, I started to feel like Eric was there. Here he was standing by the radiator. There again, for a second, looking back at me from a painted wall. They were moments, and only moments. But the feeling was clear and unmistakable. Most of my adult life had been spent as a lazy agnostic. As was so often the case with Eric, my previously held assumptions were proving absolutely inadequate for the awesome immediacy of the present.

Was Eric really there? Or did my grief and imagination get the better of me? And in the end, does it really matter? When Harry Potter asks Dumbledore’s spirit: “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” his master replies, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry. But why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

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Years passed. My son was born. My mother died. I started writing plays, all of them haunted by the specter of death. A girl refuses to visit the nursing home of her ailing grandmother. A couple vainly ignores the death of their middle child. A teenager commits suicide in Act I, only to return as a ghost in Act III to haunt his grieving siblings.

One day I had a chat with my godmother about my writing. Karen, a retired actress who still lives in New York suggested: “You should really write about Eric.” “Oh, I already have,” I lied, “All of this stuff I’ve been writing…it’s like, well, it’s my indirect way of processing my experience with him.” It sounded plausible enough to me, and I considered the matter closed.

But the truth was, I had made a decision not to write about Eric, or the effect he had had on my life. For one thing, I didn’t want to churn out some sentimental TV movie of the week Lifetime special get out your hankies and have a good cry piece of horseshit. Sure, I guess all writing is manipulative. But still, the whole prospect seemed wrong. And after all: I hadn’t had cancer. Eric had. Wasn’t this his story? Hadn’t I been there to help him? And hadn’t I screwed things up enough by just talking about his life with that horrible ‘comedy’ misnomer? No way. I wasn’t going to do it. Every writer has stuff that’s off limits. There are some things we just don’t want to think about.

In the spring of 2010, eight years after Eric died, I was writing a piece that I guess you could call an absurdist sketch. Here’s how it went:

A fully grown man named Ectoplasmic Jim is confronts an imaginary version of his middle school English teacher, a woman in her ‘70s whom he’d always had a crush on. Ectoplasmic Jim (EJ, for short) is smitten, terrified, neurotic, and self absorbed. Sputtering like a teenager, he presents his former teacher with a list of his virtues and good deeds, hoping to mitigate his crush, and in the proces justify his entire existence.

“Hmm,” I thought, “What does EJ have to say for himself? What’s the first thing that would come out of his mouth?”

And the first thing that came out of my brain was this:

“There was this one kid that I hung out with, he was like this genius. I think that he was ten or eleven or something ridiculous like that and they already had him studying ancient Greek.”

Oops. I knew where this was going. Eric did not belong here, didn’t belong here at all.

But I had made myself a promise: never censor anything from the first draft. You can always edit later. And you don’t have to show it to anybody. But the first draft is sacred. A note from the underground. So I took a deep breath, and spent the next month and a half writing something that I’d been avoiding for years.

The play I wrote is called The Penguins of Ithaca. It is about a self absorbed, neurotic man named EJ who befriends a ten year old cancer patient named Carl. (I named after the children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle). The play is a work of fiction. Most of the events are imagined, and roughly half of them aren’t realistic. But the play for me is real. In writing Carl, I tried to capture Eric’s voice as accurately as I could, even when inventing dialogue that never happened in real life.

I’ve tried to be respectful. I hope I’ve been honest. And I’m sure that I’ve made tons of mistakes. But McCartney was right: you have to keep going, even at the risk of getting it wrong.

Woody Allen’s Annie Hall is not the story of Annie. Rather, it’s the story of how she forces the neurotic narrator to get over himself and grow the hell up. I tried to be original, but I’ve never been able to shake off Woody’s influence. And so my play is not about Eric. Rather, it is a fragmented, anti-Symmetrical reflection of how he taught me life’s value of making every moment count.

Still, I wonder what Eric would think. He was very critical, and I cannot help imagining him scratching his head and asking: “When did we ever talk about that sort of thing?”

Then again, Eric was a performing artist. He could do the dagger speech from Macbeth like nobody’s business. He put together intricate clown routines that from time to time he’d share. And Eric was a remarkable dancer. One of my most cherished memories is that of watching him perform in The Nutcracker at Marin Ballet. So I can’t really say whether or not he would have liked this thing. But I know that in writing the play, I have tried to honor his memory. I hope that perhaps, on some level, Eric is able to understand.

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Shortly before he died, The Make-A-Wish Foundation sent Eric and his family to the island of Ithaca. My young friend was eager to visit the home of Odysseus, who’d trumped even Macbeth as his all time favorite hero. “He’s a survivor,” Eric told me, and it was clear that he’d found his kindred spirit. Back in the states, Eric filled me with tales of his own voyage to Ithaca, as wonderful and amazing as any told by Homer.

Suddenly, he asked me: “Do you know where the word ‘perfect’ comes from?” I confessed my ignorance. “It’s from the Latin word ‘perfectus’, which means ‘finished’, or ‘complete’, like…like coming around full circle.”

It would be one of my last conversations with Eric. Except for the fact that I still talk to him. It sounds crazy, until you consider the alternative. Those notes from the underground will only be ignored for so long. If Eric taught me nothing else, his life demonstrated the amazing and transformational power of art, knowledge, and friendship. I shall not look upon his like again.

Thank you, Eric. I hope that your Odyssey has indeed come full circle. As for myself, I still have a bit of a way to go. But wherever you may be, you will always have the gratitude and fondness of a humble fellow traveler.

David Berkson

1/17/12

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