Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Shakespeare's Garden: 'Macbeth' in Our Season

            Some aspects of Shakespeare's great political tragedy "Macbeth," director Melia Bensussen writes in her notes to the current production at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., "resonated... with our cultural moment."
            Would that 'moment' be the one when our current Usurper sells out his country's interests, alliances, values, and national pride to the two-bit totalitarian gangster who currently runs the long-running catastrophe generally known as Russia?
            "I thought about what moves and frightens us as contemporary audiences," Bensussen writes, and cites "how Macbeth's ambition, and belief in his imagination, lead to his destruction."
            She quotes the estimable literary critic Harold Bloom: "(The Macbeths) delight in their wickedness... Shakespeare rather dreadfully sees to it that we are Macbeth; our identity with him is involuntary but inescapable."
            Since 2016 there has been only one dominating influence on our 'cultural moment.' I won't say the name of the devil, but you know who I mean.
            What else can be meant by the 'cultural moment'? Me-too? The sins exposed there don't appear to have a precursor in this play since the only woman who matters, Lady Macbeth, is more actor than victim. You can see the "delight" Bloom speaks of in Bensussen's direction when Lady M. laughs in the course of her encouragement of her husband to murder and usurp. To throw caution to the winds and have the 'courage' to risk all for the prize of royal power, and be ruthless in obtaining it.
            They're playing the game of houses (or "Game of Thrones" as the TV series called it).  Among other contenders for the Scottish crown we must count the head (Duncan's) currently wearing the crown, whose necked is saved by Macbeth's defeat of the rebels. Banquo, Macbeth's comrade in arms, is another rival. When we first meet Macbeth, he is triumphant in a just cause and likable. A furiously competent warrior, he takes pains to share the credit for the victory with Banquo.
            But Banquo must be eliminated because of the witches' prophecy. Though he will not become king himself, they prophesy, his descendants will. Our hero-villain naturally prefers his heirs to sit on the throne (even though he doesn't appear to have any).
            Other threats to his power include Duncan's son Malcolm. Suspecting correctly that he's a likely target of the conspiracy that murdered his father, he flees the castle before the Macbeths can take a run at him. Then there's Macduff. Though he evinces no appetite for the game of thrones power, simply because he is a name, a power center that might some day ally with Macbeth's enemies gathering across the border in England, the logic of tyranny says he must be eliminated.
            Ask any tyrant in our own season. 
            Ask North Korea's Kim. Ask Putin why the oligarchs must be cut down to size before they become too popular or influential. Ask the Chinese Communist Party why no religious groups may operate in their country, no dissenters question their policies.
            Unlike history's more famous tyrants, Shakespeare's Macbeth has something they don't -- a conscience. An unavoidable capacity to experience, to feel, the reality of what he's doing. After he has Banquo murdered, Banquo's ghost ("in his blood") turns up at the dinner table.
            Macbeth's pathetic breakdown at the appearance of this ghost is black humor. Bensussen's production plays it for all that it's worth -- and then some; running the entire scene through twice. First with Banquo's ghostly appearance viewed by the audience. A second time with no 'ghost' on stage; the way, that is, the other guests would have perceived the occasion of Macbeth's mad-guilty ravings.
            The word the play's scholars use for this inconvenient capacity in a ruthless usurper is "imagination." Bensussen writes, "Macbeth too strongly believes in his own imagination..."
            He can, clearly, imagine himself king. But he can't help seeing the cost.
            To go back to that quote from Bloom: "Macbeth suffers intensely from knowing that he does evil, and that he must go on doing ever worse."
            Those last few words nail it. It's not enough to kill Macduff; you must kill his wife and children as well. No potential enemy can be left alive.
            Just as, to take a current instance, it is not enough to deny refuge to frightened people fleeing a threat to their lives. You must separate them from their children when you throw them in jail. That will show them. They won't try coming here again.
            But Macbeth, as I see it, chooses the path he does because he convinces himself that 'destiny' accords with his own desire for the crown.
            And, of course, the three witches help with that convincing. "Hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!" they greet him, before Macbeth has learned that Duncan has bestowed this title on him -- and "All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter!"
            But the witches are (as they do again in a later scene), "equivocating" -- to use a term of moment. Shakespeare's moment that is. In the aftermath of the infamous "Gunpowder Plot," a terrorist plot to destroy King James I and the leadership of England's Protestant government, investigators  faced the pernicious doctrine of "Equivocation."
            The doctrine taught that it was morally lawful to swear to civil authorities that you are telling the truth, but also to hold back essential information if you have good reason to that accords with your religious faith. So if the sheriff asks you, "Did you hide a priest last night?" you can swear that you did not, because actually it was your son or your wife that hid him. And because, as a believer in the old religion -- Roman Catholicism -- you believe God's law smiles on this deed of withholding truth for a higher cause, rather than forbids it.
            This is why the word shows up in Shakespeare's play and why the director of this "Shakespeare & Company" production has her actors emphasize it so strongly that it becomes a laugh line.
            The witches equivocate to Macbeth by withholding the whole truth with a clear intention to mislead when they tell him that he has nothing to fear until "Birnham Wood comes to Dunsinane" -- an apparent impossibility. Until, in a fashion, it happens. And also when they tell Macbeth that he need fear "no man of woman born."
            Macbeth hears what he wishes to hear instead of considering the source and maintaining a healthy skepticism. It's a fitting fate for a once good man turned tyrant, and hollowed out morally as a result. Duncan's son Malcolm, -- born by Caesarean -- will run him through in the end.
            That's why I missed seeing these telling scenes with the proverbial three witches in this "Shakespeare & Company" production. Bunsussen's show gave us only bare snippets of these encounters, and the three witches were economized to one. This RIFing also cheapens the historic context, since James I, England's new Stuart ruler, was a famous hunter of witches.
            We may not have witches or witch-hunters among us today (though 'witch-hunt' is daily thrown about), but our world has no shortage of 'strongmen' who lust after power. And find confirmation of their greatness everywhere.
            The omission of the witch scenes also slights the historical context because Shakespeare's play connects "Macbeth" to his own day by pointing out that England's new Scottish king is among Banquo's many descendants. The point is made by a daring device as the witches show Macbeth a charmed mirror in which he glimpses portraits of the long line of Banquo's descendants on his country's throne -- including new boy on the throne Jimmy (or 'Hamish') Stuart.
            Macbeth is after all "the Scottish play." It's doubtful that this theme for a play would have occurred to Shakespeare if the throne of England had not recently passed to a Scottish king.
            And revealing a play's connection to its own time helps connect it to our time as well -- because the through-stories in human history are always the same. Shakespeare's time had dynasties, powerful lords, and rule by tyrants called kings or queens.
            We have dynastic families, billionaires -- our last election featured the wife of a former President against a tax-evading oligarch -- and an endless parade of celebrity egos who believe they're hearing destiny's call to greatness.
            Not for nothing did the Constitutional framers create a governmental structure pitted with restraints on power. I questioned the need for so many of these myself when our gentle Duncan sat in the White House and suffered political impotence by a thousand cuts.
            Now, however, we see how easy it is when a monster sits on the throne, surrounded by liars, thieves and toadies, to ignore all restraints simply by denying the claims of reason and fact and moral decency.
            Maybe that's what Bloom meant when he wrote "Shakespeare sees to it that we are Macbeth; our identity with him is involuntary but inescapable."
            Today the Great Equivocator sits on the throne and tells us that what he told the foreign dictator yesterday is not what he meant to say. Today he will say something different that plays better at home.
            His sycophants and enablers will rally around and say, "Yes, boss. Yes, boss."
            History echoes in all our present moments. Will no one rid us of this turbulent beast?


Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Garden of the Seasons: July Friends, a Colorful Group Coping with a Strong Sun and a lot of Shade

          Anne and I were discussing what is meant by the term "midsummer." In England Midsummer day (or 'night' as Shakespeare reminds us) is a magical time because it's the summer solstice. The day on which the sun reaches its highest point of the year in the northern hemisphere. This usage had no regard for the public school calendar. Kids are just getting out for summer vacation, so mid-summer for them (and their teachers) is late July. 
         For a perennial flower garden in Massachusetts, I would say it's right about now. The sun is high, but beauty is fleeting. Many plants have already flowered and gone back to making strong roots, stems, and leaves for continued success. Maybe they're bearing seeds that haven't scattered yet. 
           Others are hitting their stride. It's daylily month. Hydrangeas are flourishing. Many roses bloom through this month. And many of us indulge in summer annuals that take a month or two to reach their prime. One of these is the orange hibiscus, pictured in the top photo. 
          I buy these hibiscus and pot them for a season to help celebrate summer every year. They're tropical or semitropical flower. The big ones I bring indoors for the winter; some of them make it and are good for a second go-around outdoors, some don't. In either case they know they haven't spent the winter in Florida or southern California.
                Spiderwort (second photo down) move in anywhere you let them. When they all bloom at once, on a dark morning or in blazing sunshine (doesn't seem to matter) they can be stunning. When they start to tire and the weather gets dry, they just flop all over the place. Now the question is whether to try put up with them in hopes of later bloom, or cut them down. I do a little of both.
           Astilbe, blooming red and white in the third photo down, are going good in early July. A plant widely recommended for shady spots. they're surviving here where it's shady more than half the time; but the high sun of late June and early July stays on them for a longer piece of the day. If only these blooms would last all summer -- that's what we say about most perennials.
           This Spirea (fourth down) blooms in a lovely dark pink to reddish color. Somehow they never last -- but you've just heard that story. However, if you conscientiously dead-head all the faded blooms, you may be rewarded with a good second show. That's my job for today.
          These daylilies (fifth down) have a lovely soft color. They tolerate neglect and crowding as you tell from this photo. And partial sun. I've been trying to collect different varieties of this remarkably versatile plant (though I forget to write down the names) so that the differences in blooming dates will keep the color flowing for over a month at least. The native orange daylilies start in late June. Some other varieties have yet to begin to bloom. The pale yellow ones here are finishing up.
          Rose Campion (sixth down) is another champion of midsummer, late June to early July. Their dark red flowers (that name them, I suppose) contrast nicely with the gray stems and leaves. I don't know anything more about them, but that's enough for me. 
          Another plant with a nice color contrast is the coral bell (seventh down), with delicate pink flowers above dark purplish-green leaves. Again, it's highly recommended as flowering perennial that blooms without too much sun. Most of all the plants growing here in our the back garden are labeled semi-shade. That's a cleome blooming in the lower right of this pic.  
          Lamium (sometimes sold as "spotted dead nettle") is shown here (eighth down) growing beside the newly reconstructed stone and gravel path. Everybody does their road work in summer
            Lace-cap Hydrangea (ninth down) shows in this photo exactly where its name came from. The plant grows expansively, but hard to believe, truly wilts in the sun. In our front garden sun is more prevalent, and in sunny, dry periods (like today) they require watering every day (yes, also on today's to-do list).
          A different daylily with a darker yellow color is pictured here in the last photo. I love this tint and should have kept that name tag for this cultivar. Remembering the names of plant varieties is one of those activities they recommend for improving your memory. I think I'm going in the wrong direction.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Garden of Verse: Climbing the Heights of Long Island in Walt Whitman's Hills

Some people call the summit West Hill. Today it's called Jayne's Hill by the park department.
            Walt Whitman called it the highest point on Long Island, which it is, and spoke of its marvelous water views, a perspective no
longer available because the trees have grown up on all the low, rambling hills in this lovely spot now known as West Hills County Park.
            The poet who was born nearby, described a "view of thirty or forty, or even fifty or more miles, especially to the east and south and southwest: the Atlantic Ocean to the latter points in the distance - a glimpse or so of Long Island Sound to the north."
            We walked in West Hills for the first time ever on a lovely Saturday in June,  the day of our niece Emily Knox's wedding. With a few hours to go before church time, we looked for some place near our Huntington motel to take a good walk. This wooded county park was it.
            Given the beautiful dry weather, we must have lucked into one of the best days of the year to hike in these gentle hills. The date was about a week before the Summer Solstice, and we found the wooded trail awash in mountain laurel in full bloom.
            The summit is marked by a boulder bearing a plaque inscribed with a reference to Walt Whitman's "Starting From Paumanok," a long autobiographical poem titled after the Indian name for Long Island. The poem appeared in the first edition of "Leaves of Grass." 
            The Walt Whitman Birthplace, located at 246 Old Walt Whitman Road in Huntington Station, is a Federalist style farm house once owned by a family with roots in this part of Long Island dating back to the 17th century. While Walt's father moved the family to Brooklyn in his son's childhood, family connections brought the poet back to this part of Long Island frequently
            Generally regarded as America's greatest poet, and the most influential worldwide, Whitman became known as the poet of democracy.
            In an introductory essay to a comprehensive volume of the famous work, "Leaves of Grass," scholar Sculley Bradley pointed out that democracy for Whitman meant more than counting the votes. The poet regarded democracy "as the order of nature. It embraced every conceivable condition of life for mankind. Its essence was love, extending in universal justice around the world."
            For me, this conception of a mundane and what has become an almost meaningless word, Whitman's idea of democracy sounds like a humanistic interpretation of the theory of evolution. Whitman believed that democracy was moving purposively forward, despite all of humanity's flaws, toward an end Whitman called "amelioration," a term philosophers in his time used to mean "things are getting better" or at least less gruelingly bad.
            Age by age, Walt Whitman believed, human beings were working the kinks out of their society.
            Whitman was hardly blind to the imperfections of rowdy, self-serving 19th century America. A big city newspaper editor in New York (and, briefly, New Orleans), he witnessed political corruption, poverty, and bigotry. A volunteer nurse during the Civil War (wounds dresser, essentially) in a medically brutal time, he provided companionship and kindness for maimed and dying men. He worked as a civil servant in Washington D.C. to support his volunteer work and writing. In the climate of post Civil War America, a government job gave him a front-row seat on a corrupt era in national politics matched only -- dare I say it? -- by today's open market for purchasing Congressmen spawned by "Citizens United." 
            After Whitman published the first, modestly sized edition of "Leaves of Grass" in 1855, his radically original poetry drew praise from America's reigning intellectual god, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In a famous letter Emerson wrote him, "I hail you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start."
            That foreground, Bradley writes in his essay, "was an opulent inheritance of American idealism that could survive the later disillusionments of journalism, the corruption of men, and the catastrophes of war." Sounds like a good summation to me; only I'm not sure journalists these days carry around any illusions to lose.
            Anne, Sonya and I were happy to find what may be the best nature walk on Long Island, even if we couldn't see scores of miles out to sea. That one of the most thrilling and influential voices in modern literature shared this perspective and on occasion this woodland ramble makes West Hills park especially memorable.
            "And what I assume you shall assume," Walt Whitman tells us in his great poem "Song of Myself." "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
            From which I take it that -- good times or bad -- we're all in this together.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Garden of Verse: Hard This Year to Feel the Love on Our Nation's Birthday

Well it's July, and summer doesn't get more "mid" than this. It's a good time of year for a holiday to celebrate our country's birth, but this year what I'm feeling is -- well, what's the opposite of nostalgia? A sickness that is not composed of "longing"? 
          In America we proudly celebrate the birth of the first nation in modern times founded on a system of self-government. 
           But what if that system isn't working? As is rather spectacularly the case in 2018. 
           So when our editor at proposed the theme of "America" for the July issue, I felt the compulsion to -- 'rally around the flag'? Is that a phrase we can use when the flag has been taken prisoner by a scoundrel of the first order and a crew of pea-brained bullies? 

            Nevertheless before launching into my screed I began this poem with a reminiscent look at the conditions of life fifty years ago in America. 

You. Me. RFK.
Fifty years ago,
not much time in the fossil record
(by contemporary measure we're all fossils now)
but a considerable bite in a lifespan
No phones, no careers, no parents to speak of
No job beyond short-term janitoring in college dormitories
Viewed in the antique light of old snapshots, recollected in selfish nostalgia
like something once seen in a movie
Days bumbling from pot party for lunch
to adolescent sulk over some fresh tease
What did anybody ever see in that early attempt at me?


              To see what else was happening fifty years ago, and a screed on what's happening today read the rest of my poem at
                Work by 39 poets in all can be found at
                  And, regardless of my bad-mouthing, Happy Fourth!