Friday, September 24, 2010

Playing Dress-up with Shakespeare

When I was a kid I remember my sister getting Dress n Dazzle for some birthday or other and feeling rather envious. Dress n Dazzle were these very fancy dress-up clothes for little girls (not slutty I might add, which was a plus). Perhaps this is what made me realise the pretend games we played were WAY more fun if we looked the parts. Or maybe it just began an obsession with clothing. They may be two sides of the same coin. But somewhere around the age of 7 or 8 I found that pretending was not enough-- there had to be tangible evidence involved to make it somewhat real.

Around the same age I also saw my first Shakespeare play-- Mel Gibson's "Hamlet." I don't believe the two experiences were at all connected and I remember my dad explaining much of it to me so I don't believe it was this particular film which led to the very odd habit I developed of dressing up in costume as often as I could get away with. And I don't mean Halloween-type dressing up like a ghost or a witch-- I mean painstakingly designing and sewing costumes by hand. Period and fantasy-style costumes. And this habit lasted until after I returned from the UK and found it much too hot to wear frocks on my bike all summer. Nursing has forced me to wear slightly more practical clothing anyway. But part of me still very much misses my big dresses and they are lovingly tucked away in my closet despite being rather threadbare.

You might assume that, like all kids, I was merely imitating what I saw on tv. Most of the time watching television is really like window shopping at home. Almost everything you watch is telling you what to be and how to dress. It's the most effective consumer training-tool and social engineering program out there. So you might imagine my dress-up habit was a result of television's power of suggestion, and I just happened to be nerdier than your average kid in what I watched. Except, unlike the kids watching YTV and dressing like Blossom, my motive for this kind of dress-up was the opposite. Not intentionally. I didn't say to myself, "Gee everyone looks like Blossom this year, I think I'll go be Juliet instead..." I had my just-like-Blossom phases the way everyone else did and eagerly awaited the paper on Wednesday and Friday so I could get my dose of the "oo gimme gimmes" from the flyers. Being Juliet was different. It meant nothing to anyone else and everything to me. It was not about being like the rest of the world or rebelling against it; it had no reference to this world at all in fact--it was entirely about creating a different one.

Having gotten through Hamlet at age 7 I felt perfectly capable of handling Romeo and Juliet at age 10. I remember phoning one of my wee school friends after and telling her all about it in raptures and realising that she's only listening politely and wasn't at all interested. That year I asked my teacher if, instead of doing my research project on an animal, I could maybe do it on Shakespeare-- the man himself. I even went down to the library and read all about Elizabethan England and took tons of notes, before my teacher decided I really needed to just do an animal like everyone else in the 4th grade. Thanks a bunch public school education. But the interest stuck and grew stronger because of my indignation and some time around 12 I found the sonnets. Mom had a terrific old fashioned volume of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, with a deep blue, gold embossed cover that was all scuffed and fading, with yellowed pages. To me it looked Elizabethan. I used to carry it around as part of "the look." And it was from this that I learned Shakespeare wasn't just fancy, old fashioned theatre. It was poetry. The holiness taught me by George MacDonald now had a language.

Then my parents took me to a real play. Needless to say I dressed the part when I went, in my aunt's old hippy dress which on me (because I was still quite small and short) looked nearly medieval. The experience of a real play completely changed my life, and if the "oo gimme gimme's," and the "just-like-so-and-so's" hadn't turned my ambitions from Shakespeare's stage to Hollywood's meat market then, well I wouldn't have wasted so much damn time.

The play was Romeo and Juliet-- which is not really one of my favourite plays at all, but the particular play was not the important part. The important part was the dynamic experience of the theatre, the collective play acting which happened not only on stage between the actors but between actors and audience. We were ALL in the play. It was magic. It was like church.

Now don't get me wrong, much as I love Shakespeare, I'm not suggesting that the theatre is "worship"-- or at least when it is, it is very bad theatre, just as church which is too like the theatre is really very bad church. But the English theatre has it's roots in liturgical practice and much of what we do in church, however solemn, is really play-acting. I don't say this to suggest that it isn't real or true-- precisely the opposite in fact.

What we do, physically, makes us who we are. We make it real by doing it. I don't mean this simply in a religious sense and this is not a discussion of good works versus faith. I mean everyday we make choices which make us more who we are. We are co-Creators and our life's work is ourselves. We are continually becoming who we are eternally. That is the essence of free will. And I cannot help but think this impulse to "play dress-up" is actually a universal aspect of our natures manifesting our creative relationship to God. But it has been perverted from a temporal process to an end in itself. Which is not only dangerous for the soul, but disastrous on a socio-economic level too. We change clothes, jobs, houses, relationships as fast as the trends demand of us, consuming as we go instead of creating anything lasting for others to share in.

My paper, as far as I have thought about it, is about Shakespeare and Mimesis--mimesis being not only that process which an actor goes through as he becomes his character, or Richard III goes through as he puts on a mask of evil, but something we ALL do everyday of our lives without being aware of it. Every time we pick out what to wear, every time we post a status on Facebook, every time we say something to make the person next to us on the bus laugh: we are creating who we want to be for those around us. This is not a lie, but it can be a dangerous game. If we are not careful, we can objectify the mask, give it meaning of its own beyond ourselves and then it will have power over us. This is the nature of sin.

I think Shakespeare understood this deeply. As a man of the stage his life's work was in wearing masks and he certainly knew very well how deeply disturbing it can be for an actor not to know where his character ends and he begins. Hamlet, Richard III and many others, all put on a mask which overcame them and ultimately destroyed them. Now, their masks were different from the ones which slowly creep into our hearts and strangle us from within. For a start, Hamlet was aware of his mask and voluntarily, consciously, put it on as a means to some other end. But the power was no less potent because its end was not in creation but in destruction. In control, not freedom. And while our own sinful masks are much more subtle in their method their objective, whether we are aware of it or not, is the same as Richard's and Hamlet's: death.

But I think Shakespeare knew the solution. I think he knew how to control the mask-- master it, and use it for salvation instead. I think the secret is in the dynamic of the theatre, the collective making of a play in which we all plays parts together, parts written for us by Someone Else, but which are ultimately and uniquely our own as well.

Now I just need to do the research to see if I'm right ;)

Brief Update

Okay, okay it's been a while. I kept meaning to pick up this thread again, but shortly after I posted my last I realised that I had a LOT of studying to do because I had decided to go back to school and finish up my degree, which meant re-learning Latin 100-- or rather teaching it to myself-- over the summer, since I took it 8 years ago and would not have a clue where I was in Latin 200 if I didn't.

So for anyone who isn't aware via the continual panic-stream that has been my facebook status for the last two months: I am getting a degree in Honours English. That is, literature. Lucky me! I love literature! I have only my final year to do (though I will be taking 2 years to do it so I can actually SEE my kids and not spend triple my tuition on daycare). Also it's been a while and though I am only technically taking 2 classes (Latin and an Honours Theory seminar) I am already busy doing homework every.single.minute. Yelling at Georgie to get off the table whilst I translate "Me neca!" And pausing for the billionth time in my reading of Zizek to take the knitting needles off Theo so he doesn't end up poking Georgie in the eye.

So what am I doing now? Well I'm preparing to do homework actually. But before I embark on my next post I felt I needed to explain why I hadn't continued with this particular blog thread. I will continue with it now-- as part of my homework. You see, in addition to my seminar and my Latin I am also writing my Honours graduating essay. This is a 40-50 page research paper which the Honours students write before graduation. I could do it next year but I want to finish it up this year so that next fall it's just classes and I actually have a hope of graduating by the end of 2011. (11 years ain't so bad for finishing and undergrad is it?). Also I have been rather looking forward to this project because I get to pick the topic. It's pretty intense-- like the undergrad version of a Master's thesis. But I'm still looking forward to writing on something I really care about.

This actually ties in with my blog thread too because, as it happens, I will be writing on Shakespeare. My prospectus is due in a couple of weeks and I am planning to write a rough draft this weekend so I thought I'd kick off the weekend (since I'm stuck at home anyway) enjoying some wine and blogging about Shakespeare-- to get my brain moving.

SO here I go...

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Princess and the Goblin-- a baptised imagination, a thread for a guide

Those who know their CS Lewis will know that there was one book, which he picked up by chance, that had a remarkable, life-changing effect on him, and was pivotal in his conversion to Christianity. That book was Phantastes, a sort of adult fairy tale novel by George MacDonald. Lewis later said in Surprised by Joy-- the autobiographical account of his conversion--that as he read the haunting tale of Anodos "That night, [his] imagination was, in a certain sense, baptised." For the "bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos" --holiness-- was something he had never come across or experienced before. And he found it was not a quality confined to the world of fantasy but that it rather came "out of the book into the real world and [rested] there, transforming all common things and yet itself unchanged." In other words it coloured his perception of the real world and endowed all things in it with a kind of greatness-- almost super-reality.

It does not cease to amaze me that the same author who changed Lewis' life was also pivotal in my own. The Princess and the Goblin is of course a children's novel but it has the same quality about it-- the "bright shadow." And while I was completely unaware of it at the time it too baptised my imagination. I do not recall how old I was when my parents read it to me-- young enough I did not read it myself at least. But it was not until I was in my early twenties that I rediscovered it and was surprised by how important it had been in my life.

The story is that of young Princess Irene who lives with her nurse and servants in a castle on the mountain while her King-papa is about his business in the country. One very dull day she gets lost in the house and discovers a secret stair that leads her to a tower in which her great-great grandmother dwells unbeknownst to anyone else in the house. Her grandmother spins a ball of spider silk thread to which she fastens a ring--once belonging to Irene's mother. She tells Irene that if she is ever frightened she must take off her ring, put it under her pillow and follow the thread with her finger until it leads her back to her grandmother. The mountain below is full of goblins who hatch an evil plot to carry off the Princess for a bride to their Prince Harelip and it is with the help of Curdie, a miner's son, and her great-great grandmother's thread that Princess Irene escapes them and they defeat the goblins.

The story is full of Christian symbolism. The great grandmother is endowed with more than one trinitarian quality. In some scenes she is the Spirit, appearing as a dove come to frighten away the darkness, or a fire of roses which transforms the quality of all things. Other times she is like the Father or the Son. It is difficult to describe as it is not so obvious or complete a parallel as Narnia's Aslan. The characters of the Princess and Curdie, the king-papa, the goblins, and even Curdie's mother all have archetypal qualities. And the same quality of holiness colours the tale as the Princess and Curdie learn to trust her grandmother to bring them safely through the darkness and defeat the goblins.

I did not appreciate the symbolism until I was an adult of course. But the the images of the tale and the "bright shadow" that coloured them, the fire of roses, the bath of stars, the globe of light, the thread of spider silk, the heirloom ring, the beautiful grandmother both young and old, all of them remained with me and changed the way I saw things in the real world, shaped my perceptions and well, baptised my imagination.

Of course I didn't know it at the time. It was not until I was in my early twenties, suffering from a multitude of fears myself and having got quite lost just like Princess Irene did the day she found her grandmother's secret stair, that I did a little research on myself. I picked up some of my favourite childhood books again. I'd quite forgotten the the story till then. In Lewis' Screwtape Letters Wormwood is properly told off by his uncle Screwtape for making the very lamentable blunder of allowing his "patient" the pleasure of reading a book he really enjoys because it would make him feel that he was "recovering himself." And that is just what happened when I reread The Princess and the Goblin in the midst of my fears and confusion. I recovered myself at once and suddenly began to understand where I came from again and who I was and to Whom.

The realisation was an important one. Until then I had been living in a sort of romantic fantasy world in which I was "submerged in self-pity for imaginary distresses." One true encounter with that "bright shadow" and I could see quite clearly just what was nonsense and what was real. I'd found the thread and it led me out.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Books That Shaped My Life

It's funny how pivotal our exposure to literature is and how it shapes our lives and influences who we become from a very young age. How powerful words are! We never think about it. And yet St. John tells us "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." He then tells us "All things were made through Him." The WORD made us. The word creates. And it has been going through my mind lately just what particular words created me.

I should clarify that I am not among those sorts of people who are merely pagans worshipping the god "Art." And I do not mean to imply that the literature which shaped my life was my true creator. I am only drawing a parallel between the power of God to create the cosmos and the power of words to reflect His nature and influence the way in which we come to understand Him. If that makes sense.

There have been many books which have had little important influences on me throughout my life. If I wanted to be extremely thorough and long-winded I would even say that certain nursery books like "Close Your Eyes" and "Goodnight Moon" were important in one way or another. But then I believe the power of the written word and how it plays on one's imagination will have some noteworthy effect--if only to clarify for the reader that he thinks such-and-such a writer is a complete git and has no notion of natural human feeling. (Yes, I've read a few of those). If one really examines their reactions to any piece of literature (or art or drama) I suspect they will discover something, however small, about themselves. But I will only mention here the books that I think have been the most important to me in my life. So far.

I have to confess that I feel remarkably conceited to think anyone should care two pins about my little autobiography in literature. I do not think I am really particularly interesting and aside from the birth of my two beautiful children I have accomplished relatively nothing. But I should be interested to know if anyone else reading this can relate to or has a similar story about their own experience with literature. And for some reason, I am so very suddenly surprised to realise how completely these books have made me who I am, that I feel compelled to relate it to anyone who cares to hear it.

In any case I shall write a little review and discussion of each book over the next few days (or weeks--or months) so that it will form a little thread on my blog for anyone who cares to read and comment.

They are, in more or less chronological order, "The Princess and the Goblin," by George MacDonald, "Shakespeare's Sonnets," "John Keats, Lyric Poems," Wendy Shalit's "A Return to Modesty," Connie Willis' "To Say Nothing of the Dog" CS Lewis' "The Four Loves" and "Nourishing Traditions" by Sally Fallon.

It is very odd collection of books. The first, naturally, was a children's fantasy written by a Victorian Scotsman. The next two were the works of two poets, each important in different ways. The next a treatise advocating sexual modesty. Then a comical-historical Science Fiction novel followed by a popular discussion of Christian love. And finally, bizarrely, a cookbook.

I hope my little discussions about each will be vaguely interesting.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


WOW. SO Georgie's one...One year did that happen? We had this crazy start with a birth defect and a colicky baby and surgery and now she's one.

I don't remember much about when Theo turned one or what he could do but because Georgie's 2 years behind him I'm paying special attention to when she acquires skills he already has--because she's that much closer to being able to play with him and leave me alone for goodness sake.

Her birthday passed rather uneventfully (unlike Theo's which was a full scale party with games and costumes). I had her to myself all day and we went to the nursery to buy some flowers for the garden where she was awarded a pink balloon when the lady behind the counter discovered it was her birthday.

At present she can walk, though she'd rather crawl as she still lacks the confidence to do what her legs can do --and will do-- if she's not paying attention.

She has just enough hair for me to put up into what Greg refers to as "mousetails."

Her eyes will quite definitely be blue (unlike Theo's which had turned hazel by age one).

She can say: "Dada," "uh-oh," "bye-bye," "hug," "down," "upside-down," and shake her head "no"

She can also clap her hands, wave goodbye, play peekaboo, and blow a kiss.

She cannot sleep through the night.

She has a funny looking "umbilicus" which Greg refers to as "The Mouth of Sauron" and her heart is still quite visible pumping away just under her sternum, but apart from that, you never know there was a birth defect.

She's the strongest willed little monkey I ever met and will stare down pretty much anyone. She'll be a heck of a teenager.

But she's a mama's girl-- unless Daddy has food he's willing to share and she loves her brother and I'm definitely looking forward to year 2-- especially the part where I presumably get a full night's sleep.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

3 years old

Theo is 3 today!!! Very hard for me to believe.

Here are some amazing things he learned to do this year:

Name and identify all the letters in the alphabet, both upper and lower case-- and in different fonts.

Name and identify numbers 1-10 (and we've nearly got 11 and 12 down now too)

Name most of the shapes--the plus sign is a cross of course

Identify all the colours of the rainbow as wells as pink and black and white

Sing "Christ is Risen" almost perfectly on key

Name at least 6 of the icons in our icon corner and ALL the ones on the iconostasis at church.

and my favourite: Tell you that Beer begins with "B"

He is also (Hurrah!!) potty trained (at 2 1/2-- and much earlier than I dared to hope); he gave up the dummy on his own this year, grew to over 3 feet, learned to spit out the tooth paste (among other things), started sleeping in a loft bed, and behaving himself in the car and the stroller.

His favourite thing to do is put on the Star Wars or Batman soundtrack and dance--which he is remarkably good at (very expressive)--and BBC Big Band is his next favourite music followed swiftly by church music because he knows half the words by heart.

His favourite food is probably maple syrup (good canadian kid) but he also loves sushi, olives, sharp cheddar cheese, squash, all kinds of fruit, and yes, you guessed it, beer.

My favourite moment is hard to pick but a close one is the morning he came to my bedside after going into the fridge and presented me with a bottle of beer which he thought he would like for his breakfast. (He's allowed an ounce in a shot glass at dinner if we're having it...)

I wonder what insane and amazing things will happen in year four...