Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sonnet 155 (The Ajax Sonnet)

I am Odysseus in the halls of hell
And all you ghosts but one will chat with me:
You, Ajax, whom I loved. You know too well
What I am, how my half-lidded eyes see.
I stole the armor that was rightly yours.
You killed yourself in protest on your sword.
And now you turn your back on me –- out roars
Your silence –- eloquent, piercing, but Lord!
What is a suit of armor to a hero?
He needs no armor but his honor’s soul.
Armor is cheap; self-made, its cost is zero
And self-made armor’s best when it’s made whole.
Sulk not, sweet Ajax, with your white plume gone.
Worse men than you have died with armor on.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Birthday Party at The Mermaid

4/24/09. Birthday party at The Mermaid, where everyone who was anyone gathers round a cake in the shape of the Globe Theatre. There are actually 545 candles on it, and Will Kemp makes a couple of Globe Fire jokes which I ignore, as I ignore him. The good thing about being the guest of honor is that all I have to do is stand still and everyone will come to me. The bad thing is that everyone comes to me. There is no escape from people like Kemp and Burbage, who continue to act as if all is forgiven when everyone knows it never will be. This is their way of making me the problem. They’ve moved past it, they have achieved closure, whereas poor Will, he’s still stuck in the past, still rankled over old wounds, no wonder they don’t heal, the man picks at them every morning when he wakes up. Closure. I’d like to close a coffin lid on the two of them. But I do not, because I am a gentleman. Even if I did have to pay for the privilege.

The party is not memorable, but these gathering never really are. It’s the usual people with their usual followers saying all the usual things to each other. Byron is there with a boy, Burbage is there with a chorus girl, Shaw is there with a chip on his shoulder, and as for my own personal entourage, Anne is hanging on my arm like a shoulderbag, the Dark Lady is shooting verbal arrows from a corner banquette, and the Butterfly is flitting into the reach of every other man in the room but always just out of reach of me. Think of sunshine peeking out from behind a cloud. Oh look –- there’s light! There’s warmth! Oops -- sorry -- you noticed me, so I have to slip behind a cloud again. I mention this to Dante and he comes up with a new circle in Hell just for her.

It is a typical theatre party, in its typical five-act format, to wit:

Act One: Who’s Coming?
Act Two: Who’s Here?
Act Three: Who’s Not Here?
Act Four: Who’s Leaving With Who?
Act Five: Where Are We Going Next?

We do my cake during the intermission between Acts Three and Four. As the candles are lit, Clerrihew works the room repeating his latest gems to the drunken amusement of everyone but the people he is lampooning.

Here lies the Body of Samuel Shepard.
Of characters his plays are peppered.
They speak like Utah in October
(At least they did when Sam was sober.)
But as for storylines, this glade
Has the only plot he ever made.

The so-called plays of Suzan-Lori Parks
Should all be used for fertilizing parks.
Look on her works, good writers, and despair!
But wonder not why they’re done everywhere:
It needs but nine small words to tell the tale:
She’s black, a woman, and she went to Yale.

Then, just before I blow out my candles, he gets to me:

Here lies the corpse of Billy Shakes,
A guy who always got the breaks:
Kit Marlowe knifed before his time,
Bob Greene a stroke while in his prime,
Tom Nashe the plague, Tom Kyd the rack.
This is the way you raise a hack
From last place to the top position –-
Just murder all the competition.

This gets universal laughter, the loudest of which come from me. It is always wise to laugh at jokes which come perilously close to the truth. I wonder how much Clerrihew knows. He is phenomenally perceptive when it comes to chinks in a man's armor, but I cannot believe he knows the truth behind Marlowe's death or why Tom Kyd was really tortured on the rack. No one does. Well, that's not true. I do. And Chekhov. But then Chekhov knows everything.

By the time Act Five is done, the Dark Lady has left in a huff, the Butterfly has flapped off with Ethan Hawke, and Anne has waited for the two other women in my life to leave before disengaging her arm from mine with all the care of a doctor removing an IV line, kissing me on the cheek with her dry-as-paper lips, and bidding me good night with the pleased smile of a farmer who has protected his chickens from a couple of hungry raccoons. Now only the usual diehards are left, doing their usual shtick. Auden argues politics, Shelley argues religion, and Byron argues the necessity of publishing as much as possible, an argument that becomes moot the moment Emily Dickinson opens her mouth. Keats blushes at Mina Loy, Ted Hughes leaves the room when his two ex-wives start sharing suicide stories, and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick throw drinks at each other, kiss and make up, throw dishes at each other, have make-up sex on the bar, and beat each other over the head with wine bottles till their car arrives. By the time I leave, I see Ginsberg and Whitman fighting over Chatterton, Brecht trying to make a point to an empty room, and Neruda weeping.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Not a day over 544

4/23/09. Today I am 545. I celebrate this natal aberration with a breakfast interview conducted by a smug young pup from The New Yorker, who asks all the usual questions (what’s the correct spelling of your name, who was the Dark Lady, what about that second-best bed, are you a Catholic, are you gay, what are you working on now) to which I give the usual answers (William, Diana Rigg, you should have seen the third-best bed, nobody really is, are you kidding I’m effervescent, and a lawsuit to retrieve back royalties). Then he asks me to rattle off 25 Things You Don’t Know About Me, and I direct him to Harold Bloom, who knows more about me than I do, and is not afraid to say so to homeless people on the street. “I can particularly recommend his last three books,” I say. “Shakespeare Was A Poet, Not An Actor!, Hamlet Is A God Damn Poem, Not A Play! and Didn’t You Hear Me? I Said ‘Shakespeare was Not A Fucking Actor!’ Okay? "

After a liquid lunch, I spend a leisurely afternoon watching the Andy Warhol Macbeth, Orson Welles’ Macbeth, Scotland PA, and Throne of Blood. Not because I want to; because I have to. As many people during the last five centuries have surmised, the play is indeed cursed, and I am cursed with it. Not only is every production of The Play We Don’t Mention doomed to disaster, but while I am alive, I am constrained to attend every opening night whenever and wherever it is produced. Starting about 90 years ago, this grew to include movies as well. I have no idea how this came about, any more than I know how theatre tickets magically appear in my mailbox, along with plane tickets, hotel reservations, and (when needed) a passport under the name of Edward de Vere. I tried to explain this to Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh in ‘57 when we were throwing around the idea of doing Dunsinane (Exclamation Point), and the two of them ended up writing a song based on Coleman’s reply: “Witchcraft.” When they asked me for details, I could only tell them what I told everyone from Cole Porter to Kurosawa: “I am constrained by a geas laid upon me by the three Isobells -- Isobell Cockie, Isobell Gowdie and Isobell Ogg –- to e’er be wife to endless life until the grife that I did pour on MacBeth’s head be nae more said upon the spread of England’s shore. Until that day aine must I stay and watch the play forevermore.” As to why those three stanzas have such power over me, I dinna ken and kenna say. And there are only certain circumstances surrounding the curse which I am allowed to speak or write about. The time and place are two of those, though they can be deduced when I tell you that the original version of The Play We Don't Mention was twice the length of the Folio version, which combines the revision in which I inserted the Gunpowder plot allusions and the cut version I created (for my usual fee) for the touring version of 1607. Where is the original version now, you ask? Along with a great many other treasures, it went up in smoke and sparks during the curséd Globe Fire, an event which also burned away every last interest I have in writing plays for anyone, let alone the damned King’s Men. (Perhaps I will do that 25 Things list after all; God knows the events after the Fire would probably fill up half of it.) (And can I just say, what a relief it is to write the word “God” and not have some snippy censor immediately changing it to “Heaven?”)

There were a lot of “heavens” in the full version of MacBeth, but nothing heavenly at all in most of these film versions, the watching of which is an object lesson in all the different ways The Scottish Play in its abbreviated form is only slightly less successful than the construction of the Tower of Babel. The Warhol makes me laugh until I get a migraine. The Welles puts me to sleep. Scotland PA reduces everything to the level of a city comedy. (I despise city comedy; the one time I was asked to write one, I made it so topical that it was censored by that pinch-souled mental hunchback Tilney, who made Dick Cheney look like Falstaff.) Only Throne of Blood makes me happy, perhaps because feudal Japan is to modern Tokyo what medieval Scotland was to Tudor England: a murky, messy castle full of shadows and spiderwebs. (I much prefer the movie’s Japanese title, 蜘蛛巣城.) Of course, this is the one version of the story which the Dark Lady cannot stand. Her current favorite is the Patrick Stewart atrocity which played on Broadway last year, the one that felt so long it added another 500 years to my life. But then we never agree on anything, which is yet another instance of the truism that all things travel in threes, including deaths, running gags, and women who don’t agree with me. Pun always intended.

And all three of those women will be at The Mermaid tonight for my party.