Sunday, January 14, 2018

I See Shakespeare's Worst Play

So, today Janice and I went down to the Seattle Center (also known as the site of the '62 World's Fair) to see TIMON OF ATHENS, which gets my vote for Shakespeare's worst play, hands down. I'd been curious if, bad as it is on the page, it had any redeeming qualities on the stage. The answer, I'd say, is No. Too bad.

We stayed for the Q&A with the cast (most of whom were very good, esp. the guy who played Timon's loyal stewart), whose explanation for its being so bad was twofolds. First, they said Shakespeare co-wrote it w. Thomas Middleton, who they claimed wrote the worse bits. Unfortunately for this argument, the dialogue, which they blame on Midddleton, is rather better than the many, many soliloquies, which they credit to Shakespeare.

Second, they thought the play was unfinished, just a draft. So any line they didn't like cd be seen as a place-holder, meant to be replaced later by something better.

These arguments fail to address the true weakness of the play: it has an utterly unsympathetic main character. Timon* goes from being foolishly generous beyond his means (think generosity junkie)
to being bitterly misanthropic, with lots of nasty little rants about how horrible everyone is.

So, it's good to get a chance to see this, but while the play is better on the stage than on the page, it's, in the words of Marvin the Paranoid Android, "still very bad though". Though it does make me want to see MACBETH on stage if it comes anywhere near.

--John R.

*whose name I've always pronounced as 'Ta-MOAN', but which they said as 'TY-man', rhyming w. Simon. Though I don't suppose it matters.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Conan Doyle Disease

So, some authors come to be known by a single book, or a single series within a larger body of work. Out of the many things he or she wrote, this one work comes to be the defining legacy.*

Some writers are fine with that. They're happy to be remembered, and it doesn't bother them that they're remembered for Book A as opposed to Book B. I think P. G. Wodehouse was one of these. Far from being annoyed that people wanted more Jeeves and Bertie Wooster stories from him year after year, he seems to have felt himself jolly lucky that readers still wanted more, and he was happy to oblige.**  Tolkien belonged to this category: when asked in an interview how he wanted to be remembered, he replied that he hadn't much choice in the matter: that if he was remembered at all it'd be for LORD OF THE RINGS.***

Other authors, while grateful for the popularity a successful work brings, come to feel resentment over time for being treated like a one-hit wonder. A prime example of this is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes stories overshadow anything else he ever wrote, and rightly so -- and it was already apparent from early on in Doyle's career that this wd be the case.****

It was A. A. Milne's misfortune that he had a bad case of Conan Doyle disease. He wanted to be remembered as a witty and popular playwright; a persuasive advocate of pacifism (when pacifism was popular) and then stern critic of pacifist (when there was an actual war going on); a bold critic of Xianity.; a serious modern novelist Instead, he's remembered for Winnie-the-Pooh. Milne was already popular: the Pooh books made him famous. He was already making a more-than-comfortable living as a playwright; Pooh & company made him rich (and he enthusiastically encouraged merchandising of the same from v. early on). But he found it hard to be thought of as just a children's author, and growing harder as the years passed: not a Noel Coward but a second James Barrie.

--John R.
current reading: Thwaite on Milne (1990)
current music: THE ENDLESS RIVER (2014; the last Pink Floyd album)


*thanks to Paul W. having queried this usage in a comment on an earlier post.

**the first Bertie & Jeeves story having been published in 1914 and the last in 1974, when the author was in his nineties.

***as opposed to his scholarly pieces, which he characterized as 'small', unimportant by comparison.

****A more modern example wd be Gary Gygax, who will always be remembered as the man who wrote D&D (esp. the three volume AD&D rules set), not by any of the games he turned out in the final twenty years of his career

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Mind Boggles

So, I'm still working my way through the Milne biography, and came across an assertion* that made me do a double take.

Writing of the time when Milne and Wodehouse were still on friendly terms (i.e., before Milne slandered Wodehouse with accusations of treason), Thwaite relates how the two men sponsored a mutual acquaintance to membership in the Garrick Club. But unlike Milne, who enjoyed men's clubs, Wodehouse hated clubs, she says, and soon quit this one.

The creator of the Drones Club, probably one of the two most famous Clubs in fiction,**  didn't like clubs? I'd never have guessed it. It's a good reminder that we tend to think authors are like their characters. Even when we know this is not true as a general rule, we tend to project a character's opinions onto the author himself or herself. That Wodehouse's narrative voice is so guileless tends to make us forget that PGW is not Bertie any more than he is Jeeves, though as author his point of view is nearer the latter: the behind the scenes manipulator who pulls together all the strings to bring the story to a satisfactory ending.

--John R.





*p. 310

**the other I'd say being the Diogenes Club of the Mycroft Holmes stories

Thursday, January 4, 2018

When is a Fredo not a Frodo

So, amid the news stories generated by the current administration and its friends' shock that reactionary provocateur Steve Bannon sometimes says bad things about his allies and fellow travellers, I was amused by one tiny throwaway line in a piece on Politico.

In the main text of the piece, it notes that in the new forthcoming Wolff book, Bannon is said to have had an unflattering nickname for Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law:

Kushner, whom he privately referred to as “Fredo,” 
the traitorous brother of “The Godfather.”

A correction at the bottom of the page, however, shows that the original version of this piece mistakenly included a Tolkien reference:

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story 
misidentified the fictional character name 
Bannon uses to refer to Jared Kushner as 
Frodo, a “Lord of the Rings” reference, 
rather than Fredo, a reference to “The Godfather.”

It's easy to see how the confusion might arise, given that Bannon is a Tolkien fan, as I touched on in an earlier post about the weird phenomenon of the Alt-Right's recent embracing of JRRT. And as such we wdn't expect him to call someone he was belittling by Tolkien's hero's name.

Here's the link to the original story
https://www.politico.com/story/2018/01/03/bannon-trump-white-house-alliance-322624?lo=ap_f1

--John R.
current reading: the A. A. Milne biography, which is over 500 pages but feels much longer.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Evil in Ireland -- Tolkien and Warnie

So, back some time ago when I was asked to write a guest editorial for MALLORN, I pointed out that there are some things about Tolkien we know because of detailed contemporary evidence. Other things we have to piece together as best we can from fragmentary, sometimes contradictory, evidence. And still others we just have to more or less take on faith. An example of the last is Tolkien's statement that in Ireland you could feel the evil in the very ground, seeping up from below, held back only by the great piety of its people. I commented about this in a post from 2009
http://sacnoths.blogspot.com/2009/12/evil-emanating-tolkien-on-ireland.html ), in which I reproduced the following quote:


George Sayer tells a remarkable story 
about Tolkien describing Ireland as 
'naturally evil.' He could 'feel,' Sayer relates,
'evil coming up from the earth,
from the peat bogs, from the clumps of trees, 
even from the cliffs, and this evil
was only held in check by the great 
devotion of the southern Irish
to their religion.'


A year and a half later, 'BGC' posted a comment saying
I'm pretty sure I have read something of this kind said by, or attributed to, Warnie Lewis (who was, of course, himself Irish) - maybe in his journal or attributed in a letter to Jack - but I can't seem to locate it.

It is certainly more the sort of thing Warnie would have said, in one of his deporessive moods; and very unlike Tolkien.


And now just a few days ago 'Wurmbrand' (Dale Nelson) shared his discovery of that passage BGC had remembered:*

here is the passage that BGC was recalling:

"There is something wrong with this country -- some sullen brooding presence over it, a vague sense of something mean and cruel and sinister: I have felt the same feeling in the hills behind Sierra Leone, and once in 1919 at Doagh in Co. Antrim. A beastly feeling. On the merely physical side, it was most depressing country. I have never seen any place so enclosed before: wherever you go, the grey road is flanked by old stone walls, and banks on the top of which grow thick hedges, the whole overhung by heavy motionless foliage on old trees and lidded with a grey brown sky. After a time the longing for any sort of escape from these everlasting tunnels became acute, and one almost fancied it to be accompanied by a sensation of choking from trying to breathe air from which the oxygen was exhausted. The natives were as depressing as their landscape: during the whole morning I did not see anyone of any age or either sex who was not definitely ugly: even the children look more like goblins than earthborns....I wonder can it be possible that a country which has an eight hundred year record of cruelty and misery has the power of emanating a nervous disquiet? Certainly I felt something of the sort, and would much dislike to see this place again....[Later in the day, after leaving Waterford on our run down the Suir River, we passed Ballyhack, where there were some early Norman castles.] There was [also] a long succession of big houses, all very shut in and desolate, of which J remarked that Walter de la Mare could write detestable stories: and we talked for some time about horror and its treatment in fiction."  (
BROTHERS & FRIENDS p. 111-112)
This was written in 1933, years before Tolkien himself first set foot in Ireland. And interestingly enough CSL seems to have disagreed with Warnie -- Warnie's entry for the next leg of their walking tour, in the Plymouth area recounts that

J[ack] and I argued briskly about the country [around Plymouth] we had walked through, J contending that not to like any sort of country argues a fault in oneself: which seems to me absurd . . . I suspect he was talking for victory. [ibid 112]

Congratulations to Dale N. for his connecting the dots and for sharing his discovery.

--John R.
current reading: more on Milne (who suffered badly from Conan Doyle syndrome)


*I've reposted it here because I think those who agree with me about the importance of Dale's discovery are more likely to come across it this way than if it only appeared as a comment on a post from eight years ago.

P.S.: Happy Tolkien Day, all.






Happy Tolkien Day

Happy anniversary of Tolkien's birthday (January 3rd, 1892), all.

--JDR

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Bad Old Days at TSR

So, a while back I was interviewed for a piece by Ben Riggs of GEEK AND SUNDRY, an rpg website  whose focus seems to range from the era of Gygax days through Third Edition. They were putting together a piece on the TSR buyout and contacting various people who'd been there at the time. My perspective is a slightly unusual one, given that I was there before and after but not during. However, I gave them my uncensored opinion and waited to see the results. And here it is: an article that ranges from the creation of D&D through the collapse of TSR, the buyout by WotC, the 'Open Gaming' license, and the rise of Paizo. I'm not directly quoted but it's nice to see my name among the acknowledgments at the end.

Here are the links to the three parts that make up the piece:


https://geekandsundry.com/the-story-of-dd-part-one-the-birth-death-and-resurrection-of-dungeons-dragons/

https://geekandsundry.com/the-story-of-dd-part-two-how-wizards-of-the-coast-saved-dungeons-dragons/

https://geekandsundry.com/the-story-of-dd-part-three-how-3rd-edition-became-the-mother-of-many-rpgs/

--John R.
current reading: a life of A. A. Milne by Ann Thwaite (1990)

Sir Ringo

So, it was from Janice that I heard the good news that Ringo Starr has just become Sir Richard Starkey. It's sometimes hard to get my head around the fact that I live in a world where the two surviving Beatles are senior citizens of 77 (Ringo, the oldest member of the group) and 75 (Paul).

Too bad George passed away before his turn came; suspect he wd have been Sir George by now. John, of course, took himself out of contention when he returned his MBE medal as a publicity stunt.

--John R.

Monday, January 1, 2018

A New Tradition

So, something I tend to do around New Year's each year is begin a long or complicated book I've been meaning to get to for some time -- only to have my reading of it peter out. Books I've attempted in this way include Ezra Pound's THE CANTOS, THE BOOK OF THE DEAD (specifically, the Papyrus of Ani's version of THE BOOK OF GOING FORTH BY DAY), Ovid's METAMORPHOSES, and Confucius's ANALECTS.

So this year I decided on something new. Instead of trying to get myself to tackle a difficult work I've been putting off, I re-read a favorite instead. I used to reread more often than I do now, and there are books I really love that I haven't read in a decade or more.

The book I decided to start this new tradition off with is THE FACE IN THE FROST by John Bellairs -- a book I discovered from a passage quoted in my friend Franklin Chestnut's overview of modern fantasy a few months before, just after leaving Fayetteville. I found, bought, and read a copy the first week I was in Milwaukee, from one of the now-vanished bookstores along Wisconsin Avenue (probably B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, but possibly from Harry B. Schwartz back when they were still at 5th street). I remember that having started it I cdn't stop and stayed up late reading it. It's one of those rare books that, having reached the end, I immediately starting over again at the beginning, reading it twice in succession.* I'd not only rank it one of the ten best fantasy novels ever written but one of my all-time favorite books.

 Sometimes rereading a book after a gap of years is a disappointment; sometimes it's a delight. This time was a delight: so many favorite passages, so many evocative scenes. It tends to give me nightmares, but it's worth it.

So, a new tradition, off to a good start.

--John R.
current reading: John Bellairs (autographed copy!)

*THE LORD OF THE RINGS is another