I think often of something by the actor Patrick Stewart, writing about playing Shylock. “After a long rehearsal period, when the play has been so dismantled and probed that the simple elements, such as the story-line, or the bold outlines of a character or of a relationship, have become blurred or submerged with elaboration and detail, it is valuable to remind oneself of those first uncomplicated responses.” That’s another way of approaching late style, different from the approach of Edward Said that I wrote about last week. Different, but possibly complementary.
What Stewart writes helps me when I get into the thicket of historical analyses of Shakespeare. I am enough of a history geek to enjoy these analyses, and certainly admire them as scholarship, but when I think about the people sitting around me, only about a month ago, at the Globe theatre in London, I don’t think those analyses speak to why they came to the theatre, and why many of them keep coming back.
Said, to go back to his Late Style, writes about “a vulnerable maturity, a platform for alternative and unregimented modes of subjectivity.” To what is maturity vulnerable? Nothing special, I think; rather, maturity may involve a recognition of the vulnerability that has always been part of who we are. I understand Said that as stating the Foucault problem: Is there any way of living as a subjectivity that is formed through being subject to discourses that regiment, in Said’s verb, or discipline, in Foucault’s? And that goes back, for me, to Patrick Stewart’s “first uncomplicated responses.” Not, I note, first thoughts, which being thought are complicated, but responses. Actors have to be in touch, they have to have a tactile contact, with responses: their own, their fellow actors’, and the audience’s. Actors often know a lot about Shakespeare, but that’s the ladder they kick away when they do the physical work of acting. And it’s the ladder we kick away when we, the audience, respond to their performance. And that’s practice for responding to the rest of our lives.
To close, if not finish, my reflections on Edward Said, I want to share something he writes about the poet Constantine Cavafy, whose poems always seem to be looking back on lives lived long ago, including his own present life. I think I first read Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka” in university, anyway, a long time ago. The poet address Odysseus in the second person, writing about what Ithaka has given him, which is the journey back to Ithaka. “Wise as you will have become, so full of experience//You’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.” Said comments: “Ithaka itself acquires new meaning not as an individual place, but as a class of experiences (Ithakas) that enable human understanding.”
I think my interest in what I call illness has always been a class of experiences that enable human understanding. My core objection to how medicine/healthcare is practiced is that it squashes using illness this way; everyone–physicians, nurses, patients–wastes the opportunity for Ithakos. Getting back to first uncomplicated responses is part of knowing what has happened to us, and is happening and will happen as Ithakos. Theatre, maybe especially the Shakespearean theatre, is an especially useful and available controlled environment in which to practice doing that.