Thursday, March 19, 2015

Unfriendlies on the Left (Background): Me and the MLA (8 Oct. 2014)

The invitation came as a surprise but a very welcome surprise: an offer to contribute an essay to a publication of The Modern Language Association, the publishers of PMLA, arguably the premiere journal in literary studies.

I was invited to submit an essay for consideration in the MLA volume on Teaching Hamlet, which was somewhat curious since I hadn't inquired about the volume nor asked to be invited — and my dissertation covered what I called "Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies," which meant for me the fours major tragedies after Hamlet and not including Hamlet.
Still, I thought I had something to say about Hamlet and a couple other Shakespeare tragedies and suggested an approach to the plays out of Bertolt Brecht and the structure of an Elizabethan playhouse like the Globe and borrowing from at least one more recent critic (probably Francis Fergusson).

Short form: a public playhouse was mostly a raised platform thrust into an audience, surrounded on three sides and a bit, with the players both definitely separated from, but near the audience. There was little scenery, and the effect was far from "illusionist." So you would know you were watching a play, and the usually pretty rhetorical style of acting — to say nothing of dialog in verse — would reinforce that knowledge.

Still, the audience was physically close, and within the space of a few lines — in the opening Chorus to Henry V, for a defining example — audience members could be alienated from the characters and invited to identify with them. That is, you could watch them objectively as speaking objects moving around the stage, and you could get sucked into their stories and identify with them as if they were real people.

This complex point of view is highly significant in a Romantic tragedy like Romeo and Juliet and still more so in a Romantic/Satiric tragedy like Antony and Cleopatra. At times we identify strongly with the lovers — or do with Romeo and Juliet, unless you're soul-dead; and at other times, or at the same time, we can look at them objectively and know that they're making mistakes that will lead to the tragedy we paid money to see and can never totally forget that we're seeing.

Hamlet is definitely presented from the point of view of Prince Hamlet, and we will him well and hope he succeeds in getting revenge. On the other hand, we know that Hamlet is in the star of a tragedy by  Shakespeare, so we know if he follows the course he wants to follow and we want him to follow because we like him and see things from his point of view — well, we know that if he proceeds as he wishes he'll end up featured among the litter of bodies that will end the play.

Also, Hamlet, viewed objectively — especially if you were a normal theatre-goer and hadn't read the script — Hamlet viewed objectively as the play moves along is a bit of a puritanical putz. He's also an intellectual who isn't thinking well. "To be or not to be" is always the question if Albert Camus is right, and Hamlet answers it every time he gets out of bed in the morning rather than turning his face to the wall, giving up, and dying. Or stabbing himself, or whatever. The Question, Hamlet, is whether or not to kill the king, and ethically it is a damn interesting question and should be on the minds of an audience in a Christian monarchy.

Kill the king, Hamlet, or don't. In either event shut up about it; you're annoying people — except that the poetry is really good. More important than annoying people, Hamlet is also killing people one way or another, and in the case of two of his friends he kills on the basis of partial evidence judged with prejudice. For a 30-year-old advanced student at the prestigious Wittenberg U, Hamlet commits some major intellectual, and ethical, errors.

Well, and so forth. It was a pretty good essay on teaching the play: looking at Hamlet in terms of theatre and ethics and the conditions of physical production — and not as "a long poem with speaking parts," as often done, and definitely not as an object of veneration. It was an approach that could spark class discussion.

And the essay was accepted, and I awaited the volume to come out and get reviewed and pretty much guarantee I'd get promoted.

Then the volume didn't come out as scheduled, and I didn't hear from the editors. And then it still didn't come out and still didn't, and I still heard nothing.

And then I was told very casually that the Teaching Hamlet volume hadn't come out because it would not come out. The MLA radical caucus had won the election at the last convention, and they cancelled the volume of old-fart essays and commissioned a volume more up to date.
Could they publish two volumes, for an interesting debate on a really wide range of approaches to Hamlet and literature more generally? Well, maybe, but it would be expensive, and, more important, the old approaches were imperialist, Eurocentric, sexist, (etc.), and wrong.

My Hamlet essay never did get published, and I soon completed my exit from Shakespeare scholarship and criticism into the brave new field of Science Fiction and Fantasy (and horror and eutopia and dystopia) — with an increasing interest in movies. And eventually I became a full professor, served out my thirty-five years and retired to a decent climate and work "on spec" in the movie industry.

Miami University in Oxford, OH, is fairly conservative — it's in John Boehner's Congressional District — and I was sufficiently unconservative to work with the group trying to organize a union. I would get my due from Miami, and for the most part did get my due,  but with delays. That's how the game is played, and that was okay with me. Having my Hamlet essay cancelled, though, was annoying. I should not take it personally, but I do: as an unfriendly gesture from my colleagues to my Left.

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