A Character From Shakespeare
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By Marc Porter Zasada
LIKE MANY in the modern world, the Urban Man wishes he were more than just another citizen paying his mortgage and complaining about the price of gasoline. Like many, I wish I were actually a character in literature or drama. As a well-crafted protagonist, I would have heat and commitment. I would embody philosophical ideas, and when I got close to the end, I would deserve a real denouement. Of course, the type of fiction would matter a great deal.
For example, I wouldn't want to be a character in a New Yorker short story. I'm just not that interested in the incredibly subtle memories evoked when I go visit some farmhouse I just inherited from a forgotten uncle in Vermont. Neither would I want to become a stunted fanatic graced with nasty rhetoric in a David Mamet play. And I would not want to step into any of a thousand recent bestsellers in which the heroine escapes from a no-good, workaholic husband. I never want to stand stupidly in a driveway as she heads off symbolically in my SUV.
No, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to inhabit any modern story or play at all.
I think I'd want to do Shakespeare.
This spring at L.A. Opera, I saw the great Bryn Terfel sing the part of John Falstaff in a work based on The Merry Wives of Windsor. You remember Falstaff. He's the fat, has-been knight who drinks, makes witty jokes, and tries to seduce local women. His every enterprise ends in defeat, but he never admits defeat. And though he lives on pilfered money, Falstaff nevertheless holds an important job: Every day, he must sample his own folly like a fine wine. Every day, he must write his own poetry. Every day, he's certain he's alive.
I thought: no wonder people still like this stuff.
And as I laughed in the dark auditorium, I understood how I wanted to end my days. Okay, not as Falstaff - but maybe Prince Hal or Benedict or Prospero. I would prefer a comedy, but I would not demand a happy ending. I know that even in the era of social security, recreational vehicles and weekend sales at Robinson-May, we cannot demand happy endings.
No, it's the quality of mind I'm after. High or low, gaoler or king, Shakespearean characters have the courage of their own selves. They fully engage in the fevered life of their city and their times.
It's not like now, when people always seem like victims of a world they hardly understand. When we commute for hours and then come home to argue fruitlessly about the labor policies at Wal-Mart. When even our cartoon action heroes grow uncertain of their desires.
As I drove home from the performance, I imagined Falstaff placed suddenly in the modern world. I pictured him getting fired from Wal-Mart and yelling -Fie on ye- as he strolled out the front door. I imagined him setting up a black market in a corner gas station at Pico & La Cienega, and thumbing his nose at the Atkins diet as he entered a 7-11. I saw him drinking rotgut on late afternoons beside a large recreational vehicle in a trailer park, or swaggering into Robinson-May to try on a hundred pairs of pants and then stand enormous and unsteady in the aisle, where he would swear magnificently at the ugly, uncomfortable and tight-fitting fashions of the 21st century.
I thought: Surely Falstaff would savor the follies of this world the way he savored that world, and would somehow keep his dignity despite the humiliating slings and arrows of our day. Surely he would fall in love with many women in SUV's.
Surely, he would know how to inhabit even modern fiction.
Copyright - 2005 Marc Porter Zasada. All rights reserved.
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