Farts In The Arts

When Russell went off to Camp Seagull in the Carolinas as a young lad, Kish and I waited with trepidation for his first letter home.

Most camps in those days didn’t let kids call home for a few weeks.  Campers could write letters, but not call — the reasoning being that hearing Mom’s voice might just produce even great bouts of homesickness.  So we waited, and when Russell’s letter arrived we tore it open and read it eagerly.  We realized that he would be OK when we got to the part where he said he thought he would really like his cabin mates because “they all thought farts were funny, too.”

250px-firefartIt turns out that Russell and his Camp Seagull buddies had a lot in common with the ancient Sumerians, Shakespeare, and Jonathan Swift.

A recent article tackles the important and surprisingly under-researched topic of flatulence humor in literature.  It reports that the earliest known fart joke in history is also the oldest known joke, period — which tells you something about the significance of flatulence humor in human civilization — came from the Sumerians circa 1900 B.C.  It is: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”  Admittedly, it doesn’t really seem very funny these days, but let’s give the ancient Sumerians a break — since it was the very first known joke in history, we can’t reasonably expect Seinfeld levels of humor, and besides, we’re probably missing some important sound effects that accompanied the gibe and dramatically increased the humor quotient.

Of course, fart references were found in Chaucer and Shakespeare — where your British Literature professors might dismissively refer to them as “bawdy humor” — and in Mark Twain’s writing, too.   Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, seems to have been weirdly obsessed with breaking wind.  Writing under a pseudonym, he penned an entire book on the subject called The Benefit of Farting Explained that articulated, in painstaking detail, Swift’s views on the different categories of farts.

So if you read or heard about the recent report about the unfortunate woman who passed gas during surgery in a Tokyo hospital, igniting a laser being used during the procedure, and thought it was funny even though the woman was burned as a result, you’re not alone.  Humans have been chuckling about farts since the dawn of recorded history — and probably for as long as humans have been around at all.

Setting The Stage

IMG_0974A sure sign that another season of Actor’s Theatre Columbus is nearly upon us is the set-in-progress on the stage at Schiller Park.  Sure enough, opening night is less than three weeks away, and the season begins with one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays:  Othello.

The story of the great Moor, the treacherous Iago, and fair Desdemona is a strong start to a season with the theme “to tell the truth.”  After all, Othello also contains one of the Bard’s most compelling ruminations about the value of reputation:

“Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.”

And, Othello features one of the Bard’s great lines about jealousy:

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”

Obviously, we’re looking forward to this season.

Richard III

Last night Kish and I went to see the Actors’ Theatre performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III at Schiller Park.  It was a clear, beautiful night, which has been so rare in Columbus that we felt like we had to take advantage of it.  And what better way to celebrate a pretty evening than by sitting outside, watching one of the Bard’s finest works?

In our world William Shakespeare’s genius is just an accepted fact of life, and things that are accepted often, perhaps, are not fully appreciated.  That’s unfortunate.  Richard III is a fantastic piece of creative work — bright and snapping in its language, brilliant in its cast and settings, and ultimately intense in its crushing moral message.  The tale of bloody, duplicitous, deformed Richard of Gloucester, who slays friends, brothers, and children and endures the hatred of his own mother in his ruthless quest for the throne and then is brought low to die alone, is simply one of the very finest pieces of theater that has ever been written.  The second half of the play, in particular, is an awesome tour de force, and the penultimate scene where Richard, on the eve of the final battle, is haunted in his dreams by the ghosts of the people he has murdered, who tell him to “Despair, and die!” is uniquely, chillingly powerful.

The Actors’ Theatre production does a fine job with this titanic work, with Geoff Wilson, as Richard, and Vicky Welsh Bragg, as Queen Margaret, being particular standouts in my view.  Interestingly, the production places the play in a ’50s-era gangland setting, complete with fedoras, pin-striped suits, and Chuck Berry and Frank Sinatra song snippets between scenes, but it otherwise sticks to the original Shakespeare dialogue.  The result didn’t quite work for me — “My kingdom for a horse!” shouldn’t come from the mouth of a guy wearing a sharkskin suit, I think — by the play itself still shines.  Anyone who loves good writing and good acting should see it.

Neither A Borrower Nor A Lender Be

Recently two members of my extended family have learned a valuable, if somewhat painful, lesson:  loaning money to purported friends can end up being an enormous, friendship-wrecking hassle.  Fortunately, the memory of the difficult experience no doubt will discourage future forays into the personal banking business.

William Shakespeare aptly captured the concept in Hamlet, when wise old Polonius says:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

As Polonius recognized, the reality is that, when you loan money to an acquaintance, the relationship inevitably changes.  You go from mutual friends to a debtor and a creditor.  And frequently the resulting interpersonal behavior mirrors the change.  Although the borrower has been helped by the lender’s generosity, the borrower often comes to resent the lender.  It’s as if the borrower rationalizes that the lender must have plenty of money or he wouldn’t have made the loan in the first place.  From there, it’s a short, easy step to concluding that the lender really doesn’t need the loan to be repaid — at least not right away — and therefore the lender is being a jerk in asking about when the money will be repaid.

In many instances, too, the borrower concludes that other things take priority over discharging the debt.  I’ve heard friends bemoan the fact that their personal borrower has taken high-end vacations, eaten at fancy restaurants, and even purchased expensive cars while the loan is still outstanding.  And, as often as not, the lender’s innocent inquiry about when repayment might be forthcoming draws an angry response — and an even more extended period of stalling and dodging any personal interaction that will inevitably involve the repayment question being asked.

And, ultimately, if the borrower doesn’t repay the loan, what do you do?  Sue them?  How often do the parties to these loan arrangements memorialize the loan in any kind of writing?  I’ve had friends seek my legal advice about what to do in these circumstances — and I’m sure that when they made the loan in the first place they never suspected that they might need to talk to a lawyer, even informally, about it.

No, Shakespeare had it right:  neither a borrower nor a lender be.  Save yourself from future headaches, and don’t worry about being deemed a cheapskate by the pal who is in tough financial straits.  If your friendship is contingent upon cash, it’s probably not much of a friendship in the first place.

Out For Blood

When I walked to Schiller Park on Sunday during one of the dry interludes between the spring rainstorms, work was underway at the amphitheater.  Part of the deck of a pirate ship was being constructed, with the wheel and yardarm yet to be added.  Come Thursday we’ll hear the clash of steel echoing across the parkland as the new season of Actors’ Theatre of Columbus opens with the rollicking pirate swashbuckler Captain Blood.

IMG_5457Actors’ Theatre is one of those institutions that helps to enrich the culture in our fair city.  For decades the group has put on performances of Shakespeare and other plays during the summer at Schiller Park.  The performances are open to all, with a blanket section down front and a lawn chair section behind, and guests are encouraged to pack a picnic dinner and bring the beverage of their choice to enjoy during the shows.  Schiller Park, a great older park with mature trees, is a beautiful setting for outdoor theater on a summer evening.

Amazingly, all of the performances are on a “pay what you will” basis, with audience members putting their contributions into a basket at intermission — although the Actors’ Theatre guys I met on Sunday noted that this year the group will supplement the contributions by offering some reserved chairs and blankets.  The FAQ section of the Actors’ Theatre website notes that each performance costs the group precisely $10.24 per audience member — so everyone should aim to exceed that amount.

This season begins with Captain Blood, running from May 21 through June 21, followed by William Shakespeare’s epic Richard III from June 25 through August 2, then Moliere’s The Miser from August 6 through September 6.  All of those performances run from Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m.  The season ends with All The Great Books (Abridged), which will be performed at 7 p.m. Thursday through Sunday September 11 through 20 at the Bicentennial Stage at the Columbus Commons.  Kish and I can’t wait.

Baited Breath

Today as I was driving home I heard a snippet of a press conference given by a police chief somewhere in America. He was talking about an investigation he was conducting in coordination with the federal government, and reassured citizens that no stone would be left unturned thanks to their “duplicitous” efforts. Sounds like the kind of devastating admission that could be used to good effect by the lawyers who defend whoever gets arrested as a result of that joint investigation!

IMG_1674Of course, the police chief should have said “duplicative” — which is probably what he intended — but he botched it. No doubt he wanted to sound highly educated, but instead he gave people who were paying attention a hearty chuckle at a pretty good malapropism.

I received an even better malapropism recently via email. The emailer said he was waiting for something with “baited breath.” I laughed at that one, and thought of all the witty, fish-related responses that his error made possible. Should I say that when he finally got a response he shouldn’t fall for it hook, line and sinker? Add that I hoped he wouldn’t worm his way out of his responsibilities? Observe that if it didn’t work out there were other fish in the sea? Fret about the possibility that the project might hit a snag?

“Baited breath” — as opposed to bated breath — seemed like an especially succulent metaphor because it conjures up the idea of the speaker eating worms, minnows, and maybe even a little chum and tackle. Alas, it turns out that “baited breath” has become so commonplace that linguists think it might soon become the usual form of the phrase. Horrors! Has illiteracy reeled in and ruined another deft phrase that traces its lineage back to Shakespeare himself?

Anonymous

For centuries, people have been debating the marvel of Shakespeare.  Who was the person who wrote some of the most deathless prose known to mankind, who has inspired countless audiences with the wonders of his words, who coined more phrases than any other single writer in the history of the world?  How could such greatness have come from an unlettered man born of common parents?

Anonymous explores the theory that it wasn’t William Shakespeare who wrote Hamlet, King Lear, and Henry V, but instead was Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford.  In the film Shakespeare is an illiterate, buffoonish actor used as a foil by De Vere in a titanic game of royalist politics.  Anonymous is rich in production values, with fabulous costumes, sets, and recreations of the Globe Theater and Elizabethan England.  The film is marked by a number of striking performances — including Rhys Ifans as the world-weary Earl of Oxford, haunted by his past and unable to stop or truly celebrate the torrent of words pouring from his quill pen, Vanessa Redgrave as the aging Queen Elizabeth, David Thewlis as Elizabeth’s manipulative adviser, Sir William Cecil, and Sebastian Armesto as Ben Jonson, who keeps Oxford’s secret.  Along with the true authorship of the Shakespearean library, Anonymous also reveals the intrigues and scandals underlying the Essex Rebellion and the succession of King James.

This movie demonstrates, with quiet yet unmistakable power, the triumph of Shakepeare’s words and thoughts — which ultimately conquer time and the petty politics of the court.  I recommend Anonymous to anyone who loves Shakespeare and period dramas, as I do.

Vegetable Week: The Cultural Impact

Another way to assess the value of vegetables versus meats is to look at their impact on our culture. In that regard, vegetables fare very poorly indeed. Many of our holidays revolve around preparing and eating a traditional meat dish, such as the Thanksgiving turkey. If you go to a baseball game, you have a hot dog. The characters in American Graffiti keep returning to a particular hamburger stand that is the locus of their cruising activities. In America, there is an entire genre of restaurants — the steakhouse — that celebrates meat consumption by featuring particular cuts of beef and, typically, oversized portions. There is, of course, nothing comparable on vegetable side. People don’t eat a beet at a hockey game, or feast on the broccoli casserole at Christmas, or hang out at the fava bean palace on a Friday night.

Of course, another way to measure cultural impact is to consider poetry, and literature, and song. In these categories, too, meat blows vegetables out of the water. Consider:

But man is a carnivorous production
And must have meals – at least once a day;
He cannot live, like woodcocks, upon suction,
But, like the shark and tiger, must have prey.

Lord Byron (1788-1824)
‘Don Juan’ (1821)

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.

Robert Burns

And then there is Shakespeare:

‘Brutus’ will start a spirit as soon as ‘Caesar’
Now in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great?

Julius Caesar, Act I, sc. 2, l. 146

And, as to song, I give you Tom Waits: