31 May, 2018

'Eyes Fastened with Pins' by Charles Simic

How much death works,
No one knows what a long
Day he puts in. The little
Wife always alone
Ironing death’s laundry.
The beautiful daughters
Setting death’s supper table.
The neighbors playing
Pinochle in the backyard
Or just sitting on the steps
Drinking beer. Death,
Meanwhile, in a strange
Part of town looking for
Someone with a bad cough,
But the address is somehow wrong,
Even death can’t figure it out
Among all the locked doors ...   
And the rain beginning to fall.
Long windy night ahead.
Death with not even a newspaper
To cover his head, not even
A dime to call the one pining away,
Undressing slowly, sleepily,
And stretching naked
On death’s side of the bed.1

1 Charles Simic, “Eyes Fastened with Pins” from Charles Simic: Selected Early Poems. Copyright © 1999 by Charles Simic. Reprinted with the permission of George Braziller, Inc.

Source: Charles Simic: Selected Early Poems (George Braziller Inc., 1999)

01 May, 2018

Interview with Pop Culturalist

"Gifted storyteller, brilliant thinker, accomplished actor: Alexandra Silber is a consummate artist with a luminous voice on stage and page. A veteran of Broadway and the West End, Silber has performed in productions ranging from Fiddler on the Roof, Master Class, and The Woman in White to My Fair Lady, Murder on the Orient Express, and Carousel. In other words, she boasts an impressive resume that has enabled her to get to know a host of dynamic, singular characters. But Silber hasn’t been contented with just acting out other people’s stories—she has chosen to write her own stories, too. Her first novel After Anatevka—a sequel to Hodel’s story in Fiddler on the Roof—debuted in 2017, and her memoir White Hot Grief Parade is set to be published later this year. From Broadway to bookstores, Silber is at home wherever she gets to tell a good story.

The next story she will be part of is straight-up legendary. Silber will join the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., to headline a new, highly anticipated production of the iconic musical Camelot. Based on T.H. White’s classic novel The Once and Future King, Camelot first premiered on Broadway in 1960 and remains one of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s most popular musicals. The show brings the world of King Arthur to wondrous life. With a cast of conflicted knights, un-distressed damsels, and scheming usurpers, the musical centers on the tragic, passionate love affair between Arthur’s wife Queen Guenevere and his favorite knight Lancelot—an affair that threatens to unravel the titular kingdom that the mythic king has so lovingly built.
We got a chance to chat with Alexandra Silber about stepping into the role of Guenevere, the magic of literature, and why Angela Lansbury should be queen of everything."

P-C: What do you hope contemporary audiences will take away from a new production of Camelot in 2018?

Alexandra: At its core is a king, a leader, a fallible man: King Arthur, who is trying to make the world a better place through logic and compassion, and he doesn’t always win. But his endeavor to do so is honest and genuine. I think that’s really why it’s universal. Accompanying him along the way is the woman [Guenevere] who inspires him and gives him this platform to talk through the thinking that he’s been taught how to do by the world’s best parent, if you will: Merlyn, the man that represents all of his virtues and all of his ideals in human form. Ultimately what’s sort of incredible is that the two people that he loves most dearly [Lancelot and Guenevere] are the people that, through no malice, betray him.

When the musical came out, it resonated so deeply with the Kennedy administration. I think the reason it did resonate with the Kennedys was that JFK in many ways represented the King Arthur I just described: this young man endeavoring to make the world better. I think that right now we don’t look at those ideals with sentimentality or wistfulness; we look at that with a sense of great urgency and outrage. And I think that is a very powerful environment in which to present this musical again—particularly in our nation’s capital. So I think there’s something really crucial to be said there. Not to be overtly political, but perhaps covertly: the whole concept of King Arthur, of right vs. might, is so antithetical to our current president. And I think that there’s something really powerful about just presenting that as a possible alternative.

P-C: Guenevere is an interesting character. She is strong-willed, vivacious, and very sympathetic. But, she also has these darker shades, since she exemplifies an old-fashioned trope of the fallen woman whose adulterous affair brings about the downfall of an idyllic kingdom. Do you think Guenevere is a character that feminists can admire? How do you hope to bring her into the 21st century?

Alexandra: I think that Guenevere’s crisis is exemplified in her opening song [“The Simple Joys of Maidenhood”], which is also the first moment that we meet her. When she makes this plea—“where are the simple joys of maidenhood?”—I think what she’s really saying is, “I am a woman who is really a girl that has never had any experiences of my own. I’ve never made any choices for myself.” What’s so exciting about this, as a feminist, is being able to say, “She’s crying out to have that choice!” Even though the song and the lyrics are childish, they still come from a place of yearning, of wanting independence and autonomy from the men that have controlled her life. While, absolutely, she is disloyal to her husband, it could also be seen that she’s ultimately loyal to her own needs and her own sexual awakening, and that she simply chooses to self-actualize those dreams that she never got to have.

I think that there’s something really powerful about the aspect of her awakening as a woman that Lancelot represents. What I really love about her is that she’s nuanced. One of the things that T.H. White says about her is that Guenevere was simply herself; she was neither loyal nor disloyal. She was all of these things; she was a real person. What I love about that is that she has this incredible loyalty to Arthur. She respects him; she admires him. And, he is the father of her mind and her intellectual awakening as a woman, queen, and leader. But, they lack this very important part of being a human being and being a woman, which has to do with the physical experience and the fullness—and almost the spirituality—of sex that she experiences with the incredibly God-oriented Lancelot. Their relationship is not just based in the carnal, but in God. So, I think that’s why she is a person to be admired: that, though the conventions of morality judge her, actually what she’s done is chosen to have a full life. While it’s still morally dubious, she didn’t have much of a choice. So, I really am looking forward to digging into those nuances and not necessarily presenting a person as morally righteous or morally bad, but as morally and spiritually and sexually conflicted, as so many of us are, moment to moment. T.H. White describes Guenevere as a real person—she was neither good nor bad; neither loyal nor disloyal—she was all of these things. As are we all, right?

P-C: Her strength as a character comes from the fact that she is someone who is deeply flawed and, as you say, deeply conflicted. I never thought about how she really does get fulfillment from two men that are each servicing different parts of her life.

Alexandra: Yes, and I think the other thing that I hadn’t considered was [when] T.H. White specifically talks about her crisis: childlessness. I think we are still told as woman in the 21st century, that our value lies in the carnality of our bodies and in our fecundity. “How many male children have you born?” is a question we are still facing as women, even in this country. I think what’s fascinating is that Guenevere has a husband with an illegitimate child, and she has a lover with an illegitimate child. Oddly, the one of the three of them that is probably the most set up to parent is the one that is forever without children. What’s fascinating is that the Universe, God (I’m sure she’d say) has denied her the ability to see her fulfill her feminine role to its completion, and therefore she fulfills it in every other way possible. I’m sure one could argue she’s parenting a nation, but we all know that isn’t the same thing.

“I’m a storyteller. Storytellers are myth-makers and myth-interpreters. We take these stories and we put them into the world and share them with others.”

P-C: You’ve mentioned T.H. White a few times. Have you read The Once and Future King before, or are you reading it for the first time in preparation for this role?

Alexandra: Both. I read it in high school. That was powerful to read as a young person because, when you read it as a teenager, you read it from Wart’s [Arthur’s] point of view. I think the section of Once and Future King that resonates the most when you’re young is “The Sword in the Stone,” because you are self-actualizing along with him [Wart/Arthur]. But what’s resonating so much more with me now is the third section of the book, “The Ill-Made Knight.” And to come back to it as an adult woman and to read about the complications and the nuances of Guenevere’s 25-year affair with Lancelot, to understand my relationship to politics, to God, to my womanhood—it’s a completely different read. I think that’s the thing that’s so amazing about literature—as well as drama, stories—and why I love the concept of re-reading. Re-reading books is a very big thing to me. I have a book that I read every 4 or 5 years: East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I feel like this book is the Bible of American humanity. Every time I come back to this book, I realize it is so rich a read. As a parallel [to my experience with The Once and Future King], the first time I read East of Eden, I was 15 or 16: I’d never been in love, I’d never had sex, and my father hadn’t died, so reading it was a very theoretical experience. Then when I returned to it five years later, everything I just mentioned had happened to me. It was a completely different experience of reading it as a person who’d been in love; reading it as a person who had had a sexual awakening; reading it as a person who had experienced the mythical loss of a father—it was a totally different experience. I think I’m having a similar awakening to The Once and Future King, reading it as an adult woman literally half my life later. So it’s really rewarding. What I think is really great about reading it is knowing that the original creators—Moss Hart and Lerner and Loewe—used this as their source material. So instead of going back to [Thomas] Malory [who wrote stories about King Arthur in the 15th century], or reading about the Holy Grail, this was their Bible. So, in a way, T.H. White’s voice becomes the authority of who these people were in a much more long-form way. The beauty of literature is that you get this reliable narrator that tells you about their inner workings. And in drama, of course, you just have to rely on what the characters say, and then make up or allude to their inner workings. But with literature, you get to see their inner monologues and get some backstories.

P-C: It’s interesting that you mentioned Thomas Malory. His version of the Arthurian legend pre-dates White’s by centuries. And before Malory, Chrétien de Troyes was writing Arthurian stories in the 1100s. So, the characters of King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guenevere are born and reborn in all these centuries and iterations of the legends, up through the musical Camelot. So, I think it speaks to their timelessness as characters, too, and their ability to be mouthpieces for different eras. That’s why it’s exciting to get this production now, to see what these characters have to say in 2018.

Alexandra: I completely agree. You know, I think it’s exhilarating, but it also should be expected. It’s the same reason that we revisit Shakespeare and certainly the Greek tragedies. These are the same human crises that we face. We just have to re-experience them in the new lens of the present, and sometimes they have this incredible resonance in a totally different way, and it’s important to be reminded that we’ve done this all before. We’re not reinventing humanity.

P-C: In addition to your prolific stage career, you’re also a published author. How do you think your experience as an actor has shaped you as a writer?

Alexandra: When you boil it all down, I’m a storyteller. Storytellers are myth-makers and myth-interpreters. We take these stories and we put them into the world and share them with others. But it’s always an exercise of interpreting and reinterpreting the human condition, and the two mediums in which I do that are just different mediums in which to do the same thing. I think my experience of theatre and acting was intoxicating as a young person, because I experienced life very deeply. I still do. I don’t know if you know a lot about the Myers-Briggs scale but I’m an INFJ, which is a super introvert. And I was the child of a sick father and a very loving family and had very great parents. But I was also spending a lot of time alone interpreting really big life and death questions very early in my life. So, I had a lot of big feelings that the theatre helped me actualize and focus in a healthy way. [It gave me] a place where I can tell big, important stories and experience big emotions in a constructive and exploratory way. People the world over have lost their fathers for millennia, and had big experiences and feelings about it. I am not just Alexandra Silber, facing the loss of her father; I’m also Electra; I’m also all of these people. Drama felt like a really exciting connection. I have an older brother, but he’s about 17 years older than me, so I spent the majority of this experience in solitude—I had the experience of an only child. Literature simultaneously was a place to really cultivate my inner world and inner imagination. I think what happened was, theatre became this place for me to actualize and export those feelings, and literature became a place for me to cultivate my inner world. It was a very inside/outside experience.

I think what ultimately came from that process was when I came to literature and, actually writing it, I realized that I had a couple of huge advantages and a couple of big disadvantages. The huge advantages were the believable creation of character, and it was incredibly second nature to me at this point. So, in creating a character, I had two experiences. One was to ask what would this character do next. I could embody a character and say, “What are they going to do next?” And then, was able to go, “Alright, this is the next plot point—how will I justify getting to that plot point?” which is something that, as an actor, you’re always trying to do. How do you emotionally get there? When I had a believable root of my character in my novel, that approach really helped me a lot. So my ability to create a believable character and embody them as human beings, not just write them, made a huge difference.

Of course on a very obvious level, the concept of dialogue was really fluid for me. But one of the things I did struggle with was the macro lens. When you’re writing a piece of fiction, your main role is as a reliable narrator observing everyone. I was used to embodying one person within a story and serving their one particular arc. So that took a lot of practice and training. Being an actor, you have to be very, very vulnerable. You have this veil, this agreed-upon veil that you’re revealing your inner-most vulnerability to serve a character and, that you can always somewhat justify—this isn’t my grief, or this isn’t my pain, or this isn’t my joy, or this isn’t even my naked body—it’s theirs, it’s the character’s grief, the character’s pain, the character’s naked body. What’s very different about writing a memoir is that veil is totally down. It feels like the most exposed Barbara Walters’ interview or Oprah interview of all time. It’s a very, very different kind of laying oneself bare. That has been really challenging. Yet, my goal is for it to be a source of great connection. We’re in the moment of Me Too. Me Too is about all adversity, and it is the mantra of empathy above all else. So, that’s really what motivated me to get my grief story down.

“The whole point of art is to reflect life back to us. Most times, life is too painful to look directly at—almost like the sun. If we were to observe an eclipse with our naked eye, we would be blinded. Sometimes that’s like looking at our own truth. We have to look at it through special eclipse sunglasses. And that’s what art does—it makes it bearable to view our own human condition.”

P-C: Putting yourself out there in a memoir is a very courageous act. Once you started, did you find that the act of writing gave you more strength?

Alexandra: Yes. I’ll ultimately say this: there was this moment where writing felt so necessary. It was like a tidal wave that wasn’t going to stop, and if I kept it inside, it wasn’t going to remain in me benign; it was going to make me sick. I almost didn’t need to necessarily have a lot of people bear witness to it; I just actually had to get it out of my physical body and soul. It had to just get out.

P-C: It also sounds like a revelatory experience.

Alexandra: I think the most important thing I’ve gained is that, often what we think is the purpose of our journey is not the purpose of our journey. I mean, this is a lesson we learn over and over and over again [in literature]—like, Odysseus and Frodo Baggins. But, I think staying open to what this could be about is the most important exercise in all daily life. The whole point of art is to reflect life back to us. Most times, life is too painful to look directly at—almost like the sun. If we were to observe an eclipse with our naked eyes, we would be blinded. Sometimes that’s like looking at our own truth. We have to look at it through special eclipse sunglasses. And that’s what art does—it makes it bearable to view our own human condition.

P-C: As as we’ve said, Camelot is an adaptation of a novel. What other books would you like to see get a musical adaptation?

Alexandra: This is a slightly bizarre answer, but Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It’s so, so beautiful. It’s heart-wrenching. It’s delicate, and [I would like to see it get] the same treatment that The Band’s Visit got. Basically, Invisible Cities is about the dialogues that existed between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Kublai Khan is sort of holding Marco Polo hostage in a Scheherazade way, in that he’s forcing Polo to discuss his adventures and describe the cities that he has seen. The book is divided into these direct dramatic dialogue conversations between Khan and Polo. Then, the prose that exists between those dialogues is told from Polo’s voice, and they are these little short stories of the cities he’s visited, which all, incidentally, are named after women: the City of Theodora, the City of Desdemona, the City of Irene. Ultimately these dialogues that exist between Polo and Khan are exploring the nature of the universe. Khan says at the end, “There’s one city you never talk of: it’s the city you’re from. You never talk about Venice.” [Polo] says, “It’s possible that I’ve been talking about Venice the whole time.” I just think there’s something about the ultimate ruler and the ultimate traveler discussing humanity. It’s a poetic exploration of existence and journeys, and I think it would be a very beautiful musical.

P-C: Speaking of journeys, you studied at the prestigious Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and worked in the West End before returning to the United States and performing on Broadway. What’s the best advice you’ve received in your career?

Alexandra: The director that I did my first production of Fiddler on the Roof with, when I played Hodel in London, was Lindsay Posner. I remember Lindsay coming backstage one day and giving notes. I was young—I was 24, and really having this experience of the final scene for Hodel. It’s so emotional, it’s so deep, it’s so big. And, [I felt] like I had this responsibility to experience big feelings every day. I felt like I had a duty to Hodel to serve her. I felt frustrated if I didn’t turn myself inside out every day, [and I felt like] I was somehow failing. Lindsay said this thing that set me free, not only on stage, but in life. He said, “You know, you only have 100% of what you have today.” [In other words] “use 100% of what you have today.” Today, you might be more vulnerable, you might feel more broken, and therefore Hodel will feel those things. And then the next day, you might feel stronger and more determined, and you might just have a greater constitution to withstand big feelings. That’s why live theatre is so rewarding: it’s happening anew every single day. He was saying you can’t compare your 100% today to your 100% yesterday. All you can do is use all of yourself as you are today. That just set me free. I also feel like it set me free offstage, going, “You know, if I can get to the end of the day and know I did my best, and recognize it’s not going to be the best I have tomorrow or the best I had yesterday, but based on what I was capable of using today, I did my best.” So, “use 100% of what you have today” is really, really a lifesaver.

Pop-Culturalist Speed Round

Guilty Pleasure TV Show
I don’t even have to think about it: Murder, She Wrote. My love of Angela Lansbury is so deep. She’s my only idol. And, Murder, She Wrote is just the most comforting, entertaining, light and oddly inspiring show. I think we all in some way, wherever we are in the stage of our life, worry or fear that it’s a little too late for us. Like, whether it’s too late for me to go back to grad school. Or, it’s too late for me to start a new career. Or, it’s too late for me to have children—or it’s too late for me to find true love. Or, who knows? What I love about Angela Lansbury that parallels directly with Jessica Fletcher [in the show] is that the character is living proof that it’s never too late for anything.
Favorite Movie
What About Bob?
Favorite Book
East of Eden
Favorite Play
Our Town
Favorite Musical
West Side Story. I just think it’s empirically perfect.
Hidden Talent
I am extremely good at writing lyrics to television theme songs that don’t have lyrics. I don’t want to brag, but I’m really good at it.
Favorite Place to Travel
Scotland, with a very close second of Venice.
Artist or Band that You Could Listen to on Repeat
There’s a folk duo named Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker. I feel like I could personally run their crazy, psycho fan club. I discovered them through some staunch Googling, and quickly bought everything they ever made. They actually have a brand new album out: “Seedlings All.” If I could recommend just one song, it’s their version of “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose,” which is the Robert Burns song. Her voice is just like the voice of an angel. And Ben Walker’s guitar—he’s a classical guitarist—is just out of this world. They’re an unbelievable duo. They’re my favorite music to listen to.
Person You Admire Most
Dame Angela Lansbury


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