Sunday, April 26, 2015

Learning the Words: "Love"

This post is the second of two which I have revised and expanded from a guest post I wrote for the blog Defeating the Dragons back in 2013. These were part of a guest post series called “Learning the Words.” 

My first post, on the redefining of “Legalism,” contains a good introduction to the series, and the concept of Fundamentalist "Newspeak." I recommend reading that one first.  


As in so many other aspects of the Fundamentalist/Christian Patriarchy worldview, the twisting of the meaning of words comes through a long series of half-truths. An idea that is true to a degree will be taken just beyond that degree. Then the next idea builds on that, and so forth, until the original meaning of a word has traveled so far from its intuitive and normal meaning that it almost cannot be recognized.

Let me explain how this happens for the concept of “love.”

Throughout Christian culture - and even in our culture in general - there is the idea that “love” isn’t just a feeling. It is an active word that must manifest itself in our actions, not just in our emotions.

As I noted above, statements like this are true, to a point. Love, in the deep sense, cannot be merely an infatuated feeling like “puppy love.” If you really love someone, it will come out in actions. Country Music singer-songwriter Clint Black wrote a delightful and mushy song, Something That We Do (see video below), which captures the good side of this idea, the intertwining of emotion and action. (This was one of “our” songs when my wife and I were dating.) Our feelings of love and our loving actions feed on each other, support each other, and together make up this messy, complicated thing we call love.

So far, so good.

The next step in the progression gets more interesting, however. Most of us Generation Xers are familiar with the concept of “tough love,” which was a bit of a trend and a buzzword in the 1980s and 90s. In essence, it was a refusal to enable self-destructive behavior. When one truly loved another, one would not contribute to a person’s self-destruction. Thus, it would not be loving to give one’s child money to buy drugs, for example. Or lie to protect a loved one from the legal consequences of committing a crime. The point of “tough love” is that by refusing to protect a person from consequences or contribute to bad behavior, one would be doing the more “loving” thing. The best result would be for the errant person to bottom out, and make a change for the better, rather than stumble along due to the enabling. Again, this idea is largely true, to a point.

Let’s follow the progression. Love is an action, not just an emotion. Enabling self-destructive behavior is not a loving action. Allowing a person to suffer the natural consequences of bad actions is the loving action, because it is more likely to lead to a change in behavior. We parents do this to our kids sometimes. A child might miss an opportunity to play with friends because he or she didn’t finish the schoolwork, for example. This is part of good parenting: teaching children to link actions and consequences, and take responsibility for their choices.

To this point, we haven’t gotten off track, but we have set the groundwork for what follows.

The next link is this: love means wanting and seeking “the best” for the beloved. Now this one is a genuine half-truth. Sometimes it is true. If a person also desires the same “best,” then it would be loving to help support that person in seeking that “best.” But what if something that is “the best” isn’t desired by the person? Let’s say I think that the “best” for one of my children would be a degree in medicine. That’s a good thing, surely! Unless the child would prefer a less lucrative career. (My second daughter wants to be a chef, for example.) Would I really be loving by wishing for the “best” rather than the “good enough” that my child wants? This is a dilemma for all of us in a variety of situations.

What comes next? For Fundamentalists, the next step is the definition of “best.” The “best” isn’t some subjective standard. “Best” means God’s best. It means God’s will for a person’s life. It means doing things “God’s way™.

Again, this is a half-truth in practice, if not exactly in theory. In theory, pretty well all Christians would agree that our goal in life is to do God’s will, to follow Christ, and so forth. So far, so good.

But it goes wrong in Fundamentalism because of the next turn. This requires a few assumptions:

1. We (the fundamentalists) know God’s will in most or all things.
2. God’s will is the same for everyone (of a certain gender, at least), regardless of situation, personality, or any other consideration.
3. God’s will can be expressed primarily as a set of detailed rules.

Now the links connect. Love is an action, not a feeling. Love is expressed through refusing to enable bad behavior. Love seeks the best for a person, not something less. The best is God’s will for a person. We know God’s will for a person. God’s will is these rules.


Love for a person is expressed by telling them to follow the Fundamentalist rules.

Or, if that fails to get them to follow the rules, taking other actions to force them to do so. Nagging. Expressing disapproval. If possible forcing them. In some cases, shunning until the rules are followed.

For some surprising reason, the recipient of this “love” usually finds the “love” to not be particularly loving.

Thus, the series of half-truths twists the meaning of “love” as it is commonly understood until it is unrecognizable. I actually had a Reconstructionist friend of a friend make the claim that forcing people to obey God’s law was the same as sharing the Gospel with them. Not “as important as,” not “similar to.” The same as. Because forcing people to follow the rules is now defined as the best way to show love. As the most extreme example, I would wager that Fred Phelps (“God Hates Fags.”) believes he is being loving. In fact, his grandson (see link below) confirms that he thought he was being loving.

This applies in lesser degrees across the Fundamentalist spectrum. A fundamentalist can be “loving” by constantly expressing disapproval of a skirt deemed too short. A fundamentalist can be “loving” by keeping his or her children from associating with other children who listen to the wrong kind of music. A fundamentalist can be “loving” by loudly proclaiming that no “true Christian” would vote Democratic. And the list goes on. Calling out women who work outside the home. Complaining about easy-bake ovens marketed to boys. (Yes, this ended up making news in Fundie circles as a major threat to "manhood"! Imagine how bad it is that I am a darn fine cook...) Make your own list! There are plenty of rules to choose from.

Because this new definition of love, certain things that are generally associated with love can be disregarded. How about communication? Seeing the other side’s point of view? When one already knows God’s position on everything, that is all that is necessary. (Conveniently, you already know God agrees with you.) Empathy? Not so much, obviously. Bearing each others' burdens? Those burdens are self inflicted in the Fundamentalist view. First start following the rules, then we talk.

The result is this: the twisted definition of “love” enables the fundamentalist to believe that he or she is loving while engaging in behavior that is, in reality and common understanding, unloving.


“I realized people outside of the church showed me unconditional love, like when I worked at the hospital. When I started working there they told me that they expected me to show respect for every other person, and that they would respect me in return… and the thing was, it was actually easy. The people at the hospital were very empathetic… they showed respect for each other and treated each other as equals, and I didn’t feel that way when I was at the church. Experiencing love on the outside definitely warmed me over.”

and also this:

“I’ve learned to forgive them, because I believe that they’re in a mind trap. That mind trap is their belief that the Bible is infallible and that their interpretation of it is infallible… I have absolutely no hard feelings toward them anymore. I don’t think I need to hold them to some form of public ridicule because of that– it’s just their belief that they will go to hell if they don’t say the things they say, and if they don’t show that seeming lack of empathy and tell them they’re going to hell, because they think this is what loving your neighbor looks like… They don’t mean to hurt people, so to speak, they think that they’re obeying the commands of God and they’re scared that if they don’t do the things that they are doing, that they’ll go to hell.”

This is a good take on how “love” is twisted to mean “hate,” by fellow former Gothardite, Micah Murray. There are so MANY crazy quotes, particularly from the New Calvinists, showing just how important hat is to them.

I disagree with this author’s conclusion regarding the nature of true Christianity, but the rest is spot on. I have seen all of his list of toxic expressions of "love" in action, either in my own life or the lives of those I know.

At least a few preachers are honest about what they believe:

The always-entertaining-for-the-wrong-reasons Doug Wilson:

[O]ne of the prime indicators of whether you are literate or not—if you are a true child of God—is whether or not you hate it. The fear of the Lord is the hatred of evil. If you don’t hate a good deal of what is going on, then it is clear you can’t read.

“They shall know us by our hate…” Yeah, sure, Doug. And nice way to insult anyone who disagrees with you as illiterate.

and this one:

It contains this gem, which explains what we are supposed to "hate":

“4. Learn to hate every form of egalitarianism, feminism, metrosexuality and associated swisheries, pomosexuality, and androgyny. In the image of God He created them, male and female (Gen. 1:27). And every true Christian has since that time said, vive la diffĂ©rence. On a practical level, the single biggest theological issue of our generation is what God allows as a turn on, how we get to the point of orgasm, and whether or not that experience is a gift that must function under authority. You cannot be wrong on this without being wrong everywhere else.”

Now isn’t that nice. The gift of orgasm must “function under authority.” I’m sure my wife will LOVE that. Actually, since we are in an egalitarian marriage and we both are feminists, presumably we are of the devil and must be hated...

    “God hates, right now, personally, objectively, some of you.”

And these guys’ good buddy, John Piper too. Micah Murray’s post has more links to similar statements. As I said, at least they are honest about how they think. War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength. And, Hate is Love.

Clint Black has much better theology of love, in my opinion:

We help to make each other all that we can be
Though we can find our strength and inspiration independently
The way we work together is what sets our love apart
So closely that we can't tell where I end and where you start

Friday, April 24, 2015

Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw

Source of book: I own this

Man and Superman is George Bernard Shaw’s riff on the Don Juan myth, although the title itself references Nietzsche's concept of the ubermensch. Both ideas are blended in the play, which itself reads like an amalgam of a satirical romantic comedy and a class on political philosophy.

Shaw himself reminds me a bit of Oscar Wilde, except without Wilde’s light touch. Shaw can be funny, but there is a bit if an edge on the humor, and he occasionally gets heavy handed with his points. Shaw gives a look of “did you get that?” where Wilde would laugh or wink.

Still, there is humor in this play, and Shaw’s social commentary is often right on point for the issues of 21st Century America. The British oligarchy of the early 20th Century has quite a number of parallels with our own system, and the tendency of the wealthy to moralize at the poor certainly continues today.

Shaw was a Fabian socialist, which helps to explain the direction he was going with his philosophising, but the main point of his argument was directed, not at the social system, but in the relationship between men and women.

In Shaw’s view, there are two primary drives that motivate human behavior: the need to eat, and the drive to reproduce and perpetuate the species. Due to some combination of social factors and innate being, these drives were segregated by gender. Men thus concern themselves with the acquisition of wealth, while women concern themselves with making babies. To make all this work socially, then, women must pursue and trap men into marriage, so the species can continue. (Give Shaw a bit of a pass here on the sexism by remembering the era in which he wrote.)

Shaw was inspired to write this play by a request from critic Arthur Bingham Walkley that he write a Don Juan story. In his extended introduction, Shaw lays out the challenge, and confesses that he didn’t follow the traditional version of the story. Don Juan is no longer the predatory pursuer of women but a rebel bearing enmity to the false gods of society. Shaw apologises in advance for his lecturing, which Walkley apparently complained about. “I have a conscience; and conscience is always anxiously explanatory. You on the contrary, feel that a man who discusses his conscience is much like a woman who discusses her modesty.” I’ll admit that I am like Shaw in this way, having “the temperament of a schoolmaster,” as my long and explanatory posts often prove.

The Don Juan character in the play is Jack Tanner. (The name is essentially an Anglicised version of Don Juan’s full name. The names of other characters are likewise drawn from the original.) Tanner is a radical pamphleteer (one of “his” pamphlets is appended to the play) with socialist and anarchist leanings. His flame, Ann (after Donna Anna), has been left property by her father, but the estate is to be managed by two guardians. One of these is Tanner, while the other is Roebuck Ramsden, an old man (corresponding to the Statue) who loathes Tanner. Neither Ramsden nor Tanner is at all thrilled to be handcuffed together that way, but duty calls. Meanwhile, Octavius is in love with Ann, but she prefers Tanner, who would prefer not to be married at all.

It isn’t much of a spoiler to say that the play concerns itself with Ann’s pursuit of Jack.

While it is obvious that Jack does have some fondness for - and indeed attraction to - Ann, he is nevertheless unwilling to be fettered.

TANNER: All she wants with me is to load up all her moral responsibilities on me, and do as she likes at the expense of my character. I can’t control her; and she can compromise me as much as she likes. I might as well be her husband.

And later, in a conversation with Octavius:

TANNER: Tavy: that’s the devilish side of a woman’s fascination: she makes you will your own destruction.
OCTAVIUS: But it’s not destruction: it’s fulfilment.
TANNER: Yes, of her purpose; and that purpose is neither her happiness nor yours, but Nature’s. Vitality in a woman is a blind fury of creation. She sacrifices herself to it: do you think she will hesitate to sacrifice you?
OCTAVIUS: Why, it is just because she is self-sacrificing that she will not sacrifice those she loves.
TANNER: That is the profoundest of mistakes, Tavy. It is the self-sacrificing women that sacrifice others most recklessly.

That last line in particular stood out to me as true beyond its context. (And beyond its gender.) Those who are most self-sacrificing are willing to sacrifice others. In fact, they often demand that others be sacrificed to their purposes. As C. S. Lewis once put it, a man will not be content to give up something, but will demand that everyone else give it up too.

After all this talk, there is finally some action. Tanner and his chauffeur head off to the Continent for a road tour. In Spain, they are waylaid by a group of brigands in the Sierra Nevada. I found this a bit amusing. For me, the Sierra Nevada is located in California - in my backyard. It is a place I love very much indeed. So to see the other Sierra Nevada (the “original,” if you will) as place in a story, is jarring.

After the leader of the bandits, Mendoza (who corresponds to the Devil in the legend) realizes that Tanner is more of an ally than an enemy, everyone heads to bed for some dreams.

What follows is an extended dream sequence, “Don Juan in Hell,” which is often omitted from productions of the play. It is easy to see why. It is not narratively connected to the rest of the play, does nothing to further the plot, and in fact disturbs the momentum. (It is around an hour long in an otherwise long play.)

That said, it is also one of the most fascinating parts of the play, with some pretty amazing dialogue, and many memorable lines. This act, while omitted from the greater play, is often performed by itself.

The discussion takes place between Don Juan, the Devil, Donna Anna (who comes to hell as an old woman), and the Commendatore, who has adopted the Statue as his preferred manifestation. He is on a visit from heaven, and is considering relocating to hell. Donna Anna is irate at finding herself in hell, but Don Juan attempts to persuade her that she will actually be much happier in hell. Juan himself wishes to go to heaven, because he finds hell tedious.

In Shaw’s conception, hell is a place of art, beauty, love, and pleasure. The only problem is that nothing is real. It’s all just as fake and artificial as it was on earth during the mortal life. (In fact, it is a continuation of life on earth in most ways.) Thus, those who were at home with artifice and propriety during their lifetimes will be quite at home in hell. In contrast, heaven is a place devoted to rational discourse and thought, and the pursuit of the “Life Force,” which isn’t clearly defined by Shaw. Thus, the Commendatore tires of heaven, and wishes to be in hell, where he is a bit of a celebrity, while Don Juan wants to continue his lifetime pursuit of the “Life Force.” The four characters - particularly Don Juan and the Devil - offer their opinions on these matters, and many others related to society.

Shaw, as a non-religious person, and thus an “enemy” of the Church, has the outsider’s perceptiveness about hypocrisy within religion and society in general, and many of the best lines are pointed observations about these topics. (Personally, I wish that we religious sorts would spend less time complaining about people like Shaw and more time examining the ways that they are right about us, and making some corrections.) Here are the tidbits that I found most interesting.

DON JUAN: ...Hell is the home of honor, duty, justice, and the rest of the seven deadly virtues. All the wickedness on earth is done in their name: where else but in hell should they have their reward? Have I not told you that the truly damned are those who are happy in hell?

Shaw is right in good part about this. The worst of evil is that which is baptized by calling it “virtue.” No hate so great as that which is done in the name of “love.”

THE STATUE: ...Well, there is the same thing in heaven. A number of people sit there in glory, not because they are happy, but because they think they owe it to their position to be in heaven. They are almost all English.

THE DEVIL: An Englishman thinks he is moral when he is only uncomfortable.

The Devil is right on this occasion - and not just about Englishmen. In fact, I think the statement applies even more appropriately to the puritanical streak in American religion. From Prohibition to the current ascetic dietary fads, this isn’t just about traditional religion at all, but a belief that to be uncomfortable is to be moral. As noted above regarding the self-sacrificing, this discomfort isn’t morality, but moralistic self-righteousness.

Probably the most famous quote of them all from the play, however, comes from Don Juan’s argument with Donna Anna about marriage. Juan claims that marriage is really just a man-trap set by Nature to ensure the “greatest number of children and their closest care.” He points out that women are expected to learn arts that make them pleasing to men, but that these usually lapse after marriage. (Juan grants that men do this too.) It is Don Juan’s clinching argument that asks the question that demands to be answered.

DON JUAN: ...Those who talk most about the blessings of marriage and the constancy of its vows are the very people who declare that if the chain were broken and the prisoners left free to choose, the whole social fabric would fly asunder. You cannot have the argument both ways. If the prisoner is happy, why lock him in? If he is not, why pretend that he is?

Now, to be clear, I am a happily married man, and believe in the benefits of marriage. At least a good marriage. As a divorce attorney, I don’t see bad marriages as having the same benefits. In fact, bad marriages harm everyone involved, including the children.

That said, Shaw is absolutely right. And not just on marriage. Those who talk the most about the “blessings” of a particular system do tend to also preach fear that if the system were not vigorously and rigidly enforced, everything would go to hell.

I think in particular about those who claim that gender hierarchy and gender roles are necessary. On the one hand, they claim that everyone is happier when women stay home and obey their husbands without question. On the other, they insist on the enforcement of these rules with as heavy of a hand as necessary, realizing that many do not actually find these roles and hierarchies to be a blessing.

You cannot have it both ways. “If the prisoner is happy, why lock him in? If he is not, why pretend that he is?”

And thus, I believe that the secret to creating lasting marriages isn’t to force people to stay in bad ones, but to teach and assist them to have good ones. Don’t lock the cage. Destroy the cage.

In closing the play, Jack Tanner (or Don Juan, if you will) observes the universal hypocrisy of humankind. He knows Ann is unscrupulously pursuing him, but also that this charge against her could be easily brought against us all.

“We all lie; we all bully as much as we dare; we all bid for admiration without the least intention of earning it; we all get as much rent as we can out of our powers of fascination.”

And like Ann, we “do just what she likes herself whilst insisting on everybody else doing what the conventional code prescribes.”

It is good to look in the mirror sometimes, and Shaw is one of those writers whose mirror has a great deal of polish indeed.

Note on the Stage Directions:

Not only did Shaw write a long introduction and a weighty appendix to this play, his stage directions are incredibly detailed. Before some of the scenes, these directions for the setting go on for literally pages on end, following philosophical rabbit trails, and giving ludicrously detailed and yet vague descriptions of how a character should look. For example, here is a small part of the description of Roebuck Ramsden:

How old is Roebuck? The question is important on the threshold of a drama of ideas; for under such circumstances everything depends on whether his adolescence belonged to the sixties or to the eighties. He was born, as a matter of fact, in 1839, and was a Unitarian and Free Trader from his boyhood, and an Evolutionist from the publication of the Origin of Species.

And it goes on. And on. Shaw’s dialogue, while rather long as well, is quite snappy compared to the stage directions.

Don Juan in Hell, the classic recording:

There is a marvelous classic audio recording of this scene available online, starring Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, and Agnes Moorehead. They took this show on the road, and it was a hit.

More GBS:

I reviewed The Perfect Wagnerite a few years ago.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Performed April 19, 2015, The Empty Space, Bakersfield, CA

As a lawyer and a reader, I am always fascinated by the connections between law and literature. Whether it is Anthony Trollope’s fascination with legal cases (his father was a failed solicitor) or the numerous writers (from poet Wallace Stevens to James Weldon Johnson to Sir Walter Scott) who started off in law.

Shakespeare is no exception. When most people think of Shakespeare and lawyers, they tend to quote is famous line from Henry VI Part 2, “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers,” believing that the Bard thought the world would be better off if that were done. As is often the case, this constitutes a gross misunderstanding of what the line actually means in context.

In that particular scene, the rebel, John Cade, plots to overthrow the monarchy, and in the chaos, appoint himself as king, despite his lack of qualifications. His co-conspirator, the amoral and violent Dick the Butcher, utters this line as his advice as to the first step in creating this anarchy.

In other words, eliminate lawyers, and you eliminate the rule of law, create anarchy, and allow worthless demagogues like Cade to rise to power. (In actual history, Cade’s Rebellion met with an ignominious end: after he marched on London, his followers proceeded to loot and carouse, causing the citizenry to take arms against the rebels.)

All this, as an introduction to one of Shakespeare’s most popular comedies, Twelfth Night.

The title itself refers to the evening of the twelfth night of Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany. (See, that carol wasn’t just invented for the fun of counting.) By Shakespeare’s time, this night had become associated with the Roman Saturnalia and its drunken revelry. And, another interesting custom: during the revels, masters and servants would dress in each other’s garments - and men would dress as women and vice versa.

The play was intended to be an entertainment at such a party - and Shakespeare’s plot would reflect the peculiar custom.

Despite the intention, the first (known) performance of the play did not occur at Epiphany, but instead was given on February 2, 1602, which was Candlemas.

The audience was not a large public one at the Globe, but rather, a private association of lawyers, the Middle Temple Hall. One might view it, perhaps, as a local bar association. Our knowledge of the performance comes from the diary of barrister John Manningham, who left quite a portrait of Elizabethan society in his journal. So there is the lawyer connection.

The plot of Twelfth Night, like many of Shakespeare’s early comedies, turns on disguise and mistaken identity. Viola, the daughter of a nobleman, is shipwrecked on a foreign shore, and believes her twin brother, Sebastian, to have drowned. Fearing for her fate, she disguises herself as a young man, and enters the service of Duke Orsino. Seeing the young “lad” as a useful messenger, Orsino sends Viola (who is now “Cesario”) to bring a message of love and wooing to the Countess Olivia, who does not return his affection. Olivia, in turn, is infatuated with “Cesario,” and attempts to woo “him.” Viola/Cesario, in the mean time, has fallen hard for Orsino. Things quickly become a mess.

But, this is a comedy, so we need some humorous characters. This play has enough to populate several. First, there is Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s dissolute uncle, who is mooching off of her and...Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a very stupid and naive young man, who finds Toby to be the soul of wit - and a good source of booze. Then, there is Feste, the jester, who was popular with Olivia’s late father, but seems to be on the way out of the household. He has a good wit, and a delightfully sharp tongue. Infatuated with Toby, and protective of Feste, is Maria, Olivia’s servant, who has a bit of wit of her own...but who cannot stand her nemesis, Olivia’s steward Malvolio.

This Malvolio is a staunch Puritan of sorts, despising games, songs, drink, and fun. He wishes to evict Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, and perhaps marry Olivia himself.

And then, when Sebastian turns up looking exactly like “Cesario,” things get crazy pretty fast.

The connection to the Twelfth Night Revels is pretty clear then, with cross dressing, and a servant that wishes to become the master. In Shakespeare’s time, this would have been even more gender bending, as all the parts, male and female alike, were performed by males. Thus, Viola/Cesario would have been a young man pretending to be a young woman pretending to be a young man; and Olivia would have been a man pretending to be a woman wooing a young man pretending to be a young woman pretending to be a young man. And Orsino would be a man sending a young man pretending to be a young woman pretending to be a young man who is in love with him to woo a man pretending to be a woman in love with a young man pretending to be a young woman pretending to be a young man. Try saying that really fast.

This being a comedy, the play ends with marriages, and a well-deserved comeuppance for Malvolio. But, the fun is in the journey anyway.

Some of Shakespeare’s most memorable quips can be found in this play.

Sir Toby, unimpressed by Malvolio’s condemnation of his fun, replies, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Malvolio, despite his austerity, lets his pride get the better of him when Maria and Sir Toby conspire to forge a letter to make him think that Olivia is in love with him. His inflated sense of his importance leads directly to his downfall. (Shakespeare goes so far as to make the unfortunate man wear yellow stockings - cross gartered - as part of his humiliation.) But this itself, while funny, isn’t the best part. That comes when Malvolio, completely unaware of what he is doing, spells out a really naughty word. (In Shakespeare’s time, Malvolio would have been the only person who didn’t get the joke. Nowadays, it is shocking how few people appear to notice his inspired naughtiness.)

And, who can forget the line in the forged letter: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em!”

Twelfth Night has some more serious moments too. Orsino is so besotted by the uninterested Olivia - and deceived by Viola’s disguise - that he fails to notice that she has fallen for him. Orsino cannot understand why such an overpowering, noble love such as his can be cruelly ignored by Olivia. Viola/Cesario presses an alternative concept, in an exchange which is rendered doubly delicious by the fact that Orsino has no idea he is speaking to a woman.

VIOLA: Say that some lady - as perhap there is -
Hath for your love as great a pang of heart
As you have for Olivia: you cannot love her;
You tell her so; must she not, then be answer’d?

ORSINO: There is no woman’s sides
Can bide the beating of so strong a passion
As love doth give my heart; no woman’s heart
So big, to hold so much; they lack retention.
...make no compare
Between the love a woman can bear me
And that I love Olivia.

Viola, clearly, doesn’t agree with this, and gives an example: that of her “sister.”

ORSINO: What dost thou know?

VIOLA: Too well what love women to men may owe:
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter loved a man
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.

ORSINO: And what’s her history?

VIOLA: A blank, my lord. She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’th’bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought;
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
We men may say more, swear more: but, indeed,
Our shows are more than will, for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love.

It is easy to forget in these post-feminist times, but when Shakespeare wrote those lines (and dating at least back to Aristotle), it was believed that women were merely defective, imperfectly developed men, incapable of the higher virtues. Through the voice of Viola, the Bard may have been chipping away just a bit at this belief. And, as Orsino discovers, it isn’t the men, but the women, who ultimately prove to be unshakeable in their passion and firm in their purpose.

And thus, all ends well for all - except for Malvolio, who exits bellowing, “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”

Note on this production:

I’m a big fan of local theater, and The Empty Space will always hold good memories as the site of my first date with my lovely wife. In this case, I was accompanied by my three older children, who loved this play. This is a small theater, holding fewer than 100 people, and having a minimal amount of space for sets. Thus, it is always an intriguing question as to exactly how much they can do with next to nothing.

The setting was more or less modern times, rather than ye olden days. With the exception of the songs Shakespeare himself included, the rest were all modern pop hits. Whenever Toby and Andrew got in their cups and broke into song, they belted out (rather drunkenly) stuff ranging from the Isley Brothers to Meatloaf. The choices were hilariously apropos to the scene, and quite as irreverent as Toby himself. Likewise, the canned music clips between scenes served as a bit of a chorus to the action. The Empty Space generally has a good ear for this sort of stuff

While the performances were generally good, some were particular standouts. First, Feste was played by a young woman in dreadlocks with a lovely and powerful voice. Her scenes were a delight.

Second was Sir Toby - and the interesting chemistry between him and Sir Andrew. I have attended a couple of other productions throughout the years of Twelfth Night, but I cannot ever recall an instance in which the age difference was really played up. Sir Andrew is supposed to be a young man, not very bright, who is smitten with the worldly “wisdom” of Sir Toby. I have seen Andrew played up as a ludicrous half-wit and bumbling fool, but never quite like this. The actor was the youngest in the cast, and played the character as a straight naif. Sure, his elevator didn’t reach the top floor, but he didn’t know it. One could genuinely believe that Sir Andrew was completely unaware of his deficiencies. I’m not saying that one approach was better than another, but that it was a fresh and unexpected take on the character. Sir Toby was played as usual, rather broadly, and full of plenty of slapstick humor. Which meant my children thought he was hilarious.

The show, though, was completely stolen by Malvolio. His is, of course, the most popular character in the play. While a myriad of actors have played the role, I am particularly intrigued by Alec Guinness, Nigel Hawthorne, and Stephen Fry. In past productions, I recall seeing the character portrayed by a rather old actor (I felt terribly sorry for Malvolio in that one, because he seemed pitiable rather than loathsome); and by a young and lugubrious actor (he was spun as a lecherous hypocrite, and his fate was well deserved.) However, I have never seen a performance of the character as good as this. There is no doubt that the actor was the best in the production, by a substantial margin. Every gesture was perfect, and perfectly in control. The diction matched the character at all times, and it was hard to believe that the actor wasn’t really Malvolio in real life. Even the scene where he is locked up as a madman was amazing. All one could see was his hand and forearm. And yet, it was so expressive when combined with the voice, that one could truly see the anguish and mental breakdown. I was transfixed. Just a marvelous job.

(Unfortunately, they were out of programs, and I wasn’t personally familiar with the actor, or I would give his name some recognition.) UPDATE June 2016: After seeing him again in You Can't Take It With You, I can confirm that Malvolio was played by Kevin McDonald. If he is in a local production here, go see him. Just do it.

One of the joys of Shakespeare is that the transcendent language and timeless portrayal of human psychology works even when the context of the play is removed. Thus, there is so much that can be done to transport the play in time and place while losing none of the power. Indeed, sometimes a new context can add a layer of meaning and draw out hidden potential. (I am particularly reminded of the Western version of Comedy of Errors we saw last year.)  In this particular production, because the context was essentially invisible, the words and meaning themselves were made immediate. Viola’s dilemma wasn’t of some time past, but of our time. And how, after all, shall unrequited love be answered?