From Scott Kaiser, The Tao of Shakespeare: A Book of Meditations
“Ask your heart what it doth know.” (Isabella, Measure for Measure)
When we let the brain
Chatter on and on incessantly,
Sometimes the heart
Can’t get a word in edgewise;
So, take a moment
To quiet the brain –
Ask it to take a break,
To get some fresh air,
To take a walk around the block,
Or to meander in the park;
Then ask the heart:
Do you have something you’d like to say?
I’m ready to listen.
On January 16 this year, the New York Times published a front-page story entitled “How Reading Nourished Obama During the White House Years.” The article discussed how fundamentally reading had shaped our last President’s sensibilities and his long view of history, and I was especially struck by his answer to one question: “Have certain books been touchstones for you in these eight years?” His answer was: “Shakespeare continues to be a touchstone.” He went on to say: “Like most teenagers in high school, when we were assigned, I don’t know, “The Tempest” or something, I thought, ‘My God, this is boring.’ And then [the President continued] I took this wonderful Shakespeare class in college where I just started to read the tragedies and dig into them. And that, I think is foundational for me in understanding how certain patterns repeat themselves and play out between human beings. … It gives me a sense of perspective.” So said our 44th President.
My own appreciation of theater, and especially Shakespeare, is grounded – as was Obama’s – in early experience. As a sophomore in a city high school in Philadelphia, I was blessed with an English teacher named Mr. Wise. I kid you not, that was his name. Amazingly, he had been my mother’s English teacher at that same high school some 30 years earlier, but even after all those years of teaching, he was not jaded. His hair was streaked with gray, and he had a silvery mustache, but his eyes sparkled with perpetual curiosity, and he wore those tweedy jackets with the leather elbow patches that made him look very dashing. His manner of teaching Shakespeare was a simple one – he chose a play with plenty of humor and pathos – Twelfth Night – and then he stood at an old wooden lectern, and read aloud. He became each of the characters, softening his voice for Olivia, a lady in deep mourning for her brother, then picking up the pace for young Viola, recently shipwrecked, dressed as a man for safety, and attracting the unwanted attentions of Olivia. He acted out the oily self-importance of Malvolio, Olivia’s butler and the butt of other servants’ jokes, and, making the lectern weave back and forth, he hilariously voiced the drunken meanderings of Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch.
I adored Mr. Wise … and, by extension, I learned to adore the cadences and characters of Shakespeare’s universe. But little did I realize in that high school classroom where the desks were nailed to the wooden floor, what a gift I had been given to guide me through the slings and arrows of adult life. I have enjoyed theater – including many productions of Shakespeare’s plays – throughout my life. Notably, about 35 years ago when I took my own teenage children to the Pittsburgh Public Theatre to see Twelfth Night with Leonard Nimoy playing the part of Malvolio. The Pittsburgh Public is an intimate ¾ round stage where actors can easily break the 4th wall, and when Mr. Spock came out into the audience to say, “look you, my Lady says she loves me,” I knew I had the next generation hooked.
But only recently have I truly come to understand Shakespeare’s spiritual qualities and deep healing powers.
Ten days before the election that sent Barack Obama back to the White House for his second term, my world turned upside down. Two police officers knocked on my door early on a Saturday evening to tell me my husband Joe had lost his life in a car accident. The shock was total; everything changed; the world was upside down. And two days later Hurricane Sandy arrived in Connecticut with all her fury. I was in chaos, both inside and outside. I was one of the fortunate ones who weathered the storm without extensive damage, but the aftermath of Sandy made it more difficult to take care of the business of celebrating Joe’s life and laying his ashes to rest. I got by with the help of friends and my precious family – and, in so many ways, this community that has been vitally important to many of us – this building where Joe and I waltzed down the aisle at our wedding – because Unitarians let you do that kind of stuff – and 17 years later where we gathered in this room to celebrate his life.
The next six months I felt myself moving through space and time as if walking through Jello, gripped by a numbness, a grayness, that left just enough energy to take care of daily needs, but very little to experience life fully.
In the spring of the following year, I found myself in Greece, part of a program for teachers and librarians called “The Examined Life.” One of the most meaningful stops on our tour, for me, was Epidauros, the site of a great healing center that grew up around the temple of Asklepios, the major god of healing, in the 4th century B.C.E. During excavations that continue to this day, archeologists have discovered actual medical instruments proving that surgery was performed there, similar to a modern day hospital … But the most amazing part of Epidauros is the theater – the finest existing example of what an ancient Greek theater looked like – and they have uncovered inscriptions on stone tablets that attest to the power of drama performed there as part of the healing process, as much as surgery, rest, and recuperation. The ancient Greeks firmly believed that without engaging body, mind, and spirit, healing is not complete. I took note, and found myself at home seeking out more and more theater experience, but now as much for the effect it had on my heart and soul – as for simple entertainment, a way to pass the time. The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, on the banks of the mighty river, became a go-to place to enjoy a picnic dinner with friends and see creative retellings of Shakespeare’s stories, and to experience those patterns in human nature, that perspective that Obama spoke of so eloquently.
A year later, while visiting a dear friend, also recently widowed, I made my first pilgrimage to Ashland, the site of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Founded in 1935, the Oregon Festival is one of the oldest and largest non-profit theaters in the country. The town of Ashland itself, nestled in the hills of southern Oregon, is a jewel – a walk-able, cheery village of independent stores and fabulous small restaurants, bed-and-breakfast Inns, and a three-theater complex that produces a variety of plays in repertory for many months each year – provocative new plays, beloved musicals, and plenty of Shakespeare. My first experience in Ashland was a lavish and visceral production of The Tempest, which opens with the massive storm of the title and a disastrous shipwreck. The tech crew pulled out all the stops – lightning flashed, thunder boomed, huge sails flapped, the ship’s crew hollered, the passengers screamed in an opening scene that seemed to last forever. And I was catapulted back to the absolute chaos I felt inside and out during Hurricane Sandy and the aftermath of Joe’s accident, hanging on for dear life to whatever shred of normalcy I could. The Tempest of Shakespeare explores deep feelings of anger, denial, loneliness, betrayal, bargaining, and, ultimately, love and reconciliation … so that by the time the innocent Miranda speaks her famous lines:
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!“
… I was feeling at my core I was doing just fine and was going to do more with my life than simply survive. It’s only in retrospect, trying to piece together why that production was so powerful for me, that I realized those emotions I just listed are also at the core of the so-called “stages of grief.”
Catharsis is what Aristotle called it – a purifying or figurative cleansing of the emotions – the effect that great drama can have on its audience.
Mimi O’Donnell, artistic director of the Labyrinth Theater in the West Village, tragically lost her longtime partner, and father of her three children, Philip Seymour Hoffman, to a drug overdose in February of 2014. Interviewed in the Times a year later, she described how for the first six months after his death she immersed herself in grieving, reading books about grief, withdrawing from work, spending time with her children. “I was pretty stubborn in my falling apart,” she said. But it was theatergoing that brought her back to herself. When you are immersed in grieving and sadness, she said, the theater “makes you remember there are other emotions … it cracks something open, when [the actors] really, truly open up in front of you emotionally … there’s something about it that I find humbling as a human being.”
Reading that article in May 2015 was when I truly understood – finally – why I was seeking out so much theater in my life – and, especially, Shakespeare. At the Hudson Valley that summer, I watched Lear rage across the performance space feeling again that dreadful loss of control, of the world being out of sync – but I’m not Lear and I haven’t quite lost my sanity … and, in the end, even Lear finds some kind of redemption after losing everything in his life.
Last spring … on what has become for me an annual pilgrimage to Ashland, I saw once again the beloved play of my high school years, the one that made me first fall for Shakespeare and rock with laughter, but this production of Twelfth Night was set in the glittering world of 1930s Hollywood. The Lady Olivia was a movie star, Orsino a controlling director, Viola shipwrecked on the shores of the Illyria Studios, and a tin-pan-alley pianist tickled the ivories on the edge of the stage while the comedic actors plotted against the butler Malvolio. I have to believe that my dear English teacher Mr. Wise would have approved. Each age’s directors are able to reinvent Shakespeare to fit their own concept, their own vision. In just a few weeks from now, I’ll be seeing Twelfth Night yet again – this time at the recreated Globe Theater on the south bank of the Thames in London, and I can hardly wait to see how it plays back where it all began. Later this summer, if any of you want to make it a field trip of it, the wonderful Hudson Valley festival will be recreating this timeless story just an hour away. I’ll be there, because very new production of this play gives me new perspectives, new insights, and new bursts of laughter at how absurd life can be. The director of the up-coming Hudson Valley production states it so well:
“What I really love about this play, is in a world where people find themselves upended by their own circumstances – shipwrecked, saddled with unrequited feelings or the death of a loved one – they’re still able to find the love and redemption they seek. These are real people finding language for human situations.”
Let me end with this passage from the prologue of Scott Kaiser’s book, The Tao of Shakespeare:
“Most people don’t think of the theatre as a spiritual practice, but, undeniably, it is. In fact, if you go all the way back to the roots of the ritual, in ancient Greece, the theatre is one of the oldest spiritual practices known to man. For an act of theatre, then and now, whether in Epidaurus or in Ashland, brings people together to share stories, seeking to learn about the purpose of life … and how it should be lived.”
And so may it be.
Closing Words (from The Tao of Shakespeare)
“I am not that I play.” (Viola, Twelfth Night)
We play many roles throughout our lives –
Such as mother, wife, daughter, friend.
After years of rehearsals
We assume these roles easily,
Play them with skill,
And perform them with grace;
But, in the end, these roles are not who we are.
Though we cast ourselves
In these roles
To define our relationships
It is our relationship
With the universe
That truly defines us –
Our connection to the continuum,
Our bond to the boundless,
Our ties to the eternal,
That truly expresses
Who we are
Be sure to rehearse that role, too.