Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Reading Hamlet with Dad, Street Theatrics, and Living with our Bad Selves

Its Dad's favorite play.   Reading it with him in Texas was one of the highlights of a crazy busy week of writing, organizing, trying to meet deadlines, trials and tribulations, fun moments, explosive ups and quiet meanderings in which I questioned myself and what I was doing.

After all, that is what reading Hamlet is all about.

 In between family and a couple of book manuscripts, Times up! held a few meetings; the Occupy Direct Action group started holding plans for a January 19th street action for the anniversary of Citizens United.  Exciting to see everyone at 60 Wall Street, as we plan for waves of street actions throughout the weeks to come. Change doesn't happen with one action, but in waves.  So we'll come at the world in waves, like water crashing onto the streets.

So much of street theater and social activism in New York is born of conversations, reflections, moments on subways, others public spaces, and the moments in which we muse about them, about the good things we did, the things we should have said, what we might have rather not said, what we did and did not do in response to lives slings and arrows.  It is unlike Hamlet's internal dialogue about whether to act or to think about acting on his impulses.  Modern people think about what they should do, instead of just acting on it.  But some of us still act on, when we should have thought about it, instead of acting when we should have thought about things.  

I spent a few days going back and forth about a theater performance based on the community gardens.  I love the idea of street theater as a mechanism of social change.  And most certainly it has been for the garden movement.  But I am also weary of seeing our activism codified into a neat nitch in history, in the museum, before we have achieved victory, which is permanent community gardens. Debbie Gould writes about her ambivalence with this process watching AIDS activism enter the New York Public Library.  For her that was the beginning of hte end of her activism.  While I'm glad garden activism is getting attention, the attention it deserves, I also hope it does not become a captive of a museum instead of as a piece of activism, fetishized to a point where it loses it meaning or its power.  So I'm ambivalent.

Felix hoped our action would feel like Gran Fury, with a jigger of creative chaos. 

Felix had been writing about the need for creative direct action.  So I chimed in on facebook that we needed Felix's festive, defiant brand of direct action, with joy in defiance of a dour politics of capital which ways people down, sucking the life and energy out of them. 

The  plan was to use street theater as we had done so many times before.
December 17th, 2011. Photo by Eric McGregor.

 Throughout the week, activists debated the meanings of the third anniversary of  the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, granting corporations the same rights as individuals. Can we really have a democracy when corporations with their billions have the same right to vote with their cash as regular people?  Corporations are people my friend, Mitt reminded us last summer. Some in Occupy suggested lampooning this wedding between people and corporate persons in our democracy.  So that is what we're doing Saturday.

Possible plan of action for our drama.
Drawing by Kim Fraczek

Occupy Wall Street would like to invite you
to the joining in
(un-)holy matrimony of a real human being to a non-human corporate “person” to celebrate the 3rd anniversary of Citizen's United, granting corporations equal rights as living things. So why not ask for their hand in marriage?
at 3:30 pm on Saturday, 
January 19, 2013 
Please arrive at 60 Wall St, where the wedding 
party will then proceed to the steps of Federal 
Hall for the ceremony.

Please dress in formal wedding attire either in corporate gear and suits for the Corporation side or as a human being on the Human side. Bring signs that match accordingly- protesting the union or encouraging/ branding it with corp. logos.

The Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir will preside. Reception to follow with cake and merriment.

In Times Up, we decided we want a divorce, putting out a call for an action in which we called for an annulment of our relationship with corporate personhood.  So we planned another mock street theater piece, as we have done many times before with members of Occupy.

 Escape Ride from Citi Bank's Proposed Forced Marriage to Bike Culture!

January 19th is the third anniversary of the Citizen United decision finding that corporations have the legal rights of people. And now Citi Bank is trying to marry #bikenyc. 

Join Times Up! to remind the world that corporate sponsors do not make good partners and ride to escape this forced marriage with street theatrics and direct action.

Leaving ABC No Rio at 1:30, we will run from the bike of corporate greed, staging wedding processions and offering time to object at several Citi Bank locations on our way to the city-wide action against Citizen's United at 4pm. Wear wedding costumes, bring rice and kazoos!

After the action, we'll be joining the OWS Wedding

With the week full of plans for theatrics in the streets, I flew to see my dad in Texas. The last few trips, we're spent more and more time just talking literature.  Its a way of making sense of family and living. I hope it is a way to do more than gossip, but the family mishigas is not so easy to avoid.  Driving home from the airport, he usually asks me how everyone is, whose doing what, who is suffering, succeeding, who isn't, how his wife is coping with Alzheimers in the nursing home, and finally he asks about his other sons, each of whom he sees as a characters in Brother's Karamazov or East of Eden.  Various days, we're all the magnanimous Aron, others the rebellious Cal.  Its a musical chairs in this family romance.

"Do you like that book?" Dad asks., his voice dripping with contempt as if anyone why likes it is a complete idiot.

"The Brother's Karamazov?"


"Even Alyosha? that pious wimp."

"I love him. Dad, every brother wants someone like Alyosha, who reminds his brother, who is in jail, that he always believed in his innocence. Every brother wants someone like that. Isn't that all any of us want to hear from a brother?"

"Perhaps," Dad mumbles, assuming we all should have relationships with our brothers like Cain and Able.  All sons inevitably become parts of their fathers, the good and the bad. These are the conversations of families. Its what growing up is all about.

Over the weekend, we talked about Russian novels and my old professor, Mr Gregg, who just passed
(see note at the end of this blog).   We also read Hamlet together, Its Dad's favorite of Shakespeare's tragedies.
"Whose there?" starts the opening question.

The two words burst out, like the first two notes of Beethoven's Ninth, Dad declared, becoming animated to visit a play he'd enjoyed so many times beforehand, his mind back in the globe theater of his glory years.  We were reading two editions of the play, one from Dad's undergraduate days at Harvard, another from graduate school two decades later.

He studied with Tom Roche at Princeton.  "I am most eccentric about Hamlet and, of course, totally right," Roche famously boasted.  "You are privileged, not to hear me, but to be reading Shakespeare." Dad did his best to channel his old adviser, whose presence still filled the room.

"Don't go around misquoting Shakespeare," Roche advised his students.  Forgive this misquotes Tom.
And so we read line by line, sitting to  talk, making our way through Dad's memories and stories and the multiple interpretations open to Hamlet.

"Is it what play?"  The question is never answered.

Each line feels pregnant with meaning.

"Ay the poor ghost, while memory holds a seat at this distracted globe."

Was it an honest ghost of his father which was offering  Hamlet counsel?  Was he even real?  Hamlet's friends see him first.  Horatio, the scientist, believes what he can see, and there is a ghost in front of him.  
"Do you consent that we shall acquaint him with it?"

Should his friends tell Hamlet that there is a ghost of his Dad running around?

They are friends so the probably ought to, at least one would think.

"Let us once again assail your ears that are so fortified against the story."

Part of what I love about reading this material today, in this time, is how attuned the bard's words seem to the pace and patterns of the world, of the earth's moods, its head, its pulse, the clues it offers.

"As harbingers proceeding still fate
And prolog to the amen coming
Have heaven and earth  together demonstrated
Until our climatures and countrymen."

But what would any of us do if our father was killed, our mother married his brother, and you watched him become King?  Something is rotten there.  Hamlet knows it.  But he doesn't know what to do?  So he thinks out loud.  He wonders, should he kill the uncle or should he just talk about killing the uncle.

"For these are actions that a man might play, anybody can do?"

A modern man thinks about it, a medieval man acts on his instinct and takes the uncle out, Dad reminded me over and over. 

And Hamlet torments himself, thinking, speaking out loud, sharing his inner machinations with the audience at the globe.

"Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! oh vengeance.
Why what an ass am I?"
"What an ass am I?" We both loved that line. 

Soliloquy after soliloquy , we watch Hamlet wonder and plan.

"The plays the thing wherin I'll catch the conscience of the king?" he explains.

 I used the line over and over in my dissertation and later street activism, explaining that we use stories and theater to make our arguments, much like Hamlet planned to use the play to catch his uncle in a lie.  If the uncle responds we know the ghost is right.

But is it an honest ghost?  What would you do if a ghost came up to you and told you such things? Dad asked.

"Till now, the very witching time of night....

The rest is silence."

But what of all the ruminations?  I posited that Hamlet's inner dialogue is akin to modern psychoanalysis.
Dad thought that was a completely ridiculous argument.  "Something which would come out of an English department," he explained.

Trees in the back yard. 

"But Dad - isn't interpretation what this is all about?  What's wrong with interpreting?  Isn't that our job?""
"Not too much.  Blame Tom Roach if I am not too creative about this.  He beat that out of me as I wrote my dissertation."

"Well, the reason I think this has to do with psychoanalysis is it sounds like Hamlet is talking through his moves instead of first acting them out.  He's wondering if he should be or not be, if he should act or not to act.  Sometimes we have to act.  Sometimes its better to let things go while we think about it.  He's allowing us to see his bad self.  He's exploring that bad self, like a jazz musician who allows the crowd to dance with something deeper inside themselves.  That's part of what this is all about... Its part of what good theater is all about... it allows us to be real or at least to imagine it."

Dad still thought my view was like an English department theory, but he was paying attention.
And so we read through the final soliloquy and continued our conversation, watched football and movies, ate blackened cat fish, okra and tomatoes and told some lies.

Dad excavated some of his stories from the trip to the middle east my parents went on back in the mid -1960's, with Tad, my mom, and Dads best friend Fred.  As usual much of the afternoon was spend dissecting the tragicomic life of Fred Mayer, his writing, poetry, and what happened to his life, ate some more, drank some more and went to bed.  Digging around on the internet, we found that he had actually published his dissertation writings, three years before he died.  And he never told anyone about it. But there it was, reminding of him, not quite Hamlet's ghost.  More of a chuckle through time and memory.

 "He was there sharing his stories with his buddies over martinis when he got back," Dad smiled, recalling their return from the trip to the Middle East. 

Flying home, I read Christopher Isherwood and worked on my writing.  "Write it down or its gone forever," Isherwood advised.  And so he wrote everything down, books he read, friends he met, and things he enjoyed.  This montage of memories is for your Christopher.  Thanks Dad, Fred, Mr. Gregg, Hamlet and the many ghosts of our lives we live with every day, though we might not see them. Maybe they are still in the room, laughing at us. 

And back home from the airport, to the Community bookstore, back to Carroll Park and the particularly green  Gawanus Canal. 

Blog Postscript.

While writing this I started thinking about Richard Gregg, who taught the class I loved in Russian Novel at Vassar.  I could not find an obit, but the Vassar College Russian Studies Department sent me this note.


(Presented at faculty meeting, Jan 21, 2009)


Richard Gregg died on Dec. 11, 2008 after a long illness. He had retired in 1998 after having served Vassar for 30 years.

Sandy Gregg (“Sandy” is how he preferred to be called) was born in Paris in 1927 to American parents. His father was a specialist in public medicine connected to an international organization, and spent several years in France. (Sandy’s French connection was later strengthened by his marriage to Françoise Bouriez.) Sandy graduated from Harvard in 1951, majoring in Russian, and went on to an M.A. in the same institution. He was a student there when Vladimir Nabokov did a brief stint of teaching at Harvard, and Sandy recalled that he was absolutely the worst teacher he had ever had. Sandy enrolled in the Ph.D program at Columbia, writing a dissertation of the 19th c. poet Fyodor Tiutchev which in 1962 earned Columbia’s Ansley Award for the best dissertation in the humanities produced in that year. In researching this topic, Sandy became a member of the first contingent of American students allowed to conduct research in the USSR as a result of a cultural exchange agreement that had come into force in 1958. Sandy spent the 1958-59 academic year in Leningrad, trying to make sense of the voluminous but virtually undecipherable papers of Tiutchev held in a literary institute there.

Sandy’s book on Tiutchev came out in 1965, and was immediately recognized as a landmark contribution to scholarship. In the years that followed Sandy authored some thirty articles in various scholarly journals, nearly all of them focused on 19th century Russian literature, primarily on Pushkin and Gogol.

Sandy Gregg came to Vassar in 1968, hired as a full professor with tenure, and throughout his thirty years here chose to remain chair of the Russian department. He also served dutifully on a number of faculty committees, but (I’m afraid) avoided most faculty meetings, attending literally none in some years. He tended to mistrust technology and found no use for computers that our administration distributed to the faculty offices. I recall that early in this period Sandy asked me to show him how to read and send emails. My demonstration was however soon cut short by his favorite saying: “Life is too short,” and Sandy’s computer gathered dust for the rest of his years in Chicago Hall. He was also old-fashioned in ways that — I submit — many of us could emulate. He made absolutely no concession to the unfortunate trend known as grade inflation, and handed out C+ and B- with abandon for work he considered “good but uninspired,” (as I recall seeing on one of the papers he had graded) all the while remaining an extremely popular teacher.

Sandy Gregg was famous for his ready wit. I remember one occasion when he found himself among Chicago Hall faculty who were discussing a project involving computer-assisted cooperation with Williams College. Sandy prefaced his remarks (which were quite useful) by saying that he felt like a Muslim who had by mistake wandered into a Vatican conclave.

Another occasion involved his annoyance at students in his Russian Novel course (held in one of the Rockefeller auditoriums) who – come warm spring days – tended to doff their flip-flops and put their bare feet up onto the backs of the seats in front of them, making all ten toes visible. Sandy found this extremely irritating, complaining to me that he had told the class that “only the Russian novelists are allowed to bare their souls” – but that nothing changed.

I could cite quite a few other episodes of this type, but “life is too short” and I’ll close by saying that Sandy Gregg was a good man, an outstanding scholar, a great teacher, and an unforgettable colleague. All of us who knew him will miss him greatly.



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