The Purpose of Players

I confess that Rick Levin’s feature article on the OSF prompted me to look up lumpenproletariat. Having done so, I’m pretty sure he misapplied the term. While Wikipedia is hardly an infallible source, the definition given there seems well-founded: “a term … originally coined by Marx to describe the layer of the working class that is unlikely ever to achieve class consciousness and is therefore lost to socially useful production, of no use to the revolutionary struggle, and perhaps even an impediment to the realization of a classless society.” This runs directly counter to Levin’s identification of the lumpenproles as “tradespeople”. Whether or not the LP were an impediment to the revolution, as Marx thought, or the very heart of it, as Bakunin thought, they were that fragment of the proletariate who had no trade. They were “educated unemployed youth, assorted marginals from all classes, brigands, robbers, the impoverished masses, and those on the margins of society who have escaped, been excluded from, or not yet subsumed in the discipline of emerging industrial work.”

I mention this by way of trying to understand what exactly Levin means to say in his takedown of Ashland and the OSF. I, too, am irritated by the high ticket prices, which have kept me – lumpenprole that I am – from ever making the trip. Still, without these ticket prices there would very likely be no Shakespearean enclave in Southern Oregon. Even supposing some government-funded People’s Theater, how many of the marginal masses would flock to take advantage of the cheap admission in order to sit through a play written in what is nearly a foreign language? It seems to me that the choice is not between an elitist OSF and a proletarian one, but between an elitist OSF and no OSF at all.

That may not be true; but I don’t think it’s obviously not true.

To put it in terms of Levin’s piece: tearing down Ashland will not ennoble Medford. Neither will demonizing Ashland as having “a Manson Family vibe” or being akin to a Nazi cultural retreat. Levin’s piece is full of such rhetorical excess, as if self and cultural loathing were a ritual duty that simultaneously provided a framework of ethical judgment and established the liberal bona fides of the author.

Levin’s own impulse to keep broadening the scope of his piece, even to cosmic proportions, betrays a will to over-simplification. This will has found new impetus under the Trump administration, forcing everyone who doesn’t want to be labeled a Nazi to justify their activity as some form of (hashtag)Resistance.

It is exactly this sense of imperative that drives people to look to Shakespeare in the abstract, from some cloudy recognition of the plays as fulfillments of what Hamlet calls the purpose of playing: “whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” These are the grounds that Levin ultimately criticizes the OSF on, accusing them of keeping these profound social mirrors “behind museum glass,” for the fortunate few who can afford to attend, and who mainly do so in order to burnish their membership among the elite.

All of that rings true enough, but again, what are the options? Levin’s critique isn’t ultimately of the old, wealthy, white, male liberals he routinely loathes in the EW, but of the artists who flock to their patronage. Though he substitutes the old white guy for his target along the way, Levin’s initial beef is with the players and directors themselves, who are living large in their permanent residency rather than slumming out an itinerant life, and in so doing, fulfilling their Marxist duty. It’s an interesting critique, which he might have honed in on were he not drawn back into skewering The Man. But supposing he had followed through on this critique of the pampered class of privileged artists, free to play dress up for the wealthy old cretins who, one way or another, sleep through the plays, the question remains: is it really fair to expect artists to struggle in poverty to illuminate masses more interested in whatever bullshit is playing out on their phones?

People are especially fond of saying, like Levin, that Shakespeare “would have … a field day” with Trump, as if the Bard were just a more artful version of themselves. This sentiment, easily expressed and embraced, ignores the fact that Shakespeare’s plays were not metered versions of late night television monologues. Holding up a mirror to “the very age and body of the time” is something much more profound than calling the jackass in the White House “priapic” or “pathological”, or any other erudite insult. Rather than supposing in vague terms how awesomely Shakespeare would echo our political sentiments, we might be better served by instead considering what he did write.

I mention this because Hamlet provides a model of the traveling drama troupe, the tragedians of the city driven into itineracy by the degeneracy of taste among the urban theater crowds, that’s still of some relevance.

In current terms, the part of the royal court of Elsinore, as a residency of last resort for high culture fallen out of fashion, is played by the privileged enclave of Ashland. This connects with Levin’s reference to the Nazi elite listening to Wagner in the Bavarian Alps; but appreciating this connection requires that we look past the ethical odiousness of everything Nazi, and know something of the aesthetic war Hitler waged against modern art.

Levin takes virtually the opposite approach, reducing Shakespeare to what is in essence a glorified version of himself: a super-literate Social Justice Warrior engaged in a deconstruction of hierarchy and privilege driven by self-loathing. This is not to say that Shakespeare does not deconstruct hierarchy and privilege; and the central character of the Works, Hamlet, is a veritable cauldron of self-loathing. He just doesn’t do these things in the way currently fashionable. He doesn’t deconstruct self and society, in short, toward partisan ends. He doesn’t have an easy answer susceptible to founding a political movement.

Hamlet, for example, completely guts the vanity of the powerful from his first suicidal soliloquy, declaring the world an unweeded garden, possessed merely by things rank and gross. This decapitation of the pretense of class nobility, however, doesn’t lead him to reflexively impute virtue to the peasants and groundlings, whose crude tastes have driven the tragedians of the city into wandering in order to keep their art alive. In holding a mirror up to the world, Shakespeare neither demonizes nor idealizes in the crude manner of our political and ideological partisanship.

Hamlet is not dreaming of a communist utopia, but of a lost nobility whose memory is kept alive by the tragedians. He does use these actors to hold a a mirror up to the king, and thereby catch his conscience, but this employment isn’t their responsibility. Their responsibility is to keep their art alive, to keep the mirror clean, in a world that has lost a taste for it.

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