Leave Willy Alone, and Other News


On the Shelf

Why you gotta be so mean?


  • As a thought experiment, Virginia Woolf once imagined the life of Judith Shakespeare, William’s hypothetical sister—just as artistically gifted, but constrained, as a woman, by every form of harassment and prejudice. A creative person in Judith’s position, Woolf thought, would’ve suffered ‘nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her.’ Rachel Bowlby argues that times have changed: Woolf’s reputation has grown by such leaps and bounds since her death that she is, now, essentially Judith Shakespeare, sitting beside the bard in the pantheon of English letters. Bowlby writes, “Woolf acquired a prime position, becoming something like a queen in the widening world of women and literature. There had been a more doubtful period when her writings were sometimes disparaged or downgraded, and her Bloomsbury associations might detract from her status as a thinker. But by the time she came out of copyright for the first time in 1992, she was all set for the long canonical haul: ripe for instant endowment with the footnotes of scholarly and studently editions. She could be called on at any time and in most contexts for a challenging, memorable quotation—not just about women or literature, but about any topic of current or universal interest, from war to love to money to colonialism to class. Alongside Shakespeare, Woolf is a literary celebrity, to be found in every corner of cultural consciousness and public or private space: from mugs to T-shirts to films and plays … No other non-male writer has received anything like this degree of recognition and attention. It is not clear whether this is more of a consummation or an irony, but without a doubt Woolf has herself become Shakespeare’s sister.”
  • But it’s actually a shitty time to be Shakespeare, let alone Shakespeare’s sister, I’m sad to say. In the wake of the Trumped-up Julius Caesar debacle, protestors have attempted to interrupt Shakespeare in the Park’s production—and other, even more ignorant people have revealed an antipathy for Shakespeare that runs deeper than I’d ever thought possible. Many of them don’t seem to know who the playwright is at all; others may believe he’s still alive; all of them have a disdain for his entire canon. Whatever the case, as Malcolm Gay writes, Shakespeare troupes around the nation—all of whom have nothing to do whatsoever with the disputed Caesar production—are getting loads of hate mail from Trump supporters. Like: “Hope you all who did this play about Trump are the first do [sic] die when ISIS COMES TO YOU [expletive] sumbags [sic].” Another writer wished the thespians “the worst possible life you could have and hope you all get sick and die.” Gay reports, “At Shakespeare Dallas, executive and artistic director Raphael Parry says his company has received about eighty messages, including threats of rape, death, and wishes that the theater’s staff is ‘sent to ISIS to be killed with real knives’ … ‘You have to understand, we work primarily with a 400-year-old playwright: There’s been a lot of water over the dam,’ said Shakespeare & Company artistic director Allyn Burrows. ‘I don’t know that it’s ever been this acute’ … ‘What might be gurgling up for them is their ire around having to do Shakespeare in high school,’ he quipped. ‘They’re like, you know what? I never realized I hated my English teacher as much as I did.’ ”

  • Don’t get upset. It’s always been this way. Theater and violence go together like tomato and mozzarella. Will Self, for instance, recalls a visit to the theater in the eighties wherein he encountered a former acquaintance whose name he’d appropriated for a seedy character in one of his novels: “A red-faced, heavy-set figure surged up from a seat and confronted me … ‘You don’t care what you do to people in your books!’ he expostulated. When, dumbstruck, I failed to respond, he added: ‘You don’t even know who I am, do you?’ I conceded I didn’t, whereupon he spat his name—an unusual one—back in my face. Then I did recall him: I’d known X in the mid-1980s when I was hanging around with a fairly louche crowd. X was only a distal member of this group and he wasn’t louche at all—just a hallucinogen-addled young man, rather wistful and lost and, unlike his latter incarnation, slim, ethereal and pale. Which was why, when I ran into him fifteen years later, I was shocked by his transformation. X had become something of a gangster and, as he defiantly admitted to me, a pimp … But I’d done nothing libelous: after all, he really was a pimp and a drug dealer. With this realization, I at once calmed down. So, X was going to beat the shit out of me—so what? The main point was that I’d simply done the most important thing a writer of fictions can do: tell the truth.”
  • Maybe the way out of this cycle of ignorance and violence is to concede that the theater has a consciousness—that every board in the stage, every klieg lamp and microphone, every plush seat in the house has a consciousness, and that this consciousness extends from an ecological unity that extends even to the most “unnatural” environments. The philosopher Timothy Morton has based his career on “the feeling of ecological awareness,” and his ideas are gaining currency in a world desperate for meaning. As Alex Blasdel explains in a new profile, “Morton’s own work is about the implications of this strange awareness—the knowledge of our interdependence with other beings—which he believes undermines long-held assumptions about the separation between humanity and nature. For him, this is the defining characteristic of our times, and it is compelling us to change our ‘core ideas of what it means to exist, what Earth is, what society is’ … Morton’s peculiar conceptual vocabulary—‘dark ecology,’ ‘the strange stranger,’ ‘the mesh’—has been picked up by writers in a cornucopia of fields, from literature and epistemology to legal theory and religion … His most frequently cited book, Ecology Without Nature, says we need to scrap the whole concept of ‘nature.’ He argues that a distinctive feature of our world is the presence of ginormous things he calls ‘hyperobjects’—such as global warming or the internet—that we tend to think of as abstract ideas because we can’t get our heads around them, but that are nevertheless as real as hammers. He believes all beings are interdependent, and speculates that everything in the universe has a kind of consciousness, from algae and boulders to knives and forks.”
  • Reductio ad absurdum: if everything in the universe has a consciousness, then so do Fortune 500 CEOs. And this seems unlikely, I confess. But here, too, there’s reason to have hope: Nelson D. Schwartz reports that the age of “the baronial CEO”—that well-heeled figure floating through the whisper-quiet halls of power with the air of a god—is finally drawing to a close. Schwartz writes, “A select group of American chief executives were once more akin to statesmen than businessmen … For most of the Fortune 500, the unquestioned power and perks, the imperviousness to criticism from the likes of shareholders, and the outsize public profile that once automatically came with the corner office have gone the way of the typewriter and the Dictaphone … ‘These people were bigger than life, and I saw it up close,’ said Kevin Sharer, a former chief executive of Amgen … ‘They were a combination of chief executive, statesman and rock star. They were unassailable’ … The only place that evoked a feeling of power comparable to the long hallways and corner offices of Fairfield in its prime was aboard the fast attack nuclear submarines where he once served as chief engineer … At Exxon Mobil, it’s referred to as the God Pod. On the eleventh floor of Procter & Gamble’s headquarters in Cincinnati, there was Mahogany Row. And while the official name of the executive wing at G.E.’s Fairfield headquarters was E3, inside the company it was known as Carpet Land … What these executive aeries all shared was an Olympus-like sense of remoteness, authority and defined hierarchy.”