Suddenly, the Theater of Chaos

Reposted from an Oregon ArtsWatch column that ran January 7, 2021, the day after the storming of the capitol.

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Medieval mystery play, with product placement. “2nd mystery play in the Middle Ages,” from the Liebig Collectible Card series, “Theater Then and Now,” 4.3 x 2.8 inches.

 

JANUARY 7, 2021

On Wednesday the biggest show in America broke into new territory, adding a hard-right plot twist that raged across the nation’s television screens and Twitter feeds like a renegade character actor rushing into the spotlight and brandishing a sword. America’s actual theaters have been shut down for ten months. But the metaphorical theater – the great big blustering morality play of the body politic, screeching and bleating its lines in some hyperdrive version of a medieval drama – reached a new climax in Washington, D.C.
It had seemed, in the morning hours, that the old play had settled into its dénouement and the crew was ready to clear the stage to make room for the new show in town, the one with a familiar old star making a dramatic comeback in the leading role. In the halls of Congress the thunder sheets were rattling up one final mini-storm of protest as stock characters bellowed their closing curses to the sky, insisting to the end that night was day and the world was flat and the emperor was draped in dazzling costume. A mob of rabid groundlings, caught up in the raw fiction of the plotting and egged on by the antics of the morality play’s Ravening Beast, stormed the Capitol stage and attempted to turn the tide of the battle’s choreography with a show of brute force. But surely this was only show and tell?

And then the insurrectionists broke through. It was a shocking, if not surprising, violation of the fourth wall. The performers rushed into the audience space and transformed the measured fantasy of the script into a fresh form of ugly reality, looting and vandalizing and strutting for selfies. During the storming of the Capitol a woman was shot and killed. Four others also died, making it all too plain that the passions unleashed by the cheap theatrics had very real and serious consequences.
The worlds of politics and the theater have always been intimately linked. Political leaders build their bases and amplify their power by playing to the crowd. You could see and hear it, during the long television run of the day, in the soliloquies of some of the major players. Mitch McConnell’s deft and calculated turning of the screw. Lindsay Graham’s folksy yarn-spinning. Chuck Schumer’s earnest prosecutorial delivery. Josh Hawley’s fresh-off-the-bus sophistry. All delivered with studied theatrical poise – and then 45’s astonishing wreck of a mea non culpa, so palpably defiant and self-serving that social media companies blocked it, and him, though the television networks played it over and over again. In the midst of all this I found myself thinking, theater is like politics, and politics is like theater, but they are not the same, and it’s dangerous to mix them up. At a time of gross cultural and economic inequities, and pandemic health crisis, and racial and religious animosity, and a world plummeting toward climate disaster, it seems a very good time for the ladies and gentlemen of the hallowed halls to leave the acting to the professionals and get down to the tough but necessary business of actually governing. I’d buy a ticket to that.

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How, then, should the worlds of art and politics interact? We’ve been seeing a lot of specific artistic responses to the political world, some of them blunt, some of them provocative, some of them good for the immediate moment and some of them, no doubt, with longer reverberation. The best approach might be to make art that explores the depths and complexities of human situations – not offering answers so much as fresh ways of thinking, so that political decisions can be made taking into account broader and more lasting ways of looking at things.

Barry Lopez, the great Oregon author of Arctic Dreams and Of Wolves and Men, died on Christmas Day at age 75, of prostate cancer. Everything he wrote, “major” or “minor,” was graceful and direct and suffused with a sense of the interconnections of the physical and cultural worlds. Always, he sought the whole picture, the things in front of us that most of us most of the time just don’t see. He might have been, not a politician, but an unofficial advisor to lawmakers, quietly urging them to see the details and hidden truths that make for sound decision-making. The other day I found myself leafing through Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, a geological and geographical encyclopedia of sorts that was edited by Lopez and, as managing editor, his writer wife, Debra Gwartney. It’s a book of terms, from “alluvial fan” to “bog” to “promontory” to “salt-grass estuary,” that define and illuminate very particular physical realities.

In his introduction Lopez suggests the complexity of life on Earth, and the difficulty of truly seeing, a skill as necessary in public life as in the wild: “During a long period of field research that brought me into regular contact with wild animals on their remote home grounds, and after decades of living in a place where wild animals from deer mice and dusky shrews to Roosevelt elk and black bear are common, I’ve wondered what they see that we miss. Or what we so frequently miss because we are impatient and cursory.  … Much that would be arresting to an animal’s eye is not apparent to us. How is the land we see divided and composed according to the way we see? What draws our attention?”

A little later I picked up another book by Lopez that I occasionally re-read, The Rediscovery of North America. Published in 1990, shortly before the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s incursion into the Americas, it’s essentially a long essay about that encounter, and the savagery and misunderstandings of it, and the ways in which its brutalities ripple down to our own time and influence how we think about things in our public and private lives. Calling partly on the testimony of Bartolomé de las Casas, who arrived in Hispañola in 1502 and later became a priest, Lopez relates in brutal detail the decades of “murder, rape, theft, kidnapping, vandalism, child molestation, acts of cruelty, torture, and humiliation” visited by the Spaniards on the Indigenous population.

Then he goes beyond: “I single out these episodes of depravity not so much to indict the Spanish as to make two points. First, this incursion, this harmful road into the ‘New World,’ quickly became a ruthless, angry search for wealth. It set a tone in the Americas. … The second point I wish to make is that this violent corruption needn’t define us. Looking back on the Spanish incursion, we can take the measure of the horror and assert that we will not be bound by it. We repudiate the greed. We recognize and condemn the evil. And we see how the harm has been perpetuated. But, five hundred years later, we intend to mean something else in the world.”

This might not make a sound bite for the Sunday morning news shows. It could make for a richer, more responsive and humane public policy. If the world of art can help the world of politics do that, maybe the Capitol won’t be stormed.

 

On Writing: Shards and Scraps

STACKS OF NOTEBOOKS TEETERING a foot and a half high. Scraps of paper torn from here and there, covered in cryptic and often indecipherable scrawls: old envelopes and junk mail, stray printouts, performance programs, grocery lists flipped to the other side. In our brave new electronic age, odd passages struck by thumb and stored in the Notes app of our smart phones. Strange names and phone numbers. Possibly important dates, if only you could remember what they’re for. Vital phrases and dead ends. Whole paragraphs out of the blue, scribbled in haste before they can vanish into the mist.

Writing is a messy enterprise, a stumble toward clarity through a thicket of confusion. The writer jots down notes amid the chaos, little clues to mark a path toward a destination he can’t quite see and whose appearance, if ever he discovers it, might easily arrive as an utter surprise, not at all like whatever it was he envisioned when he set out.

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It’s possible, of course, that some writer somewhere sits down to keyboard or notepad at a desk of virginal cleanness and simply composes, fresh, from brain to fingers, in a smooth spontaneous stream. I have not met this person. My own writing environment is a haphazardly orchestrated disaster zone of unfinished projects, dubious side trips, and cryptic hints of ideas that, having been jotted onto paper or screen, have joined the daunting pile of faint yet hopeful possibilities. Now, where is that thing that I wrote down three weeks ago and suddenly realize might fit into the blank spot on the page I’m working on today? What was it, again? Let me just see if I can track it down. Somehow, this organizational calamity comforts me and spurs me on. Continue reading On Writing: Shards and Scraps

O Canada! Singing the Peace Arch blues

When I was growing up near the Canadian border in Whatcom County, Washington, in the 1950s and ’60s the border was a convenient and largely irrelevant smudge. It was there, and everybody knew it, and if you traveled from one country to the other you had to go through Customs, but few people really took it seriously – at least, until the Vietnam War heated up and it became an escape route for draft age young men. It was a rare day when you didn’t run into a Canadian or three on the south side of the border, or a United States citizen or three on the north. People routinely took day trips to one side of the line or the other, simply because it was mildly exotic to cross into another country, no matter how many times you’d done it before. Most everyone’s pockets jingled with both Canadian and U.S. coins, which merchants on either side of the border happily accepted at face value: They’d rather have the business and eat the sometimes dime-on-a-dollar difference in value than not have the business at all. Bellingham, the county’s biggest town, had a television station, KVOS, which locals often jokingly called CVOS because it ran so many Canadian commercials aimed at the bigger population across the line. Canadian shoppers drove down to the border town of Blaine, where the harbor was lined with the fish canneries in which many of my friends’ mothers worked during the summer months, to stock up on salmon or tuna and maybe stop at the duty-free liquor store before heading back home. And just a bit south, along the narrow crescent waterfront drive of the cotton-candy-and-Ferris-wheel getaway of Birch Bay, teen-agers from both sides of the border would cruise on weekend nights and summer days, ogling one another, giving fleshly meaning to the term “foreign affairs.” Babies came out of these flirtations. Sometimes marriages, too.

So when Cedella Roman was accosted by United States Border Patrol officers on May 21 of this year and hauled off to two weeks of imprisonment in the maw of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement machine, I knew exactly where she’d gone wrong. I grew up 15 miles south of it.

Roman, a 19-year-old Frenchwoman visiting her mother in North Delta, British Columbia, was out jogging along the waterfront when she accidentally ran past the border, at a spot where it isn’t marked, and into Washington state. Because she was wearing jogging clothes she wasn’t carrying any identification, and that might be what did her in. Or maybe what did her in was the harsh and unyielding logic of the new United States isolationism, a belligerent intransigence that seems hellbent on making enemies of our closest friends.

The International Peace Arch between Canada and the United States. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The International Peace Arch between Canada and the United States. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The spot where Roman was taken into custody overlooks Semiahmoo Bay, which flows into the Salish Sea and laps against both Blaine, on the U.S. side, and Douglas, in British Columbia, and is within a shout and a whistle of Peace Arch Park. The park is actually two conjoined parks, one operated by the provincial government of B.C. and the other by Washington state, and for children from both sides of the border it was great sport to stand inside the park’s arch, which straddles the invisible border, and plant one foot in Canada and the other in the United States. In the decades of my early memories Peace Arch Park was a picture-book garden of a place celebrating the friendly relations between the two great northern countries in North America. Canadian and U.S. citizens alike would pack a picnic, drive to the park, amble through the rose gardens, maybe play a game of catch or Frisbee, then pick a spot on the grass on either side of the border and chow down.

Times have changed. And the picnic, it seems, is over. Continue reading O Canada! Singing the Peace Arch blues

Patriotic gore: Dr. Johnson on the political brouhaha in the Colonies

Here at Art Scatter we’ve been keeping a keen eye on this year’s political races and the concurrent pommeling and puffing-up of patriotism that’s been accompanying them. In ordinary times we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the sloganeering of the love-it-or-leave-it crowd. People wave their flags and spout their platitudes, and life pretty much goes on, unimpeded. But it seems such a hot topic as November 8 approaches that we decided to consult an expert on the subject, Dr. Samuel Johnson, the noted English poet, essayist, and lexicographer. Dr. Johnson is a devout Tory but possesses a sharp wit and a keen mind, and will rail against foolishness and chicanery wherever he believes he has found it. Even in the midst of a vicious election season, he is no blind slave to party loyalty.

Joshua Reynolds, 1772, Portraot of Samuel Johnson, commissioned for Henry Thrale's Streatham Park gallery; Tate Gallery, London / Wikimedia Commons
Joshua Reynolds, 1772, Portrait of Samuel Johnson, commissioned for Henry Thrale’s Streatham Park gallery; Tate Gallery, London / Wikimedia Commons

The good doctor, as it turns out, has been busy checking proofs for his essay “The Patriot,” in which he expounds upon this very topic, and so could not meet with us in the flesh. But he agreed to answer questions through his publicist, Mr. James Boswell. The arrangement seemed congenial, and so we submitted our queries. In due course the good Mr. Boswell returned Dr. Johnson’s replies, a few from the very pages of the essay he’s been preparing. Here is the result of our long-distance discourse.

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Everybody’s talking about it, from presidential candidates to professional quarterbacks. And everybody seems to have a different idea about it. What exactly IS patriotism, anyway?

A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest. Continue reading Patriotic gore: Dr. Johnson on the political brouhaha in the Colonies

Stage notes: Not just JAW (but that’s the main course)

IN THE BEGINNING was Stark Raving Theatre, a little company with the audacious goal of producing nothing but new plays.

Check that. In the beginning was New Rose Theatre, with its long and fruitful sponsorship of new plays set in the Northwest by Charles Deemer.

Check that. In the beginning was Storefront Theatre, which made up new plays like an artisan baker whips up fresh new pastries every morning.

Crowds gather at the annual JAW fest not just for the main readings, but also for the many supporting performances and events. From the 2013 festival, Wes Guy and the New Birth breakdance crew wows the crowd. Photo: Patrick Weishampel
Crowds gather at the annual JAW fest not just for the main readings, but also for the many supporting performances and events. From the 2013 festival, Wes Guy and the New Birth breakdance crew wows the crowd. Photo: Patrick Weishampel

Check that. New plays have always been a part of the mix on Portland’s theater scene, but never with the frequency and impact of the past 10 years or so, when companies across the city have made it a prime goal to create new work. And part of the credit for that goes to JAW, the Just Add Water festival, Portland Center Stage’s annual summer development workshop for writers from hither and yon. The festival has focused on national playwrights, with a few locals and auxiliary programs, and a good percentage of its shows have gone on to full production at Center Stage, other Portland theaters, or companies across the country.

Continue reading Stage notes: Not just JAW (but that’s the main course)

Gird your loins: the battle hymn of the Republicans (and the Democrats)

The candidates, debating in typical restrained fashion. (George Bellows, "Dempsey and Firpo," 1924, oil on canvas, 5 x 63.3 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art / Wikimedia Commons)
The candidates, debating in typical restrained fashion. (George Bellows, “Dempsey and Firpo,” 1924, oil on canvas, 51 x 63.3 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art / Wikimedia Commons)

I don’t really like to do it, but desperate times call for desperate measures. So on occasion, when I feel the situation has devolved from everyday addle-headedness to foolishness pure and simple, I breathe in, cinch my belt, and enter into the political fray. I do this mostly from the sidelines, not holding much truck with the actual playing of the game since the evening, long ago, when my first wife challenged a future United States congressman to a drinking match and won. It’s not that the future congressman didn’t try: both contestants ended up under the table, where they just sort of slithered at some point, taking care to grab their respective bottles as they slid. But the future congressman stayed there, snoring, while the first wife emerged wobbly but triumphant, and from that point I figured the trouble with politics is that it’s played by amateurs, and therefore not to be taken overly seriously.

Still, Matters of Consequence do come before these august bodies (I’m referring to the House and Senate, not to the future congressman or my first wife), and so it’s only common sense to pay at least a little attention to what the incumbents and candidates for incumbency have to say and do. That does not mean I watch the form of debased televised theatrics known as presidential debates: I’m proud to say that in the endless campaign slog of 2015 and 2016, I’ve skipped them all. Still, I read the post-mortems, and word seeps through.

No, I like to take my questions on the political process to the experts, of whom I’ve known a few. Readers of this column might recall my previous conversations with the likes of the canny Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, who among other insights into the power racket made the famous and eye-opening distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft: to paraphrase very loosely, if you accept tit, you’d better give an honest tat.

I also chatted with the Italian political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, who’s developed a fierce and controversial reputation for his views on realpolitik; the American steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, a key corporate political insider; my old friend Kautilya, a superb tactician who wrote the ultimate Hindu treatise on statecraft and military tactics, the Arthashastra; Eugene Field, a poet among political commentators; Thomas Hobbes, the noted political theorist and author of Leviathan; Huey Long, a master practitioner of the byzantine form of politics followed in the Deep South; Jesus of Nazareth, an influential populist religious leader with ties in the disputed territories of the Middle East; and the prominent American religious revivalist Elmer Gantry. Continue reading Gird your loins: the battle hymn of the Republicans (and the Democrats)

Five Years at the Opera with the Large Smelly Boy

Mixed-media collage by Laura Grimes
Mixed-media collage by Laura Grimes

 

BY  LAURA GRIMES

It’s been only five years since I took the Small Large Smelly Boy to his first opera? It’s already been a whole five years?

During that time I’ve thought frequently about the post I wrote after I took him to Portland Opera’s double bill of Pagliacci and Carmina Burana in fall 2010, when he was 12 years old. At least a few times every year I think about writing an update: What’s he doing now? Did it take? What’s happened since then? How old is he now? Did that first opera change his life like all the ta-DUM-ing in the post?

That whole event back then seemed like just life. A night out on the town with my lad after he took out the trash. A quick documentation of a special occasion. But I had no idea how much it would resonate and grow long-long legs and, well, if not change the course of history, then at least skew its trajectory just a bit.

Continue reading Five Years at the Opera with the Large Smelly Boy

Jack, 2000-2015: Big and bold and not just any cat

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By LAURA GRIMES

To say our cat died is ridiculously casual and wildly unfitting. Jack, mafia don and Facebook darling, all sass and sweetness, as demanding as a popped blister and as loyal as a lab, was our warp and our weft, our emotional ballast, our third Large Smelly Boy, more boy than the sum of the rest and more macho than a swaggering lot of pirates. He would never stand for being just a cat.

Jack. A name we didn’t give him but inherited from his kitten foster parents and decided to keep, both to honor his first family loves and because it fit. Solid. Straightforward. Nothing to duck. That was Jack, who died Monday, May 11 — days ago, but no one in the family could yet bear to make it public, perhaps because we still couldn’t believe it and saying it aloud would make it real, perhaps because we futilely willed to keep him to ourselves a little longer, and perhaps because the grief was so deep that it was silent and private. Funny, because Jack was never quiet.

He insisted on long conversations and had lots of opinions. But don’t take my word for it. Ask the neighbors. He talked to everyone about everything. He acted all lovey to every passing stranger, and promptly answered all manner of sounds – words, whistles, belches, farts. He wasn’t picky, as long as he had someone to talk to. Or not. He head-bumped with the best of ’em and knew how to rub a good leg. And he knew how to push newspapers onto the floor when they vied for his attention. If he were here now he would be digging a paw into my sleeve and pulling my hand away from the keyboard, insisting on having it to himself, persistently becoming an impossible pest until I would have to do something, perhaps give him a good long hug over my right shoulder, a favorite spot where he went limp. I started making bed nests for him near wherever I happened to be working to placate him, scrunching up soft blankets and pulling chairs closer.

Continue reading Jack, 2000-2015: Big and bold and not just any cat

For Pete’s sake: A Memorial Day remembrance

On Memorial Day weekend a year ago, my nephew, Peter Joseph Hicks, a Navy veteran of the Iraqi war, died after a long battle with cancer. He was 31 years old – born March 11, 1983, died May 23, 2014.  I was honored when his father, my brother Bill, asked me to give a talk at the celebration of Pete’s life, in Oak Harbor, Washington, a gathering where Pete was remembered by his family, friends, and Navy comrades. It was one of those sweet-and-sad days, a farewell and a remembrance, a telling of tales, an embracing of who Pete was, and a way to keep his essence alive in those he loved. For those who knew and loved him, and anyone else, here is what I said on that afternoon.

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Pete with his Aunt Barb, 2013. Photo: Chuck Hicks
Pete with his Aunt Barb, 2013. Photo: Chuck Hicks

I was talking with my brother Bill, Peter’s dad, on the phone the other day, and Bill said, “I think Peter packed ninety years of life into the thirty-one he had.”

No kidding. I can’t count the number of things Pete’s been and done. Some of you who knew him more closely or in other aspects of his life could surprise me with your stories, and after we’re done here I hope you will.

A few things I remember clearly. Pete liked bows and arrows and other things of velocity and impact. He liked to cook. He was a tinkerer and a builder and a grower. As I discovered in the last couple of years, he was a writer, although I’m not sure he really thought of himself that way: he was just expressing what he believed.

He was a Navy guy, and not just a Navy guy but a Navy guy who went to war and took on one of the most dangerous jobs around, defusing bombs that threatened soldiers and civilians alike. He was a good friend and a good brother. He was fierce and he was gentle, and he loved a good joke, even when it was on himself.

Maybe most important of all, he was a dad and a husband and a devoted family man. His wife, Sasha, and their five kids from the family they blended together – Bell, Abby, Lucas, Caden, and Kali – have lost a part of themselves with his death, and will need time and compassion to grieve and move on. It’s hard. I wish grace and good memories for you. Pete was a determined warrior against this cancer thing, but it was a sneaky devil, and it took a 10-year head start before it let him know there was even a battle going on.

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So by Bill’s reckoning of ninety years in thirty-one, if Pete had made it to ninety-three, the way his grandmother Charlotte did before she died last fall, he’d have had two hundred seventy years of life experience under his belt, and any of us who were still around would be absolutely gobsmacked by his accumulated wisdom.

Which I’m sure he would have been more than willing to share.

Continue reading For Pete’s sake: A Memorial Day remembrance

Nancy Drew, mon amour: my secret affair with the world’s greatest girl detective

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This morning I discovered via Facebook feed that the great American literary sensation Nancy Drew is 85 years old, making her quite possibly the oldest 16-year-old super sleuth in history. That got me to searching for this story, which ran originally in The Oregonian on October 12, 1997. A revised version later ran in the late, lamented magazine Biblio.

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Here’s to you, Nancy Drew. You were my first true love. My first safe true love.

Sure, there were others. Freckled Norwegian girls with hair like hay and eyes as swift as mountain streams. Lipsticked, rounded girls in cashmere sweaters that clung to peach-soft skin. Porcelain dolls of unapproachable sophistication. But they were dangerous, because they were real, and liable to utterly destroy the hesitant intentions of an awkward boy.

Ah, but you, you forthright, striding, titian-haired marvel. You, you crime-busting beauty in your little blue roadster.

You were a flash, an action. A wonderful blank, waiting to be filled in. Made of printer’s ink and imagination, you were the speeding American vision of a bright future. An ideal, a fantasy, a goal. You were not for attaining. You were for setting the standard. You were the New American Woman.

Thank heavens for the printed page. With real girls, I was pretty much doomed to be tongue-tied and star-struck. With you, I had a relationship. And it was about all sorts of things, perhaps the least of which was puppy love (you were not, essentially, romantic, though you were a creature of romance). It was about literature and the secrets of writing. It was about boldness and courage and the declaration of self. It was about waking to the possibilities of a bigger world. It was about laughter and embracing the ability to enjoy. It was about doing right and fighting wrong. It was, in several pertinent senses, about growing up.

Not, of course, that I realized it at the time. At the time you were just a darned good read, a queen of the cliffhanger. How, in The Secret of the Old Clock (the very first Nancy Drew mystery, published in 1930), would you get out of the closet where the vicious thief Sid had locked you so he could make his getaway? Why, in The Hidden Window Mystery (No. 34), does Luke cry out in terror when you start to pull the lever to the trap door in the haunted house?

Continue reading Nancy Drew, mon amour: my secret affair with the world’s greatest girl detective

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