Saturday, April 21, 2012

War music for Havel and Logue

Now Hear This / Godot has not come – Havel has left.

Several generations of living Americans are familiar with the life of Vaclav Havel, who died last December. A famous world figure, humanitarian and political leader whose nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” in 1989 led to the collapse of Soviet rule in Czechoslovakia, Havel was the first democratically elected president of the Czech Republic. He was also a prolific playwright whose first passion was the theatre.

I hadn’t realized the extent of his esteem in the theatrical world until I was surprised to see an obituary by his biographer, Carol Rocamora, in the February 2012 issue of American Theatre. The title of her book, Acts of Courage: Vaclav Havel’s Life in the Theater applies to the reputation the author earned as an activist against the Soviet-controlled communist regime in 1970’s Prague. Havel was imprisoned for protesting the violation of human rights, and called “Vaclav Havel, dissident” thereafter. Such was the playwright’s international reputation that major theatres in Vienna, London and New York named Havel their “playwright in residence, and pledged to produce all his plays.” Rocamora mentions such esteemed writers as Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett and Arthur Miller in her list of Havel supporters. Stoppard and Pinter protested in London by reading a Havel play; Becket and Miller wrote plays in his honor. A trilogy of Havel’s autobiographical one-acts “about the plight of a silenced Czech playwright named Vanek” inspired a series of “Vanek plays” from other authors. Rocamora cites Havel’s 11 full-length dramas and 7 one-acts as “plays that have an important place in the European Theatre of the absurd.” This is fitting for a dissident author and provocateur who read Kafka and Brecht and fought for the “power of the powerless.” Rocamora sums up Havel’s significance by asserting,

The gift of Havel’s life in the theatre lies not in the success of his plays, nor even in their individual merit. It lies in the essence of theatre’s value – what it can mean to a culture, and how it can transform a culture.

Transforming a culture was the life’s work of the poet Christopher Logue, who also died last December. Logue is best known for his free-verse adaptation of Homer’s Iliad, collectively entitled War Music. He translates the Greek epic into a 20th century idiom that is vivid as the film adaptations through which most Americans under the age of 50 know Homer. Logue’s critical acclaim includes references to the visual imagination enlivening his imagery. “Logue’s greatest achievement is his ability to make us see the Trojan War…We see the cinematography of the battlefield and it is astonishing.” Not a literal translation (Logue did not read Greek), his version of the Iliad continues to influence other adapters of Homer and stands on its own feet regardless of its distance from the original. Logue’s “magpie style of poetry,” despite what his detractors claim, becomes a virtue. The fourth installment of War Music is called All Day Permanent Red (the title refers to a lipstick ad), and it features a mash-up of Dryden, Milton, Kipling, Crane, Shakespeare and the contemporary poet August Kleinzahler.

Just as American Theatre’s obituary surprised me to attention with news of Havel’s death, the March 2012 issue of Poetry magazine featured that journal’s version of an obit: name / dates / excerpt. It reads:

Christopher Logue

His head was opened, egglike, at the back,
Mucked with thick blood, blood trickling from his mouth,
His last words were:
“Prince, your trumpeter has lost his breath.”

“Our worst fear was his face would fade,”
Telespiax’s father said.
“But it did not. We will remember it until we die.”

War Music opens with the imperative, “Now hear this.” In excerpts like the above, Logue’s injunction sounds as a warning to simply pay attention to the details, however unpleasant they may be. The music of Logue’s diction is dissonant and his palette is sharp. And it is full of irony and pathos. One of his Iliad-inspired chapters is entitled GBH (for the legal term “Grievous bodily harm”). A former Black Watch guard and prisoner of war, Logue earned the right to versify his stripes. The courageous resilience that is an uncanny hallmark of the battle-tested warrior balances the gore of the battlefield.

As one sits upright from a dream in which he drowned
And reaches for the light –
Troy reached inside itself and found new strength.

Metaphors like this stimulate attention. Attention to a great poet’s voice stimulates reflection which makes meaning possible. Considering a violent image such as a head split open - “egglike” - is a more disturbing experience on a deeper level than merely watching the gratuitous version of it enacted on screen. The simulated grotesqueness of filmed violence can never compare to the mind’s ability to imagine and connect. One is reminded of the director Peter Sellar’s observation that contemporary audiences are curious as to how the effect of Oedipus poking out his eyes is staged and achieved, where the original Greek audience would have asked what provoked such violence in the first place. One of Logue’s gifts is his unflinching take on the horrible deaths in warfare. Achilles’ friend Patroclus fells the Trojan charioteer, Akafact, spearing him while the Trojans attempt to burn the Myrmidons’ ship. Describing the straight airborne path of the javelin, Logue suspends time for a moment before capturing the impact and nailing the pitch of deadly battle:

Mid-air, the cold bronze apex sank
Between his teeth and tongue, parted his brain,
Pressed on, and stapled him against the upturned hull.
His dead jaw gaped. His soul
Crawled off his tongue and vanished into sunlight.

If one averts one’s eyes for a moment when a sword splits a skull in two in a contemporary action film or epic TV series, one misses only special effects and vapid gore. The “shock factor” authors like Poe, Rimbaud and Artaud sought are mitigated rather than enhanced by technology. To leave off reading this poetry after Akafact is “stapled” by Patroclus’ spear is to miss the power of Logue’s image evoking the haunting finality of death and the unsettling transience of simply vanishing “into sunlight.”

Near the end of All Day Permanent Red, Logue moves from an individual leave-taking to a panorama of the battlefield. It is another dramatic gesture in which the particular is refracted through and magnified by a universalizing lens. The prismatic quality of art is what enables a great writer, painter or composer to transcend the specific and articulate what Walt Whitman called the “song of the universal.”

“Goodbye little fellow with the gloomy face.”
As Greece, as Troy, fought on and on.

Or are they only asleep?
They are too tired to sleep.
The tears are falling from their eyes.

The noise they make while fighting is so loud
That what you see is like a silent film.
And as the dust converges over them
The ridge is as it is when darkness falls.

Silence and light.

Now hear this: Logue’s War Music will not vanish so long as singers sing the songs of war and its horrors, terrors and pities. The World War One soldier, poet and chronicler Wilfred Owen wrote, “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.” While their corporal voices may be silenced, their war music reverberates in a key arrestingly familiar.

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