Cultural Refugees

Much of our news during the summer has been dominated by what is happening in the Middle East – Gaza, Iraq, the marauding of the Islamic State, not to mention the horrific execution of American journalist James Foley and countless Kurds. The latter act in particular, as these events are wont to do, connected the horrors in the region to the rest of the world.

SyriaTrojanWomen 029

It is with considerable sadness then, that I read in The Washing Post the article  I am about to share. Earlier this year I wrote about a production of Trojan Women performed by women refugees who had been forced to flee from Syria, No Longer A RefugeeThese dispossessed woman have been invited to perform their play in Washington D.C. in September, but have been denied visas because they are, of course, refugees. A wasted opportunity for so many reason, I feel. Written by Peter Marks, it makes infuriating reading.

Visa denials scuttle play with Syrian actresses at Georgetown

It had the potential to be one of the most galvanizing cultural events of the season: a dozen Syrian women, refugees from that besieged country, performing in Washington a version of a 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy revised to include their own harrowing stories.

But now the show can’t go on — simply because the women are, in fact, refugees. The State Department rejected the women’s applications for entertainers’ visas for the performances — scheduled for Sept. 18-20 at Georgetown University — because it is not convinced that the women would leave.

The decision has thrown into turmoil plans for the first staging outside the Middle East of “Syria: The Trojan Women,” a production organized by ­journalist-screenwriter Charlotte Eagar, her husband, filmmaker William Stirling, and Syrian stage director Omar Abu Saada. The Syrian women they recruited, living in exile in Jordan, are all amateur actors from varying strata of Syrian society and of diverse backgrounds. Some had never set foot in a theater before working on the play. But they wanted to come here, say Georgetown organizers of the event, to give their accounts of the toll the war has taken on them and their families.


“This is the greatest tragedy, because in the United States we really don’t have access to the voices of the Syrian people. Who are we hearing from? ISIS,” said Cynthia Schneider, a former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands who is co-chair of Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, which organized the event. “We are completely missing this absolutely vital human perspective of the war in Syria.”

“It’s really so sad,” added Abu Saada, interviewed via Skype from Cairo, “because me and all the team, everyone was very excited about this. Now it is so sad that they will not get the chance to do it.”

Georgetown officials were offering “Syria: The Trojan Women” as the launching point of a two-year festival, underwritten by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, aimed at reducing ethnic and religious misconceptions by examining the culture, history and politics of the Muslim world. Flummoxed by the State Department’s decision, they are scrambling to salvage the event by turning it into a conversation with the women by remote hookup from Amman.

The scuttling of “Syria: The Trojan Women” is the second major setback in efforts to bring groundbreaking theater to Washington this fall from hot spots around the globe.

Jonathan Ginsburg, an immigration lawyer based in Fairfax, Va., who was engaged by Georgetown to consult on the “Trojan Women” application, said the denial of the women’s visas reflects a broader problem: “What’s in play is the growing involvement of DHS [Department of Homeland Security] in visa affairs, in a post 9/11 environment,” he said. “And it is affecting the arts across the board. It is more difficult than it has been in years to get the underlying petitions approved” for visas for artists.

The play, first performed last fall in a community center in Amman, Jordan’s capital, splices into Euripides’s tragedy about the surviving women of a brutal war the tales of the Syrian refugee women, some of whom lost husbands and other relatives in Syria before fleeing to Jordan. As Eagar described it in an article she wrote for the Financial Times, the production makes the leap “from Greek spears and the Towers of Ilium to air raids, mortars, snipers and shattered homes in Homs.”

And the experience has proved a profound one for the women in the play — so much so, Abu Saada recounted, that one of the actresses decided a few days before the Amman performances that she would for the first time uncover her head in public.

Plans for the North American premiere in Georgetown’s Gonda Theatre were augmented by an invitation to the women from Columbia University to give an additional performance in New York. None of this was persuasive to the State Department. Although a visa for the event was granted to Abu Saada, who still maintains a residence in Damascus, the women’s applications were turned down this month by consular officials in Amman.

In a letter to Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, a State Department official, Michele T. Bond, said that the women “were refused under section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.” That part of the code requires applicants to prove that they have a residence abroad and, according to the department, that they have “no intention of abandoning” it.

An additional wrinkle in this case, the department told the university in the Aug. 18 letter, was that there was no firm assurance from the Jordanians that the women would be allowed back into Jordan. “As you are aware,” wrote Bond, the acting assistant secretary for consular affairs, “a significant complicating factor in these cases is that the applicants have no assurance they will be permitted to return to Jordan following their trip to the United States.”

Derek Goldman, artistic director of Georgetown’s Davis Performing Arts Center and co-chair with Schneider of the laboratory, said that efforts to secure the visas involved contacting former and current Middle East diplomats, and even those with connections to King Abdullah II of Jordan. “We thought there was so much going on our side,” Goldman said, “and that basically it should be unimpeachable that these women should be able to get here, and that it would be so obvious that they would go back.”

Of the possibility that they would seek asylum, Schneider said: “I honestly thought the fact that these women had dependent small children and dependent parents [in Jordan] and none speaks English, and they don’t have any connection in the U.S., what would be the likelihood under those circumstances that that would happen?”

To add yet another twist, Abu Saada said that he learned Thursday that the Swiss government had approved visas for the women for a visit of the production to Switzerland in November. How or whether that might possibly alter the decision by the U.S. consular officer in Jordan remains unclear. As Ginsburg noted with chagrin, the decision of the officer in the country involved tends to hold a great deal of sway within the State Department.

Goldman and Schneider say they are determined to go ahead with a program involving the play. On Sept. 19, they have in mind an evening titled “Voices Unheard: The ‘Syria: Trojan Women Summit’ ” that will include excerpts from a documentary, “Queens of Syria,” about the play and a live feed from Amman, so the women can participate.

Abu Saada and two other members of his creative team who received visas are being encouraged by Goldman and Schneider to travel to Washington for the event. But as of Thursday, the director was on the fence. Without his Trojan women, he is not sure he has the heart for it.

“I’m still thinking what is the right decision,” he said.


A Devine Wright?

abridged-shakespeareAs much of the world begins a new academic year, so does Theatre Room. I am going to pick up where I left off in August with a further two articles that were published as a result of comments made by Ira Glass about Shakespeare and his relevance to a contemporary audience.

The first one that particularly caught my attention was written by Noah Berlatsky for The Atlantic. In it,  Berlatsky talks about Shakespeare’s political conservatism and how this shaped his writing.


Ira Glass recently admitted that he is not all that into Shakespeare, explaining that Shakespeare’s plays are “not relatable [and are] unemotional.” This caused a certain amount of incredulity and horror—but The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg took the opportunity to point out that Shakespeare reverence can be deadening. “It does greater honor to Shakespeare to recognize that he was a man rather than a god. We keep him [Shakespeare] alive best by debating his work and the work that others do with it rather than by locking him away to dusty, honored and ultimately doomed posterity,” she argued.

Rosenberg has a point. A Shakespeare who is never questioned is a Shakespeare who’s irrelevant. And there are a lot of things to question in Shakespeare for a modern audience. One of those things, often overlooked in popular discussions of his work, is his politics.

Shakespeare was a conservative, in the sense that he supported early modern England’s status quo and established hierarchy, which meant defending the Crown’s view of divine monarchical right and opposing the radicals, often Puritan, who questioned it.

For all the complexity and nuance of Shakespeare’s plays, his political allegiances were clear. James I was his patron, and Macbeth in particular is thought to be a tribute to the King. It even includes a reference to the Gunpowder Plot assassination attempt at James. That reference is made by Lady Macbeth as part of her effort to convince her husband to murder Duncan. The villainous traitors in the play are thus directly linked to traitors against James.

Macbeth isn’t a one-off to flatter the King, either: Rebels and usurpers in Shakespeare’s plays are always the bad guys. When Hamlet spits out the lines:

Oh fie, fie, ’tis an unweeded Garden
That grows to Seed: Things rank, and gross in Nature
Possess it merely.

The vision of sickening wrongness there is in part repulsion at his mother marrying his uncle, but it’s also a political disgust at the fact that the rightful ruler is gone, replaced by a usurpur. What’s “rank and gross” is not just sexual impropriety, but perversion of divine order. The Tempest is about restoring the rightful Duke to his place in spite of his usurping brother, while Othello shows that Shakespeare’s sympathies are not just with kings, but with any authority figure, as the sneaking underling Iago attempts to overthrow his noble Captain. It is significant here, too, that (as many critics have pointed out) Iago has no real motive for his animosity. He does not articulate a critique, or even a complaint, about the way Othello exercises power. Instead, he simply says:

I hate the Moor
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

Rebellion against one’s superiors is presented as a matter of misguided jealousy and intrinsic spite. Similarly, the Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who aspires to the hand of a woman above him in social standing, is a hypocrite and a fool. The Puritan political resistance, or the Puritan ideological opposition to hierarchical norms, is never voiced, much less endorsed.


In Shakespeare, those in authority rarely provoke resistance through injustice. In general, the one thing Shakespeare’s rulers can do wrong is to shirk their authority, trying to retire too early (King Lear) or consorting with those beneath them (Henry IV.) Often, their role is to come on at the end as a kind of hierarch ex machina, assuring all that “Some shall be pardon’d and some punished,” like the Prince at the end of Romeo and Juliet, or Prince Fortinbras at the end ofHamlet (“with sorrow I embrace my fortune”—yeah, we bet you’re sorry).

It’s sometimes said that Shakespeare always wrapped things up with a king on his throne and all right with the world as a reflection of a general belief among his contemporaries in the Great Chain of Being—a conception of the universe as divinely ordered hierarchy, each subordinate in his or her divinely ordered place. But there were many people in Shakespeare’s time who were mistrustful of kings and received authority—real-life versions of Malvolio, who Shakespeare pillories. Within his own context and within his own milieu, Shakespeare consistently championed the most powerful, and set himself against those who challenged their authority. He saw hierarchy as good and rebels as evil.

None of this is a good reason to dismiss Shakespeare. But it is a good basis for critical skepticism toward him. What would Twelfth Night look like from Malvolio’s perspective—or even from a perspective where it is not on its face ridiculous to imagine someone marrying across class? What real grievances might Iago or Macbeth have if it were possible for Shakespeare to show us an authority figure who isn’t a paragon? What happens to Julius Caesar if the rebels have some actual, genuine concerns about tyranny? As Rosenberg says, Shakespeare was a man, not a god—and as a man, he had a particular perspective, particular axes to grind, and particular blind spots. His plays aren’t entombed, authoritative holy writ; they’re living arguments, which means that, at least at times, they’re worth rebelling against.

The second comes from The Washington Post, written by Alyssa Rosenberg and explores the notion that the way a play is adapted/staged/interpreted will, of course, have a bearing on its relevancy to a modern audience: What we get wrong when we talk about Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Sucks

A beautiful spat has broken out amongst the literati Stateside this week, all sparked by a tweet from Ira Glass, presenter of This American Life:

Ira Glass 1_FotorHe then followed it with this:

Ira Glass 2_FotorSocial media went mad and it was picked up and discussed widely. The debate is fascinating and I thought I would share some of it with you. Firstly, and this is really worth listening to, a podcast from Born Ready. Director Steve Boyle and theatre producer Rob Ready discuss, to paraphrase Born Ready site, why Shakespeare has been elevated to something like a Prophet, and how his plays have become a point of shared experience and a cultural touchstone. I should warn you, however, that some rather choice language is used during the discussion.



Now, whilst Glass didn’t personally attack John Lithgow, to tie him in with a rant about the irrelevancy of Shakespeare was bound to cause an outcry. Firstly, Lithgow is akin to acting royalty in the US and secondly, North Americans really love their Shakespeare – you only have to look at the amount of Shakespeare festivals that take place across the continent every year and the fact that New York has been swamped with productions of late.

The reaction on social media was, it has to be said, highly entertaining as these pieces on CBC and The Wire highlight. If you click-through on the second tweet above, you can read it for yourself. Others have weighed into the debate, most, not surprisingly disagreeing with Glass – even Esquire, in a piece entitled SHAKESPEARE IS THE MOST UNIVERSAL WRITER EVER – Ira Glass doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

One of the best responses comes from the New Republic by Adam Kirsch, who calls Ira Glass a Philistine for saying Shakespeare sucks, while noting that he is not alone in this opinion:


 Does Shakespeare suck? Ira Glass, the host of the popular upper-middlebrow radio show “This American Life,” apparently thinks so; he tweeted as much after suffering through a performance of King Lear in Central Park. The backlash has been swift and severe, thus answering the question of whether there remain any literary taboos in the twenty-first century. Apparently, calling the Bard “not relatable” is still enough to get someone branded as a philistine.

I come not to praise Glass, certainlyI think he is a philistinebut also not totally to bury him. For there is always something admirable in speaking with complete honesty about one’s aesthetic reactions, even when those reactions are plainly wrong. Those who automatically praise Shakespeare because they know it is the right thing to say, or because they fear Glass-like ostracism if they say otherwise, may also be philistinesThe kind that Nietzsche, in his Untimely Meditations, called the “culture-philistine,” who “fancies that he is himself a son of the muses and a man of culture,” but is actually incapable of a genuine encounter with art. The first rule of any such encounter is honesty: If you fail to find what you are looking for in a work of art, even King Lear, you must be willing to admit it. Then you can move on to the question of whether it is you or King Lear that is deficient.

The truth is that Glass could have summoned some pretty impressive names to testify in his defense. George Bernard Shaw famously hated Shakespeare, complaining that “Shakespeare’s weakness lies in his complete deficiency in the highest spheres of thought,” and offhandedly claiming “I have actually written much better [plays] than As You Like It.” Tolstoy, too, had a low opinion of Shakespeare: “Open Shakespeare … wherever you like, or wherever it may chance, you will see that you will never find ten consecutive lines which are comprehensible, unartificial, natural to the character that says them, and which produce an artistic impression.” Shakespeare’s fame, Tolstoy concluded, was purely a matter of convention: “There is but one explanation of this wonderful fame: it is one of those epidemic ‘suggestions’ to which men have constantly been and are subject.”

But then, to be hated by Shaw and Tolstoy is itself a distinction. For these great writers, Shakespeare stood in their way as an indestructible obstacle, representing a way of writing that they opposed because they could not practice it. To Shaw, whose plays are political and polemical, Shakespeare was not political or polemical enough; to Tolstoy, who strove for organic naturalness, Shakespeare was neither organic nor natural. When T.S. Eliot declared that Hamlet was an artistic failure, he was not trying to make people stop seeing or reading Hamlet; rather, he was trying to get us to change the way we think about what makes a play successful.

Ira Glass, of course, was not engaged in this kind of literary maneuver. He was speaking as a playgoer who found, evidently to his surprise, that King Lear was not providing whatever it was he expected a play to providethat is what “not relatable” really means. And even here, Glass is not alone or even a pioneer. Until the Shakespeare revival of the eighteenth century, King Lear was regularly performed in England in an edited version, in which Cordelia lived at the end. No less a Shakespearean than Doctor Johnson approved of this change, on the grounds that “the audience will … always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.” In other words, Johnson was saying that the devastating conclusion of Lear was not relatable; it did not tell people what they expected a play to tell them. (Similarly, Johnson remarked on the “seeming improbability” of Lear’s conduct in impetuously disowning Cordelia, and explained it by the primitivism of the England of Lear’s time; after all, he wrote, such barbarism “would yet be credible if told of a petty prince of Guinea or Madagascar.”)

If audiences today would not stand for such a prettified Lear, that is because our sense of reality, of how the world really works and is supposed to work, has changed since the eighteenth century. Lear is generally considered the most powerful of Shakespeare’s plays precisely because, in its unsparing picture of a violent, unjust, continually brutal world, it conforms so well to what our history teaches us to expect. In other words, Lear is all too relatable, though what it relates is deeply disturbing (as it was for Johnson, who objected to the putting out of Gloucester’s eyes as an unstageable obscenity).

If, in the face of this overwhelming power, an audience member remains simply unmovedif, like Ira Glass, he just thinks the play fails to workthen something has obviously gone wrong, not with the play, but with the spectator. Exactly what is wrong in this case is something only Glass can answer, but I have my suspicions. Not just Ira Glass, but all of us, are growing increasingly unused to the kind of abstraction that art requires. Lear’s plight is supposed to move us not because it is something that could really happen to usalready in the eighteenth century, Johnson found it incrediblebut because it is what Eliot called an “objective correlative,” an artistic formula for producing a certain emotion. The horror of life that Lear communicates is something deeper and more constant than the particular actions of its dramatis personae. The same is true of Oedipus’s self-blinding, or for that matter Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac: We can only appreciate these stories if we imagine our way into them, rather than demanding that they come obediently to us.

Perhaps that is the difference between art and entertainment. And in a culture with so many proliferating sources of entertainment, the work required to encounter art is becoming increasingly unfamiliar. When people stop going to see Shakespeare altogether, we’ll know that we’ve lost this particular part of our humanityone which we have traditionally honored as among the noblest and most valuable.

William Shakespeare

The Guardian in the UK published a list of writers through history who have dared to rubbish Shakespeare, Shakespeare sucks: a potted history of Bard-bashing, while The New York Times ran an op-ed piece asking the question, Should Literature Be ‘Relatable’?

It’s a healthy debate, whatever side you are on. It is also noteworthy that Glass is clearly having second thoughts having faced the vitriol – the original tweet has been deleated.

I’ll leave you with BuzzFeed’s take on it all – Radio host Ira Glass didst belittle Shakespeare and the internet doth protest


Nothing To Be Sniffed At

aromaramaNow and again you come across something very different in the world of theatre and today I would like to share an article from the Clyde Fitch Report, by dramaturg and biological anthropologist Dillon Slagle.

In it,  Slagle interviews David Bernstein, who is a Scent Designer, an emerging field in theatre. Now this isn’t necessarily a new, 21st century thing. Indeed, American playwright and producer David Belasco toyed with the idea back in the early 1900s but it never really took hold.

Can You Smell That Smell? It’s Theatrical Scent Design

Theatre has begun to embrace a new type of designer. Their work is invisible, but, if done correctly, it can have a palpable impact on the performance. I interviewed David Bernstein about his work in the burgeoning field of scent design.


Dillon Slagle: On a basic level, what is scent design?

David Bernstein: I split up scent design into two categories. One is an ambient smell or scent, which is scenting the theatre or the performance space as the audience is walking in. It’s part of the initial impression. It’s more like an installation, so it serves to transport the setting, or to make it “other.” The second is more like scent cues. Rather than scenting the space when you walk in, it’s the introduction of aromas to coincide with the action on stage.

You can read the rest of the Q & A here and another interview with Bernstein here. It’s an interesting concept, and I guess with immersive theatre all the rage at the moment, it will have a place. Me, I think I’ll just stick with smelling the grease paint.