Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Theatrical Evening


            This is not a “literary” blog.  It is certainly not a Shakespeare blog.  And by no means whatsoever is it a blog devoted to “Productions of King Lear I Have Seen”.  It is thus by the merest of chances that about eighteen months ago I devoted a blog essay  (Ripeness is All—Most of It, July 19, 2011),to a remarkable production of King Lear that I had see at the Armory in New York, and that my subject today is a remarkable production of King Lear that I saw at the Class of 1970 Theater in Whitman College, Princeton University, on Saturday last.  And as I seem to be overusing the adjective remarkable, I’ll point out something further along those lines.  The Armory Lear was mounted by the hyper-professional Royal Shakespeare Company, the Whitman College Lear by the all-student Princeton Shakespeare Company.  They were of roughly equal quality.  Remarkable, quite remarkable.

            One of the joys and privileges of the academic profession for me has been constantly to be surrounded by golden youth.  The student generations are always different—yet ever the same in their brightness, their enthusiasm, their optimism, their talent, their strange naiveté and even stranger sophistication.  The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus reminds us that one can never wade into the same river twice; for though the stream may be there forever, its waters are in continual flux.  There is a plangent side to this.  “Time, like an ever rolling stream,” wrote Isaac Watts in his famous paraphrase of the ninetieth psalm, “bears all its sons away.”  But there is also a comforting, even inspiring reassurance of the continuity as well.  Several circumstances surrounding my most recent visit to the theater reinforced this happy aspect

            I came to know a lot of the first women undergraduates at Princeton because many of them were housed in Wilson College, of which I happened to be the Master at the time of their arrival.  Several of the friendships we made at that time have stayed the course, among the most cherished of which is that with M. Christine Stansell of the Class of 1971, whose name has appeared in this blog on an earlier occasion.  She is now an eminent professor of American History and Women’s Studies.  Her published books include City of Women: Sex and Class in New York 1789-1860; Powers of Desire: the Politics of Sexuality; and American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century.  Her present exalted title is “the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor in United States History and the College” at the University of Chicago, but since she has been an honorary member of our family since about 1969, we all claim the liberty of calling her “Chris”.  You get to do that if you have all camped out together for weeks on end in a tick-infested Ozark wilderness.

            Anyway, Chris has been on an academic leave up in New York, allowing us to spend a little time together, and she was our houseguest this past weekend.  Naturally she joined us in going to see Lear.   She should have felt at home, for in a certain way it was an “All Seventies” evening.  The venue was the Class of 1970 Theater in Whitman College, the newest of Princeton’s residential colleges and the gift of Meg Whitman of the Class of 1977.  (I hope the fiscal cliff-dwellers will think long and hard before messing about with the tax deductions for charitable donations.)  The college theater is beautiful, and I confess to a little pang of jealousy when I think back to the subterranean “black box” of Wilson College in my day. 

 Whitman College, Princeton University
           I well remember the founding of the Princeton Shakespeare Company in 1994.  I had no part in it, but I knew several of the student organizers; and it seems “like yesterday,” as the saying goes.  But time does pass, and student generations pass rapidly.  The role of Lear in this current production was played—and even choosing the adverb with care I would say played brilliantly—by a prodigy named Jake Robertson.  This man is a current sophomore, meaning that it must be a close call as to whether he had even yet been born when the Princeton Shakespeare Company was organized.  How such a stripling youth could convey such a sense of decaying and confused old age is a wonder not to be explained even by the technical genius of the production’s make-up gurus, which was considerable.

 Class of 1970 Theater

            I hardly need remind you that the matter of King Lear concerns the troubled relationships between an aging father and his three adult children.  All great literature must necessarily command some degree of universal resonance, and I cannot imagine that anyone could have seen this production without being engaged by it.  But I can guarantee you that should it just happen that you are an aging father of three adult children, you would certainly have sat up and taken notice.  A couple of Lear’s children are so conveniently wicked that for many years I was able to avoid the implications of the king’s own tragic realization:  I am a very foolish fond old man.”  This wonderful college production forces the realization upon you, and with it, some meditation upon the interplay of continuity and disjunction among the generations.