Saturday, November 22, 2008

Fifty-nine days

Fifty-nine days, that is, until Barack Obama is sworn in as President of the United States and the nightmare of the last eight years finally comes to an end. Which feels like an awfully long time when you consider how much damage the Bush Administration can still inflict with its unique blend of abject incompetence and ideological arrogance. While Bush himself can be seen ineffectually flailing around with foreign leaders obviously relieved not to have to pretend to listen to him any more, I'm more concerned with what his VP is going to try and accomplish.

That being said, I would like to pay tribute at various points over the next fifty-nine days to the outgoing president by recalling some of his memorable locutions. While I certainly wouldn't want to compare our pain to that of soldiers fighting a fraudulent war or the victims of Hurricane Katrina, those of us whose principal business is the English language have found this president particularly galling for the violence he has visited on sentences (though honestly -- and I never thought I would ever say this -- Bush's use of language is pristine when compared to the labyrinths of Sarah Palin's speech).

On the other hand, we teachers of English now have a great contemporary Exhibit A when we come to define the term "malapropism" to our students. It is a term first put into common use by the character Mrs. Malaprop in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's 1775 play The Rivals, who misuses words to comic effect -- such as saying "He is the very pineapple of politeness," where she means "pinnacle." My personal favourite example predates Sheridan in Much Ado About Nothing, where the constable Dogberry announces to the Duke that "We have comprehended two auspicious characters."

Had Mr. Bush been a little more up on his literary genres, he'd have known that the accomplished malapropist is always a minor character used to comic effect, and is never supposed to be either the protagonist or antagonist. Perhaps the President-Elect should give him a copy of The Rivals and Much Ado as a get-your-ass-out-of-my-White-House parting gift.

Those who follow this blog regularly will possibly have noticed that the tagline under my title changes with every post, and is always a random (hopefully funny) quotation from somewhere. Well, in honour of the outgoing Malapropist-in-chief, I will have as my tagline a Bushism for every entry I post between now and January 20th. It is quite seriously the very least I can do for him.

In the meantime, here are ten of my favourites. Please feel free to contribute your own in my comments section.

"Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream."

"I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."

"I hear there's rumors on the Internets that we're going to have a draft."

"I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully."

"You work three jobs? … Uniquely American, isn't it? I mean, that is fantastic that you're doing that."

"Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country."

"We ought to make the pie higher."

"Rarely is the questioned asked: Is our children learning?"

"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

"There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."

(OK ... so maybe most of these aren't malapropisms per se).

Friday, November 21, 2008

On the appalling idiocy of TV executives

Today, I am a man in mourning. I just discovered that ABC has cancelled Pushing Daisies.

Nothing will ever be happy again.

Then again, I suppose it was a longshot that a well-written, quirky, funny, vaguely surreal show about a piemaker who can bring dead people/things back to life with a touch and consign them forever to the grave again with a second touch, who can't resurrect people for more than a minute because if he does someone else has to die, and who uses this ability with a private detective named Emerson Cod to wake up murder victims to find out who killed them and collect the reward money, but breaks the one-minute rule when he brings his murdered childhood sweetheart Chuck back to life and can't bring himself to kill her again (causing the funeral home owner to die in the process), but also of course then can't actually touch the woman he loves, and so is forced to live chastely and sweetly with her while their adventures investigating crimes continue, joined by the vivacious and petite Olive who works for the pieman at his restaurant The Pie Hole and who is herself not-so-secretly in love with the pieman, would not survive long in the cookie-cutter world of network programming.

Alas -- Lily, Vivian, Emerson, Digby, Chuck, Ned, Olive ... we hardly knew ye.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Irritating word of the day


As used this morning in the NY Times by Thomas Friedman: “The two most impactful secretaries of state in the last 50 years were [James] Baker and Henry Kissinger.”

Besides being one of those buzz-words that has surfaced in marketing lingo and therefore irritating by proxy, it is also a painfully ugly and awkward word to hear—especially considering the array of alternatives one may use, such as “effective,” “successful,” or “accomplished.” If one really wants to stress their impact however, can we not just use the actual word “impact” without resorting to awkward adjectival distortions? As in: “The two secretaries of state with the greatest impact on foreign affairs were James Baker and Henry Kissinger.”

Thomas Friedman: you’re on notice. You’ve recouped a lot of ground with me since endorsing the Iraq war by tacitly acknowledging your error, and further with your calls for realigning the energy industry with green innovation.

But seriously, “impactful”? You watch yourself.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Wingnut roundup, Sunday edition

One of the pleasures I have had in the post-election phase is watching the conservative press in the U.S. fulminate, lather, rationalize, and generally tie themselves up in knots. Several themes have emerged:

1. Some have attempted to recast Obama’s victory as evidence that States is a “center-right” nation—some even going so far as to claim that he effectively campaigned as a “Reaganite.” This particular howler is bad enough taken on its simple merits, but somewhat more baffling when you recall that, up to and including the day of the election, these same voices were calling Obama a “socialist.” It’s amazing what 365 electoral votes can apparently do to the perception of one’s ideological tendencies—from Stalin to Reagan, all in twenty-four hours.

2. The current economic downturn has been labeled by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh as “the Obama Recession.” Yes, the President-Elect, who has held that title for not quite two weeks, is apparently responsible for our economic woes. Why? According to the Hannity/Limbaugh logic, people have lost all consumer confidence with the massive tax hikes promised by Obama looming on a horizon two months away. Which would be an interesting argument were it not for two key facts: (1) however else Fox News might spin it, Obama’s plan is for tax breaks for everyone earning under $250K, and a tax hike for those earning over that much (and, not to split hairs, but it’s not so much a tax hike as a return to pre-Bush taxation levels); (2) that very $250K+ demographic that Obama explicitly said would experience a tax increase VOTED FOR OBAMA. That’s right—exit polls indicated that those earning over two hundred thousand a year voted for Obama by a margin of 52 to 46 percent.

3. Sean Hannity in particular continues to bash away on the “how much do we really know about Obama?” theme, repeatedly citing the accusation that Obama isn’t really an American citizen, harping on the Bill Ayer connection, and making vague suggestions about the extent of his “radical associations.” Yawn.

4. Obama’s coming for your guns, America!! No less than that bastion of law, order and legality G. Gordon Liddy enjoined Americans on his radio show (yes, he has a radio show) that, during the coming Obama presidency, “The first thing you do is, no matter what law they pass, do not—repeat, not—ever register any of your firearms.” (This, mind you, was the same guy who in 1994 advised people that if the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms comes to your door, “Go for a head shot; they're going to be wearing bulletproof vests.”) Apparently, those people clinging to their guns (who may or may not also be clinging to religion) have been purchasing firearms at a greater rate than gun dealers have seen since the aftermath of September 11th.

Watch the Daily Show’s take on this here.

OK, so while items one through three are kind of funny, number four is just kind of scary. The 1990s were marked by this kind of militancy, in which paramilitary groups like the Michigan Militia prepared for the invasion of the U.S. by the U.N. and Timothy McVeigh and friends did dire things with fertilizer. The last I checked, the War on Terror was still a going concern … are we looking at the rise of domestic threats again because a more liberal administration might take the egregious step of registering guns and putting restrictions on assault rifles and grenade launchers?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Thanks for clearing that up, Scottish socks ...

If you're anything like me, the details of the recent Wall Street meltdown make you curl up in the fetal position and moan ... not so much because of the fear of economic catastrophe (I am, after all, a tenure-track professor in the one Canadian province showing economic growth and rising real estate values), but because the whole morass of misdeeds that led to this is so bizarre and opaque to my non-economically-inclined-mind that it makes me slightly seasick when I try to think through it.

Fortunately, there are those capable of explaining these things to those such as myself. I am, as always, referring to Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppets:

So there you are: the financial meltdown explained in high-pitched brogues.

And if I may briefly return to my above comment about living in the one economically sound province with rising real estate values while holding the one genuinely recession-proof job? HA!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Saturday miscellany

  • I recently discovered that Obama's new Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was the model for the character of Josh Lyman on The West Wing. That's kind of cool; what blows my mind is that his brother Ari, a talent agent in L.A., was the inspiration for the character of Ari Gold on Entourage. All of which leads me to the conclusion that you really don't want to fuck with this family.

  • And so it begins: today I went into Shopper's Drug Mart for some odds and sods, and had the pleasant experience of hearing U2 on the store soundtrack. As if to make a point to me specifically, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" was cut off before it finished to be replaced by Neil Diamond singing "The Little Drummer Boy." Seriously? Seriously ... and once again the consumerist powers that be renew their assault on my sensibilities in their yearly attempt to make me loathe Christmas before December begins.

  • I've decided to found an advocacy group for the abolition of lotteries. Not because they feed people's gambling addictions (which they do), or because low-income people spend a disproportionate amount of their wages on them as compared to high-income people (which they do), but because I invariably end up behind them in the checkout line as they have their two-dozen or so tickets checked by the clerk, and then take their sweet time deciding whether to take their meagre winnings in cash or more tickets. The madness must end! I must be allowed to buy my toothpaste with dispatch!

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Post-election musings: On the value of words

I can’t quite wipe the smile off my face.

I’ve been kicking around ideas for a couple of posts dealing with the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, but none of them are coming together. I tried to articulate one of them to my 20thC U.S. novel class, as the election is quite germane to our subject matter—we’re focusing on issues of race and identity in American fiction—but didn’t quite manage it. Perhaps I will come back to these thoughts when the dust settles a bit more.

Suffice to say however that Tuesday night was a night to remember. I had an election night party, and my living room was crammed full of people glued to the television as the returns came in. Never before have I seen, or would really have ever dreamed of seeing, such an extraordinary international response to an American election. Here we were, a group of Canadians who had watched our own recent election pass with barely a murmur, mesmerized by this spectacle and joyful at the result. The posts I had been kicking around all speculate on the reason for Obama’s extraordinary international appeal, and the passions he has managed to excite both within and without the United States. Those thoughts, still embryonic, will wait … I will keep this one personal.

I imagine it’s an occupational hazard, combined with too many viewings of The West Wing and eight years in the wilderness of Bush malapropisms, but the mere fact of an exceptionally intelligent and articulate candidate who speaks to his audience like adults was like intellectual ambrosia. Still, I was skeptical about Obama’s lack of experience, and sat the fence for the first stretch of the democratic primaries. As things progressed however, and the Obama campaign showed its true mettle against one of the most ruthless political machines this side of the Potomac, I became more and more impressed. It wasn’t just that he was articulate—it was that he was calm, cool, and utterly unflappable, and seemed genuinely to hold himself above the fray.

And then there was this:

And I was sold. The revelations of Jeremiah’s jeremiads against America should have been the end of things for Obama, and for any other candidate in a comparable position, it probably would have. Though Obama had so long succeeded in keeping the issue of race out of his campaign, the appearance of Reverend Wright’s intemperate (though for any halfway serious student of race in America, hardly surprising or exaggerated) sermons effectively made continuing in this regard impossible. So what does he do but address the issue head-on, in a speech that will one day be read alongside Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Negro is the Fourth of July?” and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” as pivotal moments of great oratory. If you haven’t already, watch the speech above or read the text of it here. It is at once honest and straightforward, and exceptionally intelligent: it threads an impossibly difficult needle and addresses an historically divisive topic in a way that respects its audience and challenges them to rise to the occasion.

I’d say that I’m a sucker for great oratory, but that would be at once understating and simplifying things for me. I am an English professor, a career choice that has not been arbitrary or accidental: it is rather one that proceeds from a deep and abiding investment in the belief that language and discourse are not only among the most powerful tools we have, but are the measure of what it means to be human—in both the positive and negative senses. Obama’s detractors have frequently attacked him for offering “mere words,” even suggesting that his eloquence and articulateness somehow disqualified from high office because they signified that he was a man of words and not action.

Perhaps it goes without saying that I consider the whole words vs. action equation something of a false dichotomy; once upon a time the advertising slogan of my alma mater, the University of Western Ontario, was “Leading. Thinking.” As one of my favourite professors there was fond of observing: haven’t they got that in the wrong order? Thought (ideally) should precede action, and, as I tell my students, unarticulated thought exists nowhere but in your own mind. The larger our shared vocabulary, the more nuanced and subtle our understanding of the world is.

On the other hand, words and action have run in opposite directions in the Bush Administration. Besides “terrorist,” “freedom” and “liberty” were among the few words Bush could reliably wrap his lips around, but he effectively emptied them of content by mouthing them endlessly while suspending habeas corpus, endorsing domestic wire-tapping, and manufacturing evidence for a fraudulent war; his fulminations against “evildoers” lost whatever traction they might have had when the photographs from Abu Gharib surfaced.

Al Gore accused the Bush Administration of waging a “war on reason”; I consider that synonymous with a war on language. To be well-spoken was to be elitist. To be articulate was to be ineffectual. To be intelligently critical was to be anti-American. When I watch or read an Obama speech, I am reminded on one of the basic tenets of my discipline: language taken in all its subtlety and nuance moves toward inclusion, to the expansion of vocabularies of understanding; language reduced, simplified, and delimited excludes and divides, and infantilizes those who use it.

George Orwell taught us that. I’d like to think he’d be wearing a smile today, too.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Causes for celebration

1. As of Monday, Newfoundland is no longer a have-not province. Ontario, on the other hand, is -- and I just want to say to all those lazy-ass financiers and bankers and hedge-fund managers in Toronto that I am sick of having my tax dollars siphoned off to support their lives of indolence

2. On the upside, now that Ontario is a have-not province, experts predict that Ontarians will become folksier, friendlier, and funnier

3. There was something else ... something else to celebrate. I can't quite think of what it is ...

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election day musings

On the day of the most momentous and pivotal U.S. election in recent memory, I ponder the question undoubtedly on everyone’s mind: I wonder if Bill Kristol ever gets tired of being wrong.

There are a handful of thoughtful and intelligent conservative writers and commentators I regularly read because it makes little sense to only ever read the stuff you know you already agree with; to paraphrase Slavoj Zizek, it is far more intellectually productive for left-leaning thinkers to argue with smart conservatives than to agree with mediocre liberals.

William Kristol—NY Times columnist, founder and editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard, chairman of the Project for the New American Century, and general all-around neoconservative mouthpiece—is not one of them. I do eagerly await his Monday column, because it so frequently offers the kind of laugh that goes well with coffee in waking me up to a new week. I usually follow that up with dropping into Andrew Loman’s office to ask, “Hey, did you read Kristol this morning?” … and the hilarity continues.

Hilarity tempered with disgust and irritation, mind you, as Kristol is celebrated as a bastion of the intellectual right and has possessed in the past a very influential voice within the neoconservative movement. Except that he has effectively been wrong about everything. Not just most things: everything.

He said, for example, at the beginning of October that Obama could be beaten if the McCain campaign would “take the gloves off” and let Sarah Palin go after Obama about William Ayers. And she did … and we saw just how well that worked. Just a week later, Kristol was opining that McCain should “fire his campaign” and go back to being himself, eschewing the kind of Rovian tactics he was advocating in the previous column.

Back during the Democratic Primaries, he characterized the unguarded moment when Hilary Clinton teared up as “manipulative,” and suggested it was the reason she won New Hampshire; speaking of the constituency of women voters, he said “White women are a problem, that's, you know—we all live with that.” After McCain tapped Sarah Palin as his running mate—a choice he celebrated unequivocally—he then turned around and blasted criticism of her as “sexism.”

He has been one of the most indefatigable champions of the war in Iraq, of the Patriot Act, and of all of the mutable rationales offered for invading Iraq in the first place; he was among those predicting that it would be a cakewalk, that those calling for higher troop numbers were alarmists, that the American soldiers would be treated as liberators. His support of the Iraq war is perhaps unsurprising, considering that the Project for the New American Century (a collective including such signatories as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld) was calling for the invasion of Iraq when it was first founded in 1998.

So it was with a feeling of dread that I read the first sentence of his column yesterday: “Barack Obama will probably win the 2008 presidential election.” Uh-oh. I suppose I can balance that dread with the memory of all his “advice” to McCain/Palin over the last few months, and how all that has panned out. Fortunately, in the sentences following this pronouncement, dear Bill provided me with his trademark comedy: “If he does, we conservatives will greet the news with our usual resolute stoicism or cheerful fatalism. Being conservative means never being too surprised by disappointment.”

Oh, where to even begin … “resolute stoicism”? “cheerful fatalism”? Methinks my friend Bill hasn’t been introduced to Sean Hannity and Anne Coulter—though as a regular contributor on Fox News, I don’t entirely know how he’s avoided this. He’s apparently (lucky for him) never heard Rush Limbaugh in full swing, and I guess he must have been backpacking in Nepal or something during Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings, and thus missed conservatives’ progressively more vitriolic attacks in print and on air. And he evidently hasn’t been reading the back-and-forthing on political blogs over the last few months.

And besides the glaring fact of the historic awfulness of the Bush Administration, exactly what “disappointments” have Republicans had to deal with over the last eight years? I suppose the 2006 midterms count … but other than that, a lock on two branches of government and some serious inroads into the third doesn’t seem like something to make Republicans need to blink back tears. If Obama wins tonight, I look forward to seeing just how “stoic” and “cheerful” the American Right is over the next eight years.

With the increasingly partisan temperament of U.S. politics over the last ten-fifteen years, an increasingly toxic national discourse polarizing the ends of the political spectrum and the ascendancy of Rovian campaign tactics to the national norm, there’s only one person I can point to who possesses “resolute stoicism” in the midst of the maelstrom—and he’s the guy I hope and pray to see some time late tonight passing 270 electoral votes.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Rest in peace, my beautiful penguin

Well, it has finally happened ... Berkeley Breathed, creator of the magnificent Bloom County cartoon, has laid to rest Opus the Penguin.

After three incarnations, in Bloom Country, Outland and finall the eponymous Opus, my favourite penguin is going gently into that good night. Breathed has said that he wants to spare his most famous and well-loved creation from the current toxic political climate: "I'm destroying the village to save it. In this case, a penguin," Breathed wrote. "We are about to enter a rather wicked period in our National Discourse ... bad enough to make what we're in right now seem folksy and genteel. The ranting side of my cartooning impulse will destroy the thing that makes Opus comfortable for his readers. And me."

I only learned of Opus' impending demise a few weeks ago when my friend Jen blogged about it ... having been interned as an illegal alien by Homeland Security and then transferred to an animal shelter, Opus has retold the highlights of his life over the past few weeks (with some Sarah Palin episodes we oddly never knew about prior to now); and yesterday, Steve Dallas had the honour of discovering Opus' paradise.

It made me weepy. Goodbye Opus ... we hardly knew ye ...

None dare call it socialism

There were a few Halloween-themed editorial cartoons this past Friday, depicting Barack Obama taking away candy from some children and giving it to those who haven’t worked as hard at their trick-or-treating. Cute. Sort of funny too, but typically wrong-headed. The McCain campaign and conservative punditocracy have been beating the drum labelled “Socialism!” pretty heavily since the whole Joe the Plumber silliness, and will undoubtedly continue on unabated until polls close on Tuesday night. This much is to be expected during campaign season I suppose, but the refrain of “redistribution of wealth” is so disingenuous as to border on being frankly dishonest.

Why? Mainly, because redistribution of wealth is government’s primary job, whether it be FDR-style New Deal big government or the small-enough-to-drown-in-a-bathtub fantasy of Grover Norquist. But there is something more insidious when “spreading the wealth” is framed in the derisive tones of a Sarah Palin or a Sean Hannity, for it is invariably citing welfare—the spectre of having your hard-earned money taken away and given to some stoned slacker eating nachos on the couch, or an unwed mother who has children solely for the extra money it adds to the welfare check. These stereotypes have been repeated so often in the past that they don’t even need to be explicitly drawn.

What baffles me is that this supposed entitlement of the poor is more certain to get people’s hackles up that the entitlement of the wealthy. Why is it preferable to certain sectors of the American Right that the $700B bailout not purchase American taxpayers a stake in the banks they’re saving? Why is it preferable that these banks have complete autonomy over the money they’re given (as was Henry Paulson’s original demand)? The answer of course is that the former constitutes “socializing” the banks; any government incursion in the private sector is an impingement on freedom, never mind that when FDR made a comparable move in the Great Depression, the American people saw a return on that money.

The first version of the bailout failed in part because there remains a stolid core of free-market fundamentalists among U.S. legislators, who see any form of government assistance—much less assistance that would purchase a stake in private enterprise—as the leading edge of socialism. The $700B figure is serendipitous however, for the fact of the matter is that there is a massive sector of the U.S. economy already socialized to a tune just shy of $700B annually.

Defence spending in the United States accounts for, depending on how you read the numbers, 20-40% of the annual U.S. budget, and the total amount spent each year is equal to the defence budgets of the rest of the world combined. This however seems to have escaped notice in the current campaign silliness, that a whole host of research, development and production companies and corporations are largely or wholly subsidized by tax dollars. Vast numbers of people are reliant on government support: just see how quickly Congressman X loses his seat if he lets a military base in his district get closed down; see how secure Senator Y becomes when she lands a plum DOD contract for industry in her state. Three million people are employed by the Department of Defence; even more by corporations like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, or Kellog, Brown & Root, all of whom receive billions in defence contracts every year. The economic presence of the military, as Eisenhower noted in his farewell address, “the total influence—economic, political, even spiritual – is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government.” Eisenhower then went on to make his famous warning against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

Re-reading those words today sort of feels like closing the barn door, so to speak. As Chalmers Johnson, writing for Harper’s in autumn 2003, observes: “munitions making and war profiteering have supplanted the energy and telecommunications deals pioneered by Enron and WorldCom in the 1990s as the most efficient means for well-connected capitalists to engorge themselves at the public trough. To call these companies ‘private,’ though, is mere ideology. Munitions making in the United States today is not really private enterprise. It is state socialism.” The ongoing debacle in Iraq has only magnified this reality: a deadly quagmire for U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians, but a no-holds-barred capitalist playground for companies and corporations in a position to receive government contracts, often without having the bid for them, and usually with little or no government oversight—the result being billions given to companies like the notorious Haliburton, with very little to show for it in the end aside from a very well-equipped Green Zone.

I don’t write this post as a polemic against US military spending, but to try and explode the egregiousness of the whole “socialism” accusation. A good hypothetical litmus test for free-market economy is to eliminate government spending and realistically speculate on what would happen. Would the economy chug cheerfully along? I’m not an economist, but it seems pretty clear that the recent Wall Street collapse would be a minor blip compared to what would happen if the military-industrial complex suddenly found itself without its $600B dollars in annual taxpayer money.

A possible counter-argument here is that I’m talking apples and oranges—that military spending (unlike, say, health care or social security) is an absolute necessity, and that we cannot talk of national security in terms comparable to banking, investment, or the auto industry. I do not agree with this assessment, however, for the simple reason that there is more to national security than being able to drop bombs or fire missiles (especially when the principal threat currently posed is not by conventional armies or nation-states). “Security” is itself a complex of factors, bound up in a nation’s level of education and literacy, its physical and economic health, and its confidence in itself as a nation. The already-cited fact that U.S. defence spending equals that of the rest of the world combined is something we often hear, but it never fails to shock and appal. Why that kind of government spending is utterly acceptable while universal health care is considered the vanguard of a communist revolution (as Ronald Reagan characterized Medicare) by a certain segment of the U.S. population frankly escapes me.

So let’s all take a deep-knee bend and ratchet down the whole “socialism” thing, OK? Or at the very least approach the term with a little more nuance. Which is all very much like crying out in the wilderness during campaign season, I realize, but a boy can dream.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Lazy Saturday: Fantasy Football Shakespeare, the Henry IV Edition

I recently reconnected with an old friend on Facebook, and last night had a great online discussion. Jan Weir is a friend from back in the Western days, and we know each other through the theatre scene there—first being in a production of Measure for Measure together, and then playing key roles in the first two plays I directed, Richard in Richard III and the Player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Jan is an extraordinary actor who pays extraordinary attention to detail, is never satisfied with his performance and tends a little toward the method school. Which makes him a serious pain in the ass to direct, but capable of transcendent moments.

At any rate, our discussion yesterday made me nostalgic for my forays into directing at Western, and reminded me that it has been five years since last I wore that particular hat—Macbeth in autumn of 2003.

I had submitted a proposal for the UWO English Department’s annual outdoor Summer Shakespeare for 2005, in the hopes of having a nice swan song with which to round out my final summer in London before moving to the Rock. Alas, it was not to be: the drama committee decided to go with Twelfth Night, on the basis that it would be a more “summery” play than my own pick.

That still smarts a little. My pick? I wanted to take a page from the divine Orson’s playbook and condense both parts of Henry IV into a single two and a half hour production. Welles did this is his extraordinary film Chimes at Midnight, and while there would be a certain temptation to make this production an homage to The Man Himself—right down to using his screenplay—I had some other ideas. Namely, I wanted to make this a play about the writing of history, about what makes it into the books and what does not. The character of Falstaff, who is arguably one of the most brilliant of Shakespeare’s creations, was something he created whole cloth ... the “court” scenes of the play all more or less follow the historical record as put down by Raphael Holinshed, but the scenes at the tavern, where young Prince Hal indulges in a sentimental education of debauchery and crime, are entirely fabricated.

The play would be performed in a galley stage, with the court scenes unfolding at one end (where the throne is) and the tavern scenes at the other. Center stage will be a lectern with a large folio on it. The actors will have minimal costuming: they will all wear basically the same nondescript base outfit, and add to it pieces of costuming that will signify their characters (hats, swords, cloaks, etc.). There will be some doubling of characters, but this will be done in a self-conscious manner. In fact, much of the show, from the costuming perspective at least, will be very meta. We’re not looking for naturalism or verisimilitude here.

This version of the play introduces a new character: Raphael Holinshed, the historian, who will at intervals read the relevant sections from his history (which is of course the handsome folio sitting on the lectern center stage). In the second act, which is the second part of Henry IV, his role as voice of authority is contested by “Rumour,” an allegorical figure in the original play.

Given that this is a time of year given over to such pursuits as fantasy football leagues, I thought I’d offer the latte-sucking, chardonnay-swilling liberal elite version: Fantasy Shakespeare! I will not however (at least not for this one) draw my dream cast from the ranks of Hollywood or the RSC, but from the ranks of those I have worked with in the past. Hence, this blog post will mean a great deal to certain people, and next to nothing to those I’ve never met. Consider it my homage to the extraordinary people I’ve had the good fortune to work with over the years.



Raphael Holinshed: Jeremy Worth
Jer’s really the first and last choice for this role, and I had been planning to do everything necessary to get him to play it had the drama committee opted for my proposal. Kidnapping, bribery, blackmail: the slight man with the megaton North London timbre in his voice, who was a haunting and tragic Clarence for me in Richard III was going to play this role come hell or high water.

King Henry IV: Allan Pero
Allan is a professor in UWO’s English department, and not someone I’d had the good fortune to work with. He is however quite possibly the most dramatic professor I know, known to burst into song at times during lectures. Another one of the original casting choices for this play.

Prince Hal: Jan Weir
First we take the crown, and then we take Agincourt: I’d pretty much have to do Henry V after giving Jan a taste of Shakespeare’s lovely truant prince.

Sir Walter Blunt: Shaun Campbell
Shaun played a Blunt for me in Richard III—typecasting? Not at all. Except that he’s a good fellow to have around when you need someone who can play a character with the strong silent type thing.


Earl of Northumberland: Ed King
Would that Ed could have been my Macbeth, but by that point he was in the four winds. Ed played Buckingham in Richard III, bringing a slick and oily charm to the role of Richard’s fixer. Someone I have unfortunately lost touch with—should you happen across this blog post, Ed, drop me an email.

Hotspur: Sean Mulligan
I love the character of Hotspur: he is such a fantastic parody of the Marlovian hero, especially in his first speech where he describes in hyperbolic terms his duel with the Welsh Glendower. I would have one direction for Sean: Hotspur is a Klingon—go. Sean went from being the Lord Mayor in Richard III to Claudius in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to Banquo in Macbeth (oh, and I think he might have played some roles in plays I didn’t direct). He is also a fight choreographer par excellence, and would be given free reign over the battle sequences.

Lady Percy: Caitlin Murphy
I’ve never directed Caitlin, but have seen her act on numerous occasions. An exceptionally talented actor and writer. Also, a very good friend I don’t talk to nearly enough.

Edmund Mortimer: Holm Bradwell
Actor-wise, Holm has been one of my constants: Rivers in Richard III, Hamlet in R&G, Snobby Price in Major Barbara, and MacDuff in Macbeth. I took a chance on him for Rivers because he had a lovely, handsome insouciance, and have never been disappointed all the way along.

Worcester: Gregg Taylor
A good friend I first met while playing a tiny role in Julius Caesar, Gregg is an exceptionally talent writer, actor and director ... as evidenced by his two ongoing radio-show series from his company Decoder Ring Theatre. Seriously: check them out. Anyway, given the logistics of geography, it is highly unlikely that I’ll ever have a chance to direct Gregg in anything ... and that makes me sad. I do hope one day to visit the Decoder Ring Mansion and reprise my role as Father Mike in The Adventures of the Red Panda.

Owen Glendower: Mike McIntyre
Mike was Ratcliff in Richard III and Lennox in Macbeth ... and in the latter case, I kick myself for not trusting him with the title role, dammit. Mike is a dream to work with: thoughtful (in every sense of the word), intelligent, and about the best physical actor I’ve ever worked with. The man moves like a frickin’ cat in fight scenes. A great actor when it comes to minutiae: during rehearsals for Macbeth, he became the model for the rest of the cast for how to wear your kilt. Seriously.

The Douglas: Scott Brubacher
A fine actor, frighteningly talented composer and all around lovely fellow, Scott played Angus in Macbeth as a serious and dignified druid. We’ll give him more warlike chops in this go around.


Falstaff: Serge Saika-Voivod
Also someone I was plotting by nefarious means to get into this role. Serge masterfully played the amoral arms manufacturer Andrew Undershaft for me in Major Barbara in fall 2002; he was, like Jer, the first and last choice for me on this one.

Mistress Quickly: Jo Devereux
Gertrude in R&G, and a magnificent turn as Lady Macbeth make me happy to have Jo in any play I do ... though I still haven’t quite forgiven her for passing on playing Lady Britomart for me in Major Barbara.

Doll Tearsheet: Brandy Ryan
Brandy played the assassin Tyrell in Richard III -- played her as a beautiful, deadly, and cold (though not too cold, as the murder of the prince showed) femme fatale. Still one of my favourite roles in plays I've directed.

Bardolph: Deane Billington-Whitely
Along with Holm, Deane has been one of my actorly constants: Henry VI in Richard III, Rosencrantz in R&G, Adolphus in Major Barbara, and the Porter in Macbeth. A shame we’ll have to hang him when we do Henry V.

Poins: Andrew Patterson
Andrew was my Polonius in R&G, and is besides that one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Put him and Deane together in a room, add beer, and you’ll never need cable TV again. The world waits with bated breath for him to finish writing A-Team: The Musical.

Peto: Jordan Matteis
Add Jordan to the above mix, and we’re off to the races. This is my “Tavern Dream Team” right here. Jordan was Laertes for me in R & G, and obligingly took on a very small role in Major Barbara when I should have trusted him with one of the leads. I made up for that a little by making him Malcolm in Macbeth, a role he played beautifully.

Gadshill: Ian Brooks
Ian has been masterful for me twice: first as a very inexperienced and hapless Richmond in Richard III, and then as a chilling and dangerous Menteith in Macbeth (Menteith, usually a nonentity in that play, Ian and I reinvented as Macbeth’s assassin—so he takes out Banquo, kills MacDuff’s family, and in a moment I still love to remember, turns on his people and pretends to be one of Malcolm’s men at the very end). We’ll let him rediscover his talent for comedy as part of the Tavern Dream Team.

Pistol: Sean Mulligan, redux
Here’s the one pointed piece of doubling I will do ... in addition to the high seriousness of Sean’s Banquo (played with a lovely quiet dignity), he showed what a childhood spent watching bricoms can do when he played Dogberry in one of those plays I didn’t direct (Much Ado, directed, incidentally, by Holm). Inspired lunacy, it was.


Stage Manager: Tigger Jourard
Who else? Tigger’s been with me on every show, and is the yin to my yang, the Jekyll to my Hyde, the Edge to my Bono. I want to bottle her quiet authority and sell it.

Assistant Stage Manager: Diane Piccito
Partly because she is so very very good at the job, but mostly to watch her get drunk on sangria at the cast party.

Costumes: Amanda Gauthier
Oh Amanda, how do I love thy presence on my crew? Watching Amanda deal with actors and their various little preening obsessions is pure entertainment value. The best time was when we did our first full-costume run of Richard III, and our actors became a little too fond of the WWI uniforms they donned.

Well, there you have it – I have unfortunately left many people out, in particular some of the amazing women I’ve worked with (H4 is kind of light on the women’s roles, alas). My apologies for this to Brigid Aiken, Christina Marchetti, Gillian Wilson, Susan McDonald, Gwyneth Barrett, Tiffany Koch, Natasha Harwood, Erin Robb, Julie-Ann Stodolny, Laura Higgs and Bethany Cairns (wow, that’s a long list) and all the people (men and women) who I’m inevitably forgetting ...

So, if my dream cast would like to pull up stakes and relocate for three months (two months rehearsal, one month production run) and come out to St. John’s at your own expense, I will see into getting the proper theatre space.