Asian-American Forum
Fall 2009 Issue no. 3

The Quest for Identity - The Fall of Naught

When the quest for identity is juxtaposed against the smug pedagogist or the crusty knight, what is the result? An imprisoned author, Cervantes, scribbling by the light of a candle, produced Don Quixote, about a madman who becomes enlightened by the end of his long journey. How often are we, as teachers, encouraged to manage classroom dialogue without, as Alfie Kohn brings up in his essay, "Challenging Students...And How to Have More of Them," truly providing students the self-satisfaction of constructivism? How often do we, as Plato brings up in Phaedrus, allow the dark wild horse within us to lead us towards perdition?

Every endeavor is covered by some fault, just as fire is covered by smoke. Therefore one should not give up the work born of his nature, O son of Kunti, even if such work is full of fault. (Bhagavad-Gita, 18.48)

We can only be whole if we accept that the benefit of fire comes with smoke; pedagogy is combined with humility; power includes wisdom; these paradoxes are ones relived each dawn.

Theatre Review - King Lear at Harman Hall

This remake of Shakespeare's King Lear by celebrated director Robert Falls takes us to the very edge with a boldly unconventional reproduction  As the story goes, Lear (Stacy Keach), an aging king, decides to abdicate his kingdom by dividing it among his three daughters. While daughters Goneril (Kim Martin-Cotten) and Regan (Kate Harrington) make speeches that win their father's affection, Cordelia's (Laura Odeh) unpolished rhetoric strikes her father's rage, and Cordelia and the Duke of Kent (Steve Pickering) are banned. Soon enough, the King discovers his mistake when Regan and Goneril refuse to provide for his retinue. Outraged by their mistreatment, on a dark and story night, he wanders off the Duke's estate, and not coincidentally loses his sanity.   

            What makes this production jolting is its effective translation from seventeenth century settings into twentieth century ones. Act 1 Scene 1 opens with the stage partitioned into men's lavatories and a plush Serbian style blowout. Act 2's scenes include a Mercedes automobile driven onto the stage. Act 2 Scene 7 includes a thirty foot long chef's stainless steel grill. In Acts 3 and 4, the heath is a descent into the urban ghettos with its Ellison-style cluttered basements and plastic garbage bags. Act 5 includes scenes from the camp with its body-snatcher morbidity, and an electrifying bright club room.

            Nothing is taken for granted. Scene changes are anything if anticlimactic. Panels slide swiftly by on coasters, smoke pours from nozzles, garbage is dumped from catwalks in dark plastic bags, the hood of a car is poised upended and bullet-grazed. The King's men are dressed in Soviet-style SWAT uniforms replete with gas shields. The Duke's men are represented as punk-styled thugs with razor style haircuts or suited mafiosos, and handling weapons such as handguns, machine guns, brass knuckles, and knives. I could not watch when the Duke of Cornwall (Chris Genebach) plucked out Gloucester's (Edward Gero) eyes, nor were the scenes of the King, raging and ranting in streaming psychobabble easy to listen to, even if not a word strayed from Shakespeare's original mixture.

            Obviously the director's intent is to hijack the audience's descent with Lear into the heart of madness; no sooner are our eyes acclimated to Lear literally stripping off his clothes, then we are subjects of his new kingdom, one in which he has become nothing more than a homeless man pushing his streetcart filled with the day's pickings. Juxtapose this subterranean world against the opulent but sleazy penthouse lifestyles of Goneril and Regan, and one is challenged to question whose lives are filthier, whose minds are more shallow, whose psyche is more bereft of sanity, because in this topsy-turvy world,  Lear and his small group of misfits are more reminiscent of noble, if lacklustre savages.

            This strikes at the theme of Shakespeare's play, which is that of an individual's changing place in existential society and the world at large. Lear's hamartia appears self-wrought, at least according to the old Fool (Howard Witt); nevertheless, we are challenged to question whether Lear's madness is merely the failure to adapt to a fast-paced world. In Western society, the transposition of external for internal confirmations of self ironically precedes midlife identity crisis; success, wealth, fame, and fortune, Shakespeare suggests, do blind us to our deeper selves and their extenuations. The producer brings this sharply into play through the wanton sexual dalliances of Goneril and Regan. Their supremely well-acted one-dimensionality is suggestive of Lear himself, in the form of shadow figures, his anima and animus by extension. 

            Interpreted in this way, it makes sense that the producer wants to do more than merely present; he also forcibly transports us into the universal human psyche, for what are females if not archetypes of human Desire, representations in the flesh of man's most unconscious inhibitions? Martin-Cotten uses her throaty voice and physicality to convince us that she is power-hungry Gaia herself, audaciously preparing plans for taking over the kingdom. Regan, as depicted by the foxy Arrington, is depicted full of her character's incorrigible qualities, not the least of which includes a nymphomaniacal obsession for Edmund. Edmund (Jonno Roberts) superbly epitemizes the false consciouness of the gangster-bad oligarchy. He is like the id beneath searing stage lights, vulgar neon, and the manifold flashy accoutrements of success. Similiar to Iago in Othello, he is the suave sociopath, whose only purpose purports to rise in wealth and social station, but swayed by his own successes, is goaded into such godlike arrogance that he, too, is mortally blinded to the rash whims of Fate.

            The production in its entirety was excellently if breathlessly staged. For me, it was akin to riding an emotional rollercoaster because tucked within scenes of traumatic pathos were inlaid farce, dancing, and rhythm. In fact, at no time was the audience completely abandoned to the dregs of unhappiness, for from the Duke of Albany's (Andrew Long) helplessness to the disposing of the war-dead, there was frequently detectable levity in movements, posture, and facial expressions. No playgoer, however, can really emerge from this performance intact; as for myself, I definitely felt a bit dazed from sensory overload as I left the Sidney Harman Hall later that evening. No live production has so well contextualized King Lear with respect to this ever-changing world.

            The genius of this multisensory kaleidoscope lies in its power to collectively transport us from the past into tommorrow through the powerful acting of Stacy Keach; if Lear, at the pinnacle of his kingly powers in Act 1 Scene 1, can fall to such low abysses of chaos and sorrow by Act 3, what can we, as subjects, expect out from our own more humble lives? Thus, the ghettos represent Lear's -- and by extenuation our society's -- unconsciousness reified. Here are the waxshop horrors of misfortune, poverty, age, and infirmaties of all varieties. Here rests the detritus of cares carelessly and conveniently swept under the lush carpets of the fancy boardrooms in which ego rules, or those laid beneath the sofas where id reclines luxuriously with her lovers; until one day a cataclysmic event wrought by our own excesses forces all the monsters out from beneath us -- and wherever else we may have hid them. Unlike comedy, in which youthful hopes reach dizzily and finally achieve flowering rennaissance, tragedy is its utmost antithesis; there is nothing but descent and defragmentation throughout, from its foreshadowing when the dead stag is laid out on the table to the final Act, when Lear lays Cordelia's (Laura Odeh) bruised and naked corpse to rest on the table. Even while we are prodded into challenging double standards and social labels, we can try to change our own hubris, as we mind Lear's satiric words:

 

                  Alack, alack the day!

                  When we are born, we cry that we are come

                  To this great stage of fools... (iv.vi.188-190)

 

Otherwise our ending, spoken here by Edgar (Joaquin Torres), presages anarchy's nihilism:

 

                  The weight of this sad time we must obey:

                  Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

                  The oldest hath born most: we that are young

                  Shall never see so much, nor live so long.  (v.iii.323-328)

 

 

Addendum - Reflection

            Some of my thoughts after attending this play include its transformative power; I could not help but reflect on periods of moral weakness in my life - certainly, no person, not even poor Tom, is immune to the temptations of the flesh, of amoralism. But the fact is, vices creep out insidiously and unbidden. For example, after leaving the Hall this evening, I took the wrong train, but by the time I discovered it, the Metro was closing, so I had to take a taxi. Another passenger, who seemed to have also missed his train, and I flagged down a taxi and boarded with the understanding that we would be charged separately, even though we requested to split the fare. Neither of us seemed to think it out of place to dicker with the taxi driver about our charges. My fellow passenger  tormented the taxi driver with questions about job safety and murderous passengers. Later, after that passenger exited, I remonstrated about the separate fares, but the taxi driver began to rail at me in broken English, never stopping until he let me off in front of the bank machine. I was so angry when I got out of the taxi and he followed me to the cash machine, evidently so I would not run away! Silently cursing, I received my bills. As he stood there in the dark, I told him he need not have railed at me; I only wanted to be let off at my destination. He seemed not to understand what a sad figure he cut, with his shoulders pulled down, and lines of worry on his long face; surely he was one of the few Eastern European immigrants who dared run a taxi all night in DC. That moment, as I handed him the fare, I realized he could have been the Fool, and me, the tyrannical Lear. I realized how I let a misunderstanding and greed for savings cloud more humane concerns regarding this poor man's anxiety and well-being. We should have switched roles. I should have let him drive me all the way home. 

 

- Reviewed by Christine Han Kroll, July 2009, Copyright 2009

Creative Writing


Mr. Teacher Lost It

by Anonymous

So I get on the Metrobus and there is this dusty looking fellow in a nondescript black blazer, trousers and open neck shirt. He could be mistaken for anything. He wears no ring on his left hand. A very plain black fellow.

Another man boards the bus at Dupont Circle. He looks like one of them, you know, the guys who can afford to play chess all day at the park. He is skinny, wearing a faded white polo shirt and carrying a non-descript cloth bag that could be mistaken for a trash bag.

The two black men, who knew each other from somewhere, began exchanging pleasantries.

"So what you doing now?"

"Teaching. It's not much, but it's something."

"How'd you get into that?" asks the skinny guy.

"Oh, I just asked around. Been teaching for nine years. It's a lot of work. Wears you down."

"Really. I wish I could do that."

"Well it takes a lot of patience."

"Do you give English lessons, tutoring? Can I take lessons from you?"

"Sure. I charge thirty dollars an hour. Thirty is my normal rate. But for you, I'll make it twenty."

"Can you give me your card?"

"I don't have one right now."

"Can I give you my name and address?"

"Sure, let me find something for you to write it down on..."

I couldn't figure why the poor skinny bastard would want to take tutoring lessons and pay twenty dollars an hour for it. For sure he had no such extra money to spend. Was it a way of seeming to want to try to survive?

It seemed as if Mr. Teacher didn't get it. He only wanted to discuss teaching in terms of charging tuition to a poor, obviously homeless-looking fellow. Skinny's objective was "the secret to getting some of that special pie," a teaching job. Mr. Teacher was only interested in greenbacks. He didn't understand the subtext of Skinny's words. He mistook Skinny's act for the literal. He only heard Skinny's words without listening for the intent, seeing his person, feeling his pathos. Was that what teaching had done to him? Desensitized him to the essence of becoming? Had he attended one too many meetings? Learned that pedagogy was really only about politicking?

 If I were Mr. Teacher, certainly I could have offered Skinny some free supportive advice, beginning with, "I'd like to hear more about what you been up to."

On the other hand, maybe Mr. Teacher did get it, and Skinny was jotting down his name and number down because he knew that later, when they got together, Mr. Teacher would be full of warmth and advice and not charge a single dime. Instead, Mr. Teacher would offer him directions about where to find jobs. It was undoubtably a signifying act.

Characters and events are fictitious and serve thematic purposes only.

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