Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ready for Some Football

"That time of year thou mayest … me behold” [Sonnet 73] spending an inordinate number of hours on the couch yelling intermittingly at the TV.  My illicit affection for a particularly gladiatorial sport that now practically defines what fall means in America dates back to childhood when, during tomboy years, I loved few things more than rushing quarterbacks in a pick-up game of tackle football at the daycare center or the courtyard of some kid’s apartment complex; I cherished the bruises and grass stains and rips in my jeans that I acquired as little badges of courage. 

Some who know me well have trouble seeing how this secret predilection of mine fits with other things they know about me, such as the more cerebral preferences suggested by this blawg and political sensibilities that tend thematically toward peace, love, and understanding.  After all, football is a (barely) sublimated glorification of war.  All sports are really.  But football makes the metaphor impossible to miss.  It is, after all, about conquering territory by overcoming a defensive line while brutes threaten to drag the standard bearer down to the field with bone-rattling blows, virtually guaranteed to cause injury, so that, despite the vigilance of bulky guards, simply crossing the line of scrimmage is a struggle.
But unlike war, with football and other sports, there are clear rules and referees.  There are predictable ways to assess winners and losers.  And while casualties certainly occur with every play in football, they are not the principal objective (unless you play defense for the New Orleans Saints).

Litigation is more like football than war in that adversaries engage in combat but are tethered by rules and refs.  Litigation is more like war than football in that what it means to “win” can be rather ambiguous and fluid.  With legal disputes that turn into litigation and make it all the way to trial, winning can sometimes feel like losing—because the victory may ultimately be outweighed by the opportunity costs (not to mention the actual costs).  Likewise, losing can sometimes feel like winning because, over the course of a hard-fought legal battle, having that elusive day in court and then getting some finality can be enough to prompt the healing process at last.  Weirder still, the aspects of litigation that are more like football than war—the rules and the refs—are precisely the part of the process that laypeople can find exasperating.  This is probably because, unlike the rules of football, most Americans are not weaned on the rules of procedure and the rules of evidence and so do not understand the massive amounts of discretion that the refs (aka trial judges) have in overseeing how the game is played.  In other words, the aspects of litigation that seem more like football are actually far more complex and nuanced than those governing football.  And when something we don’t understand seems superficially analogous to something familiar and then the analogy breaks down, this can, perhaps, breed more consternation than feelings of total incomprehension.  A paradox, indeed.
Shakespeare, of course, had nothing to say about football.  And I do not see much in his work to suggest that he was much of a sports fan.  He used “sport” as a pejorative term to refer to something pleasurable but mildly sadistic.  See, e.g.:  “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”  [King Lear, IV.1]; or this from the Princess in Love’s Labour’s Lost, as she embraces a plan whereby the girls intend to humiliate the boys, who have shunned the girls’ company:  

There's no such sport as sport by sport o'erthrown,
To make theirs ours and ours none but our own:
So shall we stay, mocking intended game,
And they, well mock'd, depart away with shame.

 Yet Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, like all Elizabethan theaters, was not just a venue for theatrical productions.  These venues housed bear-baiting competitions and other decidedly visceral sporting events on alternate days with productions of Hamlet, sort of like the Erwin Center in Austin houses both UT basketball games and Lady Gaga concerts.  So you would think that WS would have seen sports fanaticism as symbiotic with theater patronage and thus a good thing. 

But maybe there was resentment, a sense that hosting these more primal diversions was a necessary evil to help underwrite more lofty recreation, but not something worth celebrating in and of itself.

In any case, based on the scant evidence, I conclude that Shakespeare may not have shared my affection for football—or for the game of litigation.  He would, however, have understood my ambivalence about these things because of their similarity with warfare, a phenomenon that he occasionally celebrated (Henry V) but more often exposed as a highly destructive impulse and breeding ground for unhealthy ambitions (Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, etc., etc., etc.).  Then again, maybe he could have been convinced that both football and litigation are actually good things precisely because they are substitutes for war and thus earmarks of civilization. . . .

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Take a Seat

In 1957 Thorton Wilder, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist and playwright, wrote a preface for a collection of the three most famous plays we had authored twenty years earlier.  In this preface, he explains how he went from despairing about the theater’s irrelevance to feeling that it still had the potential to be humanity’s highest art form.  One reason he offered for his sense that theater had become an “inconsequential diversion” was the way it had been crammed into a gilded box—where the main attraction was the sets, costumes, and special effects (not to mention the fashions of the bourgeois patrons sitting silently back in the dark).  He opted to strip all of that away, starting with the furniture.  No sets for him—except for a few non-descript chairs.  After all, he explains, “Have you ever noticed that in the plays of Shakespeare no one—except occasionally a ruler—ever sits down?”

That got me thinking.  Elizabethan theater, like Greek theater, certainly did not involve much in the way of set pieces.  And Shakespeare does seem to have been quite aware of how much you can say simply by having someone sit or even lie down while others stand.  For instance, one of his funniest “low” scenes begins with the low-life Caliban (of The Tempest) throwing himself on the ground at the approach of a shipwrecked sailor, Trinculo, whom Caliban mistakenly thinks is a spirit conjured up by his angry boss, Prospero:
Lo, now, lo! Here comes a spirit of his, to torment me
For bringing wood in slowly. I'll fall flat;
Perchance he will not mind me.
Stumbling upon the prostrate Caliban, Trinculo marvels at the strange specimen’s stinkiness.  But when a storm suddenly appears, Trinculo decides his best bet is to creep under the stinky creature’s garments down there on the ground, thereby giving birth to one of the English language’s great metaphoric expressions:
Alas, the storm is come again! my best way is to creep under his gaberdine; there is no other shelter hereabouts: misery acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows. I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past.

Then I thought about the pivotal scene in Hamlet involving the play-within-a-play.  For that event, the fake royals—the actors playing a king and a queen—are elevated on a platform; the real royals are seated so that they can see and be seen; and Hamlet plops down on the ground, in a manner that simulataneously succeeds in insulting both his mother, Queen Gertrude, and his girlfriend Ophelia:
Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me.

No, good mother, here's metal more attractive.

[To KING CLAUDIUS] O, ho! do you mark that?
Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

[Lying down at OPHELIA's feet]

No, my lord.

I mean, my head upon your lap?

Ay, my lord.

Do you think I meant country matters?

I think nothing, my lord.

That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs.

What is, my lord?


You are merry, my lord.

Who, I?

Ay, my lord.

O God, your only jig-maker. What should a man do but be merry? for, look you, how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within these two hours.

Hamlet is “merry,” in an unhinged way. Because he is the one orchestrating the evening’s entertainment, whereby he hopes to expose the King, his uncle, as a murdering bastard.  To underscore just how upside down Hamlet’s world has become, how precarious his mental state is, Shakespeare puts the high-born Hamlet down on the ground.
That observation got me thinking about how seating arrangements convey information in a different theatrical arena: in the courtroom.
When judges or justices enter, everyone stands up.  When the people in black robes sit, they are stationed at the highest level up there on "the bench."
The next level down is the witness "box."  When it is occupied, all eyes are fixed there, working to ferret out the truth.
Slightly lower down but near all the action sits the court reporter, charged with the crucial task of capturing the official version of what transpires.
Then one finds the jurors in their "box," which is off to one side but usually raised slightly off the floor.  The jurors may not be as high as the judge, but when they make their entrances and exits, everyone stands.
Meanwhile, the stiff, pew-like rows in the back are reserved for the public.  Their configuration suggests the role those occupying these seats are supposed to play; they are there to take notice while remaining as somber as folks at a funeral service.
Standing somewhere near the bench, where he or she can see everything, but without stealing focus, is the bailiff, whose job is defined by the constant state of attention that goes along with standing upright.
Lowest of all are the chairs at counsel table.  The implication cannot be lost on anyone.  The only means those seated there have to elevate themselves is when they are questioning a witness or answering a judge’s questions.  Some courts require that the lawyers remain seated when examining witnesses, and all require that they remain standing behind a podium for the latter activity.  Only some trial courts permit lawyers to roam freely while examining witnesses.  And lawyers have to ask permission if they want to approach a witness or the bench.  They almost never get to approach the jury box—except during closing arguments.  But even when standing they are spacially below the seated people whom the lawyers address. 
All of this stagecraft is built into the ritual form.  Who must stand, who takes a seat, and where and when these actions take place--all of it says a great deal about the perceived natural order.  And those looking on get it without requiring a word of explanation.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Beggar’s Dog

I have never before blogged about Timon of Athens.  And I am sure you wonder why.  There are reasons—which mostly do not matter today.  What matters is why I finally decided the play was worth a mention.  Still, I recognize that few on the planet have bothered to read this tortured text.  Therefore, I begin with this basic plot summary: 

The play’s main action involves an ancient Athenian (Timon) who swings violently from being a jovial philanthropist to bitter misanthrope after his own fortunes take an abrupt nosedive in the first Act.  Timon had showered his wealth on characters depicted as blatantly undeserving—parasitic artists, intellectual poseurs, and other pretentious deadbeats.  Then, when he himself falls on hard times—surprise, surprise—his deadbeat pals show little interest in helping Timon deal with the debt-collectors.  Timon decides to get even.  He invites his so-called friends to a special banquet.  When the “meal” is served, the guests find nothing but rocks and tepid water. Timon throws a temper tantrum then flees for the woods where he takes up residence in a cave.  There, he denounces all of humankind and gives the last of his wealth to the rebel Alcibiades, who has recently been banished from Athens.  Timon hopes that Alcibiades will essentially bring down the whole despicable human race—or at least all of Athens.  Before Timon can see how the plan unfolds, he dies alone in the wilderness—not even fully recognizing that the species had produced at least worthy character: his faithful servant who had tried all along to warn him about his lousy friends and who had stood by him despite his insufferable rants and his relocation to a dank cave.   
One problem with this play may be rather self-evident.  It is a tad hard to sympathize with ole Timon because his resentment is rather over-the-top.  After all, it wasn’t like the moochers and sycophants were hard to sniff out.  He was just not a great judge of character; besides, he really seemed to revel in the way his wealth permitted him to be the center of attention.  His initially euphoric view of humanity was as simplistic as his ultimate cynicism.  Worse still, Timon is not a particularly articulate or witty flawed hero.  Shakespeare didn’t even arm him with an arsenal of clever insults, as he did with characters in so many other plays.  Check out this pathetic mama-ranking between Timon and another misanthrope, Apemanthus, which takes place after Timon has chosen self-banishment:
When there is nothing living but thee, thou shalt be
welcome. I had rather be a beggar's dog than Apemantus.
Thou art the cap of all the fools alive.

Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon!
A plague on thee! thou art too bad to curse.

All villains that do stand by thee are pure.

There is no leprosy but what thou speak'st. 

If I name thee.
I'll beat thee, but I should infect my hands.
I would my tongue could rot them off!
Away, thou issue of a mangy dog!
Choler does kill me that thou art alive;
I swound to see thee.

Would thou wouldst burst!

Thou tedious rogue! I am sorry I shall lose
A stone by thee.
(Throws a stone at Apemantus)



Rogue, rogue, rogue!
I am sick of this false world, and will love nought
But even the mere necessities upon 't.
Honestly, William, dear.  Was that really the best you could muster?
For some reason, this less-than-awe-inspiring element of Shakespeare’s oeuvre popped into my head the other day after a surprise call from a charming former colleague. Although he is now a hot-shot partner in a high-flying law firm and has served in the highest spheres of public office, he admitted that he was calling so as to take a break from drafting responses to requests for production, what folks in the biz call “RFPs.”  This is not glamorous work. Indeed, it is downright stultifying—because so much of the drafting is boilerplate, involving clunky, repetitive recitations of standard objections that few will ever read.  And I guess that is what made me think of Timon. 
Lawyers have to deal in tedium sometimes—even super-successful lawyers.  And maybe many super-successful lawyers are super-successful because they don’t ever conclude that they have reached some apex that permits them to feel free and clear of any and all tedium.  Timon is about a guy with some serious bi-polar issues, unable to handle compromise of any kind.  But a world (or profession) that requires that even the successful log hours hammering out responses to RFPs now and then is a fundamentally imperfect, humbling, compromised world.  Lawyers who can live with that reality don’t have to retreat to a cave.  Or otherwise quit.  They can keep toiling away—rather happily, if not ecstatically—for years.  In this, they are more like Timon’s faithful, if somewhat curmudgeonly, servant--he who “bleed[s] inwardly for [his] lord.” 
Which is what lawyers generally do for their clients.  Lawyers “bleed inwardly.”  Lots of them do.  If you don’t believe me, imagine just one of them toiling away late into the night, scrupulously composing responses to RFPs that few will ever read and fewer still will ever find noteworthy.  He deserves your admiration—especially when his toil makes you think that, rather than do likewise, you would be a beggar’s dog.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Again with the Drums of War

I suspect you have heard a quote warning about leaders who “bang” or “beat” the drums of war to work their countrymen into a patriotic frenzy.  That quote has been falsely attributed to both the real Julius Caesar and to Shakespeare’s play named for him.  Julius Caesar does, however, include famous lines about using war to manipulate the masses in the interest of pursuing a personal political objective. 
Shortly after Caesar’s assassination, Brutus gives Marc Antony permission to speak at Caesar’s funeral.  Then, for a moment, Antony is left alone with the mutilated body.  He speaks to the “bleeding piece of earth”—i.e., Caesar’s corpse.  And he apologies for appearing “meek and gentle with these butchers”—i.e., Caesar’s assassins.  He then prophesizes bad times ahead:
             Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
 Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
 Blood and destruction shall be so in use
             And dreadful objects so familiar
             That mothers shall but smile when they behold
             Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war[.]
Antony predicts that “Caesar's spirit” will come looking for revenge, and Caesar will obtain it by “cry[ing] ‘Havoc,’ and let[ting] sip the dogs of war.”  [III.2]
Those watching a performance of Julius Caesar—when it debuted and now—would already know what was going to happen soon after Antony says “let slip the dogs of war.”  After the funeral, Antony would join up with the young Octavius—at least for a time—and start a civil war to gain dominion over Rome.  Later still, Antony would join up with Cleopatra to wage an even bigger war in pursuit of an even bigger empire over which he hoped to rule.  In other words, when Antony speaks about Caesar’s ghost “letting slip the dogs of war,” he is really admitting to what he intends to do. 
Did real rage about Caesar’s assassination cause Antony to contemplate spearheading a civil war? Or did he harbor such ambitions all along and just recognized that Caesar’s death could be used as a compelling rallying cry?  Most likely, he felt genuine rage/loss/sorrow/disgust about the death of his mentor but had also long harbored ambitions that he too might one day rule an empire—thanks to Caesar’s patronage or to his death.  Whatever Antony’s motives, he did not feel any compunction about using war as a tool for political expediency.
What is fascinating about this little historical moment through which we are living right now is that the person charged with crying “Havoc” and letting slip the dogs of war does not seem to have his heart in it.  Obama seems anything but comfortable about using “a monarch’s voice” to promote “blood and destruction.”  If he fully embraced the idea, he would never have gone to Congress for a resolution—especially weeks after somebody’s red line had supposedly been crossed.  Meanwhile, it is fascinating how this seems to be déjà vu all over again.  Ten years ago, while 9/11 was still an open wound, most Americans warmed to the dogs of war rather easily, embracing the idea of committing “fell deeds” against Iraq, even though there was no coherent connection between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attack and no compelling evidence that Iraq’s leader was actually wielding weapons of mass destruction as there is with the Assad regime now.  But folks now seem cynical about the war drums or wary of more senseless loss or eager to gain their own political advantage by saying to those dogs “Down!” “Play dead!” 
The realization that the dogs of war can lose their power to whip people into a frenzy is also something that Antony—or Shakespeare—recognized.  He/they knew that war can become so commonplace that mothers simply shrug it off with a smirk when “their infants [are] quarter'd.”  In the States, remaining passive in the face of massive slaughter in faraway lands is hardly new.  Consider our response to Hitler’s war against the Jews from 1933 until Pearl Harbor (and really thereafter); we were still struggling with war fatigue caused by WWI and just could not get ourselves worked up about the many signs of widespread persecution in Europe.  And more recently, we showed little interest in how the Darfur region of Sudan became awash in blood and gore at about the same time we started intermeddling in Iraq—conflicts that continue to this day. 
From all this one might conclude that mass war hysteria and mass war fatigue are both bad barometers for deciding when and how to engage in the rest of the world’s “fierce civil strife."