Thursday, August 19, 2004

Free entertainment: Los Hombres Calientes and Richard III (Speech Act Theory)

Like most east coast towns, New Haven is pretty dead in August. One nice exception is that there is plenty of free outdoor entertainment happening.

Last week we were fortunate to catch the tail end (last 45 minutes) of Los Hombres Calientes on the New Haven Green (part of the New Haven Jazz Festival). I have known about the Hombres, a Latin Jazz band from New Orleans, since I first heard their CD New Congo Square when I was a DJ at WXDU. What surprised me live was how young the band members were; when one thinks of Latin Jazz, one thinks of people in their 60s and 70s. And while bandmembers Irvin Mayfield and Bill Summers are getting up there, the band as a whole seemed pretty young. The youth aspect pays off -- Los Hombres Calientes are lively, entertaining, and not at all parochial about what they're doing. My favorite song is "Foforo Fo Firi" from the New Congo Square. You can hear a sample of it on the Basin Street Records website linked above.

Even better, last night we saw Elm Shakespeare's outdoor production of Shakespeare's Richard III at Edgerton Park. It completely exceeded my expectations of a free outdoor play, both in terms of the technical production (they've transported a huge set and sound/light gear to the park) and the acting. I think Richard and Queen Elizabeth, the two key roles, were played especially well -- Richard's darkness and Elizabeth's rage both came across loud and clear. (If any of my New Haven people are reading this, go see it.)

I've never sat down and read Richard III, and the last version of it I saw was the Ian McKellen film version from 1995. There the cutting was so dramatic that it resulted in continuity problems; the film looked nice, but there wasn't enough by way of context and backstory for it to hold together. All I walked away with was: Richard as Hitler! Richard as Hitler! Here the draumaturgist did a better job -- somehow they managed to keep the play at 2 hours, and yet keep many key soliloquys and side-plots.

One fascinating aspect in the text of the play is Margaret's curse of first Elizabeth and then Richard in Act I, Scene III:

Can curses pierce the clouds and enter heaven?
Why, then, give way, dull clouds, to my quick curses!
If not by war, by surfeit die your king,
As ours by murder, to make him a king!
Edward thy son, which now is Prince of Wales,
For Edward my son, which was Prince of Wales,
Die in his youth by like untimely violence!
Thyself a queen, for me that was a queen,
Outlive thy glory, like my wretched self!
Long mayst thou live to wail thy children's loss;
And see another, as I see thee now,
Deck'd in thy rights, as thou art stall'd in mine!
Long die thy happy days before thy death;
And, after many lengthen'd hours of grief,
Die neither mother, wife, nor England's queen!
Rivers and Dorset, you were standers by,
And so wast thou, Lord Hastings, when my son
Was stabb'd with bloody daggers: God, I pray him,
That none of you may live your natural age,
But by some unlook'd accident cut off!

One doesn't quite understand the depth of this venom until later in the play, when everything Margaret, the fallen Queen (from Henry VI, pt. 3), calls for comes to pass.

And then onto Richard:

MARGARET: If heaven have any grievous plague in store
Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee,
O, let them keep it till thy sins be ripe,
And then hurl down their indignation
On thee, the troubler of the poor world's peace!
The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!
Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest,
And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends!
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be whilst some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils!
Thou elvish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog!
Thou that wast seal'd in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell!
Thou slander of thy mother's heavy womb!
Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins!
Thou rag of honour! thou detested --




QUEEN MARGARET: I call thee not.

GLOUCESTER: I cry thee mercy then, for I had thought
That thou hadst call'd me all these bitter names.

QUEEN MARGARET: Why, so I did; but look'd for no reply.
O, let me make the period to my curse!

GLOUCESTER: 'Tis done by me, and ends in 'Margaret.'

QUEEN ELIZABETH: Thus have you breathed your curse against yourself.

Richard (identified here by his title as Gloucester) tries to disrupt Margaret's curse, and even plays a little rhetorical game: 'Is all this addressed to me?' Margaret seems momentarily confused ("I call thee not"), but then recovers, and demands the right to seal her curse. Richard and Elizabeth try to annul the venom by playing with the addresser and addressee ("Tis done by me and ends in 'Margaret.'").

But what they don't realize is that, again, Margaret's curse has the force of law. Diddling with it the way Richard does (he's trying to find its "infelicities," as J.L Austin would put it) doesn't lessen its actual illocutionary force. In effect, though she's addressing him as she curses, her curse is directed not at him but above him, at the audience (and at God -- this play is full of references to God). So while Richard has to be physically present for the curse to take effect, his acceptance of its terms is unimportant. Margaret is effectively signing a contract with the audience over Richard's fate. In short, Margaret is saying something to the effect of, "Fine, if that's what you want, I'm not cursing you. I'm telling God to curse you."

As the drift of these fragmentary musings suggests, it might be interesting to teach this play in the context of a unit on Speech Act Theory.


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