Yale University

Class News

Stephen Greenblatt '64 on performing Hamlet around the world

The cover of The New York Times Book Review of April 23 featured our classmate, Stephen Greenblatt (with his review of a new book about Hamlet), as well as a legendary Yale professor, Harold Bloom (who has written a new book about Falstaff). Inside the Review there was another 1964 connection in a new book about Louis Kahn with a photo from the Yale Art Gallery. Read these three articles:

  • Stephen Greenblatt, "Their Hours Upon the Stage: Performing ‘Hamlet’ Around the World" (reviewing Dominic Dromgoole's new book Hamlet Globe to Globe: Two Years, 190,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play)
  • Jeanette Winterson, "Shakespeare’s Hot Mess: What We Can Learn From Falstaff" (reviewing Harold Bloom's new book Falstaff: Give Me Life)
  • Inga Saffron, "Restoring the Light to the Work of Louis Kahn" (reviewing Wendy Lesser's new book You Say To Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn)

Their Hours Upon the Stage: Performing ‘Hamlet’ Around the World

Stephen Greenblatt

April 21, 2017

Two Years, 190,000 Miles, 197 Countries, One Play

By Dominic Dromgoole

Naeem Hayat and Tom Lawrence as Hamlet and Laertes at the Odeon Amphitheatre in Amman, Jordan

It began, we are told, as a whim lubricated by strong drink. In 2012 the management of Shakespeare’s Globe — the splendid replica of the Elizabethan open-air playhouse, built on the bankside of the Thames in London — was considering possible eye-catching new initiatives. In the midst of the merry collective buzz, the theater’s artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, impulsively said, “Let’s take ‘Hamlet’ to every country in the world.” No doubt even crazier cultural ideas have been proposed, but this one is crazy enough to rank near the top of anyone’s list. Yet it came to pass. An intrepid company of 12 actors and four stage managers, backed up by a London-based staff that undertook the formidable task of organizing the venues, obtaining the visas and booking the frenetic travel, set out in April 2014, the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. They did not quite succeed in bringing the tragedy to every country — North Korea, Syria and a small handful of others eluded them — but they came pretty close. One hundred ninety countries and a series of refugee camps later, the tour reached its end in April 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

While helping to run the busy theater in London, Dromgoole managed to venture off and see for himself some 20 iterations of the production he had co-directed and launched. “Hamlet Globe to Globe” is a compulsively readable, intensely personal chronicle of performances in places as various as Djibouti and Gdansk, Taipei and Bogotá. The book is in large part a tribute to the perils and pleasures of touring. The Globe troupe had to possess incredible stamina. Keeping up an exhausting pace for months on end — Lesotho on the 1st of April, Swaziland on the 3rd, Mozambique on the 5th, Malawi on the 8th, Zimbabwe on the 10th, Zambia on the 12th, and on and on — they would fly in, hastily assemble their set, unpack their props and costumes, shake hands with officials, give interviews to the local press, and mount the stage for two and a half hours of ghostly haunting, brooding soliloquies, madcap humor, impulsive stabbing, feigned and real madness, graveside grappling, swordplay and the final orgy of murder. Then after a quick job of disassembling and packing, they were off to the next country. When one or two of the company became ill, as occasionally happened, the group had rapidly to reassign the roles; when almost all of them succumbed at the same moment, as befell them after an imprudent dinner in Mexico City, they had to make do with improvised narration and zanily curtailed scenes.

Dromgoole explains that he set the troupe up in the full expectation that not everyone would last the full two years. Hence his insistence that all the actors learn multiple parts so that they could switch around at a moment’s notice. As it happened, the same 16 people miraculously made it through the whole tour. Perhaps changing roles from time to time helped them build the collective sense of trust that sustained them. Perhaps too, as Dromgoole suggests, they drew upon “the gentle support of each line of verse,” so that even in the most trying of circumstances Shakespeare’s iambic pentameters “kept them upright and somehow kept them moving forward, into the story and towards the audience.”

Touring is particularly resonant for “Hamlet,” since Shakespeare’s tragedy features a traveling company of players who arrive in Elsinore and are greeted warmly by the prince. Hamlet makes clear that he has a lively interest in the theater, but that interest is not purely aesthetic. He asks the players to stage a court performance of an old play, “The Murder of Gonzago,” to which he says he has added a few lines. His secret intention is to see if the play triggers in his uncle an involuntary display of guilt, thereby confirming the charge of murder made by his father’s ghost. In the event, the uncle does arise in a rage and brings the performance to a halt, but like almost everything else in the tragedy, the signs are ambiguous. The poor players, in any case, could have no way to grasp why their show provoked such a response. A wonderful production I saw years ago showed them hastily packing up their bags in fear and rushing away.

The Globe company, of course, was always packing up and rushing away to the next venue. They did not deliberately set out to provoke moral crises and confessions of murder, even in the most benighted of the countries they visited, but they certainly hoped that the tragedy’s celebrated interrogation of social and psychological ills — “Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, / The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, / The insolence of office” — would have some beneficial influence. Tragedy, Shakespeare’s contemporary Sir Philip Sidney wrote, “openeth the greatest wounds, and showeth forth the ulcers that are covered with tissue”; it “maketh kings fear to be tyrants.” “Hamlet” seems particularly suited to this task because of what Dromgoole calls its “protean nature.” It seems to work equally effectively in the urban heart of the most advanced industrial country and on the shores of the remotest Pacific island.

Dromgoole heightened this adaptability by refusing to give the production any strong interpretive twist. “The best way to avoid a misconception,” he observes, “is to have no conception at all.” As a reviewer in São Paulo wrote admiringly, “The text was acted in plain mode — no verbal excesses or unnecessary shouting, just a harmonious recitation of words combined with essential corporal movement.” If there was a special emphasis at all, it was on the prince’s lightness and wit. Hamlet was less the melancholy Dane than the jester in a corrupt world bent on outlawing laughter. “Our show didn’t dazzle or explode,” Dromgoole concedes, “but it worked.”

Looking back on the initial motivations for his wildly ambitious project, Dromgoole ruefully notes two delusions: first, that “Hamlet” charted a journey toward peace, leading the troubled prince to a serene recognition that “readiness is all”; second, that it would have a comparably beneficial effect upon its audiences, leading them in some small way toward a resolution of their social and political problems. In reality, over the course of the two years, global problems only seemed to get worse, and the story of the prince, as the company performed it, seemed to tell not of spiritual enlightenment but rather of a bright young light that flamed for a moment only to fade and die.

Never mind. The surprise is not that Hamlet failed to heal the world’s woes but rather that he belonged everywhere: “Hamlet the icon of restlessness for a world that never seems able to settle. Hamlet who is restless for truth, unable to bear the lie his present moment is built on; who is restless for civility, trying to forge a new care in human engagement; who is restless for honesty and integrity and cannot bear people faking or borrowing their feelings; who is restless for calm when the moment seems a little too noisy, and restless for noise when it seems too calm.” A young person who refuses to make his peace with the sly criminal who has “popped in between the election and my hopes.” What better hero for our times?

Stephen Greenblatt is the author of many books, including Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. His new book, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, will be published in September.

Shakespeare’s Hot Mess: What We Can Learn From Falstaff

Jeanette Winterson

April 21, 2107

Give Me Life

By Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom fell in love with Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff when, as a boy of 12, “I turned to him out of need, because I was lonely.”

That was 75 years ago; Bloom has been faithful ever since, and “Falstaff: Give Me Life” may be his last love letter to the shaping spirit of his imagination.

Not that there is anything ethereal about Fat Jack. This whiskery swag-bellied omnivorous cornucopia of appetites, red-eyed, unbuttoned, sherry-soaked. This nightwalker and whoremonger, a “muddy conger,” swinging at his old mistress Doll Tearsheet, a life-affirming liar whose truth is never to be a counterfeit.

Falstaff is ancient energy thumping at volume through a temporary poundage of flesh. He is part pagan — the Lord of Misrule on the loose in Eastcheap, and as such his time is short. We meet him first in “Henry IV, Part 1,” already old, lusting at life, drinking pal of the young Prince Hal, who is calculatedly slumming it in London’s East End, like any rich kid running away from the family firm.

This book is an explanation and a reiteration of why Falstaff matters to Bloom, and why Falstaff is one of literature’s vital forces. These two strands of argument cannot be separated. Bloom is not a thinker who tries to take himself out of the equation. As a teacher and a writer he has always wanted to make us feel something, as well as to understand something. Profoundly learned himself, his learning is a call to life — that we are, or can be, altered and enriched by what we know.

Bloom calls Falstaff “the true and perfect image of life”; this is the center of his argument. To follow his meaning the reader needs to be prepared to follow Shakespeare. This brief book is dense with quotation — but necessarily so.

Jeanne Moreau as Doll Tearsheet and Orson Welles as Falstaff in “Chimes at Midnight”

Falstaff: “Dost thou hear, Hal? Never call a true piece of gold a counterfeit: Thou art essentially mad without seeming so.”

“Essentially mad without seeming so” — Shakespeare anticipated Freud by 300 years in recognizing how madness can be hidden behind ambition, success, money and especially the cold calculations of power.

Shakespeare’s message of madness is to be found in those characters who are anti-life — whether Angelo in “Measure for Measure,” or Lady Macbeth, or Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale.” In the late plays there is a cure for madness: Lear dies sane, Leontes repents. But the dangerous, subversive question of the history plays — and in Bloom’s book, we’re reading both parts of “Henry IV” as well as “Henry V” — is, what is power worth?

Falstaff, excessive, loving, outrageous, overblown, but true, stands against Hal’s counterfeit. Prince Hal, morphing into Henry V, may be a great leader, but he dumps his friends, rewrites his past, and in carnage is a self-aggrandizing commander of the Death Star. Falstaff is on the side of life; messy, silly, unplanned, all for love, life.

Shakespeare was a showman, and his Henry plays played to English jingoism and mythmaking. They look as if they’re about nation building, kingship and pride in warfare. But Falstaff is the comic counterpoint to all that posturing.

In a wonderfully comic scene, cited at length by Bloom, Falstaff will play dead like a circus dog in order to avoid being killed in Hal’s war.

Falstaff: “To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man. But to counterfeit dying when a man thereby liveth is to be no counterfeit but the true and perfect image of life indeed.”

In other words — what exactly is worth dying for?

Bloom frankly accepts that he is an old man losing his friends to death. He knows he doesn’t have much time left himself. His interest is in how we expand the time we have — old or not. Falstaff, himself cartoonishly expanded on the outside, is also a human Tardis, much bigger inside than out, a kingdom got not by usurpation or bloodshed, but by pressing his being so close to life that he becomes the imprint of it.

I went back to read Bloom’s “Book of J,” his commentary on those portions of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible written by “J” — a woman, Bloom proposes, and like Shakespeare, a serious creator. The Blessing, the sought-after, fought-over Blessing of Yahweh to his chosen ones, is the blessing of More Life. Or as Bloom glosses it: More Life Into a Time Without Boundaries.

Bloom is passionate in his choices. This new manifesto will not appeal to the “gray legions of routine Shakespeare scholars.” The ones, as Bloom puts it, who prefer Hal/Henry to Falstaff, the ones on the side of authority, possibly the ones on the side of death (less messy than life), who drain the energy out of a text and offer it back as a pale imitation of itself — a counterfeit.

Bloom is always a pleasure to read — the language simple and direct, yet easily conveying complexity of thought. He doesn’t write like an academic.

Of course, Bloom adores Falstaff’s language. He quotes it to make us read it and rejoice in it. Now that the United States has a president who prefers tweets to sentences, language needs champions. Writers, dead and alive, can be recruited here, and Bloom’s book is a timely reminder of the power and possibility of words.

Falstaff, because he is More Life, is also More Language. He is a waterfall of words, a thundering torrent of bawdiness and beauty. His Falstaffery is made out of language: “If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! If to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: If to be fat be to be hated, then … banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

It doesn’t matter that Harold Bloom revisits some of his earlier work (notably “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human”). As Samuel Johnson — one of Bloom’s favorite critics on Falstaff — said, “Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.” Hal the pedant prince is always informing his audiences, real and imagined. Falstaff’s outrageously embodied language reminds us that life is all there is.

Restoring the Light to the Work of Louis Kahn

Inga Saffron

April 21, 2017

The Life of Louis Kahn

By Wendy Lesser

Louis Kahn in the Yale University Art Gallery

It is one of history’s cruelties that Louis Kahn is almost better known for his unconventional domestic arrangements than for his architecture. Kahn gave us a remarkable string of masterpieces that includes the Salk Institute and the Kimbell Art Museum, and yet he was one of those shambling geniuses whose life was a mess of contradictions. While his commissions took him around the world, he managed to maintain three separate families at home in Philadelphia. He had a reputation for blowing deadlines and budgets, testing the patience of clients. No one was surprised to learn after his death in 1974 that his firm was deep in debt. The turmoil of his life came to overshadow his accomplishments.

The situation began to reverse in 2003 with the success of his son’s deeply moving documentary, “My Architect.” The film traces Nathaniel Kahn’s efforts to connect with his father and two half-siblings during a tour of the architect’s buildings. The glorious footage — sunbeams filtering through the National Assembly in Bangladesh, the Salk silhouetted against the Pacific Ocean — rekindled interest in Kahn’s work. His rising stock has brought a shelf’s worth of monographs. While one or two might be categorized as biographies, Wendy Lesser’s “You Say to Brick” is easily the most complete narrative of Kahn’s life and career, magnificently researched and gracefully written. As the founder of The Threepenny Review and a nonfiction author, Lesser has a background that’s literary, yet her account is packed with insights, of both the architectural and psychological kind.

Kahn’s best buildings leave visitors with the same heart-quickening sensation as an ancient Greek temple. They also changed architectural history. His soulful, sculptural designs helped lift the profession out of its functionalist, placeless, modernist rut. But there is no denying that his tangled personal life is the thing that makes Kahn’s story so irresistible. Besides his wife, Esther, Kahn had long relationships with two much-younger women in his office, Anne Tyng and Harriet Pattison. Lesser also details a previously unreported affair with another architect in his office, Marie Kuo, and suggests there were flings on the side as well. Lesser’s other big reveal is that Esther Kahn also engaged in a long extramarital relationship. 

Even in the martini-drinking Eisenhower era, when such womanizing was seen as acceptable male prerogative, Kahn’s behavior was shocking stuff. Still, Kahn hardly fits the profile of a successful Lothario. Born Leiser-Itze Schmulowsky in Estonia, in 1901, Kahn moved with his family to the United States when he was 5, and he grew up desperately poor in North Philadelphia. A childhood accident left his face as stippled as the rough concrete of the Salk’s walls. He was short and often disheveled from all-nighters at the drafting table. Yet women and men alike were mesmerized by his vigor and poetic brilliance. A charming mystic, he was given to anthropomorphizing architectural elements. The title, “You Say to Brick,” is one of his classics.

Kahn was also a romantic, and his relationships with Tyng and Pattison were true love affairs. After each woman became pregnant, Kahn did his flawed best to be a supportive father, commuting among his three households. While Kahn was absent for long stretches, his children — Sue Ann Kahn, Alexandra Tyng and Nathaniel Kahn — have loving memories of him. Whatever bitterness Kahn’s families harbored, their commitment to him never wavered. Neither Anne Tyng nor Harriet Pattison ever married. And how’s this for complex family dynamics: Alex Tyng wrote her dissertation on her father’s work, then ended up marrying his grandnephew. Nathaniel devoted years to making “My Architect.”

For Kahn, there was never a line between love and work, and Lesser effectively shows how each of his long-term relationships was crucial to his development as an architect. Esther supported him financially during the Depression, when he struggled to get his career started. Part of what makes Kahn such a heroic, literary character (and what should give us all heart) is that he didn’t hit his stride until he was in his 50s. That also happens to be when the affairs with Tyng and Pattison began. Compared with the output of a protean force like Frank Lloyd Wright, Kahn’s body of work is tiny, and by Lesser’s estimation includes just 14 great buildings. Nearly all were designed in the last two decades of his life, an intense period that began in 1950 after a three-month architect’s residency in Rome opened his eyes to the monumental power of ancient, masonry buildings. “Mass and weight became especially important to him during this period,” Lesser writes. “Kahn began to envision a way in which his deep-seated affection for the old and his admiration for the new could come together.”

Tyng’s contribution to Kahn’s development has long been recognized, if grudgingly, but Lesser portrays their early projects as collaborations between equals. Tyng, one of the first women to earn an architecture degree from Harvard, introduced a rigorous, mathematical approach to their designs. Her obsession with geometry gave the Yale Art Gallery its most distinctive feature, a dropped ceiling that looks something like a fishnet petrified in concrete. Not only does the decorative treatment bring the plain interior to life, the diamond openings also shield an overhead cavity that houses the wiring and ducts. While standard today, setting aside a dedicated channel for the building’s infrastructure was an important functional innovation, one that would lead Kahn to make such segregated “served” and “servant” spaces a hallmark of his designs. Vincent Scully, the influential Yale art historian, would go on to praise the museum for its “masculinity.” Its huge critical success raised Kahn’s profile and paved the way for the commissions that made him famous.

Never much of a writer or theorist, Kahn spoke instead in thick black pencil strokes. He often drew as he talked, and he talked a lot. As his vision for infusing buildings with ancient gravitas cohered, Kahn sought collaborators who could help make his groundbreaking citadels a reality. Maybe the biggest surprise Lesser recounts is that the Mexican architect Luis Barragán was the one who proposed the format for the Salk plaza overlooking the Pacific. More than any other element in Kahn’s work, the plaza’s long perspective view, which suggests you are peering into infinity, sums up his struggle to embed architecture with a sense of the eternal.

God is in the details, as Mies van der Rohe reportedly claimed, but Kahn’s architecture is more than just details. His buildings are works of art that need to be experienced by a human body moving through space to be fully understood. Lesser does readers a service by interspersing her narrative with “In Situ” chapters that serve as guides to his designs and vividly conjure the experience of walking through his buildings. Only by such direct experience, she writes, “can you perceive ... how many observations about light and shadow and weight and transcendence it is making.”

It took years of sketching and talking and thinking for Kahn to learn how to render those observations in brick and concrete. The Philadelphia mystic had finally achieved understanding when he suffered a fatal heart attack in the windowless dungeon of New York’s Penn Station. A series of mix-ups caused his body to be sent to the missing persons section of the city morgue. Although Kahn was the foremost architect of his time, two days would pass before his family and the world learned of his death. Kahn died far from the light. With Lesser’s biography, the illumination is restored.

Inga Saffron is The Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic and the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for criticism.