“My Gracious Silence”

I watched the Hiddlestone Coriolanus a few nights ago, and was enthralled. It is an excellent production, from casting to staging, as Terpsichore described. (Seriously, how does a dirt-grimed man moving a chair look so attractive?)

Coriolanus is a grand tragedy of political and personal dimensions and revolving around several very forceful, very egotistic, and very vocal characters. Caius Macius Coriolanus is the manliest of men, (especially when played by Hiddlestone,) but cannot bend his (flawed) convictions to curry political favor. His bossy mother Volumnia claims responsibility for her son’s martial prowess, and lives up to her name.

But in this version, my attention was caught by the quiet, peace-loving wife, Virgilia.

This Virgilia is only vocally silent.

 

In their first scene together,  Coriolanus address his wife as “my gracious silence”. This phrase has always captured my attention, mostly because that adjective lends a warmth and power to a quality that is often overlooked or criticized. But this title often translates into a negative portrayal of the character.

Virgilia has barely 26 lines, in the whole play, none of which are particularly poignant or important. This title and her own words combined mark her a passive character, waiting for the action of others to determine her fate, ruled by her voluble mother-in-law, and cloistering herself inside wait for her husband. (It is the mother-in-law, Volumnia, who lives up to her name with some of the most rhetorically powerful speeches in the play.)

In Shakespeare, the character reveal themselves trough their speeches almost more than their actions, particularly as Shakespeare included few stage directions. A character with few lines often fades into the background. Yet in this production, Virgilia’s silence is not taken to be complete inaction.

She might be silent in part because it is impossible to speak when Volumnia holds forth. But in a play where there is increasing tension between honest speech and “fair words”, it is notable that Virgilia repeatedly chooses to hold her silence.

Volumnia urges Coriolanus to,

” . . .  speak
To the people; not by your own instruction,
Nor by the matter which your heart prompts you,
But with such words that are but rooted in
Your tongue, though but bastards and syllables
Of no allowance to your bosom’s truth. ” (2232-2236)

And when Coriolanus complies, Virgilia becomes almost mute. When his inability to make the bastard words credible destroys him, Virgilia (in this version) only kisses him farewell.

It is not passivity that silences Virgilia;  it is words themselves that fail her.

Corrupt language is what destroyed her husband.  At several points she can only issue broke cries of, “oh heavens, oh heavens!”, as if words themselves cannot hold depth of her heartache (2533).  She is almost choking on her words, as if to articulate them would derive them of reality. Speeches would only make her agony seem trite, so she carries them quietly.

Shakespeare, the word master, has crafted excruciating monologues of pain, so it is strange that he gives Virgilia such silence. Yet his use of silence is not uncommon; “silence is the perfectest herald of joy”, declares Claudio, the false lover. Although Claudio’s joy falters, it might well be that silence heralds a great many other interior movements.

This version of the play lets Virgilia’s actions speak more poignantly than all of Volumnia’s syllables. Her love for her husband is clear in every gesture, and need to no other articulation. Her lack of speech is not empty, but it itself as powerful as Menelius’ smooth persuasions. She is truly Coriolanus’s “gracious silence”.

 

 

Silence

 

 

 

 

The Lost Formality of Letter Writing

Dear Friends and Lovers,

When I was in grade school, (not sure which grade: homeschool years all blend together,) my writing book had a section on the formal writing of letters. Each letter must have a heading, a greeting, a body full of either chatty anecdotes, witty quips, or occasional fulsome gratitude, and then a formal close and farewell. I had to write fake letter after fake letter until my teacher-mom was satisfied, and I could move onto the next unit. The main interest of the exercise was to relieve the dreariness of 5-sentence paragraph writing.

As I progressed in my studies and pretentiousness, various examples of epistles came before me: Daddy-Long-Legs, Mr. Darcy’s letter,  Woman in White, and the correspondence of the Mr. and Mrs. Adams. Each gave me an idea of how to write an organized, proper and, most importantly, interesting letter.

My favorite example of a formal letter comes from C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian. High King Peter dictates a challenge to King Miraz, a document wreathed in formal titles, archaic phrasing, and righteous with cool confidence. I modeled quite a few missives after Peter’s, finding obscure titles for myself and the intended recipient and couching every term in as medieval an accent as I could conjure.

But the age of email dawned, and there are now few calls for the formality of letters. And that lack of pen and paper seems to encourage casual correspondence.

Recently I have had the dubious honor of being on the receiving end of a few formal communications. Or rather, they were short queries from students that should have been formal.

I know for a fact that the grade school students at my school learn and practice letter writing. Yet through either the strange and laid back aura of the interwebs, or the lazy and rebellious disease that attacks middle and high schoolers, my students cannot formulate a proper email. Granted, their questions and requests are usually brief and quickly dispatched.

But I would have died before I sent an email to my professors with the greeting “hey”. Not me name or a proper address, just “hey”.

As a teacher, I also highly recommend using correct capitalization and punctuation in all communiques with a teacher. Yet many students neglect this simple strategy of currying favoring. (Or at least non-ill-will.)

But my biggest pet peeve, pulled from almost all student emails, is lack of a close to the email. Yes, I know that your name and address appears in my inbox. No, I don’t need your signature to know who you are. But typing out “sincerely, yours” brings the whole note to an easy, pleasant completion. An empty space at the end of an email feels unbalanced, disordered, impolite, cheeky insolent . . . etc.

So, dear readers, kindred spirits, erudite partakers of tea and enlightenment, think twice before snapping at a student for insolence sending an email. The Person the other end might be judging you in need of the old world formalities to alleviate her cynicism.

With the utmost gratitude, sincerity, and snarky sermonizing,

Melpomene
Muse of Tragedy, Lady of Melancholy,  Loamer of Egotists, Companion of Nienna, Teacher of Sarcasm, Magistra, Queen of the Classroom, Non-Answerer of Informal Emails, Poetess extraordinaire, and Instigator of Havoc

Review: August, Osage County

Wednesday was $5 day at my local theater, so after watching Frozen, I set out to give myself emotional whiplash by heading straight into August: Osage County.

Okay, that’s a lie.  I set out to watch Benedict Cumberbatch in one of his five movie projects released in 2013, and perhaps to see what Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan MacGregor, et al. brought to it.  The emotional whiplash was just a side effect.

August is the time of year, Osage county in northern Oklahoma the place.  Plot summary: author Beverly Weston disappears from his home (and, incidentally, puzzles me, because who names their son Beverly?  I bet he had a brother named Sue Not-Appearing-In-This-Film).  His family – 3 daughters, a sister-in-law, and their respective spouses/children – come home to empathize with his wife Violet while waiting for him to turn up, and are thus ideally placed for the funeral when he turns up drowned.  And then, the players having congregated on the board, family dynamics drive each person hither and yon again.

At first, I thought “This is one of the realest stories I have seen in a while.” The rural Oklahoma setting, for one, reminds me of my familial home down in southern Illinois in so many ways. It has the flat land, the oil wells, the unforgiving heat and the shimmer of the air, the small town nearby, even the left turn from the highway onto the dirt road heading home. The cars they drive, the style and decoration of the house, the casserole dishes: it all felt familiar, more familiar than I’ve seen in a film before.

You may be focusing on the knock-down brawl going on, but I am looking at those wooden pillars at the sides of the room. My grandparents’ house has pillars just like that!

Then there’s Meryl Streep as Violet Weston.  She’s phenomenal.  She stumbles in as Beverly interviews a young woman, Johnna, to be housekeeper.  “You an injun?” Violet asks, with the casual racism of the woman too old to care about political correctness (or too apathetic until she can attack someone else for alluding to childhood games of “cowboys and Indians”).  The way her voice alternately sweetens and sharpens as she asks Johnna about herself, addresses her husband, and gives some details about herself and her mouth cancer – I have seen that before, mostly in my grandmother as her own dementia began to progress.

Bev disappears.  The girls come home from Colorado and Miami, everyone bemoans the heat, the sheriff arrives with news and a body that needs to be identified, the funeral is followed by the most painful funeral lunch you ever saw.  Violet’s speech, her swift changes of mood, her not-always-appropriate anecdotes, her occasional lapses into bitterness over her children and what she sacrificed for them – these all prompt the other characters to react accordingly, also true-to-life.

Then it all goes a bit…screwy.  No, more than a bit.  The Weston family is far more dysfunctional than mine: there’s more divorce, the lone teenager is angstier (shame she doesn’t have siblings or cousins), there’s such distance between everyone…not to mention suicide, a touch of drug use (prescription and otherwise), and a soupçon of accidental incest.  Possibly more than a soupcon, actually.  There’s also far less religious observance – you can tell by the awkwardness of the mealtime prayer – which helps explain why no one ever seems to have heard of forgiving, forgetting, or wishing for another’s good more than one’s own.  Toss that all in a room together, and it becomes one big powder keg.

Here’s where the post-Frozen whiplash gets bad: whereas Anna trusts her sister Elsa unstintingly despite years of isolation (and that one time with the ice spikes), and Elsa protects Anna the best she can after conquering her fears, the Weston ladies are, as Ivy puts it, “Just people accidentally connected by genetics.”  You can’t pick your family, it says, though Charles Aiken (Bev and Violet’s brother-in-law) reminds everyone in word and deed that you can choose how to regard your family.

That’s more or less the upshot of it.  Violet and her oldest daughter, Barbara, might provide grim amusement with their increasingly vicious, obscene, and histrionic hollering, but I reckon they’re more important as an all-too-realistic cautionary tale.  I’ve read that Tracy Letts, the playwright and screenplay writer, is preoccupied with the question of “whether it’s ever possible to overcome the dysfunction passed down through generations.”  Of course, yes, it’s possible – but not alone. You need grace for that.  And grace, like Sue, is not appearing in this film.

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Requiem for an Automobile

Yesterday morning I was in the kitchen making breakfast, when I heard a dull thud from the street. “That sounds almost like a small accident,” thought I. “Wouldn’t it be funny if that was someone running into my car?” Secure in the knowledge that such event was unlikely, I went back to my yoghurt.

I am currently living with a friend in Texas while I desperately assiduously job search. It is a residential neighborhood where many people park in the street. As driveway space is limited, I parked in the street as well.

Before I swallowed even one spoonful of yoghurt, my curiosity and slight anxiety started pricking. Well, more like nagging and poking. Incessantly. So I looked out the front window.

I should have seen my sweet little car sitting quietly directly in front if the house.

What I saw was a mangled bumper gently rocking on the sidewalk.

Through a slight haze, I managed to notice the neighbor’s yard had a new lawn ornament: my car. My faithful, lovely ride was straddling the sidewalk, rear end crumpled.

EbyCarWreck

For seven years and two cross-country trips, this car has served me faithfully and resolutely, and I killed her. Right after I replaced all the breaks, too! Why did I not remember that Texans can’t drive? Why did I park on the street?

But strange things started to happen. After the sadly-born call to the police and insurance, the trauma and drama did marvelous things for the community. Three runners stopped to watch and chat. (To be fair, the car was blocking their path.) Four city utility vehicles (two water inspection officers, one “community patrol” guy, and one fire truck cruising the route,) pulled over to “check on the crash”. Human curiosity is a fascinating thing. Five neighbors came to stand and watch. One, the lady whose lawn my car now adorned, fluttered over to ask for the whole story, and pat my arm sympathetically. Tragedies bring people together in the most exciting and human way.

So, farewell, my hard-working automobile! Even in death you continue to help people gather together. Go to the Happy Car-Crushing Ground!

Disney Wars

By this point, I am pretty sure you have heard that Disney bought Star Wars.

My reactions to this news are mixed.

On one hand, I do have to agree with The Blimey Cow Brothers, here.

 

 

But on the other hand  . . . .

 

 

After all, Disney has already done this to THE Ultimate Space Epic.

 

 

 

What thinkest thou? Any visions of the future of Star Wars?

 

 

 

Yesteryear: The Spittoon

It’s a touch peculiar to long for devices of times gone by, when one has no experience of their use.  One never knows what downsides or health risks one may overlook, and students of history may justly criticize breezy whitewashing of the same.

And yet, here I am, craving the return of the spittoon.

I’ll be frank: I don’t yearn for the gilded age of the spittoon because I look back with fond nostalgia to a time when people stuck chewing tobacco between their cheek and gums, ruminated until the nicotine was consumed, then spat the whole foul lot into a receptacle set aside for it.  Though I hate the sight of a parking lot or sidewalk caked with blackened spots of chewing gum, I think it’s a better chaw, on the whole, than tobacco.

Nothing like a substance that leaves your pavement resembling a Dalmatian.

Nor do I necessarily crave the company of other present-day cuspidor users: the dental patient beside the spitting sink, the wine taster who would not pass the point of hilarity, or the folks who still buy wintergreen Skoal and main street gas.
Dental Cuspidor

It might be argued that I wish more spittoons were around so they could crop up in conversation; try having dictionary.com pronounce it for you and it rapidly ascends to Joke Word status.  But that is not the chief reason for my current cupidity.

No, mostly I wish we’d kept spittoons because at the moment I’ve got a cold.

It’s been lingering over a week.  My throat gets a bit better, then grows more inflamed again.  Efforts to stay hydrated doubtless improve the general situation, but there’s no escaping the vexation of a productive cough.  Avail oneself of Kleenex?  Ahh, summer’s lease hath all too short a date, and a 500-count box hath all too small a count, particularly when one soggy tissue soils whatever pocket or purse it must be stuffed into.  Forgive my excessive candor, but there are times when one cannot do anything but spit.

Mayhaps they needn’t come back into general fashion (seems there may have been some tuberculosis passed about last time around), but please: someone bring me a spittoon!

A State of Their Own

In theory, I have always supported anti-federalism.

I like states to have their own power and character, if only to give to the Big Federalist government some opposition.

However, California is taking their “power” to a whole new level.

(Caveat: a great many of my friends are from California, so I am willing to accept the state for having fostered them.)

California seems to think that it is its own country. And really, at times it seems like its own country.

So for the uninitiated, I have prepared the . . .

 

Guide to Californian Idiosyncracies!

 

  • California’s Personal Customs Check Point. Just inside the border, all cars are stopped and inspected for “foreign” plants and animals. Seriously. I am pretty sure that plants or animals from Arizona are not going to endanger your precious ecosystem, California. But if you are going to stop me and ask about that, at least have the gumption to follow it up! The “inspection” was a cursory glance into the backseat. For all you know, I could have been smuggling throngs of hedgehogs in my trunk!

(Side Note: What is the name for group of hedgehogs? Up for nomination are: Urchin, Phalanx, Bevy, Zeugma, Splendor, and Foxtrot. What thinkest thou?)

 

  • The DMV will only take appointments. A supposedly more efficient system. But, lest we forget that all DMV are soulless, monster-breeding voids, this also means that appointments can only be made 2 weeks in advance, and . . .

 

  • The DMV is not open on Saturdays. Or before 9am on weekdays. Or after 4pm. Is the efficiency in place because all the people with jobs never make it in?

 

  • The DMV cannot make licenses and IDs in-house. Everything is sent to Sacramento and then IDs are mailed out within 6 weeks.  I am sorry, but this is just absurd. I know of no other state in which this is done. And what it means for me personally, is that I must wait another 6 weeks before I can get my life in order.

 

  • Liquor Stores. The best place to get liquor is . . . . (drum-roll please!) . . . WALMART! Yes, grocery stores can carry hard drink in California. Which is awesome, and I have never seen it before. However, there is not much selection, so I went to a liquor store looking for a finer quality of scotch. Um . . . don’t go into liquor stores here. The several that I tried appear to sell liquor on the side and do a main business in the purveying of sketchy magazines. I will stick with Walmart.

 

  • The butter is in a different shape. I don’t know why, but this bothers me. What is the point of making butter come in different type of cubed rectangle than the one used by half of the known world? Even the butter in Scotland doesn’t differ!

Lest you think I am just being irrational, let me show you.

This is a common butter division. Notice the long sticks, the quite cubic package.

See? Do we all agree that this how normal butter is packaged?

Now, this is how California does its butter.

Squat sticks, flat package.

It is the same exact amount of the same exact butter.

But I find it aesthetically irritating.

If you must make your butter different, couldn’t you do something actually interesting with it? Like, make all butter be molded into an ocean wave. With a little surfer. Then you would be cool and using your power for good!

In conclusion, California, you have nice beaches.  And the hills are pretty.

The End.

Obs. Conf. S.

Have a little cipher, friends, and a babbling brook of badness.  I don’t suppose it’s without reason you’ve only heard from Mel of late.

There was a month (give or take) where she fell really hard.  Hit back a good ten years, struck until she (like others before her) hid behind third person.  The stories, they grip her, she couldn’t say why.  It isn’t real, is it?  Not official.  But there are always more of them, effectively unending, even when she skips the ones that go nowhere.

Some miss the mark, character-wise.  Obviously wrong, a forgery a child could spot.  Off-putting.  Some aren’t obvious but by degrees veer off otherwhere, and she should be used to that (it is fiction after all)  (this is what fiction DOES [oh dear, much less force in the third person singular rather than plural (that’s what stories DO [much better])]) and yet and yet she cannot stop reading she cannot stop wanting something and for a while it seems these stories give her that and yet it becomes clear that they can’t.

The time is now 11:04 and that is longer than she meant but on the other hand, there’s still enough time to wash up the dishes, to sort through that pile of papers, time enough to put some clothes away.

Okay, so it was just after 11 but now it’s 11:42 and that is significantly closer to midnight but it’s not there yet.  She can do those things on the list after she finishes this bit.

Oh look, suddenly it’s 12:20.

Suddenly it’s 12:36 (barely half past, really)

it’s 12:49 (not 1 AM, she’s fine)

it’s 1:23 (if she wakes up at 7 precisely that will be 5 hours and 37 minutes of sleep which is surely enough to be getting on with when there’s coffee and nothing too demanding, right?)

it’s 1:54  (I should be in bed)

it’s 2:07 (and now, finally, she’s finished reading and it relinquishes its hold and her eyes are burning a bit and she won’t click on anything else she swears it after all you can’t possibly when you’re leaving out commas and full stops)

(and yet the apostrophes remain; she can’t figure that out)
(semicolons as well it seems)

Bed.  Overwarm.  Mind spins a bit, a top about to rock and tip over and skid to quietness.
It has been a long month.  Sometimes I can resist the urge.  But sometimes I sit and read; I can do no other.

God help me.  Amen.