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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Gad’s Hill & Box Hill: Falstaff & Miss Bates are BOTH the witty causes of wit in others

My wife and I are, alas, nearing the end of a really lovely weekend in Ashland, attending plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, as we do together twice every year (I also go a third time each summer with a band of Florida friends, sometimes seeing the same play again, and enjoying it even more!). On Friday evening, we witnessed a fabulous Julius Caesar (while all the players were excellent, Jordan Barbour’s Mark Antony was truly extraordinary), and yesterday afternoon we saw an even more fabulous Henry IV Part One.

OSF really knows how to do Shakespeare (they’ve had 82 years to get it right!), particularly when they take artistic license, such as casting women in men’s parts (Glendower & Hotspur were both brilliantly played by women), and transposing the plays into modern settings. These alterations never fall flat, and create opportunities to foreground ambiguities subtleties in the original play texts. For example, the raunchy Eastcheap Tavern crowd transported to uber-punk hiphop nightclub was a revelation, which  showed how timeless Shakespeare really is --the early 17th century raillery carried the same high-voltage energy in that modern room as it did 4 centuries earlier.

And that brings me to the star of the show—both of Shakespeare’s entire play, but also of the show within the show, that ran every night in the Boar’s Head under the creative wand of the master of revels—of course, I mean Falstaff! Here is OSF’s wonderfully apt synopsis of Falstaff’s centrality:

Between a rock and a wild place: Prince Hal is biding his time. His father, Henry IV, wants to tutor him in the cruel art of ruling the realm, but Hal would rather study the bottom of a beer stein in a seedy tavern, surrounded by his carousing friends. His gang’s charismatic leader, Falstaff—larger than life, debauched and allergic to all authority—has been more of a teacher than Hal’s father ever was. Then, when a young rival threatens the kingdom, it’s time for Hal to step up and take on the family troubles. But how does a reckless son become a true prince? [This production contains theatrical strobe lights, guns with laser lights, and the sound of explosions and gun shots.]”

It would’ve been great with a merely competent Falstaff, but it happens that OSF has in its troupe the extraordinary, experienced, charismatic G. Valmont Thomas, who (like Orson Welles) was born to play Falstaff. He somehow transcended the paradox of owning the stage every second he was on it, while still generously sharing it with the rest of the superb supporting cast. So this production became unforgettable.

Thomas’s performance reminded me of an association I first made when I watched Welles’s transcendent film  Falstaff a few years ago; i.e., Shakespeare’s Falstaff is meant to be experienced as an huge expansion (all Shakespearean puns) of the subversive, Bacchanalian fire of Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet which Baz Luhrmann’s film captured in sight and sound. Falstaff is Mercutio on steroids.  


With that background, I was also reminded of the 2015 post I wrote about the improbable allusion to Falstaff I first detected years ago in one of Jane Austen’s immortal characters: Miss Bates, in Emma. Here is the link to that last post…    …which I ended as follows:    “Falstaff was not merely the cause of wit in others, he spoke truth to power, like Lear’s fool, with a smile and a tear in his eye—he is the voice of imagination, art, and love in a cold, cruel, mercenary world in which money and violence are the currency. And that is the exact same role that Miss Bates plays in the world of Emma—treated as an object of ridicule by those of stunted soul and wit, like Emma, but recognized by those with clear vision as a prophet of the best in humankind, a true “Queen” in the only “kingdom” that really matters.”

Now for a few further reflections in that same vein inspired by Thomas’s Falstaff. Just as I believe Miss Bates was a parodic self-portrait by Jane Austen, I now wonder whether Falstaff filled the same function for Shakespeare. It was into these characters, so easily misconstrued as foolish or inconsequential, that I believe these two greatest of authors hid in plain sight their innermost heart, soul and genius. And there is tragedy hidden there too: Gad’s Hill is Box Hill, and both are, metaphorically, also Golgotha.

Revisiting that analogy today prompted me to Google “Gad’s Hill” together with “Box Hill”, and it brought me to a discussion of Emma by Bharat Tandon from 2003 which I had previously overlooked. First Tandon quotes Miss Bates’s “Three things very dull indeed” speech, and then comments:

“…Austen inserts the extraordinary bracketed stage direction in the middle of Miss Bates’s speech- one which, given Austen’s relative lack of adverbial qualifications, is all the more prominent. MISS BATES MAY BE NO FALSTAFF (“I am not onely witty in my self, but the cause that wit is in other men”) BUT the stage direction, compounded by the page directions of the parentheses, suggests she is at least partly aware of the ridiculous figure she makes, and that she has, therefore, partly pre-empted Emma’s joke at her expense—which makes it all the more embarrassing that Emma can then so completely misunderstand her cue….” END QUOTE FROM TANDON

That brought to mind several new insights for me:

First, as I’ve noted in regard to other comments that Tandon has made about Austen, there are more things in Jane Austen’s imagination and literary erudition than are dreamt of in Tandon’s conventional philosophy. I.e., it does not dawn on Tandon that Austen did indeed intentionally allude to Falstaff via the character of Miss Bates, especially in that climactic scene of hilltop humiliation.

Second, Tandon also gives no sign whatsoever of being aware (as was argued persuasively long ago by Roy Battenhouse in “
Falstaff as Parodist and Perhaps Holy Fool” PMLA 90/1 (Jan 1975), channeling Maurice Morgann’s famous late 18th century defense of Falstaff) that Falstaff was likely aware of the prank played on him by Prince Hal at Poins’s suggestion! That counterintuitive reading suggests that Falstaff knowingly played the role of over-boastful fool, to add to the pleasure of his audience, most of all his beloved “son” Hal. And so it only makes the Austenian allusion more gorgeous and profound that Miss Bates would do the same as Falstaff in this way as well.

And finally, that brings me back to other blog comments of mine nearly 7 years ago, about what I called “Miss Bates’s revenge”:

“In Chapter 45 [of Emma], I never really noticed before how many times, and in how many ways, in the space of a few short paragraphs, Jane (via Miss Bates) rejects Emma's repeated attempts to make up for 6 months of ignoring Jane, and suddenly starts trying to show Jane some major "condescension"--only to be rebuffed and rebuffed, etc etc. But as is so often the case, once I looked closely at this passage, I felt like Alice falling down a deep wormhole into a parallel universe…
This rat-a-tat of rapid-fire repeated rejections by Jane of Emma's friendly overtures is so delicately handled by JA that the tone never crosses the line into absurdist humor--instead, at this point in the novel, as at so many others, the tone sits exquisitely poised on a razor's edge between poignancy and burlesque. But some of it is just flat-out comical--and the part that strikes me particularly funny---and very significant thematically-- is the following:

"Emma wished she could have seen [Jane], and tried her own powers; but, almost before she could hint the wish, Miss Bates made it appear that she had promised her niece on no account to let Miss Woodhouse in. "Indeed, the truth was, that poor dear Jane could not bear to see anybody -- anybody at all -- Mrs. Elton, indeed, could not be denied -- and Mrs. Cole had made such a point -- and Mrs. Perry had said so much -- but, except them, Jane would really see nobody."

Think about what that narration is actually saying--Emma, for just a second, flirts with the unthinkable thought that Jane has instructed Miss Bates to keep away Emma AND EMMA ALONE! And look at how Miss Bates conveys that message, unmistakably, while taking great pains to seem to be apologetic every step of the way--it's a cavalcade of indirect humiliations for Emma, as Miss Bates, with the delicate touch of a brain surgeon, takes Emma down one peg at a time--first Mrs. Elton, then Mrs. Cole, THEN Mrs. Perry. Each of these women has at one or more points in the novel been, in the theater of Emma's mind, at the butt-end of Emma's snobbish, elitist sense of social superiority. Now suddenly ALL three of these "social climbers" have easy entree to Jane's inner sanctum, but Emma, only Emma, apparently does not. Like a foursome of twentysomethings trying to crash a trendy, in-crowd dance club, and the three nerds get in, but, inexplicably, the uber-snob, the one who thought she'd be the one to help her "loser" friends get in, winds up alone on the sidewalk cooling her high heels, whining to the bouncer, who politely makes it clear, in a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare, that she's NEVER getting in!

And for all these reasons, it is difficult for me to escape the amazing possibility that this is actually Miss Bates's intentional revenge on Emma, but one which is delivered with infinitely more subtle wit than Emma's heavy joke at Miss Bates's expense up on Box Hill…And here, two chapters later, is it just a coincidence that we have Miss Bates delivering not one, not two, but THREE very clever rapier thrusts (Mrs. Elton---Mrs. Cole---Mrs. Perry) deep into Emma's snobbish heart? And Emma never even knows that it's intentional. Talk about ultimate karmic payback.....

And in that light, think of the tremendous irony of that last clause: "...Jane would really see nobody"--
In this case, Jane literally would really see ALL the 'nobodies', but pointedly will NOT see the only female "somebody" in Highbury! And where else have we heard "nobody" personified? How about when Emma herself, in Chapter 8, attempts to rationalize to Knightley that it is Harriet who would be marrying a social inferior in Mr. Martin, but then her own unconscious snobbery gets the better of her, and undercuts her own argument:   "As to the circumstances of her birth, THOUGH IN A LEGAL SENSE SHE MAY BE CALLED NOBODY, it will not hold in common sense."

…And so JA has put into the mouth of Miss Bates the veiled statement that at this moment at least, Jane has the power to see all the "nobodies" she wants, and to refuse to see the one "somebody" who is so doggedly insistent on her right to "pay attention" to Jane….”  END QUOTE FROM MY 2010 POST

So, in conclusion, I find it wonderful to think of Miss Bates as exercising an astonishing level of wit when she turns Emma away at the door, and I, for one, can imagine her then confiding in her mother those same words which Falstaff famously utters in Henry IV Part 2, which I look forward to seeing at OSF in the Fall:

“Men---and women--of all sorts take a pride to gird at me. The this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not able to invent that intends to laughter, more than I invent or is invented me. I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is other men---and women.”

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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