Notes from the Crescent City

Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Katrina and Jazz

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The undeniable spirit of New Orleans has infused our four days here with a beat all of its own. From our first evening when we took our eye-opening walk down Bourbon Street, to the photograph we had taken with an Uncle Sam lookalike outside the Maple Leaf jazz bar on Oak Street, and the magical, acrobatic production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s been a time of heat, discovery, and a daily rumble of thunder.

The New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane was established twenty-one years ago as part of Tulane University and quickly became popular among the English and Theatre professors and students. The festival has continued to evolve and a few years ago started to develop significant outreach programmes with Louisianan schools. As it happens, one of these offerings is called ‘Shakespeare on the Road’, a fast-paced educational show that tells the story of Shakespeare’s life and presents extracts of his works to students in what is often their first experience of Shakespeare live on stage. Another educational project, ‘Performance for Schools’, occurs each January when 6,000 students arrive on coaches over six days to watch a specially remounted festival production in the large and evocative 1930’s university theatre. The production lasts around two hours without an interval. We were told that after the usual teenage jostling for position on their way in, and which lasts about seven to ten minutes into the show, the young people start to attend as a unified audience to what is being freely offered. Actors have described their excitement of hearing the audience’s ‘roar from the stage’ during the romantic scenes, the fights, and especially at the end.

The commitment of the festival to deliver positive, life-enhancing, first encounters with Shakespeare is reflected in their audiences. When Paul and I spoke at a special event on Thursday evening we were asked questions about introducing Shakespeare to young people in the classroom. A teacher, who is passionate about what he referred to several times as ‘the beautiful language of Shakespeare’, asked how could the poetry be best brought to life? In the short exchange that followed I suggested that a teacher who can convey something of the effect of Shakespeare’s language on him or her is likely to ring true and to succeed in turning education into a conversation which, at its best, education can be.

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Visiting any place is bound to be coloured by the feelings and memories that travel with you. On our way to give a radio interview about our project with Diana Mack of the local branch of National Public Radio, the road sign we saw for Elysium Fields set Tennessee Williams’s street-car rattling through my mind (‘They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields.’). Our modest, cockroach-visited, ground-floor apartment was just off a main road, down what felt like a side-alley with a fire-escape flying over the top of it, and stairs running down the side. Sounds of Marlon Brando’s primeval-swamp-yelling Stanley Kowalski crying ‘Stella’ from the top of so many New Orleans’s fire-escapes has been easy to imagine during our time here.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised, therefore, to discover, during the course of our interview with Professor Michael Kuczynski of Tulane University, that Tennessee Williams acknowledged Shakespeare as one of his most profound influences. For Michael, both dramatists lay open extreme emotions and are expressionist in their portrayals of the human spirit. When we interviewed Clare Moncrief, the Managing Director of the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, she spoke movingly of Shakespeare giving Tennessee Williams a voice as a gay man, struggling to find a place in a world where he feared and knew rejection. It is as if Shakespeare’s empowerment of patriarchally damaged females (Ophelia, Desdemona, Hermione, Innogen) is taken up by Williams who then writes something of his own emotions into the fragile women that characterize his New Orleans drama.

And as a backdrop to our time here, Hurricane Katrina (or ‘Katrina’ as she is more familiarly known) has haunted our conversations, the natural disaster that reeked unprecedented devastation over the entire region from late August 2005. New Orleans, surrounded by water and built on land reclaimed from the marshes, bears many broken streets – roads and sidewalks – cracked open and bursting in improvisatory syncopation like the jazz to which the city itself gave birth. The first production at the Shakespeare festival after Katrina was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Clare Moncrief directed it and recalled for us how Titania’s prophetic speech about environmental damage resonated:

Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound.
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiem’s thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazèd world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which. (Act 2, scene 1).

Nearly a decade later and Clare is directing the play again, its first time in the festival since Katrina. We saw the penultimate performance on Friday night. The production set the play in the 1930s, full of creamy champagne fashions (think The Great Gatsby) and flowing silks. The magical elements of the story had been given special emphasis – silk-work acrobatic fairies, verdant back-projections of forests and clearings – and the whole wrapped and served up with continual reference to the sound of Cole Porter’s music. But Titania’s speech was there, as it usually is. It wasn’t given any special emphasis and didn’t need it. The New Orleans audiences knew the true meaning of every word that Titania was speaking.

The theatre director Richard Eyre, in comparing two great American playwrights, has said ‘Arthur Miller asks “How will we get through our lives?”; Tennessee Williams asks, “How will we get through the night?”’ In New Orleans, Shakespeare, like Williams, is a playwright of dreams for a city that is still exorcising its own nightmares and carrying its scars as the jazz plays far into the night.

BigEasy

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