I Want to Believe?

Having purchased seasons 6 and 7 of The X Files on DVD, and thus been watching several episodes a day, I find these seasons a curiously bothersome experience. It's not that the episodes all seem derivative and tautological (well they do because they are), it's not that the episodes are rubbish (some of them are quite surprisingly good actually), it's that now the core and essence of the series is made so abundantly clear. There were hints, oh yes there were plenty of hints all along the way, but now there can be no doubt about it: it's all about faith and belief.

This is what the entire series is founded upon.

Mulder knows the way things are. Mulder knows what is what, he just cannot prove anything. So his sayings and claims have to be taken on faith.

We, the viewers, are given some glimpses of the truth. Sometimes these are explained away, sometimes they aren't. But clearly we are given to understand that Mulder is right. He holds the truth.

Fair enough.

But this doesn't seem to satisfy the powers that be. This is the point where The X Files ceases to be science fiction, falls flat on its face and becomes soap opera. Or religious soap opera, which is much worse. Not to say embarrassingly banal.

Mulder isn't simply the fellow who tries to get to the bottom of things and expose the corruption. Oh no. Mulder is given saint like properties. Mulder is a Holy Prophet. And to underline this, to make it clear as a bell, he, time and again, dies and comes back through resurrection. He suffers for our sins. He is crucified. He preaches the truth but no one will listen to him. He is mocked. He is ridiculed. He is silenced. But he will not, cannot be silenced. He will suffer any consequence, withstand any torture, to get his truth out. His truth. The truth.

Believe and ye shall be saved. Question and ye shall perish.

Mulder is, to put it quite bluntly, Messiah. Even Scully, who's supposed to be the rational partner, isn't really convinced that science can provide any real answers. She relies on religion. "Are you asking me to pray?"Belief is the key. Believe and ye shall be saved.

This makes me right miffed.

It's cheating. I don't want my science fiction to be sugar-coated religion masquerading as bold, independent and intellectually valid art.

I'm perfectly willing to accept the core truth of almost all religions, that essential truth that is akin to mythology and must be understood as a metaphor of the soul and mankind's spiritual journey, and I'm quite willing to accept the theological framework that lies at the heart of The X Files as a perfectly legitimate and indeed compelling dramaturgical and emotional construction. But when it comes down to a question or rather a demand of personal and unquestioned and blind belief I tend to get extremely irritated. Sometimes even hostile. And when it comes to scientific thought having to yield to faith I am at a loss for words.

It offends my sense of rationality, it offends everything I hold true. It offends common sense.

And, this is the cruncher, it makes for poor art. The religious undertones in The X Files completely ruin any chance of it being taken seriously, its hubristic Messianic tendencies only serve to make it a piece of juvenile and unsound propaganda. Propaganda is never good art. Propaganda is never art at all.

"You're not Christ," says the Smoking Man to Mulder in an early season 7 episode. But of course the opposite is true and this is the way we are to understand it. He is Christ and meant to be seen as such. The Smoking man is of course Satan - "May I offer you a cigarette?" - and the ominous red glow of his ever present cigarette tip a little piece of Hell. He tries to lead Mulder astray with his lies and mendacious rationalizations, and by showing him a false picture of how life could be if only he gave up his foolish quest. He could have a normal life, just like anybody else. Mulder remains strong in his faith, with a little help fron Scully.

Mulder is the one man who stands between us and extinction. He cannot waver. He must believe or else comes the Apocalypse. The Smoking Man crucifies Mulder, literally, and on his head Mulder wears the Crown of Thorns - suitably updated for a cyber age. Behold the man.

Good stuff, powerful imagery. But. This is what it comes down to and this is what makes me rather less than happy - the preaching. What The X Files preaches is: belief is good, science and rationality are bad. I'll repeat: belief good, science and rationality bad.

And now I see Mulder's motto and the motto of the entire series - "I want to believe" - in a totally new light and it gives me the shivers. Was it this blatant from the start?

Any work of art that preaches such truths is rubbish, complete and utter, not to say intellectually dishonest. No further explanations necessary.

I'm not entirely certain this is Chris Carter's intention. But - if it isn't he's a pretty confused fellow and doesn't quite know what he's up to. Any which way it doesn't make him look particularly good.

What really amazes me is that it took so long for me to spot the obvious. I suppose I just didn't want to believe.


"Extremely Distasteful"

I've never particularly cared for Hitchcock. The films are quite entertaining as such but afterwards one inevitably gets an empty, almost nauseating feeling; just like after having eaten something dodgy or read a Christie novel. There's something off, there's something fundamental lacking; they both have this frighteningly chilly core at the centre of their art, this inhuman vacuum where a human soul of some description ought to reside.

However, I do love a few Hitchcock movies. Psycho. Vertigo. North by Northwest. It took me long while to see just what it was that made me adore these films in particular, even view them as masterpieces. Then the obvious suddenly struck me: Bernard Herrmann.

It's Herrmann's music that transforms these movies into gripping cinematic experiences and singular works of art.

Herrmann (born in 1911) was a native New Yorker and attended New York University and the Juilliard School. He was a member of Aaron Copland's circle and tried his hand at composing, writing his first dramatic score at 22, La Belle Dame sans Merci. In the early '30s he joined the CBS orchestra as a conductor and avidly performed new and unknown works. Like those of Charles Ives, who was still alive at the time and whom he soon befriended. Ives was at this point in time almost entirely unplayed and quite unknown. Certainly nobody had any idea he was the greatest composer the United States had produced - still is - and the New World's equivalent of Arnold Schönberg. Herrmann understood it.

CBS also broadcast a lot of radio plays, like those put on by the Mercury Theatre and the Campbell Playhouse, both of which operated under the auspices of that controversial theatrical wunderkind Orson Welles. The radio plays of course needed music. Herrmann suplied it. He conducted the music for Welles's best known and most poignant radio play The War of the Worlds in 1938 and scored many other productions. It naturally befell Hermann to score Welles's first venture into the world of cinema, an almost forgotten little effort called Citizen Kane.He also did the score for The Magnificent Ambersons but pulled it when the studio in a dastardly fashion slaughtered the film in Welles's absence. A few bits of it remain in the carnage that the studio released, much against Herrmann's wishes.

After that there was no turning back. In the '40s he scored Robert Stevens's Jane Eyre (with Joan Fontaine in the title role and Welles as the dark and brooding Rochester), John Brahm's Hangover Square (with Laird Cregar and George Sanders), John Cromwell's Anna and the King of Siam (with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison) and Joseph Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs Muir (with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison). Among his highlights in the '50s were the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (by Robert Wise), Mankiewicz's spy thriller 5 Fingers (with James Mason and Danielle Darrieux), Henry King's Hemingway picture The Snows of Kimanjaro (with Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner), and Michael Curtiz's Mika Waltari epic The Egyptian (with Peter Ustinov and Gene Tierney).

In 1955 the collaboration with Hitchcock started with The Trouble With Harry and the following year he did both the re-make of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Wrong Man. Then it came: the truly unsurpassed masterpieces - Vertigo in 1958 and North by Northwest in 1959. Then Psycho in 1960 and J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear in 1962.

The collaboration with Hitchcock ended in 1964 and Torn Curtain. Hitchcock wanted a jazz and pop influenced score, Herrmann wanted to do it his own way. Like always. He would not be dictated to. If he couldn't do it exactly like he wanted, if he wasn't in total control of the music and in on the making of the movie from the word go, then he didn't want to do it. Quite sensibly, I might add. Hitchcock and Herrmann parted on not too amicable terms. After Hitchcock Herrmann did write a couple of important scores but the entire industry was changing and not all for the better. He wrote the scores for Fahrenheit 451 (1966, based on the Bardbury novel) and The Bride Wore Black (1968, based on the Cornell Woolrich novel) for Truffaut and Taxi Driver (1976) for Martin Scorcese. He died just a few hours after having finished recording the soundtrack for Taxi Driver.

I have a particular fondness for North by Northwest. Maybe there we have the finest film music he wrote. Or even: the finest film music ever written. The fandango that begins the film is right on the money and let's us know the name of the game at once. It's repetitive, simple, obsessive and frustrating. The effect is at the same time both dizzying and hypnotic. It's like we're in this spinning carousel and can't get off. In Psycho there are the unforgettable stabbing pizzicati and screeching birdlike violins. And again the repetition: the anxiety and the frustration grow and grow till we can no longer bear it. The it starts anew. There can be no solace. Something bad is about to happen, every note is a harbinger of doom. Nothing can avert the evil. It is like the rain in the driving scene: all-permeating and absolute. We can do nothing but await its coming and accept it when it does come.

What Herrmann realised is that film music doesn't have to be complex or stand on its own two feet. What is needed is impact. This is more often than not acheived by doing quite simple things. But doing them just at the right time. And repetition is the key - breaking down the viewer's every last resistance.

Herrmann goes for the gut reaction and by Jove he gets it.

In Vertigo we have the haunting Tristan like theme that keeps repeating itself and the frustration keeps building. It's never in the pictures or the lines - it's all in the music. This is probably something of which Hitchcock was acutely aware and disliked immensely. It has been suggested that a great part in the rift between Hitchcock and Herrmann was played by the possible fact that Hitchcock on some level, subliminal or not, resented the immense impact Herrmann had on his movies.

Herrmann's second unsurpassed masterpiece is the score of Cape Fear. The theme is simplicity itself. And it spells doom. It never relents, it never gives up, it never goes away. It immediately goes for the jugular. Four chords that keep on repeating. And repeating. And repeating. Till the bitter end. Right from the first note we know it's going to be a tragedy of epic Greek proportions with proper carnage. It can end only in cathartic death. But in a Herrmann score not even death brings us an escape from the frustration and anxiety he's built up. There is no escape. There is no relief. Not in the movie, not in life.

The last work, Taxi Driver, is a departure from the usual Herrmann. The jazzy score is softer, moodier, less anxious and neurotic. But again he unerringly captures not only the mood but the essence of the film - the hopeless cosmic loneliness of Travis Bickle. The music insulates him from the rest of humanity. They cannot hear it nor understand it just like they cannot understand or connect with him. The saxophone plays only for him. He's alone.

The title of this entry comes from a letter Herrmann wrote to his first wife, the author Lucille Fletcher (who wrote the briliant radio play Sorry, Wrong Number, which later was made into not quite as brilliant a movie with Burt Lancaster and Barbara Stanwyck): "I entered into work that was extremely distasteful to me . . . I never had time for my own reflection and work . . ." According to Lucille he wanted to be a conductor and conduct those pieces of music by Ives and Bartok and the other big boys he truly loved. He wrote one symphony, one opera and a cantata dedicated to Ives.

So this is his tragedy. He didn't really want to be a composer of film music at all. It's just that he was so incredibly good at it, so exceptional. He might have become a conductor of note - but we have those. We have many many brilliant conductors. We have no other film composer like Herrmann. Not even close.

Herrmann's only screen appearance is in The Man Who Knew Too Much. The scene takes place in Albert Hall and in it Herrmann plays - a conductor.


The Rabbit and the Hound

In The Norwood Builder Jonas Oldacre fakes his own death and frames the "unhappy John Hector Macfarlane" for murder.

Oldacre seems like a thoroughly unpleasant fellow. "He was a strange, little, ferret-like man, with white eyelashes," is how Macfarlane describes him. Macfarlane's mother, who once was engaged to Oldacre, gives the following description: "He was more like a malignant and cunning ape than a human being". This is the first impression Watson receives: "It was an odious face - crafty, vicious, malignant, with shifty, light-grey eyes and white eyelashes."

In his preface to my edition of The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Pan, 1979) Angus Wilson draws attention to the fact how much animal imagery there in the tales that make up this particular collection: "the world of beasts is never far away as a shadow world behind the strange or dreadful events which Holmes reduces to questions of orderly reason."

A ferret, an ape. "A little, wizened man" who darted out of his cubby-hole "like a rabbit out of its burrow."

So perhaps it's quite in order that Oldacre uses animal remains when he fakes his own death. Chicken bones? That's the way I always remember it. No. I check the story and it seems my memory is incorrect. "By the way," Holmes asks Oldacre in the end, "what was it you put into the wood-pile besides your old trousers? A dead dog, rabbits, or what?" Oldacre gives no reply. "Well, well, I dare say that a couple of rabbits would account for the blood and the charred ashes", Holmes concludes.

Still, this point has always made me wonder. Is it really viable to mistake charred rabbit bones for human remains? What medical examiner would make such a dismal error? Would Dr Watson, as a trained professional, fall for such a clumsy device? Hardly. But Watson never gets to see the remains, unless I'm much mistaken. Does Holmes see them? The story isn't entirely clear on that point.

Holmes says: "They had spent the morning raking among the ashes of the burned wood-pile and besides the charred organic remains they had secured several discoloured metal discs. I examined them with care, and there was no doubt that they were trouser buttons." So he has access to what the police found. Surely that would include a glance at the organic remains?

Now the bones are charred. Ashes really, is what Doyle writes. But is that possible? Can bones be thus annihilated in a mere wood-fire? I doubt it. It seems extremely unlikely. No, I'll venture a bold statement: It's entirely impossible.

There is absolutely no way a whole human corpse can be reduced entirely to ashes and cinder in a smallish wood-fire. The temperatures required for that are far higher. Surely Doyle as a professional medical gentleman was aware of this. Dear old Bertie Wooster is fond of quoting Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade, but unfortunately he never can remember more than "ta-dum ta-dum ta-dum - someone had blunder'd." And that someone, in this case, is Arthur Conan Doyle. He, putting it bluntly, blundered. He slipped up. He stepped into it. No two ways about it. Well, that sort of thing tends to happen when the pace one writes at is fast and furious.

The Granada television series acknowledges the problem and the script tweaks the story a bit. In the episode Oldacre lures a tramp to his house, murders him and burns his body. As the remains of the tramp are clad in Oldacre's clothes, it is naturally assumed that the dead man is Oldacre.

This is all good and well and settles the matter of the unconvincing animal remains. However. Doyle's Oldacre is clearly a timid, shifty, cunning man. A man who in cold blood frames someone and takes a sadistic pleasure from doing it. But he's a ferret, a rabbit. Not someone who would or indeed could murder a man, not with his own hands. Only cowardly by proxy. Therefore in the episode they have a big, strong and bullish Oldacre - the antithesis of Doyle's intention. It throws the whole episode off for me, as the plan is still quite clearly a timid coward's sadistic plan and therefore not at all in synch with this new he-man Oldacre.

By the way, there's a rather remarkable thing about The Norwood Builder. Doyle didn't write the story alone. This, I believe is a pretty unique occurrence in the Canon. His partner was called Fletcher Robinson, but I'm not entirely certain if Robinson ever did more than help with the plotting.

Fletcher Robinson's name is important because of another thing he did. He's the man who came up with the original idea that produced The Hound of the Baskervilles. It was originally supposed to be a collaboration between Doyle and Robinson but then somehow Holmes crept in. This is curious. Holmes was, at this point, quite dead. Doyle certainly had no intention of resurrecting him, none at all. Yet Holmes managed to worm his way into The Hound of the Baskervilles and transform the entire novel into a vehicle for himself. Now there was no turning back and it didn't take too long before the short stories started to appear once more in the Strand and Holmes was officially returned to the fold, resurrected and back in business.

When Holmes came in, Robinson was out. But how much of the story did he write? Any of it? We don't quite know. Doyle kept it pretty schtumm and Robinson himself died shortly afterwards. It surely isn't too much of a stretch to wonder if he wrote some bits of the legend of the Hound. That was after all his main contribution to Doyle - the Legend of the Hound. At least some of the plotting must have come from him. I think we may take for granted that Doyle wrote all the bits with Holmes and/or Watson in them. Or may we? What was the book to be like before Holmes stepped in? Who was to be the hero? How far did Robinson and Doyle get in their planning? They commenced the writing, that much seems certain, but how far did they in fact get? Have any parts of the book been modified and was Holmes perchance inserted into already existing scenes? I don't find it at all impossible, at least in the latter parts of the book.

Anyway, interesting fact: Fletcher Robinson was involved in the writing of two Canonical Sherlock Holmes stories. The only outsider who ever was, I believe.


Scottish Curse

J.L. Carrell's The Shakespeare Curse isn't that bad. Really. There are quite interesting things in it. A lot of them, in fact. There's also a lot of rather annoying and embarrassing nonsense, and, what's more, the dramaturgy is once again "borrowed" from that eternal masterpiece of esoteric prose and flawless scholarship The Da Vinci Code.

Ok, so the plot is pretty boring and plodding. The Wiccan twaddle is insufferable. But still.

Macbeth is what it's all about. A lot of strange things and spooky happenings tend to cluster around the play and performances thereof. Mentioning its name, the names of the principal characters or quoting from it is considered to be bad form and even dangerous. It will bring bad luck, at least that's the impression in theatrical circles. Some suppose it cursed. Death and misery seem to follow it everywhere. This, according to Carrell, is because Shakespeare - while in Scotland in 1585 as an itinerant player - witnessed the rites of a coven of witches and pinched their secret spells for his play. A play what he then wrote twenty years later. Right. The spells are also what made Will such a hot writer. Right.

There is obviously a magic object and everybody wants it to perform their rite. No, there's three actually. A magic mirror which once belonged to the notorious Dr Dee, a sacred cauldron and the original manuscript of Macbeth with the potent spells still in it. Oh, and of course an ancient knife with an unslaked thirst for blood.

Our heroine, the theatre director Kate Stanley, well remembered from The Shakespeare Secret, must recover these objects or a young girl dies. And she's only got 48 hours. Or something. And, of course, there's a crazed killer around, killing his innocent victims left right and centre. Much hilarity ensues.

What I do like is the obvious homework Carrell has done on and around her subject. That's the core and essence of the book, the yummy stuff. She's found some quite fascinating things and used a lot of her materials rather well, inventively even. There is of course a wealth of material when it comes to Macbeth. Too much, in fact, if you try to use most every scrap of it in a single novel. Carrell seems to believe that her book becomes the better the more of it she uses. The opposite is true. Now the novel drowns in a swamp of quaint factoids, none of them really relevant or properly developed.

But. Interesting factoids: Dr Dee owned an Aztec mirror. Did it have magical properties? Is it the same mirror which is currently in the British Museum? That's what Horace Walpole claimed. Dee is perennially interesting, the archetype of both the consummate scholar and proto-scientist and the magician. Carrell makes Shakespeare his pupil. Not bad. Did Walsingham and Lord Salisbury use itinerant players as their wandering spies? Marlowe certainly was one, so too maybe Kyd. Which is of course what got them into trouble and what got Marlowe very dead indeed. What about Shakespeare? Was he in the cloak and dagger business? Good stuff. Did Hal Berridge, who played the Queen in the first performance, die in that performance or just after it? And did Shakespeare have to jump in to finish the role? So legend has it. What happened to Berridge? The curse? Is that how it originated? But, hang on, was there a Hal Berridge? Surely he's mentioned in some list of players? No. Nobody seems to mention him, apart from Aubrey. Or does Aubrey ever mention Berridge? Could it all just be a huge joke on the theatrical world, a succesful prank perpetrated by the sardonic Max Beerbohm? And speaking of Beerbohms, what happened to the early film version of Macbeth with Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in the title role? Tree died soon after having finished the film - any connection there?

Tree's Lady Macbeth was, by the way, Constance Collier in one of her first screen appearances. Today Collier is perhaps best remembered as the tipsy aunt in Hitchcock's Rope. I'd quite like to see her Lady M.

Carrell clearly is extremely knowledgeable in the field of early American Shakespeare tradition and once again displays it wonderfully. Like when she fishes out the macabre case of Forrest vs. Macready - a feud about Macbeth interpretations that started the lamentable Astor Place riot in 1849 and got nearly thirty people killed.

Edwin Forrest was perhaps the earliest great American Shakespeare actor. He befriended his English colleague Charles Macready and they became fast friends. Macready toured the United States, Forrest toured Britain. It was all a great success. On a tour of England the public suddenly turned on Forrest and wouldn't buy his Macbeth, and Forrest blamed it on Macready and started to hound the baffled Englishman. Once when Macready did a Hamlet Forrest stood up, during the To Be or Not To Be monologue, naturally, and started hissing and booing Macready and ruined the entire performance. He started to sabotage Macready's productions. When Macready appeared in a play, Forrest would arrange to appear in a play in the same town and at the exact same time. Often it was even the same play.

In May 1849 Macready was doing Macbeth in New York at the Astor Place Opera House quite near the Bowery - a tough neighbourhood where the dreaded gangs of New York resided. The lethal Five Points weren't far off either. Forrest was doing Macbeth the same night only a few blocks away on Broadway. The lines were drawn and clear as a bell. Macready was favoured by the anglophile upper crust while Forrest was to the liking of the lower orders to whom Forrest was one of them. Three nights before the riot a number of tough Forrest aficionados bought several hundreds of tickets to Macready's performance and belted the poor man with rotten lettuce and eggs and potatoes and rotten tomatoes and shoes and stenching foul liquids; with anything basically they could hurl at the despised foreign toff. They also pretty much gutted the theatre in the process. Macready knew a hint when he saw one. Time to shift. However, he was talked out of going back to England by such members of the cultural elite of New York as Herman Melville and Washington Irving. He stayed and once more he braved the New York stage as the Scottish King.

That's when things got really nasty.

When the performance commenced there was an enraged rabble of thousands outside the theatre, maybe 20 000 people, drummed up by posters and word of mouth, howling for the Englishman's blood. They stoned the theatre and tried to set it on fire. The Police were pretty helpless against such numbers so the National Guard was called in. The crowd would not settle down so the National Guard fired into it. Nearly thirty died and hundreds were injured.

And I don't think it quite settled the matter of whose Macbeth was better.

Funny thing. Shakespeare seems to have been staggeringly popular and well known in America in the 19th century, even among ill-educated people, and really meant something to them. And in those days there was no mass entertainment and therefore no great divide between low and high art. That came later. So what they had were the classics, above all Shakespeare. It is, by the way, quite impossible to imagine a riot getting started today over whose Macbeth is the better. Not in America, not anywhere is such a thing within the realm of possibility or even the scope of imagination. Not even close.

But back to The Shakespeare Curse. Not an entire waste of time. In parts quite entertaining. But as a novel hopelessly muddled. Rather as one did expect.


What Price Shakespeare

Watching that very splendid study in Shakespearean gore, Theatre of Blood, with Vincent Price as the ageing Shakespeare ham who's the butt of every critic's joke, got me wondering if Price ever had done any Shakespeare for real.

A quick glance at his movie credits seems to turn up precious few roles in tights. Surprisingly few, in fact. In the early The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex he plays Sir Walter Raleigh and then there are the Poe movies, several of which might fit the bill. The closest he gets, apart from Theatre of Blood that is, is the Corman low-budget Tower of London, a ghost movie in which he plays a Richard of Gloucester haunted by those he's murdered. I also have a clear recollection of him doing Osric in Laurence Olivier's film version of Hamlet. I am of course wrong and it was in fact Peter Cushing. Close but no cigar.

He never did much work on the stage. In the 30s he was, briefly, with Orson Welles's legendary Mercury Theatre and appeared in Thomas Dekker's Shoemaker's Holiday and Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House. The total sum of the stage productions he took part in is a round dozen; the most interesting of which is Richard III in New York in 1953. He appears, perhaps slightly surprisingly, as the Duke of Buckingham and not the hunchback.

Richard III would of course have been the ideal role for him. Oh how low and dastardly he would have been, oh how vile and scheming and how delighted at his own villainy. He played Richard in Tower of London and even in Theatre of Blood, in the scene where he drowned one of the hated critics in a butt of not Malmsey but Claret. Poetic justice, that.

Another role he was born to play was Iago. The problem there would be this: his Iago would probably destroy the tragedy of the tragedy. He would be so charming, so witty, have such underlying good humour that we'd be on his side and not really care a tinker's cuss what happens to the silly Moor and his bit of fluff. So the play would no longer be Othello but Iago.

In Hamlet he'd be an excellently foppish Osric, a wonderfully annoying Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, and most likely a fine and remarkably dangerous Polonius. And, this goes without saying, a superbly loathsome Claudius. But as Hamlet? Now there would be a fascinating study, I'm willing to bet. Not everyone's cup of tea, but interesting.

As a straight hero Price is impossible. He doesn't look the part. He's odd, his long and narrow Puritan face is somehow rubbery, like a Halloween mask. He's off and that's what makes him so fascinating. And he's got a voice. It's a blend of honey and poison. His manner is always sarcastic, bordering on the insolent and even malicious. We never can trust him. At the same time we never can completely dislike him either, even at his most dastardly. Particularly at his most dastardly.

Other leads? A stranded and more than slightly diabolical Prospero (the imprisonment of whom seems entirely just), a Julius Caesar who rather deserves what he's getting, a Timon who hates mankind with unsurpassable intensity and is out to get each and every one of its members. Put a false belly on him and he's the drunken braggart Falstaff, downing cups and felling wenches like nobody's business, completely enamoured with his own excellence.

Twelfth Night might have been an excellent vehicle for him. I see him doing a scathing Sir Toby Belch and also a tragic Malvolio. In the comedy tragedy and horror, and naturally vice versa. Which obviously is his forte.

What about Macbeth? Is there much room for dark comedy in Macbeth? Perhaps more than at first one might suppose. It would however alter the entire dynamics of the play. Not perhaps such a bad thing. And the witches are often played for comedy, justly or not. The more I think about Vincent Price as Macbeth the more the notion appeals to me.

Such a great pity he never did much Shakespeare to speak of. Still, Theatre of Blood almost makes up for it. Or perhaps even more than makes up for it.


In Memory Yet Green

There is a quite fascinating article in the spanking new Clarkesworld Magazine about brains and how they function. In it Luc Reid makes a couple of very salient points.

Firstly: our memories are very incomplete. By and large a lot of them are, partially, synthetic constructions. We have certain facts stored in the vaults of the brain and a lot of facts we don't have stored. Thus, when we remember the mind fills in the blanks and so we have what we imagine to be complete and unadulturated memories. The appearance of what happened instead of what actually did happen.

This, interestingly enough, is rather how fiction works. The author throws out a few important facts. He, for instance, describes a scene by pointing out this tree and that house and yonder barking mutt. And the mind of the reader fills in the gaps and gets a full and rich picture of what is going on and what it looks like and how it feels and smells and tastes.

Our mind works like this the whole time, constantly filling in and completing pictures, finding patterns and regularities where none in fact exist. Creating them out of very little. That's why we see faces on the surface of Mars or in omelettes - our brains are wired to see them.

Seasoned neurologists like Lurija and Sacks go a bit beyond this. They claim that our whole consciousness is filled with gaps and glaring holes. They claim that each day we construct our consciousness anew - each day we construct who we are. They claim that our consciousness is not so much a state but a process. Like Phoenix we arise each morning from the ashes of oblivion. Except when we don't. It never may be taken for granted. And the mind is such a delicate instrument, the most delicate there is. No wonder then when things go wrong with it. Miracle that it functions at all.

Those whose consciousness functions poorly may construct a new past for themselves, a new history and a new persona. The flawed mind still connects the dots and where no dots exist it creates them. Usually that works almost as well as the genuine article. Which, as we've seen, isn't all that genuine, to be honest.

But if this gaps in the consciousness theory holds water, then Aldous Huxley was very seriously wrong in his theory. In his book The Doors of Perception he claimed that we see and hear everything, far more than we ever are aware of, and store all of it in the brain. He also believed that the chief function of the mind was to filter most of that unnecessary and unimportant information so it wouldn't clog our consciousness. If we saw and heard and were aware of everything, all the time, saw every tiny detail as through a magnifying glass, and had to notice everything on a conscious level, we'd very soon go mad. Drugs, he thought, disabled the filter and allowed us to experience everything our senses took in, and for once be aware of every tiny detail around us.

"If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks in his cavern."

Secondly: each time we access a memory we in essence rewrite it. Remembering something tampers with that memory and ultimately alters it. So the memory is never static, our memories live with us. And importantly, "anything that interferes with the re-writing turns recollection into erasure".

Thirdly, and this is an amusing thought: were somebody to try to copy one's brain (or remove it from one's head and plant it in somebody else's head, which is always a dreaded risk), they would have to recreate one's entire endocrinology as well. For the brain does not operate in a vacuum. All the chemicals we have are individual and are part of how our brain functions. So copying (or removing) only one's brain would be futile without the neurotransmitters and organs that operate the whole system. There's a relief.

It's a curiously haunting thought: every time we remeber something that memory is, if ever so slightly altered. You never can go back. You never can step into the same river twice.

The mind is a fragile and incomplete thing and we are largely our own constructions.



What ho. Today, it seems, it begins. The madness.

A group of intrepid people are attempting to read all of Shakespeare's plays in only thirty-eight days. Here's a link: http://www.shicho.net/38/

Now this is insanity of the first water (even the name smacks of a horror movie) so obviously I'm severely tempted.

The number of the plays, I notice, is thirty-eight. This includes the late collaboration with Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen. As a bonus there's the slightly iffy case Edward III, which I haven't read or at least can't recall having read. The attribution to Shakespeare isn't universally accepted but portions of it may well have been penned by the Swan of Avon. Who wrote the rest of it - meaning the rubbish bits - remains unclear.

Edmund Ironside is noticeably absent. Around twenty or twenty-five years ago it was widely trumpeted that Edmund Ironside was indeed a lost play by Shakespeare, nowadays not so much. I read it when it first came out - as by Shakespeare - but honestly can't remember much of it. So it probably made no immortal impression with its deathless blank verse or its spectacular plotting. I really have to re-read it and make up my own mind about it and especially about who wrote it. Or the pertinent fact may well be who didn't write it. There don't seem to be many editions out and about, maybe there's only the very one I read around 1986 or so. Edward III is quite definitely another must-read.

This is what my trusted Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964 has to say about Edward III: "An anonymous historical play published by Cuthbert Burby in 1596 as 'The True Raigne of King Edward the Third: As it hath bin sundrie times plaied about the Citie of London'. There is no external evidence of Shakespeare's authorship save its ascription to Shakespeare in the play-list of Rogers and Ley (1656). Capell reprinted it in his Prolusions in 1760, and described it as 'thought to be writ by Shakespeare', on the grounds that he was the only man who could have written so well in 1595. Tennyson agreed with Capell, and Swinburne disagreed. There seem to be two hands in the play, one of which may be Shakespeare's. The best writing is in Act II and IV, iv. The line 'Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds' occurs in II, i as well as in Sonnet 94. But we cannot assign any part in the play to Shakespeare with any confidence on the basis of internal evidence only."

It would indeed seem to me that the quotation from the sonnet speaks against Shakespeare's authorship of the play. On the other hand it may well have been an inside joke or a dig at Shakespeare by the play's other author.

About Edmund Ironside Halliday has not a sausage to say. Fair enough.

Maybe this will be my tiny contribution to this delightful Shakespearean March madness - reading and/or re-reading the two dubious newcomers Edmund Ironside and Edward III. And announcing to the yet unknowing world what I think about their literary pedigree. I also have J.L. Carrell's new Shakespeare thriller The Shakespeare Curse to tackle. This time around Carrell does a number on Macbeth. It's a hefty tome but could be amusing. If, that is, one as a reader is willing to overlook the somewhat verbally challenged prose the authoress, for reasons best known to herself, appears to favour.

Good luck to all those brave enough to take on Old Will - I salute you: Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!