The National Theater on Elm, our main street, opened in 1921 and for several years was Greensboro’s premier showcase. Vaudeville and silents played there, I understand, maybe live stage, later followed by sound and color. While its exterior was modest, inside the National displayed the complexity and splash of theater as well as its decorum, an embellishment of its spaces. It had side and rear balconies, a mezzanine, a proscenium, a raised stage with rows of curtains and back rooms, and damask carpeting throughout; the Robert Morton organ featured a full percussion set—drums, cymbals, chimes, Chinese blocks, a tambourine, maybe a klaxon. When fully lit for cleaning, the interior looked exposed, unsure of itself, the plaster flourishes frail, the gilt trim garish, but when the lights went down, the chamber expanded into deep, glowing involvement. Aside from our churches, there were few other establishments in town that sustained such a mood or gave us a way to escape our lives, to see past them.
When I knew the theater in the ‘60s, however, it was the kind of place you’d expect to find condoms and switchblades, not that I ever did because I seldom went there. Urban decline had slid a block past, putting the National in the somewhat—nothing in Greensboro was that extreme—bad part of town. Or maybe our small downtown never had that much going for it. At any rate the second-runs and B-movies it then showed didn’t interest me. For several years, however, my father had his office on the second floor, and I’d visit on occasion. I was only attacked once. He was district manager of a chain of theaters in the South, and there he negotiated entertainment, propriety, and profit, more and more an iffy proposition. The mezzanine and balconies had been closed, so he had the whole of the upper levels to himself. In the foyer behind the mezzanine the stuff of his business spread, ledgers, stacks of posters of varying sizes, ad copy, offset blankets, and I don’t know what else, dust dulling the gloss of promotion.
Beyond the foyer, other rooms, including his office proper. While the rest of the South was racing to catch up with modern times, his office held back, its decor reminiscent of an office scene from a ‘40s movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, even, with its row of wood filing cabinets, an ancient Underwood that later became mine, and the bulky, dark-stained desk where my father sat wearing a business suit and rimless gold-framed glasses that may well have come from that time. At least one of its walls had a large glass interior window through which he could look out on his domain, the fading possibilities from the past. I believe he was happiest there. Maybe he took his jacket off.
I think I have the details right. The National was demolished in the late ‘60s, so I have to rely on recollection from boyhood. Yet my time spent wandering the theater made a strong impression not because of what it was but because of what it projected. I never thought about acting. I wasn’t even that interested in movies. Instead, it offered a mental space to strut and fret, to put myself into some kind of darkness and think of higher things, as it still does, in memory.
So we went to the Carolina, which opened in 1927, also in the chain, larger and finer, touted in fact as the finest theater between Washington and Atlanta, and two blocks away from decline. While the façade was a showy appropriation from a Greek temple, still it was a nod to classical times, and the Greeks weren’t beyond some gaudy showmanship themselves. For many years the Carolina got the major runs in town, box office that didn’t offend. Then the only nude you saw there was a plaster statue of armless Venus, standing in a niche. It was a place to take the family, especially to watch Disney, Disney packaging of our culture, of our past, Disney reading of our fate, Disney conventional wisdom, Disney smiles and frowns: Disney setting us in our place in the Disney scheme of things—getting us to accept the yellow puppy for the dead rabid dog and other Disney sops. I couldn’t. I shouldn’t complain, however. Disney put food on the table and helped get me through college.
At least once, though, I stood outside on the marquee of the National, up among its lights, to watch our Christmas parade. North Carolinians are reserved people who do not think too highly of themselves—there is virtue here—but also then were uncertain, so the parades were tentative affairs of tempered civic pride and fragile display, city officials waving shyly from convertibles, indifferent high school bands, a few forgettable floats.
Then came the Shriners Oriental Band, some thirty turbaned men dressed in billowing, bright-colored silks, its front line swashing fake scimitars grandly, without menace, the band behind them playing odd flutes that made a tweedling noise, their music reflecting Occidental not Eastern weirdness. I didn’t know any Shriners then and still don’t know who they are or why they wear fezzes. But the old guy who led them was something else, and he kept leading the band for decades, even after a heart operation or two. He raced from curb to curb, zigzagging, flinging himself with abandon, kicking his feet high above his head, performing some exotic dance that transcended or at least flew from place and definition but kept us all there, and I can tell you he had south Greensboro’s approval.
Then down South Elm you’d hear approaching a muted, syncopated roll of snares counterpointed by pulsing basses, the stamp of fifty or more players in step—the A&T college marching band, bringing up the rear, cautiously exuberant and proud. When they reached the main street stage, they’d break out in Christmas standards with precision but also with art, with a bounce, reinvigorating the songs we’d heard so many times before, the drums rolling, thumping with unexpected emphasis in rhythm that was kept, their full-throated brass sounding in single voice, warm not blaring. When they played “The First Noël,” the angels did sing.
I hope I have these details right.
But I know the band was good. They were invited to the Macy’s parade in the ‘70s and I understand are going back again. They moved us where we stood, moved us in spite of ourselves, in spite of where we had been standing for so many years. Woolworth’s 5 & 10 was only a few blocks down from the National, where in 1960 four A&T students walked up to the lunch counter and asked to be served. Blacks could buy goods at the store but not sit down and eat. In just a few months the sit-in movement spread throughout the South and beyond, beginning a long period of other marches, other stagings of civil demonstration, and of slow change and mounting tensions—including mass protests at the National and Carolina.
And here the parade stops. I do remember “Colored” entrances to both theaters and darkened faces up, behind me—blacks sat in the balconies before the balconies were closed. Both were integrated about three years after the sit-in. My father would have been involved—and probably resisted. Yet I don’t remember anything at all about that change or the demonstrations. I didn’t have a concrete sense of what they were protesting until after college, when I got a job with Social Services and finally saw the rest of town.
Not just blacks and whites, their separation, the tensions, not just colorful displays. There is so much else that slips away now, in memory.
I am standing on an empty stage.
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
The players have come to Elsinore, and one has just rehearsed extemporaneously at Hamlet’s request Aeneas’s recounting of Priam’s slaughter. Here Hamlet is building resolve for his own action, the settling of his father’s murder, and the players have given him an idea. Yet as much he is putting on a show himself, doubting himself and reveling in that doubt, and, quite frankly, hamming it up. Hamlet is one of the best-known characters in all of literature. The sublime, noble youth standing up against so much obvious wrong is universally seductive. But he also gives us a mask for our own indulgences, an excuse to cut loose with our own madness.
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!
And he pulls the rug from under everything.
I am sure I saw Richard Burton’s Hamlet at the National. It was a filming of the Broadway production directed by John Gielgud, simultaneously released for short runs throughout the nation in 1964. I was twelve. The movie was probably shown at the National instead of the Carolina because my father didn’t think they could make any money from it, and they didn’t. I can’t remember why I went—my interests in culture then were pretty thin—and it wasn’t the kind of thing my parents would have pushed. I don’t remember anything at all about the play at all except that it was three hours of torture without the relief of action, in black and white yet. The actors largely only talked and gestured, and I couldn’t follow Shakespeare’s packed language or make sense of so much emotional overflow that I didn’t hear at home. By the time the cast finally got down to business at the end, I was too exhausted to care. I only remember clearly the ghost of Hamlet’s father, just a black shadow projected on a wall, and his voice—Gielgud’s—when he shouts the words:
Which hit me hard without my knowing why. Twelve-year-olds carry a lot of baggage about facing their fathers and keeping promises.
I have seen the film version on DVD several times since, however, and it has become my favorite Hamlet. The actors wear rehearsal dress—casual street clothes—removing the trappings of what we no longer care about or believe, cosmic underpinnings of inherited station. Royalty in Shakespeare now just gives us a way to take ourselves seriously, a metaphor for a realm in the mind, at least, where we don’t have to worry about being thrown off the stage. Hamlet is an individual play, or, if it wasn’t in Shakespeare’s time, it is now. The set itself is bare, imitating a back stage—a brick wall, a few common props, rough platforms, some steps—minimally modern or, as I prefer to think of it, not timeless but without time. Palatial adornment, all the tracery where an individual might get distracted, has been stripped. This abstraction allows us to fill in ourselves what we want to add and close out all the things that now need closing out. Or consider what we have put in the place of royalty and where that has left us.
I’m not a Richard Burton fan, yet I most like his Hamlet. He’s not some simple youthful hero racked by injury, defined by a noble stance and given to heroic postures. Rather, he shows a range of moods that runs the gamut, a complexity of character that cannot be unraveled. His voice breaks, he gives himself to a conceit, and the ideals he promotes hang in precarious balance. He is a Hamlet who questions Hamlet even as he asserts him, pumping up the moody Dane only to deflate him the next turn. Every line he delivers reflects this ambiguity, and when Burton’s Hamlet goes mad, it’s hard to tell if he’s feigning madness or really has lost it. An artificial distinction has been removed.
And it’s seeing Hamlet at the National, seeing it as I remember it now—a shadow of a ghost, the film’s sparse staging, played itself in the nearly empty theater with its sticky floors and creaking lumpy seats and peeling paint and threadbare carpet and fading patterns, with its ghosts—that gives me a diminishing perspective to look down, look back, a place to stand alone and reflect, to brood on boyhood indignation and all that was rotten in the state of Greensboro, on youthful indecision and errancy as well as on present uncertainty, if not as a Burton, at least as a bughouse Hamlet.
To be or not to be—
To be a Southerner is to live with contradictions that if endured, divide and corrupt you, but which opposed, leave you without a self, without a kingdom to inherit. To leave the South, however, is to be set adrift with complexes no one cares about or even understands.
I grew up in a world that cared about and supported me, a world built on an understanding of place and order, governed by genuine values and terms for acceptance, which, when followed, promised belonging. Within that scheme, racial prejudice and segregation, these with their own well-mannered refinements and gradations, which as a boy, of course, I did not question. How could I separate from that world what our parents could not remove themselves?
You can adopt a critical stance and condemn and reject, as I did, but to reject puts you on an ethereal plane, the place of the critic, where you are defined by the terms of rejection without anything to assert positively for yourself other than your rejection. And it is a lofty place where it is easy to make a misstep and fall, with nothing to catch you when you do.
Race remains an awkward subject for whites to talk about, potentially volatile. Most avoid it. We are asked to take seriously in others what we can’t take seriously ourselves, or shouldn’t—our race. In effect we assume that race is something others have. White still means privilege and position, which materially is everything, but offers nothing else, nothing that might give us meaningful footing in the world, a vital self. We can condemn ourselves as racists because we are white and share that past, but that doesn’t tell us what we are, only what is wrong with us, which can result in an endless loop of self-reprisal against which, sooner or later, we will react. But to keep quiet is to bury self-doubts and the past and to ignore what still is a problem in this country—race.
Yet rejection of the old order dovetailed nicely with youthful outrage and raised those my age against the meddling parents who held us back. It also set us against the gentle people who cared. Like Hamlet, I was left talking to myself or was given to moods that had everyone wondering what was wrong. Or I’d break out in paroxysms of protest, most often before my father because of what he represented and because he stood his ground, but also because he was closest. Not shouting matches. Raised voices and extended argument were serious breaches of family ethic, so a few pointed words were enough to disturb family comity and represent where the argument might go and what it meant, what it threatened. But also I didn’t have the exhibits to arm myself that the nation saw elsewhere in the South, the tear gas, the hosing, the dogs turned loose. Overt racism, like anything extreme, was not tolerated where I lived. We prided ourselves on being civil and progressive, and we had that reputation.
This civility, however, was the problem. Protest violated the spirit of getting along, the fabric that held us together, and thus could not be considered valid recourse. Because we did not think highly of ourselves, we did not want to make exceptions or create special rules. It was a formula that maintained status quo and worked against black Greensboro.
For years the demonstrations, while insistent, increasingly so, stayed within the bounds, incredibly, of civility and the law. This was a necessity—blacks lacked the inside power to force the issue—but also civility and character were traits they cared about themselves. Many civic models from the other side of town came to the fore, informed, patient, and forbearing people whom most of us did not know—and who were largely dismissed. So they could work only so much influence and were not heard. Each proposal was resisted at every step, and the changes after the Woolworth’s sit-in were superficial. Signs were taken down, outer doors were opened but not inner, the openings that gave access to opportunity and advancement. The school board dragged its feet on integration, then finally moved to a voluntary plan that made slight progress and got HEW on its back. Freedom was defined in favor of owners, their right to do as they saw fit. Hiring practices did not move.
Tensions mounted on both sides, fed by what was reported in the rest of the nation—riots, the murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X—and by the toll of years of stalling. With the tensions came questioning of method and a shift to charged rhetoric. Stokely Carmichael spoke to the A&T campus, and the Black Panthers offered alternative models; the city looked more to the police and National Guard. Then, in 1969, after a series of protests at the school and elsewhere in town, clashes escalated into open confrontation. The police and Guard stormed the campus, shots were fired from both sides, then the Guard proceeded to clear out the campus, smashing in dorm doors. One student was killed.
But all indications are that the city grossly overreacted and may have been responsible for the death. The city had been listening to radicals, not the black civic leaders, and must have been seeing Watts and Newark rather than Greensboro. And they looked at the present moment, not the past, the decades of neglect and denial. What they also weren’t looking at were their own suspicions, heightened to the pitch of conspiracy, bordering on paranoia.
Yet while A&T was only a few miles away, it might as well have been a thousand, so great was the separation of white from black. Our desire to avoid the offensive blinded us to offense. Our distance and enforced alienation kept us from discourse with the others and left us only to ourselves and all that had gone unsaid. However civil we tried to be—and were—the assumptions beneath our civility and our interpretation of civil rights, politely unexamined, were monstrous. We had created a breeding ground for perversion with no checks to stop its growth. It is a terrifying spectacle to watch kindness turn to cruelty.
Even my own revolt was abstract, uninformed and self-serving, because I was just as removed as everyone else. I don’t remember anything at all about the Woolworth’s sit-in or the events that followed because I did not witness them or know much about them other than what I might have caught in the news, itself cautious, polite, distant—and civil in its disapproval. My parents would have protected me, but we seldom went downtown anyway. All I was exposed to directly was the forced silence in my world, tense but ever civil, but from which might slip a few words of violation over what was being argued by blacks, which could migrate to generalized concerns about the fate of the rest of the world and fears of its collapse. At the bottom of those fears, what their silence kept. The near wordless battles with my father grew more personal and increased in pitch, made all the more intense because there was no prospect of release or resolution. It was a time when we thought our fathers were not our fathers but some corrupt version who had stepped in to take their place. Virtual stepfathers can be just as pernicious as real ones and are harder to deal with.
But when alone I found myself uncertain and ineffectual, haunted by my own monsters.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all
Hamlet again, later in that soliloquy. The note in my text interprets “conscience” as “self-consciousness, introspection,” but given the context, the moral sense of the word cannot be excluded. And can there be a self without a conscience to be conscious of?
Hamlet sees no options to his dilemma, no means in his world to take action, so contemplates suicide as the solution to his woes. It is the thought of the afterlife, however, and what it represents that slows him, its word on crimes against life, even one’s own. The ghost of his good father should be in mind here, who in the first act reveals that he burns in the fires of purgatory, penance for his own youthful sins. It is conscience in the sense we know today that is the other ghost in the play, which never appears in person but tugs at Hamlet’s motive, stalls the plot, and tortures us for three hours without release or resolution, denying us what his father wants, what Hamlet wants, what we all want—
Does Hamlet recognize the irony in what he says?
I should be grateful to blacks for their years of speaking up, and I am. I was given what should be the foundation of any education, a push to step outside my world and question it rather than follow the course of its contradictions. I had the chance to exercise all meanings of conscience and try to put them together. It was also a time we thought about the meanings of other words—civil rights and freedom, for example. But it wasn’t just an exercise in abstractions. Conscience was grounded in reality, one prerequisite for sanity. We did go to integrated schools and at last saw the others, several of them the sons and daughters of faculty and administrators, again from A&T. What we found were students like us, eager to get along and get ahead, though they were better prepared for handling the past.
What we learned was that we wanted to make the break and move on.
Not just those my age. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s much of the town opened up and talked, in city councils and civic groups, in the churches and the schools and at home. Perhaps the talk was slow and grudging, but there was serious reexamination, and I don’t think there were many who didn’t reconsider, even my father, even if only for a moment. I haven’t heard such engaged public discussion since, not on this scale.
What Hamlet does not consider is a world without conscience in any sense. Then again, perhaps he couldn’t and it didn’t matter. Who of the other characters in the play, exactly, do we admire for his self-awareness, her character, her strength of mind, his taste, her wisdom, his vision, their channeling of passion? What supports them? What do they hold up themselves? Royalty in Elsinore, like Southern segregationists, consider themselves Christians.
I’m not sure how well conscience served me either when, after college, I took the job at Social Services and finally saw the neighborhoods across town, not all of them black. Not race, that wasn’t all I saw, not exactly poverty, which the state managed to a subsistence level, but housing projects that did not project, a structure, or a structure hidden beneath the structure, or a structured lack of structure, pervasive and closed, cemented and made solid by the years of neglect and blindness and all else that took the place of vision, closed to change and hope and meanings, and seemingly unbreakable.
Nor could I exercise conscience well in my own world. It’s a mistake to think that race wholly shaped our lives, and there was more to my life growing up, but so much slips away in its abstractions as I try to look back now. School was defined by standards and procedures, process without much purpose. We were encouraged to be good citizens but weren’t taught how to exercise that power or question the powers that existed. Life was the way it was; our task was to learn and replicate and follow. And the suburbs were the suburbs, worlds unto themselves that looked only at themselves. It was hard to believe anyone lived differently, but just as hard to know how we were supposed to live ourselves. We weren’t just separated by race from others, but also from just about everything else, from the larger world, from any kind of center. The decay of downtown Greensboro was blamed on integration, but really we gave ourselves to the suburbs and continued to move commerce and culture further out. The Carolina followed the National in decline, and my father moved his office to the Terrace, a new theater miles away in a shopping center, modernish and nondescript.
Then add the hours and subtract the possible memories lost, sucked away by TV shows and advertising, the poison they poured into the porches of our ears, their world of promotion and sensation, where we were encouraged to believe anything and nothing, and learned not to trust anyone or anything we heard.
There were suburban releases. For my sixth or seventh birthday, my father paid a projectionist one afternoon to show The Blob at the Carolina to a dozen or so of my friends, starring Steve McQueen in an early role, our guide to coolness in the face of adversity. It’s a movie about an alien thing that falls from outer space, escapes from its shell, and proceeds to devour everyone in Anytown, U.S.A., growing larger with every meal. We had the theater to ourselves, and when the Blob, now huge, invades the Anytown theater, we ran up and down the aisles of the Carolina ourselves, screaming for our lives. The Blob fit into a pattern that has grown larger itself and continues to devour us with its formula for our distraction: alien entity utterly unlike us—though sometimes strangely familiar—maybe from outer space, maybe from other distant places, distant times, appears out of the blue and mounts a threat not related to anything recognizable in our world, presenting no moral complexity or dilemma. We unite to destroy it and in the process close out any worldly concern we might have. The alien is finally destroyed, at least for a while, a plot resolution that purges us, again for a while, but also increases our appetite for the next invasion.
As for my father, the proposition of entertainment, propriety, and profit got further pulled apart. At the Terrace he resorted to the latest Disney or reached back to old standbys and gave them long runs, a month or more, Disney’s Mary Poppins; The Sound of Music, Gone with the Wind, and Doctor Zhivago—I still don’t understand Zhivago’s draw except perhaps as a transposed Gone with the Wind. Meanwhile I went to the rival Janus, an art theater, where I saw Woodstock, Easy Rider, and If. . . . I did watch Little Big Man at the Carolina, however, also Bullitt—Steve McQueen again—where I saw my first car chase and real blood, both of which jolted me, staples since of Hollywood reality. It is also a movie that raises questions about constant exposure to violence. How tame Bullitt looks now. Curiously, the Billy Jack movies, low-rent counterculture, played well at his drive-ins, and my father got behind them and made considerable profit.
Theater was, after all, a business, and more and more I suspect that was all it was to him then, a maneuvering of abstract numbers. But also the company changed owners and was absorbed by larger firms, and where once he had influence and freedom to make decisions, he now had to answer to higher-ups, their abstractions. More and more Greensboro itself—like the South, like the nation—gave itself to business, much of which remained downtown, at our center. There was talk of tearing down the Carolina to make room for more office parking.
But take all those movies, map their settings real and manufactured, diagram the plots, outline the themes, and overlap these pictures. Now try to put yourself in time and place, then build a world, a future. It is a blueprint for cultural chaos.
To be or not to be . . .
Claudius kept Hamlet from returning to the university at Wittenberg so he could keep an eye on him. I, however, left the South for grad school, Berkeley. Friends of mine who went to northeastern colleges in the ‘70s told me Southerners got put on the stand, as was happening elsewhere in the nation, though often it was a matter of de factos accusing de jures, whose method of dealing with race was to castigate the South. I went to California planning to drop my accent and keep a low profile, but also arm myself with arguments defending the place where, after all, I was born. You don’t understand, I was going to say—but how could I defend what I had criticized myself and couldn’t explain anyway? With those debates, the weighing of responsibility for a past I had rejected but that still was part of me and which I had only imperfectly engaged, guilt lingering like a spectral mist. But really I argued with myself as my background seldom came up. For most Californians the South is a foreign place.
Berkeley did have its own refinements on race and culture, couched in language that required an apprenticeship to understand, arguments that were intense and impersonal and unforgiving, abstract and self-reflexive, whose light left no shadows. What my years at Berkeley sheltered me from was how much the nation had changed in the way it saw itself and what it looked at, in its ways of talking about itself. Reagan’s landslide victory over Carter, one of our own and a man of conscience, came as a shock. The presidential debate sets the date for me when public discussion lost traction. It is also the date I assign for our collective loss of memory.
With what ease he joined contradictions and deflected our anxieties, how much he put our minds at rest by ignoring matters like race and encouraging us to look elsewhere, how much he fed our need to feel good about ourselves, what a supernal shine he put on self-interest. He was the president of the fathers who were not our fathers.
And how easily the next thirty years slide away. I moved to Silicon Valley to teach, where the wonder of our devices fed itself with the belief that we were transforming our lives, proof of which came from stellar advancements in our ability to process, to remake the process into new process. With the belief, more self-reflection and self-referral, and a looking forward without looking back. There I continued to drift in irresolution, carrying conflicts and anxieties that seemed necessary but had nowhere to ground themselves, feeling more and more out of place in California, the land of the laid-back, where the people are relaxed and friendly—and coolly uncivil.
In the rest of the nation, the continued torquing of distractions on our screens, a repackaging of the same stale ideas in our public discussion, the continual burying and forgetting. Now the impasse over Obama’s budget, the language of that discussion, the leeching of the weal, another market slide. When I was in high school, one debate topic was whether 4 percent unemployment was acceptable. With the discussion, our faith in our markets, the push to feed them in spite of their collapses, the graphs that give no sense of a baseline, of economic reality, of material sanity, or of a bottom.
We are an OK people in an OK nation and everything is OK. We must protect our OKness at all costs, and when it is threatened we need to do all we can to prop it up. Then we realized we didn’t feel OK but didn’t know why, our discomfort compounded by what we had been told and believed, that we were supposed to feel OK about ourselves. Beneath our OKness and our doubts about it, what we had not looked at, assumptions unexamined, what was left unsaid, what had been allowed to grow.
The horror of 9/11 wasn’t that it came from beyond, unexpected, but rather that it gave us a spectacle of what we most feared at home ourselves and had been waiting for but could not admit, how easily our world could collapse. But we got the alien threat we needed, whose strange desert lands displaced us into a place where we could safely act, whose strange people with their strange passions, familiar but not recognized, opposed and matched our own. The Afghan war was too quick, too easy, however, so we looked elsewhere. We needed Iraq 2 to pump us up. And since we could not find Bin Laden, we especially needed that other face of that man in Iraq, so hostile, so strange, yet so direct, so clear, so familiar though not familiar, a face to assault in person, who took the place of what had been too abstract and impersonal for us and too messy and too uncertain, that face inflated by our own suspicions, by what had grown monstrous inside us, a face against which we could fulfill what gnawed at us and remained unfulfilled, against which we could finally exact our deepest desire—
As I felt myself, withdrawn and angry and conflicted and alienated from everything and myself, the need to strike out, if not abroad then elsewhere, anywhere, really, everywhere, not just against virtual fathers who were not our fathers, but others, anyone, really, the need to get—
What is galling about turning the other cheek is that it exposes us, leaving us uncertain, freezing us in inaction.
What else is revenge but a way to prove we still exist when the world tells us we do not?
This quarry cries on havoc. O proud Death,
What feast is toward in thine eternal cell
That thou so many princes at a shot
So bloodily hast struck?
Fortinbras of Norway has just returned and surveys the carnage at the end. The court of Elsinore has effectively been wiped out.
Who wasn’t relieved when the statue of Saddam Hussein came down?
Who was prepared for what followed over the next eight years?
How many of us know the extent of the destruction there, or here, the number of dead, or cares?
But now the credits run and the lights come on at the National. I blink, we adjust our eyes, watching emerge faintly the faded patterns and tarnished glitter on the walls, thinking about returning home.
What Hamlet was to Shakespeare’s world I can only guess. Did it show the devastating effects when those on high were corrupt and threatened the natural order? Or was order the illusion Shakespeare created to reveal by contrast the contradictions, the possibilities of disorder and desperation, of corruption, there at the Danish court, anywhere, to which princes and queens and kings were not immune?
If not in Shakespeare’s time, the latter has to be the case for Hamlet now. Our Hamlet throws us back on ourselves as we have nowhere else to look. But it had to be exhilarating then as it is now to have the scaffolding collapse and see the world so thoroughly shaken. The power of the play is not in what it resolves but how much it contains without resolving, how much it raises and takes away, how much it makes us doubt.
Enough, at least, to give us pause.
It is also a play that exercises our conscience without letting us rest with easy—or any—answers. Hamlet is not a fiction about revenge, but a fiction about our fictions of revenge, which it teases us with and frustrates interminably, and however strong the personal urge, the felt rightness, we see what happens when those fictions get played out on a larger stage.
Moments earlier, the stage littered with corpses, the Burton Hamlet, himself at the point of death, stares at Claudius, whom he has just dispatched, and laughs, in fact chuckles. I suppose it is an expression of contempt for the pathetic king, but the escape of humor opens up something else suppressed throughout the play, the laughter of absurdity. Revenge, like the play, is darkly comic. Because Burton next delivers his last line with the thought that terrifies us all with its laugh, that the rest is silence.
We admire Hamlet for his ideals and noble character, his aspiration for something higher, or that illusion, still attractive, but what draws us is that he can act and does—eventually—while we have to hold back. It’s his humanity, however, with its passions, imperfect and unruly, that binds us to him, humanity in all its contradictions, most in its resistance to our definitions. Yet if we have been paying attention, we have to confess he has been rather sloppy. Directly or indirectly, he has left a trail of dead. He unhinges Ophelia with his madness, and his slaying of her father, unintentional but rash, finishes her off. He is especially cavalier with the sentences he wrote for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. To say he gets caught up in circumstances beyond his control, that he, too, is a victim of the corruption, makes him a mere agent, a thing.
I have been careless myself.
Only now, after thirty years in California, do I miss the Carolina accent that embarrassed me for so long, its modulating vowels that take two beats, its flattened consonants, its lingering, guttural ars—sounds unstudied but cultivated with fondness, a voice that takes the edges off, that does not try to assert with plosives or separate or distinguish, but join. I cannot recall meeting a cruel or indifferent person there, black or white.
My father was not a king, much less a bad king, but he was a good man. I condemned his reserve because I knew what it contained. What I did not consider was what his reserve kept him from thinking, from doing—or what else it kept alive. Finally I have come to understand in my life its necessity—reserve is another requirement for sanity—and even its virtue. When he was a boy growing up in a small town in South Carolina in the ‘20s, the Klan marched in the holiday parades, as they did in Washington and throughout the nation, not in anger but in open display of civic pride. That was his world, and ours. Maybe the Klan even gave the town what it lacked, some mystery, a twist of the exotic, a flash of spectacle. My father, however, kept his distance.
His parents did not have much money, but somehow his mother saw him through college in Spartanburg, where they then lived. To help make ends meet, he got a job at the local theater, taking, tearing tickets, which is where he made his start. After the war he was offered a position in the chain and was glad to get the job. He stayed with them for forty years. Only late in his life did he tell me that when young he wanted to go to New York, to do what, he didn’t say.
A few years after my father died, my mother sent me a stack of letters from lawyers in New York, dense with legal language. Loews Cineplex, the corporation that then owned his company, was bankrupt, that term declared so it could be absorbed by another. She was worried about her retirement check. It wasn’t much, but it was all that remained of his years of loyal service, so I spent weeks trying to sort it out, making phone calls to New York where I was shuttled from one office to another without getting any answer. I finally found out from one of my father’s former managers that her plan was vested.
We lost interest in them, and the palaces and temples decayed, their balconies and back stages and prosceniums and niches and trim and flourishes were razed, their theater organs sold or trashed, making way for the suburban boxes that spread farther out in malls, out by highways, out nowhere, worlds unto worlds unto worlds unto themselves, like cells their screens splitting into identical chambers, and splitting again and again, where now play our abstract revenges, our abstractions of ourselves. I searched the bankruptcy notice to look for my father and couldn’t find him. I later learned that Wilby-Kincey Theaters, who first hired him—he always spoke highly of Mr. Kincey and knew him well, in fact was in line for succession—had merged and changed names again, then been absorbed by Plitt Southern, whose name I saw in tiny print in the list of companies Loews was turning over, some 250 of them, corporate containers representing all those boxes, tens of thousands. . . .