Monday, September 01, 2008

Bloody Poetry

Okay, okay, okay. Sure. Since you've been after me about it for so long, I'll tell you. You're always asking me "how does it feel to go to a play about the English Romantic poets directed by, and starring, students to whom you once taught the works of the English Romantic poets?" Well, I'll tell you: it feels good. It also feels odd, and gives one a sense of time's winged chariot zipping by at an alarming pace. I mean, I'm used to running into former students working as bartenders and wait-staff (I teach English, after all), but now I've been at this game long enough to start seeing my former students accomplish impressive things. They go to grad school. They have kids. Some of them make piles of money. And some of them put on plays in cooler-than-cool little Chicago theaters. In the present case, they've put on a play that pushes a whole lot of my buttons, dealing as it does not only with Romanticism, but with the contradictions of the autonomous intellect.

The play is Howard Brenton's Bloody Poetry at the Side Project Theater, directed by Evan Jackson, and starring, among others, former students of mine Mark Dryfoos, Catherine Hermes, and Tristan Brandon. Brandon plays Byron, which is perfect: I always thought he had a Byron-meets-Brian Ferry kind vibe to him, and he assured me after the show that he was able to kit himself out in full Byronic regalia from his personal wardrobe. Anyway, the play's a sharp two-acter about the goings-on between Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, Claire Clairemont, and Dr. Polidori. I'd call it a love triangle, but I think it's more like a love dodecahedron, with revolutionary politics, social deviancy, polymorphous sexuality and a bit of opium thrown in for good measure. There's also sudden death, Shelley's funeral pyre, and some weird supernatural hauntings.

For me, though, the most interesting thing about Brenton's play is the way it depicts the relations between the bourgeois world and the nascent bohemian intellectual demimonde, right at the moment of that demimonde's birth. Long story short, up until the late eighteenth century European intellectuals (including literary types) tended to be supported by, and subordinate to, various powerful institutions. Sometimes it was the aristocracy, which patronized (in both senses) writers, artists, philosophers, and scientists. Sometimes the church did this, or even the royal court. With the rise of market forces and the bourgeoisie, though, some intellectuals stepped away from this system and found the same combination of support and subordination in the marketplace, writing or thinking or painting for the money to be found there. But there's more. In the great bust-up of aristocratic and ecclesiastical authority, some intellectuals chose to step away from the old patrons and the new market system. Some of these writers went broke, and were on the outs politically (think Shelley), others happened to make a lot of money from writing, but did so without having that in mind as a goal (think Byron, who walked away from many of his royalties because he thought accepting them beneath him, and who had great kegs and barrels full of inherited cash anyway). There was an historical opportunity to serve no one, and the Shelleys and the Byrons of the world took it.

For Byron, this opportunity for freedom was largely a matter of hedonism, beyond even the level of self-indulgence in which a peer of the realm could generally revel. For Shelley, it was a matter of revolution, a chance to change the social order for the better (Byron signed on for some of this too, and famously died in the service of a Greek revolution). The really great thing about Brenton's Bloody Poetry, though, lies in the way it captures two of the great complications attendant upon such assertions of freedom.

The first complication involves the way the bourgeoisie (represented in the play by Polidori, Byron's physician and a would-be writer himself) is both attracted to and repelled by the new, autonomous intellectuals. In the play Polidori (played with splendid creepiness by Mark Dryfoos in the Chicago production) is obsessed with the literary genius of the Shelley-Byron circle, but angered by his own exclusion from their literary projects. He's even more obsessed by their sexual intrigues, from which he is also excluded. Envy of the Romantics' intellectual and sexual intrigues turns into a kind of hatred, and he vows to take revenge in the memoirs he's writing. He wants to paint the Romantics in salacious terms, to get even with them, and, as he says in a dark aside, "to own them." There's a creepy way in which we, the audience, are Polidori: after all, we're also Peeping Toms at the Romantics' sexual irregularities, and we're also excluded. His prurience is ours, and if he stands condemned by the play, so do we.

The second complication isn't a matter of clever audience-positioning, but it does give us some of the better speeches in the play. It's the problem of the isolation and uselessness that accompanies the new freedoms of the intellectual. While a court poet knows where he stands in society (he adorns the existing social order), a poet who declares his autonomy from power faces a problem. He doesn't really know what his role is. Even if he yearns for a role in social revolution, he's got to face the question of whether or not his efforts really have any effect (well, he's got to face this, or mire himself in a whole lot of self-deception about the efficacy of his linguistic activity in challenging the powers). There's a great bit in the play where Brenton's version of Byron rants about how restless he feels, and how he wishes there were a revolution, because then at least the poets would have a role, writing the songs and making the banners. And there's a fantastic speech where Shelley gets so caught up in the problem he nearly drowns in a storm at sea, as he calls out “I write poems. But most of the world cannot even read. So what can I do? Act as if I were free. Write, as if I were free.” There's the stuff, the subjunctive utopia of the autonomous intellectual. You know: where most of us live now.

I suppose it's important that Howard Brenton, an old sixties radical, wrote the play during the dawn of the reactionary Thatcher era in Britain. He'd have to have been thinking about the revolutionary dreams of his generation, and the rude awakening when the bourgeoisie reasserted itself with a vengeance. The solutions to the world's problems that Brenton and his friends had hoped for didn't seem to be taking hold, and the whole question of what all their writing and thinking had been for must have been painfully present. They had tried to live and write freely, as autonomous intellects, but to what end?

Brenton's play flirts with at least one solution to the problem of intellectual autonomy: aestheticism. Strangely, it gives this view to Mary Shelley. When Byron dismisses Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" on political grounds, she stares down the decadent Lord and refutes him by saying, of the poem, "but it sings." Its beauty is its justification. This art-for-art's sake position isn't, as far as I know, where Mary Shelley really stood. But accuracy be damned: Bloody Poetry sings, too.