A Triumph Was A Public Show

[Reading Shakespeare while sheltering in place]

Old Copy

Saturday noon finds eight friends gathered virtually for a read-around of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I am one of them. I’m always one. This circle is the one I’ve belonged to the longest. At sixty, our host Alan is ten years older than I am and taking our sheltering period to grow the long free beard he’d craved wearing as a child. He strokes it. He sits beside his wife Rachel in their loveseat flanked by antique lampshades. It’s good to see them. It’s good to see everybody—Stacy, Pauline, Ransom, Mel, Jay, Bernard, Erica, and Sandy— looking so healthy. We live in California, North Carolina, Chicago, Albuquerque, and London. Masks may hang from our necks but again we are healthy. Everyone’s hair is longer. Looking past their smiling faces on my computer screen, I’m drawn to incidentals:

..spines of books about anthropology, cooking, umbrella handle, tidiness, a painting of a squirrel in a tree of Chinese lettering, weariness, chaos, autumnal colors red and golden, minimalist, business as usual, shabby chic, framed certificates of achievement, framed elders, children, transitional look, mad scientist, a pot of ivy hanging in macrame, rustic, clay figurine silhouetted in bright window, industrial look, a cat walks across a keyboard, Frank sets his laptop on his piano, contemporary, Jay’s wife poking her head in to say hi, mid century modern; a stray toddler (Little Gregory) for cooing as he passes….

We curate our frames. Everyone wants us to see something. An object. A quality. My guitar hangs on the wall behind me. I have placed such worn titles as Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander and Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody in plain view for anyone who’s looking.

Drawing my name from a hat, Alan assigns me the roles of Theseus, the Duke Athens, and Oberon, King of the Fairies. They’re both men, though Shakespeare’s fairies are hermaphrodites in my memory of them. Both lead their minions, an earthly troop in chain mail and swordplay on one hand and, on the other, a band of spirits, Peasblossom, Moth, and Cobweb among them. I want to say that Theseus is doctrinaire, bound up with fear, and that Oberon is a noble and supportive guy who will nevertheless drug his wife with magic to steal the changeling. This is comedy.

Playing the parts of Helena and Hermia, our London friends Stacy and Pauline reintroduce us to their eleven-and-a-half-year-old daughter Caitlin. In her pajamas, she’s dragged her blanket into the frame on her way to beddy-bye. I met her once when she was an infant and again a year ago. She’d recently heard that old-fashioned phrase, ‘If such-and-such happens, I’ll eat my hat. It was like a song stuck in her head that she kept singing: ‘If Mom’s on time, I’ll eat my hat.’ ‘I’ll eat my hat if there aren’t a million people already waiting.’ ‘I’ll eat my hat if I need my dumb coat after all.’ I remember feeling charmed by this, and also a little jealous. To be in the newness of it all! I told a story called ‘The Hat Eaters’ in her honor. It was about all of us. It was roundly panned by everyone as satire that was less a piece of social commentary and more a laundry list of my own personal grievances. I’ve always felt this was an overreaction. But that’s not important either. What’s important is that we all have our parts to play. If I know this crowd, and I do, we will read loudly and softly and with gusto. We will modulate our voices.

My copy of A Midsummer’s Night Dream comes from an anthology published in Cleveland in 1925 by the World Syndicate Company. It belonged to my late grandmother on my father’s side and includes all the Bard’s comedies. Its faux leather cover hangs by a thread. The printers have included the phrase ‘A triumph was a public show’ in a distinct font in the bottom margin of the first page of the play. These words are not part of the script. Appearing nowhere else in the volume, they feel more poignant than practical. The more times I read them the more they sound like an incantation. And why the past tense? But this too is beside the point. We’re all online together, and it’s time to start. I clear my throat and say to my friends in a fairly flat voice, ‘Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour draws on apace….’ This is my Theseus. This is my Oberon.

The Players
Clover
Flute’s Reaction
Pollyanna

Covidavid

Masked Girl

A sixth-grader asks her teacher is it okay to have a good day while others are suffering. Before he can answer, her peers shout into mics like shouts in a brick-and-mortar classroom. Their faces light up his viewscreen. Voices draw down the tedium of sheltering. ‘Be happy about your happiness,’ they try to tell each other, ‘cognizant of the world happening around you.’ He doesn’t change the subject so much as its direction, when he asks, ‘What’s one thing you’d like to do when life returns to normal?’ The lists they make start small and grow increasingly unrealistic.

Feeding

When out of the blue the child asked what the difference was between homicide and suicide, she cried, “You’re spilling!”—and that he please hold his cup upright.  When he asked if suicide were more common than homicide—or if homicide was more common between the two—she said, “You’re getting all wet!—please hold your cup upright, or if the next time you’re thirsty how about I don’t feed you?”

Pet Cemetery

LEFT. In this photo with our friend’s bulldog Max, I am cut off. But who can compete with those rugged good looks! RIGHT. A U.S. Army post from 1847 to 1994, the Presidio of San Francisco has a pet cemetery. It started in the 1950s, I believe, around the time of the Korean War.

Feel Your Way Forward

Left: Looking out from the Marin Headlands, just north of San Francisco, early one morning. Right: That same summer month, wandering into the mist of an Olafur Eliasson exhibit at the Tate Modern.