Star Wars in an Age of Exhaustion

The rabbit trail of the Internet led me today from a David Brooks column to a Joshua Mitchell essay to the new Star Wars trailer. And in the end I think I caught an interesting wabbit.

Lemme ‘splain.

The Age of the Outsider

In his column in the New York Times today Brooks writes about how we are living in an “Age of the Outsider.” Many of what used to be our central political and social institutions are breaking down, their gravitational pull upon us, in Brooks’s metaphor, being replaced by pulls from smaller stars and planets. “Each central establishment, weakened by its own hollowness of meaning, is being ripped apart by the gravitational pull from the fringes.”

The phenomenon of the outsider cuts across political and social divides. Donald Trump is an obvious outsider, disrupting the traditional gravitational pull of our democratic politics. But so is, when it comes to the institution of marriage, the cultural warrior trying to redefine that institution.

The Age of Exhaustion

Where’s all this heading? Brooks asks. Here he references Georgetown University professor Joshua Mitchell’s recent essay in the American Interest, “The Age of Exhaustion.” Mitchell’s essay is long and heady but well worth the read.

In it he argues that in our time there are three paradigms that vie for our allegiance: Liberal Triumphalism, the anti-Liberal Politics of Identity, and the Great Exhaustion. Brooks strikes me as prescient in seeing the Great Exhaustion as the condition toward which our culture is declining. But what does Mitchell mean by this paradigm?

The Time of the Great Exhaustion, writes Mitchell, is a time neither of great loves nor of great hatreds. It is, instead, a time of ennui, boredom. In Kierkegaard’s ironic phrase, it is a time of despair not even knowing that it is despair. In such an age,

Citizens will lose faith in liberty and no longer labor to maintain and defend it. Instead, they will prefer a quiet, purportedly beneficent equality in servitude, a despotism that assures them that they have security and adolescent entertainment: Facebook, Twitter, never-ending video games, and the titillation of ever more mesmerizing gadgets. This delivers them from the specter of anxiety and the burden of freedom. The democratic age ends, neither with robust Liberals striving in a forever imperfect world, nor with defiant anti-Liberals striving to perfect the world, but rather with The Great Exhaustion. Striving, uncertainty, risk, labor, suffering, insult—these become too much for our fragile constitutions to bear. Above all, in the time of The Great Exhaustion, no one wants to “feel uncomfortable” and, so, we conspire to organize the world so that it is without duress or hardship. The 1 percent political and commercial classes are happy to oblige.”

Evelyn Waugh once called sloth the besetting sin of the age. Without using the theological term, Mitchell concurs. And so do I.

The Force…It’s Calling to You  

In light of these observations, what we are to make of the new trailer for the J.J. Abrams film, The Force Awakens, that promises to reboot the Star Wars franchise with a vengeance?

We might be tempted to say that such a blockbuster film is simply one more example of the kind of “adolescent entertainment” Mitchell decries, the kind that helps us fight our spiritual exhaustion by distracting us with cartoon epic adventure, special effects, and explosions.

But I believe this would be wrong.

Speaking not as a fanboy but as one attempting to make use of the kind of metaphysical “lapsometer” that Walker Percy’s protagonist, Dr. Thomas More, wields in Love in the Ruins, I contend that the Star Wars films show us the human spirit revealing its deepest yearnings, its need to be devoted to a great love and to the destruction of a great hatred.

As a species, at any rate, human beings cannot live without passionate intensity for what is true and good and beautiful. And if we don’t find those qualities in our failing institutions and those who lead them, then we will pick up our chalk pieces and make drawings on the walls of our caves, reminding ourselves of the call to great action that defines us as rational animals.

So the new Star Wars trailer culminates with the words:

“The force…it’s calling to you. Just let it in.”

Wodehouse’s Little Worlds Made Cunningly

John Donne defined the sentence as “A little world made cunningly.”

As a specimen, consider one of my favorites from the work of P.G. Wodehouse, the sublime humorist whose 134th birthday we celebrate today:

The unpleasant, acrid smell of burnt poetry.

Wodehouse’s comic mastery can be approached from various angles: from character, from plot, from setting…

But the acid test of his literary genius is found at the local level of his sentences. This is where one realizes that Wodehouse is great not only because he is funny, but because he can write the spats off most of those who have ever tried to join subject to predicate. His technique at the level of the sentence is, I argue (with many others), unsurpassed.

The unpleasant, acrid smell of burnt poetry. The little world described in this sentence is one in which the pretensions of a piece of doggerel are imagined as malodorous when set aflame. I’m not quite sure what rhetorical device is at work here. It’s not the pathetic fallacy. The chemico fallacy? The attribution of chemical properties to that (language poorly used) which has no such properties? In any event, the sentence marvelously concocts a miniature comic premise, a farcical upset of expectations: poetry…so bad it literally stinks.

That’s a rich, delightful use of the English language. Examples from Wodehouse could be multiplied ad hilarium. What better way to celebrate the Master’s birthday than by settling down in a chair with a stiff tissue-restorer and enjoying some of Wodehouse’s unparalleled sentences?

Mamet, Plato, and Drama’s Questioning of the Unquestionable

Mamet, Plato, and Drama’s Questioning of the Unquestionable


In Theatre, David Mamet avers the following:

In great drama we recognize that freedom may lie beyond and is achieved through the painful questioning of what was before supposed unquestionable. In the great drama we follow a supposedly understood first principle to its astounding and unexpected conclusion: We are pleased to find ourselves able to revise our understanding.

I wonder if Mamet is aware of how closely this formulation of the nature of great drama tracks the language that Plato uses in the Republic to describe the ascent of the soul to the highest level of intellectual communion with the Forms (see Plato’s image of the Divided Line in Republic Book 6).

At that highest level of its ascent toward perfected understanding, Plato speaks of the mind no longer depending upon assumptions, upon “a supposedly understood first principle,” but “moving solely through Forms to Forms” in its grasp of Truth.

In drama, analogously, the mind (and heart) move from appearance to reality. In other words, drama depicts the protagonist’s ascent toward perfected understanding and joy “through the painful questioning of what was before supposed unquestionable.” What was previously assumed without questioning is put to the question, leading to an unexpected conclusion that revises the protagonist’s previous understanding.

So in Minority Report Tom Cruise must undergo the painful questioning of the justice of the “precrime” program, an experience which involves being the target of his own murder investigation. But the painful question of the appearances, i.e. the assumed justice of the program, ultimately leads Cruise to a revised understanding of justice as well as a newfound freedom from past hurt and present addiction. Cruise’s reward for his painful inquiry is both truth and love.  


++The image above is a detail of Plato from Raphael’s The School of Athens, reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Does Shakespeare Need an English Translator?

Does Shakespeare Need an English Translator?


This fall I’m preparing a production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It at the high school where I teach. In Act I a nobleman named Le Beau secretly tries to persuade Orlando, the romantic lead, to get out of Dodge. The usurper, Duke Frederick, didn’t much care for Orlando’s father, and Le Beau is worried that the Duke is going to take out his animosity on Orlando.

At one point in his speech Le Beau describes Duke Frederick as “humorous.” He doesn’t mean he is a cut-up. He means that Frederick is moody, “as a result of an imbalance of the “humors,” or fluids, of which the body was thought to be composed” (As You Like It, The Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Frances E. Dolan).

If the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has its way, this kind of word, or line, will be rewritten into contemporary English. (See below the link to the Studio360 podcast on this story.)

This is a monstrously presumptuous proposal. What would prompt such vandalism of Shakespeare’s text? That we’re all too ignorant to know the etymological roots of words such as “humorous”?

Well of course we’re ignorant. The English language is an old asparagus-bed of roots, denotations, connotations, and extended meanings. And that’s the beauty of the thing. It was a teaching moment in my class when the student actor playing Le Beau first stumbled onto the word “humorous.” I drew his attention to the editor’s note and he learned a little something about the richness of his native tongue, not to mention the history of psychology and the theory of the “humors.” Substitute the word “moody” for “humorous” and all of that would be lost. Part of our cultural identity would be lost.

This isn’t like translating the Beowulf poet’s Old English into contemporary English, because Old English is for the most part unintelligible to modern readers. But this simply isn’t the case with Shakespeare. Besides high school drama students I also teach freshmen English students who read two Shakespeare plays each spring. My experience with both these groups is that, with a modicum of guidance, they understand Shakespeare just fine. Sure, I sometimes see them using a crib like No Fear Shakespeare with its silly modern transliterations, but I don’t allow them to substitute it for the original. I work hard to create the opportunity for them to encounter Shakespeare’s text directly; and, when they do, the result is a magnificent awakening to the beauty of the English language in the hands of a master poet.

Why would anyone want to take that experience away? The very thought of it makes one humorous.

Now, what are your thoughts on “translating” Shakespeare into contemporary English?

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced that it will translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into modern English. Good idea or a tragedy?

Source: Does Shakespeare Need an English Translator? – Studio 360

Muriel Spark and the Angel-Eye View

In her New York Times obituary Dame Muriel Spark is quoted as saying: “People say my novels are cruel because cruel things happen and I keep this even tone. I’m often very deadpan, but there’s a moral statement, too, and what it’s saying is that there’s a life beyond this, and these events are not the most important things. They’re not important in the long run.”

Mike Aquilina nicely calls Spark’s rhetorical stance “the angel-eye view.” From a human perspective suffering appears cruel. But from the angelic perspective, suffering, even death, is good for our souls. It is often the beginning of wisdom.

This is why an observation such as Spark’s famous line from her short story, “The Portobello Road,” has such resonance: “He looked as if he would murder me and he did.” The line is deadpan and disarming on first appearance. But when we realize it’s spoken by a departed soul, one having been afforded the angel-eye view, then we can see it as a mere factual statement reporting what life looks like from above.

Muriel Spark created one of the funniest and most sinister characters in modern fiction, Miss Jean Brodie.

Source: Muriel Spark, Novelist Who Wrote ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,’ Dies at 88

The Painted Vault

The Painted Vault


Twenty-four hundred years ago, in Athens, plays were performed during the spring festival to the god Dionysus and at no other time of the year. These tragedies and comedies were special liturgical acts, and the god himself, represented by his statue, sat in attendance at the plays in his honor.

Two thousand years later, the Elizabethan actor playing at the Globe would perform beneath a roof that might very well have been painted to depict the starry heavens. The supposed motto of the Globe was, Totus mundus agit histrionem, “The whole world is a theater,” which in As You Like It Shakespeare has his Jacques paraphrase as, “All the world’s a stage.”

If it did exist, what was the Globe’s painted vault an image of? Was it merely an image of the physical heavens, like the magic ceiling in the dining hall at Hogwarts?

In Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare’s Ulysses makes a famous speech about “degree” or order in the cosmos:

Take but degree away, untune that string,

And hark, what discord follows….

The bounded waters

Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores

And make a sop of all this sordid globe.

Ulysses does not mention God or the angels in this speech, but in Thomas Elyot’s The Book of the Governor, a book on statesmanship dedicated to King Henry VIII and published in 1531, we find an astonishingly similar version of Ulysses’s speech that makes the divine source of order clear:

“Take away order from all things, what should then remain? Certes nothing finally, except some man would imagine eftsoons chaos….Hath not God set degrees and estates in all his glorious works? First, in his heavenly ministers, whom he hath constituted in divers degrees called hierarchies.”

Devils appeared out of the trap in the center of the Elizabethan stage, from the pit called “Hell.” The “Heavens” above the actor were also an icon of that supernatural order that steers the cosmos, in which the earthly globe sits in the very center.

So what does all this mean for the contemporary theater, and indeed, for all manner of contemporary storytelling?

Tragedy and comedy, writes David Mamet, are about the relationship of human beings to God, that is, about our place in the degrees and estates of God’s glorious works. Drama, by contrast, is about man’s social existence.

In this sense, contemporary storytelling is virtually all drama. The players do not perform under the gaze of God. The vault above the actors contains nothing but more stage machinery. And above the audience–darkness.

This might appear to be a liberation for art. Getting rid of the religious myths allows artists finally to tell the truth about what it means to be a human being: a finite creature subject only to chance and necessity. Tragedy is that there is no exit. Comedy is that there is no exit. Drama is about experiences in between.

But this is an illusion. The origins of theater and its Elizabethan flourishing show us that the presence of the divine is essential to the performance.

The philosopher Francis Slade puts the point this way: “The narrative arts presuppose the ontological priority of ends to purposes because without that priority there is nothing to be revealed about the adequacy or inadequacy of human purposes to the completeness of human life, for in action a human being “purposes” the realization of his life as a whole, complete in itself.”

In other words, if stories are nothing more than the choices or purposes of the characters, then there is nothing ultimately by which to judge whether the characters have succeeded or failed in their choices.

Poetry, as Aristotle said, is an imitation of men in action, but when the imitation does not include man’s success or failure in living up to a standard not of his own making, i.e., his “end,” then the bounded waters leave their shores and make a sop of all this sordid globe.

The absence of religious belief in much of the contemporary world has produced a gap in human experience that is ignored to our loss, both as human beings and as lovers of story. The playwright Lucas Hnath, in a recent New York Times feature on his play, The Christians, opines that he is not alone among playwrights in seizing on the absence of religion as a serious subject for contemporary theater: “Other people have noticed that there’s this gap–that there’s this subject that’s not being thoughtfully enough considered. When there is such a clear gap, it’s a matter of time before something rushes in to fill it.”

But in order to make sense of storytelling we have to do more than merely mind the gap. We need, as it were, to re-erect the painted vault and to bring the statue of the god back into the theater.   


Selected Reading:

Eustace M. Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture

David Mamet, Theatre

Francis Slade, “On the Ontological Priority of Ends and Its Relevance to the Narrative Arts,” in Alice Ramos, ed., Beauty, Art, and the Polis.

* The image above is the Planisphaerium Ptolemaicum sive machina orbium mundi ex hypothesi Ptolemaica in plano disposita, reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under the following license.

The Emotional Power of Visual Poetry

I very much enjoyed this week screenwriter and screenwriting consultant Barbara Nicolosi’s podcast on “The Emotional Power of Visual Poetry.” Good stuff for all writers, not just screenwriters. Here’s an hors d’oeuvre:

A poetic image provides a PUZZLE for the soul of the audience. It uses material realities to depict things that are immaterial. It asks the reader or the audience to struggle with the disparity between the metaphor and the reality.

What’s one of your favorite images from a work of literature or cinema? Why do you think it works so well? What is the puzzle the image asks us to solve?

Share your thoughts with me on Twitter, @danielmcinerny, or via email,

Thornton Wilder on the Nature of Farce

Thornton Wilder on the Nature of Farce

On January 8, 1939 the great American playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder published a short piece in the New York Times entitled, “Noting the Nature of Farce.” As I’m currently roughing out an idea of a farce for the stage, I turned to Wilder’s essay this afternoon and found gems such as these:

“Farce would seem to be intended for childlike minds still touched with grossness; but the history of the theater shows us that the opposite is true. Farce has always flourished in ages of refinement and great cultural activity. And the reason lies where one would least expect it: farce is based on logic and objectivity.

“The author of a farce may ask his audience to concede him two or three wild improbabilities, but thereafter he must proceed with an all the more rigorous consequence. The laughter is an explosion of almost grudging concession: “Yes, granted that premise, these things would inevitably follow.”

The School for Scandal simmers along among a thousand mild improbabilities; it is a comedy; but The Importance of Being Earnest shows us what would be bound to happen if a man invented an invalid brother who needed his attendance when-ever he wished to shirk a tedious engagement, and what would happen if his friend decided to impersonate this brother.

“The pleasures of farce, like those of the detective story, are those of development, pattern, and logic.”

Source: Noting the Nature of Farce – Thornton Wilder

* The image of Thornton Wilder above reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On Stoppard and Snobbery

On Stoppard and Snobbery

Is the award-winning playwright a snob, or are audiences less intelligent than they used to be? I agree with Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout that refusing to let audiences discard the treasures of our cultural inheritance (e.g. Shakespeare) is not snobbery. Far from it. It’s the activity of preserving that which helps us be more human.

Click on the link below to read Teachout’s article and then let me know what you think.

Source: Tom Stoppard Thinks You’re Dumb – WSJ

Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella,” Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking, Jeers for “Wolf Hall” but Cheers for “Foyle’s War”

Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella,” Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking, Jeers for “Wolf Hall” but Cheers for “Foyle’s War”

imgres As boulevardier of the arts, it is my pleasant duty to share with you several items that have caught my eye of late…

I haven’t seen it. I haven’t even read it. But Tom Stoppard’s new play, The Hard Problem, now playing at the National Theatre in London, has already sparked my interest more than any other recent work of art.

Stoppard’s play is concerned with what philosophers call the “hard problem” of human consciousness. Many today think we human beings are just “stuff” all the way down to our mitochondria. But the fact of consciousness apparently eludes materialist explanation, and suggests a foundation of morality and human dignity in something more than material.

In typical Stoppardian style The Hard Problem presents a dialectic between the materialist and non-materialist positions. Here are Stoppard himself and outgoing director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, discussing the dialectic of The Hard Problem:

I saw two pretty good movies in the past week. I really enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. It’s being called “traditionalist” and “un-ironic” and I say hooray. I think we deserve a break from all the deconstructed fairy tales that for too long have claimed unmerited attention as films for the whole family.

Cinderella is a welcome celebration of such unfashionable qualities as humility, generosity, forgiveness, and romance grounded in virtuous character.

My wife observed that one of the film’s nicest features is the sense of self-possession exhibited by both Cinderella and the Prince, self-possession founded upon strong relationships with their fathers.

And about Cinderella’s retro style of “princessness,” my teenage daughter put it well: “Cinderella shows us that a girl doesn’t need to carry a sword in order to be a strong female character.”

In this interesting article Father Robert Barron reminds us of the Christian allegory that lies at the heart of the Cinderella story, and how Branagh’s film helps bring it to light.

Here’s Branagh himself talking about the film:

I finally got to see Eddie Redmayne’s deservedly Oscar-winning portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. This is a very captivating film with excellent performances throughout, though the disintegration of Stephen and Jane Hawking’s marriage after all those years of devotion–especially Jane’s–was a major letdown. The film wants us to see this as redeemed by the fact that they produced three beautiful children and that each eventually found happiness with another partner. But I couldn’t help seeing their break-up as an undermining of all those years of Jane’s unswerving commitment.

Jeers for the television adaptation of Wolf Hall, based upon the Booker Award-winning novels by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, for the outrageously revisionist portrait of Sir Thomas More. (For the antidote, see Gerard Wegemer’s, Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage.)

Thankfully, there are three new episodes of Foyle’s War to watch, which my family and I are enjoying via the Acorn TV app projected onto the big screen with our Apple TV. Certainly one of the better uses of modern technology. If you’re a fan of Michael Kitchen and Foyle’s War, then you’re going to enjoy this…

Scott Timberg’s new book, Culture Crash, reviewed by Ben Yagoda in this week’s New York Times, raises some interesting questions about the state of the arts in our polity. Timberg sees decline and fall, while Yagoda sees this worst of times as also being, quite possibly, the best of times. Does indie art exploiting the uses of the Internet make up for the decay of more traditional arts associations? One compelling question, among many, raised by Timberg’s book and Yagoda’s review is whether virtual interactions are as creatively productive as in-person ones. Would love to get your take on that. 

What books are on my nightstand? Currently I’m reading, and enjoying, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Haven’t read any Wharton before this. Meanwhile I’m flipping through, like magazines, Kenneth Slawenski’s biography of J.D. Salinger and Penelope Niven’s life of Thornton Wilder.

Meanwhile, I continue to beaver away on my next novel, a darkly comic escapade I’m calling The Death Symposium, as well as on the script of a musical based upon the subversive theatrical activities of the young Karol Wojtyla, the man who would become Pope John Paul II.

So what art have you enjoyed of late? Let us hear about it!


*The image above of the National Theatre, perhaps the ugliest theatre in the galaxy, is reproduced courtesy of Carlos Delgado at Wikimedia Commons.