Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Free summer Shakespeare brings all sorts of people together, including me and the oaf who sat in front of me Friday. I was delighted not to meet him. It was enough just to watch him in action.

He was, at the least, entertaining in a mildly horrifying kind of way, good counterpart to the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s “Hamlet,” which was mildly horrifying in an entertaining way. The production was also funny where appropriate and staged in a watchable and accessible way, with some judicious updates. (It ends its run this weekend on Boston Common.)

But more about the oaf, whose conduct wasn’t so terrible but whose general behavior was increasingly objectionable. It was adding action to action that made him, heavy and bearded, gentle and simple, good competition for the play. As the tension mounted on stage, so did my incredulity offstage, and at times I wasn’t sure where to look and what to watch.

Just seconds after the play began he minced churlishly — or clumped delicately? — toward his friends, who were sitting just in front of us. Then came the settling-in process, in which he negotiated his bulk into a purple cloth seat. Not a traditional seat with legs, but the kind that forms an L of backpack material with a back clamped to its own base, which goes flat on the ground. Squeezing into one is like putting up wallpaper while facing away from the wall, and takes some faith and grace. This guy’s faith was on the awkward side, and he was roughly the size of a small bear, but he made it in.

Almost immediately his cell phone rang. It tootled away in his right pants pocket while he discovered that, straitjacketed by the seat, his right pants pocket was no longer accessible. He fumbled at it until the tinny song stopped leaking past his keys and, possibly, his slide rule.

When that crisis passed, he broke out a bookseller’s plastic bag, turned it over and poured out a Sparknotes “No Fear” edition of “Hamlet,” which translates Shakespearean English into clunky American (“The question is: is it better to be alive or dead? Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all?”). He was going to read along with the play, this earnest goof with a Van Dyke beard, comparing language, a work-intensive and distracting scheme that ended by intermission.

He stood then at the sausage stand, noshing away, and when the play started again, he was missing. His companions looked around for him occasionally. They waved desperately a couple of times, apparently because he was walking the paved path, scanning the audience, unable to find his way back to his seat. Eventually he wandered in with an Italian ice — possibly bought for sustenance during his sojourn. After intermission his “No Fear” edition disappeared. Eventually he was seen looking at the couple on his left, who had suspiciously broken out a copy of the same book.

When the play was over, he and his friends discussed the play.

“I wish I had read the whole play beforehand,” the bearded oaf said.

Right, I thought.

“I thought ‘To be or not to be’ was from ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” he said a moment later.

Enough, I thought, and exited, chased by thoughts of a bear.


eric said...

Now, you call him an oaf. But isn't that what FREEEEEE Shakespeare in the park should be all about? Guys like him making an effort...even if he stumbled through it...to give the ol' bard a try?

Indri said...

Props to you on sliding in that "Winter's Tale" stage direction. Very nice.

What gets me are the people who wear Really Big Hats to outdoor shows. And bring big coolers I can't see around.

One thing I should point out... I can think of certain very intelligent, non-oafish theater critics who have been known to read along to Shakespeare. And get busted for it by actors.

Scape7 said...

As an introduction to a play, especially if you're intending to appreciate the drama rather than just the text, I'm just not sure it's feasible to read along. Can it be? How fast must one read? And how good a multitasker must one be?

Indri said...

Oh, I'm a complete believer, when it comes to Shakespeare, in reading it before you get there. Especially with the history plays, which were written for people who knew what was going on because the War of the Roses was still fresh in their memories.

But bringing along the text if you already know the shape of the piece can be useful. If you don't? Exercise in frustration. Because I've tried that too. And I'm a pro. But I have to give this guy props for trying.

I give him props for showing up, actually. No disrepect, Marc, but there are worthier targets.

Scape7 said...

Geez. Target?

I'm getting this vibe that I shouldn't have recorded this guy's antics in a humorous way because he showed up for free Shakespeare ... and, while I'm certain he's a lovely fellow, he just happened to engage in several amusing activities one after another at, well, this free Shakespeare show I happened to be at.

He was "entertaining," by the way, although his "conduct wasn't so terrible." One would have thought I was calling for the man's death rather than just reveling in a stunning display of oafish behavior.

Really, folks. It's just an anonymous character sketch from public, observed behavior. At least I didn't accidentally tell him to fuck off.

wrecking_ball said...

Hey, I thought your post made for an interesting parallel with the audience group dynamic of Shakespeare's time. Imagine trying to appreciate Hamlet through the din of all those loutish oafs and good-time girls in the standing-room-only section in front of the stage.

Or we could view your oaf as the Shakespearean clown, who always represents more than he appears to...

Indri said...

I'm not saying it sounds as thought you're calling for the man's death, Marc. You're exaggerating. But as I re-read the original post, I started to feel uncomfortable. Even though I liked it. Especially the wallpaper bit, that's a great image.

Essentially, you're noting three things about him. He was chunky, he wasn't as knowledgable as you are about a play very few people have seen in its entirety (especially as it is rarely performed in its entirety--as a critic, I bet I've been to more Hamlets than most people, but I had to rent the Branagh film version to see the whole thing), and he didn't have certain niceties down. You keep hitting these points. And they're things that in at least one case, he was trying to fix.

Maybe I'm just sensitive about the size issue. Equating heft with ignorance is a cheap shot.

I guess I'm just not seeing how stunningly oafish he was. Stunningly oafish to me is when they answer the damn phone, and then talk on it during the performance (I've seen that). Stunningly oafish is when they keep talking to their neighbor or date while the actors are on stage, or comment loudly on how little they're enjoying themselves. Oafish to me in general suggests a certain carelessness and lack of concern for other people and their experience of something.

And I'm not seeing that as you've written the guy. That's all.

Forgive me if I'm not making sense. As noted on my own blog, I'm in the throes of sugar withdrawal, and I'm starting to wish I had some heroin or something.

eric said...

What Indri says.

I have seen some stupid stuff at a theatre that I spent a lot of money to buy a ticket. How long can you sit next to a guy on his cell phone during a Nutcracker performance that cost the family 200 bucks to see?

I told him fuck off.

Applause at a weird time from those around us.

Sitting around watching anything cultural for free? I wouldn't have said a word and known that was what I was getting into.

I was only bugged Marc, by calling him an "oaf."

I've sat around with various arts critics talking about this...to the point one of them actually adressed it in a Sunday column. I agree, he should have read it beforehand. But I also think that anyone who shows up and tries, even for a little while, is better off than those who don't try at all.

We're not picking on you, Marc. Don't think of it that way, BTW. It's just that you respond and that's always fun for the discussion (speaking for myself).


Scape7 said...

For the love of GOD. The definition of oaf is "a stupid, uncultured or clumsy person" (according to the Oxford American Dictionaries, provider of the Mac OS' dictionary widget). I just happened to look the word up before using it and, to ensure the definition was appropriate, made a point of noting certain TRUE aspects of my subject's behavior.

I'm not saying the guy was stupid, but I saw evidence of him being uncultured and clumsy. His bulk added to his clumsiness, of course, and helped paint a picture of him — as did his beard, to which I referred twice, I should note. If anyone knows of a word that encompasses those two personality traits but not stupidity, please let me know. I will rewrite and repost.

Indri said...

Marc, Marc, Marc. You needn't change a thing if you feel solid in what you write. Speaking for myself, I'm just trying to point out how this reads. I'm reflecting it back to you because as I understand it, blogging is practice for you on your way to world journalism domination.

You can look at what I've said so far, discount the part about my needing heroin (remind me not to leave the house with money today, btw, because I'm about to buy everything at the Godiva store, down to the fixtures), and note that (for example) writing about heavy-set people in a certain way elicits a certain response. Is that the response you want? What are you trying to inspire in readers?

I'm sure you must think about what you're doing as you write much more than I do. For one thing, you're trained as a writer, and I'm not. Your grasp of rules and forms is much better than mine. Also, we blog for very different reasons, and from very different places. Because I know you're crafting things here, I'm responding to what I'm seeing built.

And now I'm going to shut up and get back to work.

Michael Scott Moore said...

Once I saw someone pull out her cell phone during a play and *make a call.* This wasn't even outdoor theater. I just stared in horror.

I got busted for reading along to Shakespeare (or a Greek play?) because one actor thought I'd brought along a book to read instead of paying attention to him. But I was just following along to check for cuts and changes.

Indri said...

It was Iphigenia at Aulis where you got busted for reading along because the actor didn't know what you were doing, Mike. So I was wrong in my first comment. Not Shakespeare.

Anonymous said...

The seating arrangement you described had to be horribly uncomfortable. Allowing people to see that you need a "pony" to get through a play (even a free one) had to be horribly uncomfortable. Having your phone go off AND not being able to get to it had to be horribly uncomfortable. Not being able to find your seat until after the intermission was over, and having to make many excuses to the people watching had to be horribly uncomfortable. I think I would rather have gone to anything with that "oaf" who had to try so much harder then the person who found him entertaining, then with the person that found him entertaining. Sorry, Marc, but the fact that you keep defending is just going to make it harder on you.

Indri's Mom

eric said...

Isn't this what you love about writing, Marc? It's journalism at its finest...when everyone has a thought.

Even Indri's mom.

Scape7 said...

Let’s wrap this up, shall we? I think we all have better things to be doing.

The fact is, things I write are being misunderstood a lot lately, which is not a very encouraging sign for someone who’s likely to have to do some writing for a living — or at least again make judgments about other people’s writing. Not everything that goes on the blog, though, has a newspaper analogue. I recognize personal blogging as a medium all its own, no more aligned with newspapers than chocolate fondue is with deep frying. Anyone thinking that the “oaf” posting was anything but a character sketch, which has little purpose in a newspaper in the first place, is mistaken. It was not an editorial, for instance, meant to make a point.

I didn’t seriously propose revising or withdrawing the post, either. What I sought was a word that captured my anonymous subject (or, rather, what I saw of him) better than “oaf,” and (or because) I don’t think there is one. It was more of a challenge than an invitation.

Indri’s comments about my skills and training as a writer are, of course, nonsense. She’s a better writer than I am; whatever formal “training” I have, and I remember none, counts for nothing compared with the actual experience earned daily by a working freelancer; and I have no grasp of rules and forms that I can think of. I’m not even sure to what those terms refer.

Please, please, please: Leave the drama to Shakespeare. The fellow’s seating arrangements were not horribly uncomfortable; seats such as his are built not to be, and he certainly didn’t shift or squirm during the entire time he was seated. After the show he stayed seated, talking. There were no excuses that needed to be made for not being able to find a seat after intermission; it was Shakespeare in the park, and people were walking around at will. There was also no need for reading along with “Hamlet”; the guy said after the show, long after his book disappeared, that he really enjoyed it. Again, it’s Shakespeare in the park, with professional actors, directors and set designers working for the hoi polloi, and Shakespeare is always easier to grasp performed than read — which is why I think he put the book down even before intermission.

This post simply wasn’t that big a deal, and I’m really not a callous brute tripping developmentally disabled people for fun and cracking jokes about starving Ethiopians.

I think the most interesting thing to come out of this thread is Mike’s story about the cell phone user. It pretty much makes all the rest worth it.

Indri said...

You're just saying "chocolate fondue" to distract me.


Anonymous said...

The Board of Directors of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra had an "informal" (not on the record) discussion about what could be legally done to people who have "embarassing cell phone issues". Among the suggestions were - not allowing them to buy tickets again, taking away season ticket holder priviledges, having them escorted out of a performance, and who knows what else. The problem was shelved for this season. But, I would love to be there when it comes up again. I understand that the discussion was quite lively.

Indri's Mom

Scape7 said...

I can imagine. I'm remembering that I was at a wedding once where a cell phone went off during the ceremony. It turned out to be the bride's father. Yee-ow.