Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Wife of Bathos

Geoffrey Chaucer's memorable and excellent tale and its descriptive prologue of Allison is one of the most popular of all The Canterbury Tales, remarkable for the detailed description of women in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. 

 Chaucer couldn't have know it on any conscious level but the time frame was later to be called The Late Middle Ages, thus has time added another dimension to the construct because Allison was herself in the later part of her middle age. You could not have wanted (nor found) a more layered description of a woman who had in ample degrees a heart, a mind, a curiosity, and ample wit; she would brook no nonsense, had an admirable set of rules, was willing to take risks, particularly those involving a stand of principal against convention. 

 To use a currently popular figure of speech, The Wife of Bath set the bar high for authors to follow when the time came to introduce on stage or page as admirable-yet-earthy female character. Johnson and Marlowe tried, Shakespeare came closer, particularly when he borrowed from yet another Chaucer woman, Cressyde, in his creation of Cressida. Tennyson failed, I think, in his version of Guenevere, making us wait some years until Virginia Stephen Wolff got it so admirably with Mrs. Dalloway, and Joyce so spectacularly with Gretta in The Dead and, of course, Milly Bloom in Ulysses.

John McCain, senior United States Senator from Arizona, currently running for two offices, POW of all time and President of the United States, attempted to upstage these noble attempts by placing a character of his own creation (or should I take the cheap shot and say creationism?) by introducing into our midst Mrs. Gov.

The sudden appearance in our midst of the commonplace is one way to regard Sarah Palin. Another way to regard her is as a distraction; still another way to regard her is as someone who believed(s) man and dinosaur inhabited the planet simultaneously.

I am reminded of an experience I once had when, in the company of Digby Wolfe, I visited an iconic L.A. nightspot, Slate Brothers, a place for watching performers perform, for eating over-priced mediocre food and drinking fashionably overpriced drinks. I was drawn along unwillingly our target was a man I dislike intensely, a man Wolfe assured me was quite different from his stage persona. 

 We were watching Don Rickles as a potential for a project we were essaying. As Rickles came on to do his act, a somewhat over liquored individual at a ringside table began doing his act in earnest, stepping on some of Rickles' lines, injecting a note of competition and tension into the atmosphere. Rickles' irritation became manifest as he began to fly swat at the drunk, directing the audience's attention to him, reminding the audience how one individual was impacting on what they'd paid money to hear and witness.

The attention seemed to fuel the drunk more than the alcoholic content of his beverage. Rickles now turned full force on him, and here's where the lession was learned. "Rickles has gone too far," Wolfe whispered to me. "The audience is beginning to side with the drunk."

Sure enough, Rickles had gone too far with his insults and the audience began to boo him--not the drunk, him.

"He's completely lost it," Wolfe whispered.

To his credit, Rickles seemed to recognize this shift as well. At length, he recognized Wolfe in the audience, shrugged, then turned his insults to the audience before storming off stage and into the inner bowels of his dressing room.

The moral is this: the audience can and will turn. Palin's once wildly enthusiastic audience is beginning to turn, not so much on her but on the man who put her in a position where she daily faced humiliation.

Give us someone to root for, Barnaby Conrad pleads, meaning a character however flawed who seems to want to reach a place of being effective in dealing with the unanticipated flux of life. We rooted for the screen version of Fast Eddie Felson, true enough because he was portrayed by Paul Newman, because he wanted to be the best at something.

A handy and telling criticism of a particular dramatic situation has the circumstances devolving from pathos to bathos, from poignancy to overly ridiculed excess. No matter who the characters or what their motives, we must not do them, however expedient our intentions, what the senior Senator from Arizona has done to the Governor of Alaska.

In fact, Love them all as if they were your own because in fact, they are.


Anonymous said...

I try to think of certain public figures as characters in my book. They're harder to hate then.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful analysis, Shelly! Indeed, McCain has made Palin into a character, thus cynically disrespecting her. I find it interesting that, in the debate, he twice said "I'm not Miss Congeniality", considering that Palin was indeed dubbed Miss Congeniality in a beauty contest. I'm no Palin fan, but I smell disdain on the Senator's breath, and it's not pleasant.
- Karen D

Querulous Squirrel said...

McCain's disdain for Palin just shows how impulsive his decision was, based simply on hoping to get the Hilary women's vote. Like he really believed democratic Hilary voters would vote for him because he was paired with a female. A 'pro-life' female at that. What does that say about his judgment? He's impulsive, he's known to have a temper, he thinks he's an expert on warfare just because he huddled in a POW camp for awhile. As for Palin, she's so grandiose, I'm not even sure she realizes she being humiliated. Foolish people don't know they're foolish. As for Rickles, Obama has brilliantly stayed away from the whole issue. Not one comment about Palin. He's wise enough to know it would backfire on him. He let her sink her own boat, which she is doing brilliantly as well. As for dinosaurs and humans, well, sadly, one of my children adored dinosaurs, knowing all their names by age two and a half. We had a zillion dino books. On night, as I read him one at age three, at the end the dinos were dying. He said: What's happening to them. I said they were dying. Why? Because they're extinct. You mean I'll never see one? He started to sob. With all the talk of dinos, we had forgotten to tell him they were all dead, and that he'd never see them at a zoo. One of the saddest moments of my life.

Kevin Kidney said...

Great story and insight. I really enjoy your blog!

Incidentally, I happen to be currently writing an article about Digby's voice work in the Jungle Book! He's quite an amazing talent and I hope he'll do a blog of his own soon.