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.

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