Photo by Paul Szynol
Welcome to the site of Elizabeth Bales Frank, writer, culture vulture, Bardophile and champion of the chance encounter.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Weird Sisters

Well, this one was a shoe-in for me, seeing as I’m on the board of directors of a scrappy little Shakespeare Company, but still, I was surprised by how enchanted I was by The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown. Since my own recent novel is narrated by a Shakespeare-spouting heroine, I fell easily into the world of the family Andreas – dominated in a bookish, ethereal way, by the father, a renowned Shakespearean scholar who seldom converses in his own words if a quote from the Bard will suit the situation. (“Oh, Daddy, a Hamlet joke. How lovely. You shouldn’t have.”)

And so the daughters Andreas – Rosamund, Bianca and Cordelia – are all a bit, by any standards, weird. Brainy but passionate, deceitful but decent, peripatetic but a secret nester, respectively, all three women return to the house in the small Ohio town where they were raised to help their father cope with their mother’s sudden dire illness. Rosamund – Rose – like her father, a PhD, although in the far more logical field of mathematics, has never left the sphere of the university town she grew up in. Bianca – Bean – has fled back home from to avoid the consequences of succumbing to the variety of temptations in Manhattan. And Cordy, the baby, who has always been babied, is going to have a baby, without benefit of clergy, partner, money or job.

Narrated by the collective first person voice of the sisters, this book is a delightful, deft, witty read. The intimacy among the sisters is not cloying and the irritation and affection among them is heartfelt. I loved living in this world, and I didn’t want to leave it.

If you are one of the strange folk among us who is not a fan of Shakespeare, I beseech thee to have a go at this novel anyway if you are any of the following: a sister, a daughter, a reader, a sensualist, a baker, a clotheshorse, a mother, a cancer survivor, an academic, a Midwesterner familiar with the smell of ozone in the air just before a thunderstorm, a lover of summer in a small town, a lover of summer, a lunatic, a lover, or a poet.

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Friday, September 18, 2009

Q 4 U: 2 B or no?

Speak up or don’t speak up: that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The tweets and texts of the woman beside me
Through Acts I, II, III and IV of Hamlet,
Or to remind her of the no-texting rule
Announced at the commencement of the play.
The bright illumination of the screen
Distracts me. What has she to say which is greater
Than one hundred and twenty five dollars,
My ticket’s price; or the words of the Bard?
I should have gone to London to see this
Surely the West End crowd is more polite.
At last, I speak: “Could you please not do that?”
Receiving a mutinous glare, I add:
“It’s distracting!” Lo, cooperation!
In the final act, the drama exists
Only on the stage. The rest is silence.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

We Few, We ... Yeah, No, I Think "Few" Pretty Much Covers It

I recently saw a production of Henry V which was produced so far downtown that when I left the theater with my friend, I couldn't help but make the "Law and Order" chung chung! sound when I saw the empty streets before us and expected to, if not be tomorrow's headline, at least stumble upon it.

This production of Henry V had another title, to make it ... hipper? More relevant? There was a large video component, which served some scenes (Princess Katherine's "da hand, des fingres") and some speeches and was meant to comment on our contemporary society because it looked like Fox News/Reality TV/CNN/a Ken Burns documentary ... and that might have worked for me as a production of Henry V. As an isn't-it-ironic-how-little-we-have-changed device, for me, it did not work. Nor as a what-the-media-tells-us-is-not-what-really-happens device, either.

But I admire the effort. I do. All six of the actors were terribly hard-working and the Henry (who also played the Dauphin) had a wonderful voice and presence.

My friend C. complained that Henry did not present sufficient emotion, but I do think that is hard to do when you are staging an entire war on a stage half the size of my living room with a cast of six. My test of a MacBeth is the "all my pretty chickens in one fell swoop?" scene and my test of a Henry V is when they read off the English dead and the Duke of York is at the top of the list. If the audience does not know that the Duke of York is Henry's younger brother -- if they have seen no interaction between them -- then Henry's reaction (or lack thereof) to this news means nothing. If we do not see Henry's personal sacrifice, then all his bluster before has been only bluster, and all his subsequent clumsy diplomacy merely blather.

I thought I had achieved the record earlier when I saw MacBeth with a cast of six. One of the Weird Sisters was a plastic doll, manipulated by her wicked sibling in a different voice. Burnam Wood came to Dunsinane via cell phone.

But then last weekend I saw the Battle of Agincourt staged with only three people.

We happy few who still care about Shakespeare being produced robustly, vigorously, on all budgets, applaud the thought; and effort; we many few who understand about budgets and space constraints are sorry to say this, but on the whole this production was just too ... little.


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Let Slip the Books of War

Attended the last day of BookExpo America over the weekend, with my sister, who is a book “shepherd” (will see you through every stage of creation), who attends every year. She had arrived home the day before with an armload of catalogues, and I went off in pursuit of those small publishers who had Shakespeare books soon to be released. Stay tuned on this site! Much riches to come! How beauteous mankind is!

On the children’s floor, I bought a Shakespeare finger puppet to support a New Jersey library. Since it was buy-one-get-one-free, I took a George Orwell as well.

Later on the bus, I tried to entertain a lap dog with engaging canine quotes (“Let slip the dogs of war!”) but he merely sighed and burrowed deeper into the duffel bag he was being carried in. On the subway, my sister and I held an impromptu puppet show of Orwell (“Big Brother is watching you!”) and Shakespeare (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow!”) until we noticed that tourists were filming us.

Good thing one of the books I snagged was The Birth(and Death)of the Cool by Ted Gioia, which I've starting reading and loving. It covers the history of "cool" as an attitude/lifestyle and asserts that it's being replaced by a new authenticity.

I knew (or is that “hoped”?) cool was on the way out. It’s so much more fun to play with finger puppets of famous authors.

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Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Hours and Times

It is Sunday afternoon, sunny and rather warm. I am in my office, trying to catch up on work. My law firm, like so many others, underwent a recent “restructuring” and our new motto has become, “We all have to do more with less.” Since the days of the past week have been filled with confusion and lamentation (i.e., people interrupting me a dozen times a day to ask who does what now), I need Sundays to organize myself.

As I look at the calendar, I realize that it is two weeks until the Academy Awards. I have not seen any of the nominated movies. I think this is the first time this has happened since I was a child and my moviegoing was restricted. I was invited to screenings of these films; I could have seen them for free, but I couldn’t get away. And I’m not going to get away before then – I have rehearsals for a reading of my most recent script, Wildflowers of the West, and then on the day of the Awards ceremony I’ll be at BAM seeing The Winter’s Tale.

It’s not that this matters so much as that I feel so out of it. This week I have found myself chatting about the Trojan War and Othello; also Plessy v. Ferguson, Siegfried Sassoon, why that thing that Dr. Who flies in is called a Tardis, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Well, the Survey and Othello come from the fact that I started reading Martha Sandweiss’s wonderful book Passing Strange. I knew the title came from Othello and then I had to look it up:

She swore, in fact, ‘twas strange, ‘twas passing strange
'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful:
She wish'd she had not heard it, yet she wish'd
That heaven had made her such a man: she thank'd me,
And bade me, if I had a friend that loved her,
I should but teach him how to tell my story.
And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake:
She loved me for the dangers I had pass'd,
And I loved her that she did pity them.

And then I had to read Othello again. Because I remembered my high school English teacher, who was a bit of a cold fish, reading this passage with such passion that her eyes glistened. So I read Othello again and then the evening was over. And I still haven't gotten to the movies.

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Monday, September 15, 2008


“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,” the poet says. So it follows that a writer’s death diminishes me a bit more because I am involved in the futility of the faithful, the craft of writing.

And it follows one step further that a writer’s suicide is all the more anguishing -- J. Anthony Lukas hurt, so did Iris Chang – one of the reasons I did not major in English – this is true – is because of Virginia Woolf and Anne Sexton and Sylvia bloody Plath. I’m not here to condemn suicide, or to condone it; I’ve lived in my own dark places; still, I’m always astonished, although you think I would have toughened up by now, at how hard the unacquainted – in every sense of the word – are on depression. Last night I read forums on David Foster Wallace until I had to stop.

I needed something to read before I went to sleep.

In times like these, you need a really, really good writer, someone who will absorb you in the story the way you were spellbound as a child. Story, story, story and stay out of the way.

I settled on Auden’s Lectures on Shakespeare.

Just after World War II, W.H. Auden taught a Shakespeare course at the New School in New York City. Years later, someone thought to seek out the notes of his besotted students (since Auden kept no record!) and compile the lectures into a book, edited and with an introduction by Arthur Kirsch.

“Auden speaks of the mythic power of The Tempest in similar terms,” writes Kirsch, “and he says that The Tempest is Shakespeare’s farewell piece, whether he was conscious of it or not”:


I don’t believe people die until they’ve done their work, and when they have, they die. There are surprisingly few incomplete works in art. People, as a rule, die when they wish to. It is not a shame that Mozart, Keats, Shelley died young: they’d finished their work.

“Following a suggestion of Aldous Huxley,” (this is Kirsch again), “he considers all of Shakespeare’s final plays as examples of the genre of the late works of major artists like Beethoven, Goya, and Ibsen, deliberately strange in their vision, unconcerned about the difficulties they may pose for an audience, and enormously interested”


-- in particular kinds of artistic problems lovingly worked out for themselves, regardless of the interest of the whole work.

I find Shakespeare particularly appealing in his attitude towards his work. There’s something a little irritating in the determination of the very greatest artists, like Dante, Joyce, Milton, to create masterpieces and to think themselves important. To be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character. Shakespeare never takes himself too seriously.

Particular kinds of artistic problems, lovingly worked out.


More on this, anon --

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Monday, September 8, 2008

How Are the Mighty Fallen

So, aside from the new responsibilities at the job, another reason I hadn’t written anything for two months was because my shelves were not up. I ordered this lovely leaning bookcase from Crate and Barrel. “Some assembly required,” it said, but I am a master of Ikea, and so I feared not. Two months later, tired of stepping over the shelves every morning, I finally hunted down my super and begged him to assemble my shelves. He installed, I paid, he left, I gathered all my Shakespeare books, my Shakespeare action figure and arranged everything nicely on the new leaning shelves.

Or so I thought.

This morning I heard a soft noise in the hallway. My Shakespeare action figure had fallen to the floor, pushed over by a copy of “Richard III.” Worse, my Shakespeare action figure had lost his pen.

Having just regained my desire to write by the assembly of the shelves, I feared this portent did not augur well. Shakespeare had fallen and lost his pen! Or had he been pushed? Had the copy of "Richard III" shoved him off his perch, muttering, “And fall thy edgeless sword: despair, and die!

“There is providence in the fall of a sparrow,” I told the Shakespeare action figure as I picked him up and put him on another shelf, far from Richard III. I could not think of another Shakespearean quote using the word “fall,” although, as all know, the word “fall,” “fallen” or “befall” occurs 494 times in his works.

Instead, I thought: how are the mighty fallen!

Running that down to its source, I found it in the King James Bible:

How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! O Jonathan, thou wast slain in thine high places.

I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished!

Jeez. Have the Republicans really read this book?


Monday, April 7, 2008

Antony, Cleopatra, and New York’s Most Charming Cabbie

A day off two weeks ago, and the frenetic crammed-in schedule that a day off can bring, led me to fling myself into a cab on Ninth Avenue after a badly-needed hair appointment. At rush hour. “40th and 7th, please,” I said. The cabbie responded, “40-eth?” “Four oh,” I replied.

The cabbie, who spoke English with the lilting accent of a French-colonized African nation, regaled me with a story about how the difference between “eth” and “ayth” cost him his first shot at the college exams when he first moved to the U.S. and missed his exam date, thinking the date was the 28th when it was the 20th.

I hit the “off” button on that little television screen in the back seat. That screen annoys me, along with that unnecessary screen in the elevators of corporate buildings, delivering news bits and factoids. Thirty seconds of downtime must be filled by news of Paris Hilton and definitions of obscure words we will never remember or use. Can we no longer talk to one another?

“What state are you from?” the cabbie asked.

“I am from Missouri,” I told him carefully. “That is in the middle of the country. By the Mississippi River.”

He was delighted. When he was a child, “in my country” (never named), they learned a song in school about a boy created by a famous writer from that part of the world.

“Mark Twain?” I suggested.

“Mark Twain! The boy was called `Tom Sawyer.’ We learned a song about Tom Sawyer.” He sang the song, in French, to me. Tom Sawyer was a boy, born on the banks of the Mississippi … that was as far as my French took me. It does no good, I have learned, to let French speakers know that you understand them. I have a good accent and know some colloquial phrases, but I have no daily practice, no experience in France and no meaningful vocabulary. Responding to the French only excites them into thinking I understand way more than I do. If I say something like “Are you lost?” or “you’re on the wrong train,” they happily shout “Tu parles francais?” and embrace me with misguided kisses. I have made the mistake of replying, “Je me débrouilles” which means, technically, something like “I get by,” but to a lonely Frenchman means “Mais oui, mon frère, I know clever little slang phrases in your language, please reply rapidly and with much panache.” So now I play dumb.

When we reached 40-eth and 7th, I paid the Tom Sawyer fan and asked, “Could I have 8 back?” “Hate?” he replied. “Huit,” I answered. “Oh, you speak French?” “Un peu, I said Americanly. “Oh, I wish this ride were longer!” he said.

Which is, I have to say, the nicest thing a cabbie has ever said to me.

After a snack on 40-eth and 7th, I went on with my friend to the Theatre for a New Audience’s production of Antony and Cleopatra which received, in my humble opinion, an unjustly harsh review in The New York Times.

For one thing, the Times critic complained about the size of the theatre (200 seats) and the stage (well, whatever, you work with what you have). The majesty of the Egypto-Roman conflict was diminished by the real estate, the critic complained. To which I wanted to say, “well, welcome to New York.” I thought that the staging, space considered, was creative and used the space well. I thought that the minor players (I’m looking at you, Christen Simon, in particular) did a fabulous, scene-stealing job and I thought that Martin Csokas was a very sexy Antony. Sexy as in “oh, can I be Cleopatra tomorrow?” Sexy in a smartest-guy-in-the-room, beleaguered, besotted, weary wary warrior Hugh Laurie in House kind of way.

Moreover, in this production, as in the Julius Caesar production by this same company, all the players were there. A lot of the roles which seemed to be comprised of merely listening (again, you, Christen Simon) came across as characters who were actually present. Jeffrey Carlson put a keen young-Derek-Jacobi-as-fresh-faced-blond-psychopath spin on the role of Octavius.

I recommend this Antony and Cleopatra especially if you, like me (nerd alert!) have a life goal of seeing all of the Bard’s work live while you’re alive. (And there’s no point in seeing them otherwise.)

A bientot.

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Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Bar at the Ritz in Madrid

I was sitting in the bar at the Ritz in Madrid. My friend S. ordered the wine. I was telling S. about some urgent thing – whatever it was, the sound of English alerted two older British ladies at the bar..

They were from the middle of England, they said, near Stratford-upon-Avon.

“Oh, I’ve been there,” I said. “I saw Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet.”

“You saw that?” said the older of the two older women. “What did you think?”

“I thought it was wonderful.”

“Wonderful” was lame, but they were strangers, and who knew what kind of discussion they wanted to be dragged in to. The production in fact was so powerful that it fragmented all my other memories of Stratford-upon-Avon, so that I only retain small snapshot visuals of everything that was not the play – a guy who asked me if I agreed that his British accent would score him chicks when he visited the States, the landlady at my B&B, The Dylan (named after Bob and not, as I had hoped, Thomas), telling me she had never been to the theater but hoped to go one of these days.

These are a Kodak slideshow in my mind. I know that memory behaves that way when cushioning the recollection of a trauma – news of a death, a sudden violent event. But this was merely theater, and I should be better able to recollect what else I did in Stratford-upon-Avon except attend Hamlet. But perhaps it was a trauma, that kind of production, that kind of performance, the immediate connection, the gratifying recognition, the yes! Yes! This is how I always thought it should be!, because so little in life hits you that way, and very rarely theater, for heaven’s sake. Those moments of transcendence should dominated by the province of intimate physical contact --

-- but anyway, I was speaking to an older woman in the bar at the Ritz in Madrid. I said, “It was wonderful” and in response she leaned forward on the bar, supporting her weight with her forearm, her head thrust forward, her face scrunched tight with passionate opinion. I was certain she was about to tell me I was a moron (the British, after all, do hate success), that it was paint-by-numbers Shakespeare, that only a philistine American would be such a simpleton –

Instead, she breathed out one word: “Superb.”

We smiled. Friends! I had never met anyone, ever, who had seen that production and while it was different for her – since she lived in the area -- it was a nice moment of fraternity for both of us.

She and her friend chatted with S. and me – they were on their way to a ten-day tour of Costa Rica. “A special package deal. Because we’re elderly.” The deal included an option to drop off in Madrid for a couple of days for an extra €10. So they did. And why were S. and I in Madrid? It was February; flights were cheap; we’d never been. We all toasted one another – free spirits, culture vultures. Then the younger of the two older women asked, “Are you staying here?” meaning the Ritz.

I shook my head and coughed out an incredulous “No!” They smiled again, conspirators: neither were they. We just wanted to have a glass of wine at the hotel. So that when we came home, we could indulge in an anecdote that began: “I was sitting in a bar at the Ritz in Madrid …”


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Chris and Kris and Hyperhedonism

Hyperhedonia. Noun. The state of deriving excessive pleasure from that which is intrinsically dull

I found this definition, which I have never been able to find a match for, in a dictionary of amusing and unusual words. The dictionary itself was among the stock of upscale bric-a-brac for sale in a yuppie home furnishings store in Georgetown.

My friend Kris was across the store, pocketing paint chips.

Kris collects paint chips. She takes them home and keeps them in a box and occasionally brings them out to look at them in different kinds of light “to see if I still like the color.” Kris’s husband, Chris, was smirking at a watercolor map of Colonial Virginia, which was neither drawn to scale nor historically accurate. Kris and Chris are hyperhedonists.

They would rather not be written about. Kris expressed this by saying, "Don't write about us. Don't write about us. No, don't. Write. About us."

But they make such interesting copy, with their profusion of masters' degrees, their obsessive interest in cataloguing things, Chris's unnecessary fluency in Swedish, Kris's collection of acetate negatives, their bird-watching, cat-grooming, map-making, mountain-biking, gardening, herb-drying, lawn-game playing idiosyncracies, along with the oddities imposed by their his-and-hers matching masters in library science and their upbringing in Indiana, a state which, if it can be survived and escaped, leaves its natives forever stamped with eccentricity.

Their hyperhedonism makes Chris and Kris very easy to buy Christmas presents for. A book on the history of how wind is measured, or which details everyday Dutch life in Rembrandt's Holland. A desktop croquet set. A pair of earrings shaped like hummingbirds. A CD of a capella Swedish folk carols. Big hits, all.

What did I get them this year? I can’t tell you. Although I can tell you that I received their gift and opened it already.

They gave me a book on the genealogies of characters in Shakespeare’s plays. I am so excited.

It seems that I, too, am a hyperhedonist.

Oh, I have always suspected as much. The warning signs were always there. The ability to stare at a manuscript, or a map, or a musical score, or even a photograph for hours, charmed by details, weaving out scenarios, histories, shadows, nuances. The capacity for self-amusement so common in only children, or lonely children. The ability to discuss at great length a detail that is so cool, so fascinating, did you ever notice that? -- only to notice, eventually, that your audience has wandered away, if not physically, then at least mentally, fixing his eyes on the giant t.v. screen showing the Knicks game behind you.

But that’s alright. We have our pleasures. I am going to start with Henry IV, Parts I and II.

Merry Christmas, Chris and Kris.

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