Thursday, March 21, 2024

A Sonnet from George Santayana



O world, thou choosest not the better part!
It is not wisdom to be only wise,
And on the inward vision close the eyes,
But is wisdom to believe the heart.
Columbus found a world, and had no chart,
Save one that faith deciphered in the skies;
To trust the soul's invincible surmise
Was all his science and his only art.
Our knowledge is a torch of smoky pine
That lights the pathway but one step ahead
Across a void of mystery and dread.
Bid, then, the tender light of faith to shine
By which alone the mortal heart is led
Unto the thinking of the thought divine.
-George Santayana

This is from Santayana's first book of poems, titled Sonnets and Other Verses, of 1894. After posting a poem about George Santayana last week, I went and found those few poems of his that I have around here (four sonnets are included in this collection) and this is the one I liked the best. This book is early in Santayana's career, and I suspect this poem is early even within that selection.

George Santayana (1863-1952) is better known as a philosopher, but it turns out wasn't a bad poet either...😉

Thursday, March 14, 2024

Upon The Death of George Santayana (#poem)

Upon The Death of George Santayana

Down every passage of the cloister hung
A dark wood cross on a white plaster wall;
But in the court were roses, not as tongue
Might have them, something of Christ's blood grown small,
But just as roses, and at three o'clock
Their essences, inseparably bouqueted,
Seemed more than Christ's last breath, and rose to mock
An elderly man for whom the Sisters prayed.

What heart can know itself? The Sibyl speaks
Mirthless and unbedizened things, but who
Can fathom her intent? Loving the Greeks,
He whispered to a nun who strove to woo
His spirit unto God by prayer and fast,
"Pray that I go to Limbo, if it please
Heaven to let my soul regard at last
Democritus, Plato and Socrates."

And so it was. The river, as foretold,
Ran darkly by; under his tongue he found
Coin for the passage; the ferry tossed and rolled;
The sages stood on their appointed ground,
Sighing, all as foretold. The mind was tasked;
He had not dreamed that so many had died.
"But where is Alcibiades," he asked,
"The golden roisterer, the animal pride?"

Those sages who had spoken of the love
And enmity of things, how all things flow,
Stood in a light no life is witness of,
And Socrates, whose wisdom was to know 
He did not know, spoke with a solemn mien,
And all his wonderful ugliness was lit,
"He whom I loved for what he might have been
Freezes with traitors in the ultimate pit."

-Anthony Hecht

George Santayana (1863-1952) was a Spanish-American philosopher, poet, novelist. Perhaps his most famous work is The Sense of Beauty: Being an Outline of Aesthetic Theory. He was born a Catholic in Spain, lived most of life in the U.S. He lost his faith somewhere along the way and did not wish to regain it. But he lived out the end of his life by choice in a Catholic hospital in Rome.

Anthony Hecht  (1923-2004) was an American poet. There was an article I read recently by A. E. Stallings about Hecht, lamenting (a bit--her feelings are mostly positive, but occasionally mixed) how he isn't as well-known as he once was. There is a new collected poems volume as well as a new biography that she reviews.

She mentions several of Hecht's better-known poems, but not this one, which is a favourite of mine. She does mention Hecht's sometimes rococo vocabulary, which you can possibly find in evidence here. (Unbedizened, any one? 😉)

 I do think Hecht (or Socrates) is a little hard on Alcibiades, though.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Konstantin Stanislavski's My Life In Art (#CCSpin)

"...we donned all sorts of costumes, footgear, stuffing, to feel the image of the body; we glued on noses, beards, moustaches, we put on wigs, hoping to strike accidentally on the things that we did not as yet know and for which we were painfully searching."

Konstantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) was a Russian actor, stage director, and teacher of acting. My Life in Art is his autobiography of 1924.

Stanislavski was born Konstantin Andreyev to a wealthy family with an estate near Moscow. He was one of many children in a happy family; his parents were interested in the arts and indulged the children's enthusiasms. Young Konstantin quickly caught the theater bug, playing in masquerades, watching a visiting puppet theater troupe, engaging in amateur theatricals with his cousins. 

But his father's supportiveness only went so far; he was expected to have a more respectable career. In his twenties Konstantin takes a part in a racy French comedy and adopts Stanislavski--Polish-sounding so it should fool people, right?--as his stage name, but nevertheless his parents come to see the production, and are appalled to see their son in such a thing. His father tells him to set up an amateur society and limit their productions to 'decent' scripts. So that's what he does.

Until he's thirty-three. Then with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. in 1897, after an epic luncheon--it began at ten AM on one day and ends at 3 AM the next--he founds the Moscow Art Theater. They sell shares in their new corporation and decide to open their season with Tsar Feodor, a play by A. N. Tolstoy (cousin to Leo).

But Nemirovich really wants to bring in Anton Chekhov. Chekhov's first play was The Seagull. Nemirovich and Chekhov had shared a prize for the best play of the year in 1896, but Nemirovich refused his half of the prize and insisted it be given to Chekhov, as author of the far superior play. Still the first production of The Seagull in St. Petersburg was not a success--Chekhov famously fled town after opening night--and had refused to write anything else for the stage or to allow The Seagull to be played again. That is, until 1898, when it became the fourth play in Moscow Art Theater's opening season. It was such a hit, the Moscow Art Theater adopted the seagull as their emblem.

That's Chekhov reading in the center, Stanislavski seated at his right, and Olga Knipper, Chekhov's future wife in profile next to Stanislavski. 

Stanislavski directed all four plays of Chekhov, jointly in the case of The Seagull with Nemirovich, and acted in them as well, as Trigorin (The Seagull), then originating the roles of Astrov (Uncle Vanya), Vershinin (The Three Sisters), and Gaev (The Cherry Orchard). Chekhov's sister told Stanislavski his production of Uncle Vanya had better be a success, because Chekhov had had an attack of tuberculosis, and a failure would kill him. Yikes! Pressure. By the time of The Cherry Orchard it was clear Chekhov was dying and they hastened the production so he could see it.

Apparently the group reading was a standard feature of Moscow Art Theater productions. I was amused that for The Three Sisters, none of the troupe's member understood it was meant to be a comedy. I read Chekhov before I saw him played, and I certainly didn't understand he could be hilarious.

Moscow Art Theater also originated productions of Gorky, as well as classic plays, particularly Ibsen and Shakespeare. This is Stanislavski and his future wife Maria Lilina in Schiller's Love and Villainy (more commonly translated now as Intrigue and Love).

The company made their first tour abroad in 1906, starting in Berlin. 1906 was a troubled year in Russia, and they couldn't play at home. It was a success, but their real international reputation started with the production of Hamlet of 1911-12, which Stanislavski discusses in detail.

Now the book is called My Life in Art, not My Life in Business or My Life in History or My Married Life, so I guess it shouldn't be a surprise...but though he lived in interesting times, there's almost no discussion of it. There's no discussion of what the family business was or what his part was in his 20s while he was still involved. We learn about 1906 because the company has to go abroad. The Russian Revolution features largely as free tickets handed out to workers. The Russian Civil War is important because half their crew (including Olga Knipper, Chekhov's widow) are trapped on the other side of the white Russian general Denikin's lines. Even his wife and kids--theirs seems to have been a happy marriage--we learn about mostly in relationship to the theater. Maria Lilina is pregnant? Oh, no, she can't act!

Is this because he feels he shouldn't say anything about Soviet politics, or because he's genuinely apolitical? A bit of both, I suspect, but probably more the latter. Lenin was supposed to be a fan. 

The book was came out in 1924 after a successful U.S. tour and had been commissioned by a U.S. publisher. Wikipedia tells me Stanislavski would have preferred to have written about his teaching methods, but there was no interest in such a book at that time, so he smuggled in his ideas about how to become an actor in this autobiography. He later went on to write the books more directly discussing his ideas. In English, they're: An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role, the last from his notes. They were all first published in English.

After the book: in 1926, he directs Bulgakov's The Day of the Turbins, a success and a play that Stalin was supposed to be fond of. When I read Bulgakov a while back, something suggested that it was The Day of the Turbins that kept Stalin from executing Bulgakov. Maybe that good feeling extended to Stanislavski. 
In 1928 Stanislavski had a heart attack--on stage, but kept playing until the curtain fell. But that's the end of his acting career.  He still directs, but now mostly works on his teaching system. Maybe he's too famous for Stalin to kill, but Stanislavski is also living quietly at this point. Stanislavski announces his true heir in the theater is Vsevolod Meyerhold, who had played Treplev in that production of The Seagull, and gone on to direct, but Meyerhold is executed by Stalin in 1939, shortly after Stanislavski's death. His widow Maria Lilina dies in 1943 at the age of 77.

All in all a pretty fascinating book and a successful spin choice!