I caught a cold last Sunday and spent most of last week laid up, caughing, sneezing, wheezing, reading post-modern liturature, watching documentaries about the dawning of robot intelligence and contemplated mortality. At some point, during this period of infirmity, I thumbed through Shakespeare’s comedy, As You Like It (which also happens to be Independent Shakespeare’s next production in Grifith Park this summer, go to iscla.org for the schedule!). The play has one of those famous speeches that we’ve incorporated into our Western DNA:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…
It’s a weird thing, to be sick in the middle summer in Southern California, amid so much warmth and sunshine. Anytime I ventured out, I felt as if “UNCLEAN” had been marked upon my brow – an infectious threat set loose upon the season. Then, whilst I lay low with the chills in the middle of the day in the dark shade of the bungalow – as the lawnmowers, ice-cream trucks, sirens, and screaming East Hollywood street tramps compose summer’s song just outside my window – I felt like a child lunger too weak to play with all the other school children out here in the Wild, Wild West, left to gaze at all the Life out the window, until Death. Here’s more of the speech:
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like a furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part…
Like most of Shakespeare’s comedies, As You Like It comes across as a rollicking whimsical tale, yet the threat of banishment, danger, heartbreak and even complete doom are never far away – like real life. Of course, goodness, virtue and hope are equally nearby, but, oh, how easily do we characters seem to forget that. Especially when one is exiled to a dark sick room in Hollywood – or the Forest of Arden, banished from court, like Jaques, the character who delivers the famous speech. Here’s more of it:
The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.
Jaques is a rather melencholy fellow. He doesn’t want to be so glum, but he just can’t seem to find the answers to life that he’s looking for. The search has led him to a dull despair. His fellow exilers try to cheer him up, but he only sinks further into gloom:
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Remind you, this is one of Shakespeare’s comedies. Sure, there’s jokes, a clown, poems carved into trees in the forest, music, general hullabaloo and tomfoolery, love and all that stuff, but the undertones of As You Like It are entrenched in Existentialism – in fact, it can be argued that Shakespeare invented Existentialism in its literary form. Based on my limited knowledge of Shakespeare, I’ve come to the conclusion that he wrote no comedies or dramas, he simply wrote everything. But everything’s a lot to handle when you’re sick in the dark, and I began to take on – willingly – the melencholic demeanor of Jaques. Luckilly, by Thursday I started feeling better, and was able to crawl out from contagious exile and live again.
Friday, I rode the subway to downtown LA. A few blocks from Union Station, I began to hear drums. I followed the beat to El Pueblo de Los Angeles – an old restored section of the city – sandwiched between Chinatown, Little Tokyo and City Hall. There, I found a troup of Native American dancers, gyrating to the beat of the drum. They were decked out in full costume, sweat dripping off them as they twirled, jumped and sang in the hot afternoon. Many people surrounded the dancers – watching, applauding everytime the drums stopped. During breaks, each dancer would stand next to a donation bucket.
“It is Aztec,” one of dancers told me, breathing heavily, “we were Aztec, then we were Spanish you know, then Mexcian, and now…well, we,” he put his finger on my chest, smiled, “we are all the same.” He looked out at the crowd. “All of us are the same. But when we dance, we don’t dance for anyone,” he caught his breathe, then pointed to the sun, “we dance for god.”
From there, I made my way to Little Tokyo, just southeast of City Hall. I always find it humbling to walk down a street, unable to read what any of the signs or marquees are advertising. For a moment, I couldn’t find one English word, and I began to feel a tingly lost at sea feeling. But I kept floating and soon English words began to creep into the store windows. But moments later I wound up in front of an American Apparel, a Pinkberry, etc, and…BAM…back on hard American land.
From Little Tokyo, I carved my way through the heart of downtown LA, along gridlike streets with tall glass and concrete buildings, hustlers, cops, shoppers, office workers, panhandlers and of course, both the mute and prophesying classes of the homeless. Then I got to Broadway between 2nd and 8th Streets, what I call America’s largest flea market. Bridal dress boutiques, menswear outlets, jewelry stores, music shops, religious iconography stores, shoe stores and liquor stores occupied the crumbling storefronts. Mustached men with slicked back hair spoke Spanglish into a microphone out on the sidewalk…Reeboks y Nike y Adidas, para only $29.99!!!…advertising as as far out as their mic’s cord will let them. Day laborers handed out flyers. Clerks lazed about on the sidewalk until a customer went into their store. Spanish music flowed out onto the street. Shoppers flooded in and out of the stores. Crazy drunks stumbled across the street, singing to Dionysus. Scabbed junkies swung about like lynched corpses. Young, dirty kids joyfully ran to nowhere. A vibrant scene.
The Grand Central Market – an intersection of Chinese and Latino foodstands – takes up most of the area between 3rd and 4th Streets. The whole scene reminded me of the downtown LA portrayed in the movie Blade Runner – cramped, sweaty and loud, where the Chinese and Spanish languages blend into one – the odd English term popping up every now and then. Ah, I thought, as I waded through the humanity between butcher shops, produce bins and taco and dumpling stands, Philip K Dick was right. This is the future. America is blending and will continue to blend until it’s base only faintly echoes the cultures it’s made up of. Now, just who in here are androids?
Of course, I don’t believe the robots walk among us, as they do in Blade Runner…yet. I was confident all those participating in the commerce of the Grand Central Market were made of flesh and blood. There we were, playing the demanding roles we must play between birth and death, gracefully flawed, holding on tight to all we know but ultimately letting go in small increments, in order to continue performing. It’s easy to see the spectrum of life – that Shakespreare so clearly captures – in places like The Grand Central Market. People are forced deal with each other face to face, touch each other. It’s when there’s a lot of space between the giver and the taker that we often find ourselves in the wings – observing, not acting, just dying.
Saturday night, I went to Griffith Park and saw a performance of As You Like It. Independent Shakespeare Company does a hell of a job with the play – it’s a very tight, energetic and soulful production. The actors run about, falling in love, longing for love while singing, wrestling, conjuring and in the end all the lovers find each other, get married and dance. But there is no love or nuptials for Jaques. He leaves the celebration to pursue The Duke Frederick – the man responsible for his banishment who’d experienced a blinding spiritual experience and abandoned court and wandered off to be a monk. As everybody gayly prepares to go back to court, Jaques takes his exit – towards the darker woods of the forest – in search of his own awakening – the kind that has to be found outside of court and kingdom, outside of all he knows. This is the last we hear of him: