Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth

Aimee Rose Ranger in Dogg's Hamlet
I'm late with my thoughts on Whistler in the Dark's double bill of Tom Stoppard's Dogg's Hamlet and Cahoot's Macbeth, which has been "occupying" the BCA Black Box (in repertory with Imaginary Beast's Macbett) the last few weeks. In fact I think there's only one show left, today - so you still have a few minutes to catch it - which you should.

Perhaps I've been dragging my feet because the Whistlers are always telling me they're looking forward to what I'm going to say about their current show, good or bad.  And I kind of half-believe them.  I've always thought they were smart; now (oddly enough) they think I'm smart, too!  And there's so much to unpack in Dogg's and Cahoot's!  It's so tiring.  Luckily, I hear they've been getting good houses, so they didn't really need the Hub Review for publicity; after five years of reviews from fans like me (at one of their shows I was literally the only person in the audience), they have finally been "discovered" by the print and radio critics as a "brand new company!"  Uh-huh; whatever; it's still a good thing.

And duty calls, so here goes nothing (I can't disappoint the Whistlers, can I?). Dogg and Cahoot's are basically an intertwined meditation on Wittgenstein and rebellion.  The great Austrian philosopher, of course, is one of the towering intellectual figures of the twentieth century - despite a very slim published output; and one of his obsessions was the relationship between mental representation, the world itself (if you will), and the mechanics of language.  Dogg's Hamlet was conceived when Stoppard came upon one of the master's discussions in which he posited that separate gangs of workmen who spoke different languages could quite easily cooperate as long as words like "plank" and "slab" had a consistent (and serendipitous) linguistic correlation for both groups.  For instance, if in one language, "plank" meant, well, "plank," but in the correlated language it meant "Next!," the men could easily get on with their work, yelling their monosyllabic instructions to each other, unaware that the mental representations in their respective heads were actually completely different.
Now to some, this may sound only like a gay Austrian egghead's extrapolation of the common concept of the pun; but trust me, it was big news to philosophers (sorry, if I went into why, I'd be here all day).  At any rate, Stoppard took Wittgenstein's philosophic-linguistic insight and ran with it into the intersecting worlds of class, culture and politics, where he invented Dogg, a "language" (a bit like Nadsat, the slang devised by Anthony Burgess for A Clockwork Orange) spoken by the students of a strange British public school attempting to stage Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Ludwig von, in a photo by lover Ben Richards.
Not much of an excuse is given for Dogg's existence; indeed, when a Wittgensteinian workman (named "Easy," believe it or not) shows up with some props for these kids' play, he assumes they're touched.  Oddly, Dogg is composed entirely of common English words (unlike Nadsat), and follows the same syntactic rules.  But the words are usually short, blunt, and vaguely Anglo-Saxon, with the occasional bit of schoolboy techno ("Bicycles!") thrown in.  And tellingly, insult and compliment are often reversed; in Dogg, for instance, "Git" ("jerk" or even "asshole," roughly) is high praise - so Stoppard has a lot of fun with all his young Doggians calling their headmasters "gits," to warm approval.

But Stoppard, like Wittgenstein, is also attempting to limn his schoolboys' inner state of mind; and we begin to perceive that Dogg is a manifestation of their oppression and incomprehension.  When they rehearse Hamlet, for instance, they speak Shakespeare's English straight (which they probably cannot understand at all); but when they're alone, they switch immediately back to Dogg.  And that mystified deliveryman suddenly gets the hang of Dogg when he, too, is mistreated by the fatuous schoolmasters; when he sputters that they're "Fascists!," suddenly he's through the linguistic looking-glass, and talking Dogg like a native.

What comes next is an amusing send-up of student Shakespeare that is, of course, utterly incomprehensible to said students (and thus hilarious to us; Wittgenstein's paradox reversed, in effect).  But things get a bit more complex in Cahoot's Macbeth, in which we find ourselves transported to an underground production of another Shakespearean tragedy, somewhere on the other side of what used to be called the Iron Curtain.  Here a group of persecuted actors are in "cahoots" with each other (another pun!) to perform an even more pointed critique of power gone mad - they're actually doing it in a living room, though (lit by floor lamps), as they've been locked out of their city's theatres by the oppressive state.

The secret police (or the critics?) catch up with them even here, however, and the rebels face a fresh round of interrogation - until Easy, the deliveryman from the earlier play, comes stumbling in, still speaking Dogg, and delivering not merely props but also a kind of linguistic virus: a language not of direct rebellion, but of subversion.

Nate Gundy menaces Scott Sweatt in Cahoot's Macbeth

Now I'm afraid this is where I feel Mr. Stoppard goes a little "Pepsi Generation" on me. Indeed, as Cahoot's ends with an image straight outta Pink Floyd's The Wall (the play and the album were both completed in 1979), I couldn't help but remember the unfortunately simplistic argument of the playwright's later Rock'n'Roll - which seemed to claim that Syd Barrett caused the Velvet Revolution, or something like that.  Sigh.  I'm not too sympathetic toward grand intellectual visions of pop pleasures, and I'm a little dismayed to see a fantastic critic of over-reaching dialectics like Stoppard fall so easily himself into what amounts to a dialectic (albeit a funny one).  Still, I'll admit the subversive elements of pop culture certainly infiltrated the Eastern bloc countries, and probably had more to do with the collapse of those regimes than Shakespeare ever did.  (So I'll go as far as Cahoot's, but not as far as Rock'n'Roll.)

At any rate, that's the critical exegesis of the text.  What about the production?  Well, it is (or was) a solid, knockabout one; a bit broad in places, but brilliant in other spots, and always clever and alive to the intellectual arguments of the plays.  We won't see a better one locally.  I felt Whistler stalwart Jen O'Connor, though strong, took a back seat this time around - the star  turns came from Aimee Rose Ranger (as the obnoxious over-achiever who got every school prize, as well as the lead in Hamlet), Nate Gundy (perhaps miscast as the chilling police inspector of Cahoot's, but making the most of it anyway), and Mac Young as the happy-go-lucky everyman who gladly threw himself through a literal barrier of language over and over.  There wasn't really a weak link in the cast, however, with particularly sharp cameos coming from Becca Lewis and Michael Underhill.  (My one quibble was with Scott Sweatt's take on Lady Macbeth, in drag - his work was subtle, but it seemed to be coming from some other play.)  And as usual, the Whistlers made the evocative most of a basically bare space (a particular strength of director Meg Taintor).  Oh btw, I forgot to mention in the Hubbies (I've corrected that post) the atmospheric lighting design PJ Strachman devised for Cahoot's, which actually made Stoppard's stripped-down Macbeth the spookiest I've ever seen.  As always, I await with pleasure the next outing from this adventurous, up-and-coming (can I still say that after five years?) company.


  1. Now to some, this may sound only like a gay Austrian egghead's extrapolation of the common concept of the pun; but trust me, it was big news to philosophers

    Well, it was big news to British analytic philosophers like Bertrand Russell. It took a gay Jewish Austrian to explain the concept of word having multiple meanings. Indeed, it took a whole generation or two of British analytic philosophers to die off before Oxbridge actually accepted Wittgenstein's insights.

    The play is a favorite one of mine (so much so, that I actually wrote an early draft of the wikipedia article several years back)-- but the wall you mention, isn't Stoppard's invention but presumingly the work of Taintor and Young.

    Of course, "Cahoot" is also a pun on Pavel Kahout, a dissident Czech playwright who was, in fact, performing Macbeth in Prague living rooms after he himself had been banned from the theatre.

  2. Hey Ian, I knew I'd hear from you on this one! On your first point - isn't that what I said? It was big news to philosophers! (Even though it seems obvious in retrospect.)

    Thanks for the note about Pavel Kahout - I knew the play was based on actual events, but I didn't know the names involved; I'm not surprised the title is a double pun. I did check with Meg Taintor, however, about "The Wall" before I wrote this up. Perhaps I misunderstood her, but I thought she indicated it was in the script. The specifics of the alphabet, etc., I imagine were her invention, but they're rather appropriate, don't you think?

  3. Hey Tom and Ian,

    Just chiming in to clarify here:

    The wall is indeed specifically called for in the script - Stoppard has copious stage directions about the component pieces (how many there are and when they arrive onstage) that are scattered throughout "Dogg's Hamlet". In the second piece, "Cahott's Macbeth", they are specifically called for to re-appear when the Inspector enlists Boris and Maurice to use them to wall up the action of the play.

    The specific appearance of the pieces, as well as the interpretation of what differentiates a "block" from a "slab" from a "cube" are of course left up to the design team of each particular production, but the idea of the wall is mandated by the script.


  4. Thanks for clarifying, Meg. I was afraid for a minute that when you said "plank," I heard "slab," but it seems we're basically on the same page.

  5. Btw, as I reread the review, I realized I may have mis-characterized Dogg by mentioning Burgess's Nadsat - and the difference between them is key. Nadsat is a "closed" slang - it simply keeps out the uninitiated. Dogg, by way of contrast, is a DOUBLE slang (hence the double g at the end of its moniker) - it includes AND excludes simultaneously; we don't realize this at first, but when the headmasters and the schoolboys speak it, they're understanding it in different ways, like Wittgenstein's workmen. (The schoolboys probably perceive "useless git," for instance, much as the audience does.) That's what makes Dogg so much more subversive than Nadsat - the authorities and their subjects talk "past" each other in it. Indeed, perhaps with "Dogg" Stoppard isn't trying to dramatize a "language" at all, but rather the deceptive mental state BEHIND subversive language.

  6. In [...] "Cahoot's Macbeth", they [the components of the wall are] specifically called for to re-appear when the Inspector enlists Boris and Maurice to use them to wall up the action of the play.

    Thanks for the clarification, Meg, I may be misremembering from the time I last read the script-- or I may have been reading from an earlier edition (Mine was a first edition that was published for the first run and so may not have been finalized.)

    So I remember the wall from the "Dogg's Hamlet" section, but not the reemergence of the wall in the "Cahoot's Macbeth" section.

    It was big news to philosophers!

    Well, it was big news to English philosophers whose main preoccupation since the 19th century had been in finding new ways to dissociate the discipline from the larger cultural discourse, Tom. It was certainly less of a surprise to philosophers on the continent-- when one considers Kierkegaard (of whom Wittgenstein was a fan), Nietzsche, Freud, or the early work in structuralism and semiotics.

    That said, I still think you misread Stoppard's argument about the fall of communism (I know we had this argument when Rock'n'Roll was playing at the Huntington.) That play is so specifically about Czechoslovakian situation, and it's not specific about pop culture, as about how any culture that is worthwhile: ironic, nuanced, lustful, is incompatible with totalitarianism: we see the same inability of the Cambridge Marxist's world view to assimilate the lyric poetry of Sapho. Furthermore, we also have Stoppard's Squaring the Circle which portrays the conflict between the Solidarity movement and the Polish communist government: rock'n'roll isn't what sparks off the revolution; it's simply about the right of workers to have an independent labor union.

  7. Ok, Ian. Perhaps I should have specifically said "analytic British philosophers at Cambridge but NOT on the Continent." Whatever; it was an ASIDE. (Although btw, I think actually a lot of semiotics and structuralism is kind of in conflict with Wittgenstein BUT that's an argument for another day.)

    And at any rate, whatever Stoppard may have written about Poland, Pavel Kohout was Czech, so we can reasonably assume that "Cahoot's Macbeth" takes place in Czechoslovakia. AND we have ascertained that the play ends with an image straight out of Pink Floyd - whose founder is a key figure in "Rock'n'Roll" - also concerned with Czechoslovakia. (And Stoppard, of course, was Czech himself.) I stand by my point that the connection is there. Obviously you find the attitudes behind it more compelling than I do.

  8. Sorry, Tom, I become unnecessarily (to non-experts) pedantic regarding 20th century philosophy. I just happen to have a low opinion of Oxbridge's contribution to the field-- about which we seem to agree.