Academic journal article Explorations in Renaissance Culture

Trafficking in Mere Humanity: Shakespeare, McNally and the Reach of "This Wooden O"

Academic journal article Explorations in Renaissance Culture

Trafficking in Mere Humanity: Shakespeare, McNally and the Reach of "This Wooden O"

Article excerpt

"O for a Muse of fire," Katharine Brynne exclaims whenever she experiences something so extraordinary that language otherwise fails her while on a tour of India in Terrence McNally's A Perfect Ganesh (1993). The phrase, she readily acknowledges, comes from the prologue to Shakespeare's Henry V. "How hard it is to really describe anything," she explains to her traveling companion, the decidedly less effusive Margaret Civil (37). "'Muse of fire' is my talisman. It's my way of telling myself 'Savor this moment. [...] Relish it. It is important. You'll never be here or feel this way again'" (38). In the course of her journey, Katharine meets a young, gay American doctor weakened by an AIDS-related illness. Having once played Henry in a college production, he is able to recite with her the better part of the Chorus's speech, thus bringing it to the forefront of McNally's audience's consciousness, at least for the duration of the play.

Shakespeare's prologue--with its meditation upon the power of "this wooden O" to stimulate, yet adequately represent, the reach of the human imagination--proves a resonant subtext for a play in which a village puppet master comments upon the different purposes of, and differing levels of audience engagement required by, South Asian and American styles of theater. What is more, Katharine's proprietary regard for Shakespeare's speech models the manner in which, throughout his career, McNally conjures with the idea of Shakespeare as a cultural touchstone and appropriates for his own purposes Shakespeare's language. For McNally, Shakespeare's plays represent the height of the creative imagination, in particular the human ability through art to resist metaphysical annihilation. In addition, Shakespeare's language provides McNally's characters with a kind of shorthand by which they express their deepest, and otherwise difficult-to-articulate, feelings. Finally, Shakespeare's theater provides a stimulus to McNally's own dramaturgy, McNally attempting--although never completing--a farce that uses Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to comment on the 1960s' "Sexual Revolution." Analysis of the multiple levels of McNally's engagement with Shakespeare not only offers a telling instance of the power of influence (as opposed to Harold Bloom's anxiety of the same), but also helps map the extent of Shakespeare's absorption by popular culture.

Shakespeare's influence upon McNally's development as a playwright cannot be overstated. Throughout his career, McNally has used the name of Shakespeare as a synonym for the power of the human imagination. In And Things that Go Bump in the Night (1965), McNally's first commercially produced play, Clarence, a young, ineffectual gay man, is seduced by a handsome stranger only to be subsequently humiliated by the man and his family. (His very name associates him with George, Duke of Clarence, who, in Richard III, is betrayed by those close to him.) Cajoled by his condescending hosts into articulating his philosophy of life, Clarence explains that--unlike Ruby, whose nihilism fosters in her children a willingness to "suck the bitter root" of despair (13)--he negotiates threats to his happiness through a belief in "Shakespeare, Florence ... [and the hope of meeting] someone in the park" (51). For Clarence-and, by extension, McNally--the only possible antidotes to despair are the power of human creation (represented by the works of Shakespeare and the artistic glories of Renaissance Florence) and the possibility of human relationship.

In interviews, McNally has repeatedly cited Shakespeare as "the greatest writer who ever lived. The greatest creative mind that ever existed" (Myers 34). In keeping with, but well in advance of, Harold Bloom's claim that Shakespeare "invented the human," McNally has argued that Shakespeare's work manifests "the greatest mind, heart and soul" yet preserved in print (McNally, "Edited"). Throughout his career McNally has testified to the example that Shakespeare offers the modem playwright. …

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