Interview with Michael Garbarini by Eskimo Pie Girl, March 2002. This interview was recorded before and after watching the production of "Othello," which played during March 2002 at the Actor's Theatre of Sacramento at 1616 Del Paso Blvd. For more infor on the Actor's Theatre, call 916-925-6579.
|EP: So, you edited this play. Can you tell me what parts you edited out, and how you went about doing that?
MG: Well first of all, I got together with Ed Claudio , the man who commissioned me to do this, director of The Actors Workshop, and all he gave me were vague instructions at the outset, "We need a play thats gonna run 2 1/2 hours, not 3 1/2 hours; so, do a cursory cutting of it, and then well go over it." So I didnt really decide to cut some parts rather than others. I had to go through the whole text . And doing that was quite valuable because I became aware more acutely of how I actually interpret Shakespeare; and that opened up some interesting discussions with Ed about this. Then he went over my draft of the cut. We argued about certain passages in Act IV, about the clown scene, whether or not that should be in there. But thats basically how it got going, so my supposed status, my role in this production was that of the dramateurish which in the olden days used to mean something but now its the equivalent of a literary consultant whos in charge in some kind of interpretation thats gonna have some effect on the actors.
EP: So he asked you because he knew youd read a lot of Shakespeare before, and you had some experience writing plays, youve written some of your own plays?
MG: O.K., may I answer the first question first? Ed knew that I had an interest in "Othello." Im not by any stretch of the imagination a Shakespearean scholar, but I am obsessed with some of his plays and those plays I have studied. So he thought I would be useful as an interpreter of Shakespeare, not so much as a playwright myself. But getting to your second question, I have one foray into the theater and that was an adaptation of J. D. Salingers story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," and that too was performed at The Actors Workshop. Thats it. Thats my experience in the theater.
EP: So you think that he wanted you to do more than an interpretation of this because he knew of your background in philosophy and psychology; so maybe you could understand the characters in this play and then that would allow you to edit out certain parts that maybe werent quote essential?
MG: Well yes, too all of that. Actually, psychology is more in my foreground than in the background, but philosophy in literature, that is a unity that Im working with most of the time in my teaching and then in the sporadic writing that Ive done. I supposed I could be pigeon-holed as a literary theorist or someone who has a theory about literature and bases that theory in a philosophical concept of the human being. And this is one of the things I did talk about with Ed when we were describing Shakespeares "world," so in order for the actors to understand something about the characters theyre playing, how can we make that historical context hermeneutically alive for them. So that was a formidable question, and Im not sure that I was successful at doing that. Thats up to, I think, the audience to judge when they see the performance; and Ive only seen one performance to this date. But before we talk again in this interview, Ill have seen another performance.
EP: So can you give me a definition of literary theory?
MG: No. Because I dont think it's amenable to a stipulative definition or a logical definition. So you could say literary critics and theorists make use of definitions when theyre either interpreting a work up close or talking about the language within which we interpret that work. Im probably closer to the latter in my approach, but the experience of working with Shakespeares text, the "Othello," made me much more sensitive to the idea of interpretation from the perspective of the actor and what an actors interpretation is, which is a pre-theoretical interpretation because someone like me comes along afterwards, looks at a text thats already been created, and re-works it according to his reading of the Shakespeare text. So again, like I was saying, Im not confident that Ive really succeeded in entering into the actors interpretation of Shakespeare, which is not a matter of literary theory.
[Later, after seeing the play, and while watching a Kings game, on 3-8-02.]
MG: When it came to the process of cutting the text of "Othello" to a performable length, the director and I were both in agreement on ensuring that the audience has some idea that Iago is prurient, salacious, and that . . . one interpretation that Im kind of interested in, fostered by Stanley Kavell (sp?) is that Desdemona possibly was a virgin, and the way I interpret that is that if you look at the plays length, it takes place over three days roughly. And even though youre not exactly sure about the time frame, you know that theyre in Venice, then they go to Cyprus. So the first act is in Venice, then the other four acts are in Cyprus. So we decided to cut the play, in order to render it in two acts; so combining three acts into one, and two acts into another one. And its important that Iago is not only obnoxious and abrasive, but that hes invading the privacy of Othellos marriage by getting the father implicated in it, that he wakes him up in the first act, and uses those images of oversexed moors, oversexed blacks, little innocent daughters being run over by some one who will eventually devastate her, and that, "You, the father, you have to do something about this now." So I think it was successful in getting that across, the arrogance and impudence of Iagos sensibility and character right there in the first scene of the first act. But then I had some arguments with the director. We kicked around some ideas about passages to cut when Iago was going on and on about the will, and using analogies of tending the garden of the psyche as if its a huge garden that you can excise different emotions at will. The director thought that was all sort of ponderous and would take up too much time. I thought, well, maybe some of it should be left in. So we compromised on all of that.
EP: So did you guys modernize some of the language, change some of the words?
MG: Only in the sense that some colloquial words seeped in that were rough equivalents for the diction of the time. Which, again, even there, some which I didnt think was necessary. Lets say, if you think a contemporary audience is not familiar with the word, "sequestration," youre gonna use the word, "separation," and a few things of that nature. But we kept to the text for 95% of Shakespeares diction, and cut in places that we thought would still be workable within the plotlines of "Othello."
EP: The characters are wearing modern clothes. Whats that supposed to do?
MG: Well, thats interesting. I wasnt in on all of the decisions on costume and properties, just being a mere dramateurish who is a literary genius I dont have access to all of the expertise that its take to set up a stage and the interpretive decisions that decide what the characters are gonna look like. Yeah, there certainly is a modernization of the dress, but its still consistent with what "Othello," for instance as a general and an intimidating, imposing figure, would probably have looked like then. He probably wore his military uniform most of the time, so we put them into more guerrilla-like fatigues which was the directors vision. I think its pretty effective. It also allows a kind of anonymity, you know, so the character comes through, and you dont get distracted by a kind of merchant ivory version of that getting perfect colors, perfect costumes that are supposed to exactly match the period; so there wasnt any concern about that, and it made the appearance of the characters more effective.
EP: So the clowns, to me they just kind of looked like some macabre children. Did he ever change their appearance for later shows? Or do they still just look like spooky kids?
MG: So to you, the clown didnt look like a clown? Yeah, you see I think that is a problem, and the fact that members of the audience had a hard time understanding or didnt see the role of that particular character, I think is a limitation of the production, not the play itself. I think that possibly we could have re-worked the clown scene. But I should mention parenthetically that the clown scenes in "Othello" are nothing like the clown scenes in some other plays; theyre much shorter, almost abbreviated, not nearly as many puns, and theyre not elongated in the same way that youd find in "Hamlet" for instance where they become fairly important characters in the play. Also the fool in "King Lear" would be another instance of where someone who would be on the periphery, almost like a choral voice, is actually quite central. Whereas in "Othello," you know, I mean my first inclination was to cut the clown in act 3 entirely, but the director decided to leave the clown in.
EP: So youre teaching a class right now, and can you tell me what the name of the class is, and actually you guys are reading "Othello" in this class, it just turns out. So what are you having the students look at when they read "Othello"?
MG: Well, its lucky for me that we are reading "Othello" because Ive been working on this play for the last few months, and I knew this course was coming up. I hadnt seen the text in advance, and its a kind of standard humanities text that were using. The title of the course is "History through Theater." Its supposed to deal with the relation between history and performance. So were looking at historical epochs through their theatrical and poetical manifestations in analyzing the poetry in the historical cultural context in which the poems and the plays were produced. And I think "Othello" was chosen for this text for several reasons, some of which Im sympathetic which, and some not; namely, for instance, "Othello" was probably chosen because of its timely quote politically correct unquote ambience that you have a black man marrying a white woman, you have the concept of the outsider and the foreigner, the other, who invades aristocratic Venetian society. Theres also the implication that marriage is at stake in the play in a pronounced manner that you dont find in some of the other plays of Shakespeare, so you really have a reflection on the ritual of marriage itself, thats another reason why it was chosen. In the textbook there are some historical documents and other essays by people in Shakespeares time such as Montaigne who talk about marriage conventions and the idea of seeing cultures outside of what the Europeans are used to seeing. So I think that made "Othello" a timely and felicitous entry into the text.
EP: Youve taught a lot of different kinds of classes. Can you just a name a bunch of the different kinds of classes that youve taught?
MG: Well at National University, Ive probably taught the widest range of courses, even though I initially didnt expect to be able to do this, because Im in the Department of Humanities, and its just an umbrella for some other departments like Arts and Sciences, Philosophy, Literature, and then Cultural History. Im not a historian, and yet I do teach courses with the title, history, for instance History 341 is the course I just mentioned, "History through Theater." I also taught History 350, is the number they give it, and thats "Cultural Diversity." And one of the advantages of teaching at National is that Im able to design the courses to my specifications provided I go by their restrictions on academic freedom and the limitation thats imposed on me that I must use the textbook that is currently in the computer and that the school has a contract with the textbook companies, so we have to use them. But even thats under revision now, for instance, in this course, I would have liked to have junked the textbook we have and then have given the students three or four shorter paperback books that would deal with all of the same issues. For instance, this is supposed to be "History through Theater," but the textbook that were using has a lot of stuff on music and painting, and Im not covering any of that. So then the students kind of wonder, "Well, why do we have to read this whole book?" And even after I point out to them that you really dont have to read the whole book but just parts of the book, just the parts of the book that have to do with history through theater, even after pointing that out to them, even after pointing that out to them at least two or three times, they still wonder why they have to buy the whole book if theyre just gonna read part of the book. But these are some of the vagaries of instructing.
EP: So your background is in philosophy, but youve ended up teaching all these different courses, literature, history, other kinds of classes. Can you tell about your background a little bit?
MG: Well I was born in a hospital in Santa Monica, California. And then I grew up and I started studying philosophy at Loyola Marymount (sp?) University as an undergraduate; I have a bachelors degree in Philosophy and English. And then I went to DePaul University and did graduate work there. Probably the last couple years I was in Chicago is where I started thinking more seriously about my interests beyond that of the typical graduate student who thinks he knows everything and wants to specialize in this, that, or the other thing. Ive always maintained an interest in Heideggers phenomenology and Heideggers philosophy, but that itself has changed over the years, and primarily because of my encounter with an immersion in Greek tragedy, especially Sophoclean tragedy. That got me thinking about the origin of Western philosophy out of a tragic sensibility, or the matrix of tragedy as the origin of philosophy, and that led to studies in literature, ritual theory that you find in anthropology and literary criticism, philosophy of language generally because it seems once you study any discipline in the humanities, from philosophy through literature, poetry, drama, and even into the social sciences, you find yourself caught up in questions about the nature of language itself and expressive discourse. So, if that helps . . . .
EP: What was it that attracted you to philosophy? And you still read a lot of it, so what is it? You just like to think about these questions like, "What is the Other?"? What are some of the things that you like to think about?
MG: Well, as you know Eskimo, Philosophy actually is a woman. Philosophy, Philosophia is the love of wisdom, and I think the Socratic inspiration has always been there, and I think it is there for anyone who studies philosophy even if they dont end up reading a lot of Plato and about Socrates. But the idea that wisdom is elusive, and just in her elusiveness, she keeps drawing you on, and withdraws as youre drawn forward; theres that seductive aspect, an idea of seduction is in my opinion more fundamental than induction and deduction, that is the impetus for thought. So that has something to do with the interests that I came across later. It was an impetus of a questioning and activity that opened up other avenues that in my narrowness of thinking I had to specialize, I had previously overlooked. And Im fortunate at least to have had the opportunity, for instance, to work with actors, these creatures who are both extremely egocentric and heterocentric, and seemingly have nothing to do with speculative philosophy; and yet they allowed me, in conversation and consultation, and trying to think through conventions of theater in connection to conventions of literary theory and language generally, it turned out to be a good opportunity for me to speculate on the relation between philosophy and literature. I would even add here that though my ostensive training, my academic training is in philosophy, and I even hear people who have been through the same mill that Ive been through, call themselves philosophers; I dont exactly do that, I might call myself a philosophy instructor. But . . . I lost my train of thought.
EP: Heidegger talks about how "being cannot be glimpsed by science" and that "the pervading difficulty in our endeavor is a methodological one. It concerns our access to the phenomena, and the manner and way of demonstrating them . . . ." When he says this he reminds me of Castanedas attempts to access the "phenomena." Do you want to talk about that?
MG: Well, thats actually quite an ocean to get into. Im not against certain cross-cultural comparisons between lets say Castaneda and Heidegger, and I assume youre referring to Carlos Castaneda, not Hector Nari (?) Castaneda who is an analytic philosopher and logician, philosopher of science. Assuming its the former, Carlos, he himself claimed to be a phenomenological anthropologist, and that his studies of Yaqui sorcery were based on Husserlian and Heideggerian notions of the experience in the phenomena prior to Western style interpretations or conceptual schemes that would impose a predisposition on the phenomenon. Theres zuruckselbst (sp?) [Eskimo does not know German] which for Husserl was kind of the phenomenological warcry, "Back to the things themselves," became for Heidegger a kind of excavation of origin, or not just personal origins, but historical origins. So he would point out, for instance, that the very language we speak is already archaic and ancient and was derived from beings manifestation. But I find it very difficult to do the anthropological comparisons very neatly just because of the interpretive difficulties that you get into regarding ethnocentrism and then the convoluted critique that says something like that even the critique of ethnocentrism is itself a kind of ethnocentrism, and that there is really no way of getting outside of your conceptual scheme to get at the phenomena in their pure state.
EP: Dont you think a lot of poetry is an attempt to access the phenomena?
MG: Yes I do. And again, I find Heideggerian inspiration there. If you take the German word, "Dichtung," which is usually translated as "poetry" and is an ordinary word in German for poetry as well as poesy, in the narrower sense it would be verse, but Dichtung is really any kind of composition, any kind of construction or creation, so it also applies to for instance, musical composition, what a musical composer is doing, as much as it does to what a poet in the usual sense of the word is creating.
EP: For example, Rilke and his "dingendichs," his thing poems, where it seems to me like he just wanted to somehow present the thing without any of his own ego or whatever, without that layer interfering with the thing itself. He somehow just wanted the thing to express the poem.
MG: Yes, I think there is something to that, and thats what brings us these interpretive difficulties. As you put it, to have an unmediated perspective, just paraphrasing that Rilke was aiming at a poetical work, at an unmediated expression of the thing itself. But of course, the major mediator is always language. So then you get into this quandary where language in its pure state is being expressed or, you can look at language as an obstacle and that language has to efface itself in order for the appearance of the thing itself to emerge. With Heidegger, you have a kind of ambivalence about that. You have him reflecting on language very trenchantly: the poets language and then the philosophers commentary on the poet, where he wants the philosophers language to efface itself and allow poetic language to appear, which in turn gets the reader into meditating on the idea that the poetic language disappears so that the phenomena themselves can appear. So you have two self-effacements therethe philosopher critics language and then a poets language that the philosopher is commenting on. I dont know if this actually takes place, but that this is an interpretive quandary is something that Im quite sure of.
EP: Heidegger says that in modern times, "all distances and time and space are shrinking" and now we have instant information and we can see things from ancient cultures on film, and through the Internet and T.V. But he says, "the frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness." So Heidegger is still very relevant as far as youre concerned?
MG: Yes, and also as far as youre concerned. That opening of the thing is pretty interesting. That was written in the 50s and everything he is saying there would apply very easily now and be quite pertinent to Internet technology. That essay and several others including the "Essence of Technology" are all meditations on the transformation of historical consciousness by technology, and, as the adjunct to that, technology emerging as historical consciousness, so that our concept of history, our awareness of ourselves as historical beings and actors is shot through and through by technology. And the uncanny aspect of all of this, for Heidegger, the way I understand it, is that plays off a cliché that this is certainly one of the most thought-provoking times in which anyone could liveall sorts of inventions, all sorts of new gadgets, all kinds of calculating devices, numerous technological advances in ways of controlling the future and planning worldwide happiness and well-being for everyone. Its a very thought-provoking time, an extremely thought-provoking time. But the most thought-provoking thing about this thought-provoking time, according to Heidegger, is that we who experience this thought-provoking time are not thinking. That thoughtlessness is actually animating what provokes us to think. So you have an uncanniness here, he uses the word in German, "unheimlicher," is usually translated as "the uncanny." And for Heidegger, he takes it out of the gothic 19th century context, and rethinks our experience of the world and our average attunement to the world on the basis of something that we can never be attuned to and it destabilizes the seemingly secure ground that technological rationality has set up. Thats also what he refers to as "being" which cannot be calculated as a particular being or as the totality of beings. And its true that this makes for awkward discourse and seemingly contrived terms to talk about fundamental issues, but the landscape, the technological landscape that he is dismantling, "aufbauen" in German is now translated as "deconstruction." But when Heidegger was writing that essay on the thing and technology, deconstruction was not in parlance, and Heidegger himself called what he was doing, a fundamental ontological critique. But the essay that you quoted is calling attention to our ontological concept of distance and nearness, ontological in the sense that it has to do with the being of the one who is situated in the world; not like a pigeon is situated inside a behavioral psychologists box. But rather that the human is in a world in such a way that we open up and eliminate distance simultaneously. So the irony that hes calling attention to, is that even though we can "shrink" the world, by doing that, we also make it more and more incalculable because we dont understand the very technological framework that we inhabit. You could even say that it functions like a structural unconscious to the individual consciousness. That its at the basis of our thoughts, that it animates our thoughts, but that our thoughts themselves cannot reach it. Thats its a kind of "unthinkable" or something to ponder.
EP: It almost seems like hes making some kind of morality judgement, like "technology is bad." So what if we think less, and the T.V. does all the thinking for us, I mean, what is it that he wants us to do?
MG: Its difficult to say, you know, because Heidegger, as I understand him, was against any kind of quick remedy, you know, that a philosopher could provide a remedy for the malaise of the age, or simply react against technology that would be a re-actionary disposition. So even, you know, lets say, the progressive so-called thinkers of the sixties, as well as hippies and anti-technologists, as they came into being, Heidegger saw them as still part of the same problem. So that the irrationalist who advocates, you know, lets say, "emotion" against calculative reason, and sets up that nice binary opposition, Heidegger would point out that that itself is still technology, this idea that emotion is going to counter reason, still puts both of them in an oppositional nature. What he calls "thinking" seems to go beyond the rational/irrational distinction and therefore its as I understand it, it goes beyond the "technology is inherently evil versus technology is going to create this wonderful utopia and once everyone has a computer and access to everything, itll be brilliant" thinkers view. Both of the views are two peas in the same pod of what he calls, "the vast world of thoughtlessness." [Laughter]
EP: You once told me that if I wrote a poem about a tree, that I would be having an impact on the tree. Could you try and explain that a little bit?
MG: I really dont remember ever saying anything like that. But if I were to say something like that . . . no Im not sure what youre getting at there, even if I did say something like that. The connection between you and the tree in Heideggerian language would have to go beyond the usual language, the epistemological confines that we find ourselves in when we start talking about ourselves as consciousness and then the world out there as this gigantic collection of objects. His point is that once we are in that framework, theres no way of surmounting it. And it doesnt matter if you say that we can approach the object in a primordial manner and get real close to the object, or that we cant, that were separated from it by our own consciousness. According to Heidegger, one is actually missing the underlying world that allows the subject-object distinction to emerge. So in one sense, he might say as the tree appears, it only appears as you become aware of yourself in relation to that tree in its appearing. Instead of saying that, a) on the one hand, the tree is just a simple product of my consciousness and its subjective; or b) on the other hand, that the tree is there, objective, and I have to relate myself to it through my poetical work or through some other way. Again, those are two seemingly different perspectives within the same framework that leaves the same idea of the world that underlies the subject and the object unquestioned. I dont know if that answers the tree question or not.
EP: Does Heidegger have anything to say about comedy or entertainment? Because Ive been trying to write some humorous things, and Ive been wondering what is the purpose of that? And also, with films, you know, which I usually see for pure entertainment value. But youve had me watch a lot of films that I was really reluctant to watch--before, during, and after. And I wonder, what types of films do you like watching, and why?
MG: Well, as far as the first part, your first question, No. That refers to, does Heidegger have anything to say about comedy. Now, at times Heidegger is funny despite himself. In "Being and Time" hes talking about the distinction between the average consciousness when it confronts a text that it doesnt understand. He points out that of course, the average understanding has no problem with reading anything that comes along its path, because you see, it already understands everything. So it doesnt have to actually work at understanding anything. So his humor comes out in those kinds of condescending statements. No, he was interested in tragedy. But you asked about film. Film is very interesting, and Ive been thinking about this. As an academic subject, theres film studies, even the semiotics, all sorts of arcane theories about film narrative and so forth. And yet our point of departure as audience members for reading or interpreting a film still is the idea that were going to see a "moovie." I like Sam Shepards statement that "French see films. Americans see movies." I kind of wonder where Heidegger would be in the middle of that. I was surprised to find out when I read the transcript of Heideggers interview with a Japanese scholar who had come to Freiburg to ask him questions about the connection between his philosophy and some forms of Mahayana Buddhism, specifically, Zen Buddhism, and Heidegger actually asked the Japanese scholar first, "Have you seen this film that has just been released, Roshomon?" Keeping in mind that this was 1955 and "Roshomon," as you know, is a film where the content itself is about interpretation, that a murder is seen from five different perspectives depending on the characters consciousness. So how you understand what happened presupposes the interpretive perspective that you inhabit. And I find that a worthwhile point of departure to make use of when I use films and movies in my courses. And I take your statement as a compliment about what you said more or less about, that you would probably not have checked out those movies on your own had I not imposed them on you. And again, it opens up something else. And its kind of interesting to me that people in this culture thats saturated with the most popular art form that has ever existed, namely the moving picture, how ignorant they are about the history of movies, and how few movies outside of the common purview of whats offered, how few movies people have actually seen, movies that I myself take for grant. You know, this only sounds arrogant if you possibly agree with me that the age is pretty ignorant of the antecedent origins of their own entertainment.
EP: So why did you make me watch, "The Pumpkin Eater"?
MG: Well, I find "The Pumpkin Eater," even though you didnt, I find "The Pumpkin Eater" a fascinating excavation of domestic rituals centered around but not completely absorbed by, of course, the ritual of marriage. And when you see the film, it does make you think of a kind of catharsis that everyone has to discharge in some point in their lives. But the inopportune aspects of it I think are quite powerful. For instance, the Pinteresque aspects do manifest themselves in it. So I mean one reason I thought you might find it interesting is to see the connection between character development that a playwright elaborates, and then its translation or transposition into film. And if you remember the scene with the woman, with two women, Anne Bancrofts character and the other woman, theyre at the beauty parlor where they have the helmets on their heads, and it seems completely superfluous, a kind of scene, it almost seems like a redundant or superfluous, sadistic interjection into the narrative story. But then when you see the rest of the film, because that comes about the halfway point, when you see the rest of it, you then realize that in modern suburban and urban existence, just about any fantastical thing can be a part of the actual ordinary consciousness of a particular person who is always either happy "or" unhappy.
EP: Tell me about some of your favorite poets. Some of them are kind of popular, but some of them are a little bit obscure, like e. e. cummings. Why do you like him so much?
MG: Well, because hes in all my favorite movies. No, Im just kidding, of course. I wasnt quite ready for that transition, but . . . . Well cummings is someone I find hilarious, witty, that his poetry is a perpetual self reflection on language and then even the kind of ridiculing of such a self reflection, you have all that in one. If I may make a connection between this question and your earlier one, it seems to me that cummingss poetry is quite adaptable to film consciousness because of the colloquialism that we inhabit when were watching a film in a way that you, for example, dont when you see a Shakespeare play where you have to make another kind of effort, an extra-intellectual effort, to immerse yourself in that language just because its not the language of your culture. Whereas, film really is the language of our culture. So everything good about our culture is in it, and everything bad and stupid is in it. What we think we are is in it, and also what we actually are is in it. And cummings syntactical experiments were really as I understand him not intended to be some kind of fancy avant-garde edger, you know, playing games with language, but really just disclosing the colloquial and polysemantic nature of the discourse that were always already speaking.
EP: So can you quote some lines of some poets that you like? Like the one about the snow?
MG: I dont know if I want to quote the snow one now, but Ill quote you another one. Are you familiar with Winnie-the-Pooh? Well "Winnie-the-Pooh" was written by A. A. Milne, you know that, right? Theres a poem of his I like that actually I imagine that he imagined an autistic child reciting this verse. Its called, "Halfway Up."
Halfway up the stairs
is the stair where I sit.
There isnt any other stair
quite like it.
Its not at the bottom,
and its not at the top,
so this is the stair
where I always stop.
Halfway down isnt up.
Halfway up isnt down.
It isnt in the country,
and it isnt in the town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
run round my head.
It isnt really anywhere.
Its somewhere else instead.
Thats one of my favorite poems.