Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Diogenes: Carter Kaplan

Carter Kaplan
(Image from Amazon)

Carter Kaplan, a fellow scholar of John Milton who sometimes visits here and offers comments, has published another creative work. Some readers might recall his novel, Tally-Ho, Cornelius!, for I blogged about that book. This time, Kaplan has written a play, Diogenes, set in Hellenic Greece precisely on the cusp of Hellenistic antiquity. It's actually a play within a play, a cross-dressing tragedy tricked out as comedy, with inside jokes on famous lines from antiquity and infamous philosophers from modernity, and it's both humorous and thought-provoking. In a scene where Tyrannosaurus and Demeter, the parents of an absent young Achilles, along with Ionedes and Chloe, the parents of an absent young Chrysis, query "[t]he very flower of Athens' intellectual power," a heady "bouquet of philosophers" (p. 54), concerning the whereabouts of the missing young couple, Kaplan pokes fun at continental philosophy in a send-up of two modern French thinkers:
Tyrannosaurus: What about that dancing fellow there with the white face? (Points to a philosopher in black leotard with white face makeup.)

Dean of Philosophers: That is Derridada. He does not speak because to him words refer only to other words.

Tyrannosaurus: But his movements communicate meaning. Look there, it looks like he is pressing his hands against a wall.

Dean of Philosophers: But there is no wall. It is but an illusion signifying nothing.

(Derridada's miming motions increase to a welter of confusion.)

Tyrannosaurus: What a silly fellow! How has he come to be among the philosopher if he cannot express himself?

Dean of Philosophers: (stares at Derridada and shrugs) He just seems to fit in.

Ionedes: What about this foreign-looking Johnny?

Dean of Philosophers: Ah, that is Foucaultes. He has plenty to say. Don't you, Foucaultes?

Foucaultes: It is about time you gentlemen called upon me, or rather my historic function, because my function has figured out everything. My function has reduced it all to a theory of interrogating dialogues, by which all affairs can be measured and explained. Where you have made your error is in not understanding the function of history and social force focused through the apparatus of punishment, which culminates in the apex of the human organism, at last liberated and transformed as unit-component in the totalized social system. You have failed to punish your children according to the punishment they should receive. Hand your children over to me and I shall make them independent of their disobedience; and thus independent of their selves they shall be. I will tie them up, place rubber masks over their heads, and press my convincing fists deep into their fluepipes.

(All stare at Foucaultes a full twenty seconds.)

Demeter: Unbearable! Bitter! Bitter! No mother can tolerate such words.

Chloe: (with dry and uncharacteristic sobriety) Ionedes, this one is a very unpleasant person.

Ionedes: Tyrannosaurus, I know Athens is a brave marketplace of braver ideas, but would it be possible to put this one to death? (pages 56-57)
And Tyrannosaurus proceeds to do just that for Ionedes, thereby providing empirical demonstration for the usefulness of having a tyrant as friend. But not everything is fun and games. The play goes on to make a serious point that I shall not reveal here so as to avoid divulging any plot-spoilers . . . but also because I've not yet quite figured out what that serious point is. I'll keep at it, though, till I understand, for that's the part I have to play.

Meanwhile, I recommend the play. I don't read a lot of dramas, for I'd generally prefer to watch them staged, but I enjoyed reading this one, finding it humorous enough at times to make me laugh out loud. My cyber-friend Dario Rivarossa, artist and erudite translator who visits here from Italian cyberspace, also likes the play, and in his amusing Amazon review, "Kaplan Plays the Oracle Well," says the following:
When someone speaks by a "double tongue", it means that "the gods' presence is making itself felt in the room". So, as you read this book, you can be sure that the gods are surrounding you, because no one is more double-tongued than Carter Kaplan. Meaning that he is a liar? Not at all: he is the sincere singer of that twisted and twisting mirror which, in fact, is our life. Something like the labyrinth in Dürrenmatt "Minotaurus", but here Kaplan has fun in playing with Greek traditions even more than that.

For a starter, the drama takes place no less than in Atlantis, where a comedy set in Athens is on stage. The showing of Athens within Atlantis would already prove interesting enough, but the writer doesn't stop here: besides a quite recognizable philosopher Diogenes, in fact, he introduces such characters as Tyrannosaurus, Derridada, Foucaultes, and hints at GMOs [i.e., genetically modified organisms] as the means by which ancient Greece solved the problem of food. However, there's much more than easy puns and updated satire against the American Empire and the Western Thought in all of this. The plot, if experimental, is well built; the basic, troubled love story follows "that Shakesperean Rag---". And the Commedia dell'Arte, much appreciated e.g. by Arthur Schopenhauer? Anyway, the events succeed in both catching our attention and making us "reflect". As well as laugh and dream.

I hope that it won't be only enjoyed as a book to be read privately, but that some company will actually stage it too. Meanwhile, tell us, Diogenes: What is Man? A plucked chicken . . . ahem . . . a featherless biped. Just, play your part! Until the goddess Athena emerges "at that shimmering break in conscience".
Break in conscience, or break in consciousness? Maybe both. But America as the Greeks? I thought we Americans were supposed to be the crude if pragmatic Romans! Well, as I said, I haven't yet figured out all of Kaplan's message.

But you should all be able to . . .

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At 4:52 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

I don't read a lot of dramas, for I'd generally prefer to watch them staged

Good point, that's been matter of controversies for centuries. E.g. Herman Melville thought that, in order to truly enjoy a play, you have to read it at home, "far from the madding crowd".

I don't agree: a play "lives" and "communicates" basically on stage (that's why I hope Carter's will be performed some day).
It is also true, however, that I will soon read Shakespeare's Mid-Summer Dream and Tempest after watching very interesting renderings of both in a theater.

At 4:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I suppose that they should be both seen and read -- probably in that order to avoid the plot-spoilers that might otherwise detract from one's experience of first seeing a drama performed.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:46 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

You have to be playwright of some genius to make philosophy work on stage...Stoppard does it admirably...especially in "Professional Foul". Viewing this as drama is a bit of a red herring. It seems more like a spoken novel in the style of Thomas Love Peacock, a wit who had the erudition to take on Shelley and Coleridge.

At 6:10 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I suppose I really should read more dramas. Perhaps I ought to check out Stoppard's Professional Foul.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:05 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

Yes, break in "conscience," Jeffery. After I wrote that line I wondered about it, too, and I almost switched it to "consciousness." But in respect to the "apostasy of intuition" and "what a luminous world could suspicion build [etc]. . ." it occurred to me that the conscience--that is, normative conscience (the super-ego?) is the thing I am challenging, the thing I am "opening" like Zeus's brow . . . or at least calling into question; that is, false synthetic moralizing . . . as opposed to "real" moralizing, which is what we get from the Son of Liberty character, I think. Anyway, I left it that way on purpose. And, after all, the break of consciousness is already presented earlier in the play when Chrysis (in the guise of the Pythia, the oracle) goes into trance. We might ask, "Yes, but if the oracle is false, a mask, then is her trance and the god who speaks through her a synthetic artifice as well?"

Ah, the "point.” That would be telling. ;-) And after all the text is now "out of my hands," but I think it has something to do with the parabasis (or conspicuous--Ionedes points this out as well--lack thereof). If I write another Greek Play half of it will be parabasis, I've decided.

There is something to be made also of the theme of blindness--E. L. Riches inadvertently (but she has an exceptional feel for things) put me on to this in her introduction; the blind parents, and her mention of Milton; and if you look at the play with this in mind you can pan it out, so to speak. That is, does Diogenes "see" or is he blind? I think that’s what Ionedes wonders, as well, in scene II. Compare this to Ionedes conversation with Arion later in the play.

America as Greeks or Romans? That's a good question. Compare Jefferson and Hamilton. Compare the conversation surrounding Shakespeare’s Henry V--tyrant or national savior, duck or rabbit?

“For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,”

“Yet sit and see;
Minding true things by what their mockeries be,”

The double tongue….

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Carter, thanks for the rich comment. I'll definitely have to re-read your play and think about its meaning.

Jeffery Hodges

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