Saturday, April 1, 2006

RE: Titus Andronicus - Very First Thoughts

Ernst, you are a radical. But this is a deeply intriguing question: Is Titus at once earnest revenge tragedy and Camp?

As a product of a 1960s and '70s generation steeped in camp -- my childhood included more of television's Batman, The Brady Bunch, Get Smart, The Monkees, and Super Friends than George Reeves's Superman, Father Knows Best, Mike Hammer, The Johnny Otis Show, and Bugs Bunny -- I may have a too anecdotal or too modern definition of Camp. But as I said I'm intrigued, because I wonder, isn't Camp in the eye of the beholder? Doesn't that make Shakespeare as fair game as Dame Edna?

OK. First of all, are we allowed to use the word "Camp" here? The OED indicates that the first usage of that word in print came in 1909, so it isn't a term Shakespeare would have used although the concept may have been around. Susan Sontag writes in "Notes on 'Camp' " (1964) that Camp is a "sensibility that, among other things, coverts the serious into the frivolous." She points out its esoterism -- it is "something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among urban cliques." Certainly one can list the upper echelon of London Renaissance playwrights as a sort of urban clique, not above commenting on themselves as much as telling stories. As Ernst notes, that may explain much of Love's Labor's Lost.

As an aside, those who define Camp seem to do so mostly by listing, "holy priceless collection of Etruscan snoods!," examples. No Shakespeare appears in these lists. While Sontag suggests Camp finds its early beginnings in the 18th century, she does acknowledge some early precedents. Among them: Lyly and euphuism. Ha!

In mentioning Love's Labor's Lost, Ernst uses the word "parody"; what is the difference between parody and camp? Is is simply that parody looks down on foolishness, making fun of the ridiculous and the overly serious, but holding itself above that which is parodied, while Camp, on the other hand, seems to embrace the ridiculous, as it moves toward the statement: it's good because it's bad? Which ever way you turn the Camp prism, the emphasis seems to be on artifice, on the aesthetic, on style over substance. In addition, it seems to me that parody is unironic, while Camp is necessarily so.

Looking over Ernst's thesis here, I am trying to see Titus Andronicus as, at times, an aesthetic argument or as artificial. I'm not sure where to look. Among the exaggerated moments seems to be not when the mutilated Lavinia is presented to Titus, but when she must go to extremes to identify her rapists. This for me was the moment in the play that I laughed -- the image of both Marcus and then Lavinia sitting with a stick in their mouths and guiding it with their feet to write names in the sand. That seems a moment of at least unintentional humor if not intended Camp because the audience is being asked to shift its attention from the cruel villainy that justifies revenge to an arcane detail of consequence and, because the villains must somehow be revealed, plot exposition. And in the gap between the two, we become aware of the play's artifice. (And, if so, does Marcus's "Cursed be that heart that forced us to this shrift!" direct itself not at Aaron, but Shakespeare?) That's a long way for me to go, though.

Also exaggerated is when Aaron sheds all pretense of reason for his villainy. But if Aaron is Camp, what do we make of Iago? The final exaggeration comes when Titus carries out his plan to serve Tamora's children to her, no doubt with fava beans and a nice Chianti. It's extreme, but is it Camp? As I suggested with the Lavinia scene, it would be, I think, in these moments of extremity that we might find some aesthetic comment on the concept of revenge tragedy, either in general or through specific allusion to and embracing of the worst of Kyd, Marlowe, et al. As I read these scenes over again, I am also struggling to find the irony I feel is necessary for the presence of Camp.

But I want Ernst's thought-process. How, Ernst, are you reading these scenes (or others if I'm off base)?

I'll sneak myself under Agent 86's cone of silence (I suspect that's where Mike has been hiding) and await your response,

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