New Boy a Powerful Adaptation of Othello

NEW BOY (2017)
By Tracy Chevalier
Hogarth Shakespeare, 204 pages

It is its own sad commentary that a play written in 1603 is as relevant today as it was in the Elizabethan Age. I refer to Othello, William Shakespeare’s powerful tragedy of race, jealousy, backstabbing, and hatred. Tracy Chevalier is one of our era’s finest writers, but she didn’t need to draw deep from her creative well to imagine the parallels between Shakespeare’s Moorish protagonist and modern day African Americans. She does so, however, with considerable panache.

Although some of my closest friends shake their heads in disbelief when I say it, I often enjoy modern adaptations of Shakespeare more than the Bard himself. My excuse is that I don’t speak Elizabethan and don’t know anyone not swaddled in stage garb that does. I also find it flat out weird that so many “modern” Shakespeare adaptations dress actors in non-Elizabethan clothing that invites us to think outside the 17th century, yet retain old Billy’s original language. I say if you’re going to adapt, go for it. Chevalier does and it works for me.

She transports Othello to a suburban Washington, DC elementary school playground in 1970. She set it then for many reasons, not the least of which, as another bard put it, the times they were a changin’. But think of new worlds being born, not ones fully grown. The civil rights movement caused racism to wobble, but it did not fall. What better place to examine social strain than a playground shot through with bubbling hormones and Lord of the Flies power dynamics? Tween romances emerge and run their course in a single day, pacts are forged and broken during a kickball game, and only foolish teachers imagined themselves in control of the kids or their own moral centers.

Into this world comes the eponymous new boy: sixth grader Osei Kokote, a Ghana-born black child who thinks he knows the drill of being in still another new school. As the son of a top-level diplomat, Osei has lived in many places and is far more intelligent and worldly than his new peers. But he’s also the only black child in the school and his plan to lay low is undermined when fair-skinned Dee offers mentorship, friendship, and girl crush romance. As you no doubt surmised, Osei is Othello and Dee a pre-adolescent Desdemona. Our cast will also sport a Cassio named Caspar, a Bianca (Blanca), a Rodrigo (Rod), an Emilia (Mimi), and a dangerous Iago (Ian). A racist teacher serves as a sort of composite Doge/Brabantio. Chevalier shows her clever hand by literally infantilizing Shakespeare’s tragedy and replacing his props with those of childhood: cafeteria food, jump rope rhymes, pencil boxes….  

Some reviewers have criticized New Boy for what they see an unrealistic precociousness on the part of its eleven- and twelve-year-old cast. I suspect some of them would be shocked if they ever spent playground time with tweens, but never mind. In a more fundamental sense they miss the point. After all, Shakespeare’s characters were equally unrealistic—unless you think 1603 London was overrun with 15th century Moors and Venetians. Othello was a tragedy, but it was also an allegory of power, ambition, covetousness, betrayal, and race.

This brings us full circle. We need not imagine ourselves in the 15th or 17th century; nor does it matter if we recall 1970. New Boy works for the same reason Othello works: the allegories are contemporary sociology. That, folks, is the very essence of what makes Othello/New Boy truly tragic.

Rob Weir


The Children Act: Superb Older Ian McEwan Fiction

By Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 224 pages

Although I didn’t like Nutshell, Ian McEwan’s most recent novel, there is no mistaking his talent. He is, after all, an author who has given us such gems as The Comfort of Strangers, Atonement, and the Man Booker-winning Amsterdam. I recently picked up The Children Act, which was published in 2014, and found it an astonishingly great read for a slim volume that can be devoured in just a few sittings. It reveals something rare: an unvarnished look at overlapping dilemmas so soaked in moral ambiguity that any decision one makes is little more than a bet-the-house single roll of the dice.

Our central character, Fiona Maye, is a British High Court Judge specializing in family law. You need nothing more about British jurisprudence except that high court judges are akin to appellate court judges in the United States, but with an added power: their decisions are usually final in the adjudication of thorny cases that rest on conflicting precedent. The book’s title refers to a 1989 Act of Parliament that favors keeping at-risk children with their parents, but empowers agencies to act contrary to parental wishes if a child’s welfare is endangered. McEwan also uses it in a literal sense—as in a “child” taking matters into his or her own hands. I put child in quote marks, because McEwan challenges us to define that term. When does a child become an adult? What is to be done with adults who do childish things?

High Court judges have high status in Britain and big salaries to go with it. Fiona and her husband Jack are both around 60, reside in a sequestered part of London*, and enjoy high-powered professional lives filled with classical music, literature, gourmet dining, and formal parties. They’ve comfortably settled into their childless, privileged, and considerate-but-passionless lives. Fiona is a fine musician herself and, as a judge, has a well-earned reputation for her Solomonic judgments. Of course, judgments are easier to render when they’re not personal. How would you decide if, at 60, your spouse asked for permission to engage in sexual congress with a younger person to replace the sex you’re not having?

Fiona must ponder this simultaneously with a case that Solomon himself might have declined: that of Adam Henry, who has leukemia, is months from turning eighteen, and is a Jehovah’s Witness encouraged by his parents and minister not to accept blood transfusions that would save his life. Under the law, he remains a child, but when Fiona visits him in the hospital, she finds him precociously intelligent, aware that he will probably die without treatment, and at peace with that potential fate. She also finds Adam to be sweet and gifted—a budding poet, a voracious reader, a first-rate scholar, and talented enough to be in the process of teaching himself how to play the violin in the unorthodox setting of what might be his hospice bed. In many ways, Adam is the son she never had. Surely his death would be beyond tragic, yes? This is magnified in song. As she sits with Adam in his room, he plays and she sings “Down by the Salley Gardens,” a William Butler Yeats poem that was set to music in 1909 and has since become a staple of Irish folk song. Key line: She bade me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs/But I was young and foolish, and am now full of tears. How would you rule?

Two choices and each could be seen as Sophie’s Choices; that is, however Fiona decides, it boils down to accepting one bad outcome over another as damage has already been done. This short book is an ice water in the face dose of how life often works. Which overrides, faith or science? Autonomy or a literal reading of the law? Morality or pragmatism? Youth or wisdom? Passion or propriety? And once you have decided, what is the proper amount of follow up, nurturing, and support? What a book! It sheds light on at least one lie so seductive and seductive we choose to believe it: “You can have it all.” If only.

Rob Weir

* In Britain, High Court judges sometimes live in “inns” comparable to how top professors live at Oxford or Cambridge. Their lodgings and law chambers are there, as is a collegiate setting of other top lawyers. One must be a “member” to live or work there.


#MeToo Versus #ButYet

This morning I read that my beloved UMass Amherst approved a policy that forbids consensual faculty/student dating. In theory, I favor the policy; in practice, I'm ambivalent and not the only one. Such a measure failed on three previous occasions and the press release spoke mostly of UMass getting in line with other colleges. There wasn't much righteousness peeking through the seams.

Lest you are tempted to snatch the pitchfork from your garden shed and fire up your torch, let me state categorically that there is no excuse for non-consensual relations.  That's called rape and we rightly impose strict punishments for that heinous crime. I'll go further and grant that it's almost always a terrible idea for someone in a position of authority to have intimate relations with an underling. I'm also on board with policies that ban relations between instructors and current students—the threat to academic integrity is simply too great. And I certainly share the outrage of women who have been treated like sex toys by arrogant and powerful men.

My hang-up is that the response to the current surge of sexual harassment complaints is typical of how poorly Americans address problems. We generalize then we one-size. In a very palpable way we've gone from anything goes to all is forbidden. Such attempts ignore root causes—like the place of women in a society that has never passed an ERA and categorizes women as The Other. Still, one-sizing lacks nuance. As much as I admire the #MeToo Movement, I wish there was a #ButYet counterbalance. Sexual harassment should be like rape; we need clear standards that differentiate between abuse and mutual bad decisions.

Let me get personal. I was a high school teacher, then a professor for 35 years. Did I ever stray with a student? Nope. Did I have opportunity? Yes. Some friends accuse me of being an old moralist with a Puritanical streak. Not so. The Book of Sin is a thick volume from which I've sampled, but not the student/teacher page. Maybe I was lucky to have struggled to find a teaching job. I hit the market during the 1970s recession and ended up working in social work for four years—an experience that left me with a deep (over?) suspicion of human nature that made me cautious as a teacher. If I put aside purity pretenses, I didn't want to jeopardize the very thing I had wanted to do since college: teach. On the cost/benefit scale, brief delights of the flesh were not worth jeopardizing my marriage, career, or reputation.

Here's the #ButYet part of it. Teachers and students at the high school where I taught did have sex—a shocking amount, actually. Today's self-proclaimed moralists would want teacher heads and probably mine for not turning them in. We often view teachers and students as different orders of being yet often, the age difference between them was just shy of that of the average marriage and far short of the average of seven in relationships for those 40 or older. Those high school relationships were morally compromised, but my own dirty (not so) secret is that I'm nearly four years older than Emily, and she was, technically, a minor when we first dated. (Even then she was wiser and more mature!) Although she was never my student, ours shattered conventional relationship standards. My retort is that next month we celebrate 40 years of marriage and my marriage is the single best decision of my life.

Let me toss in another #ButYet. I personally know numerous professors who had mutually agreeable relations with students. Quite a few went on to marry and, by all accounts, have sustained long and loving lives together. So when any movement or moralist tries to impose blanket condemnations for such relationships, my first reaction is a big MYOB.

Monica Lewinski's in the news again, which raises still another #ButYet question. Hold your denunciations of Bonkin' Bill Clinton; I uttered them myself a few decades ago. The man had the morals of a rabbit in breeding season, but Lewinsky was neither a child, nor a victim; she was a foolish young adult. Her affair lasted until she was 24 and Clinton was close to 50. That's a huge age gap, though I know at least three couples with larger ones. Call her experiences sad, sordid, or stupid—but they weren't illegal, and neither were most of the hookups that took place at my high school. Where does personal choice factor into these matters?

For that matter, how do we define adulthood? Not very well, actually. States set the "age of consent" and, until 2001, it was as low as 14 in some places. Now most states set the bar at 16 and a couple as high as 18, but nearly all make "exceptions" for "close in age" relations.  In all other matters, 47 states define an "adult" as a person 18 or older. Legally speaking, college students over that age are adults. Colleges, in fact, make much ado about treating students as independent thinkers, not as "children."

Adulthood comes with the power to make one's own decisions, a right that extends to making bad ones. Lewinski may have a case for employer power abuse, though evidence for that is pretty slim. Her sexual relations with Clinton appear as buyer's regret from the POV of one whose starry-eyed adulation has worn off. Clinton remains an egoistic boorish oaf, but he's probably not a candidate for the Harvey Weinstein Trash Barrel. There are legions of women (and some men) who have had similar distasteful relations like Lewinski's. That's very sad, but you'll notice I used the terms "women" and "men"—those above the age of majority threshold. Is there any point in cataloging the total number of bad decisions the average adult will make in a lifetime?

My hope for everyone is that the good decisions ledger is much longer than the bad decisions list. But to get back to sex, I worry that no-exceptions rules like that of UMass lack room for common sense to prevail when it should. I know too many happy people who would be unemployed outlaws under today's overly draconian rules. Let me say it one more time: There is no excuse for coerced or abusive relationships. Zero. None. Zilch. But we sorely need #But Yet to defend the right of adults to make both stupid and mutually supportive choices. 


The Circle is Broken: Video Review

THE CIRCLE  (2018)
Directed by James Ponsoldt
STX Films, 110 minutes, PG-13 (drugs, mild language, milder sex)

We often plot ideas—political viewpoints, for instance—on linear grids. It’s seldom that simple. Lots of things are more properly visualized as an inwardly bowed horseshoe in which there is a very small gap between the two poles. (If you live under tyranny, does it really matter if your rulers are on the right or on the left?) Utopia and dystopia are twins, one admirable the other monstrous. Each is a collective vision and each wrestles with the same fundamental questions: Whose vision shapes society? What values must members of that society hold? How much room/freedom exists for individuals to deviate from the norm?

The Circle is a film based upon the namesake (and far superior) Dave Eggers novel. It is set in the not-so-distant future when bright minds are at work on plans to unify the world. Sounds good, yes? Ahh, but whose vision of unity? What is demanded of each person? How much autonomy do individuals possess? It’s one of the worst kept secrets of recent years that The Circle is a riff on the global clout of Google (with splashes of Amazon and Apple added for good measure).  It is said we live in the Information Age, but the mantra “knowledge is power” dates to Francis Bacon and the year 1597. Given, though, that we tout more education as the solution to most problems, wouldn't unleashing knowledge harbinger Utopia? The audacity of challenging that assumption is the best part of The Circle. Alas, this Circle is broken by weak acting, shoddy direction, and logic loopholes the size of Googleplex.

I mention Googleplex because Google’s Mountain View, California campus is clearly the model for The Circle grounds. Plus, there’s already a debate over whether it’s the coolest place on earth to work, or a cult run by geeks instead of religious hucksters. The movie zeroes in on Mae Holland (Emma Watson), a twenty-something whose life is a shambles. She works at a soul-sucking call center, drives a rattletrap car, and fends off suitor Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), the kind of guy she’d like to have—as a big brother. To make matters worse, her dad (Bill Paxton) has MS and her mom (Glenne Headley) is better at being an aging hippie than of offering direction for her foundering daughter. *  A big break comes when Mae's friend Annie (Karen Gillan) finagles her an interview at The Circle.

Here is where the big questions emerge. You probably know that when you’re online your every click is (or is potentially) monitored. Let’s take it a step further. What if a global corporation such as Google mined and refined everyone’s data? What if it could convince netizens that this is a good thing? “Secrets are lies,” proclaims Circle front man Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). What if you were convinced that total transparency could eliminate crime, feed the planet, protect the environment, keep you connected to everyone else, and maybe even abolish poverty? What if you worked at a place that was half the proverbial good fight and half theme park? Would you give up your privacy, work ridiculously long hours, immerse yourself into company culture, and grant unfettered access to your personal, financial, and health data?    

Good questions, but things quickly unravel—in the film, that is. It starts with ham-handed direction from Ponsoldt. Look up the tactics of cults in a Sociology 101 textbook and that’s about as deep as Ponsoldt’s analysis gets—another way of saying the film lacks nuance. One risible scene has Mae and Annie walking across the company grounds, when Mae casually asks, “Is that Beck?” That’s the entire set-up for a gratuitous cameo concert clip that has nothing to do with anything else. Poor direction generally begets second-rate performances. With the exception of Hanks, who is very good even when he’s essentially channeling Steve Jobs, most of the actors are so stiff you suspect somebody stuck poles up their butts. This is especially the case with Watson, who at this stage of her career is simply not a very good actress. In Dave Eggers’ novel, Mae is slowly sucked into The Circle vortex; with Watson’s Mae we can’t tell if she slips or connives, but she’s not convincing either way. There are so many logic flaws in the script that we long for someone to tell Ponsoldt that the programming world consists of zeroes and ones. In fact, the entire resolution rests on the unexplained question of how a Circle creator-turned-rogue is allowed to roam HQ untracked.  

Hanks nearly redeems the film, and it’s surely worth discussing the inherent dangers of social media in a world in which it’s increasingly easy to, in Noam Chomsky’s poignant phrase, manufacture consent. We should be vigilant of all tyrants, as it doesn’t matter if Orwell’s Big Brother arises as a political power grabber or as an unscrupulous global multicorp. I’m pretty sure, though, that the Age of Paranoia is not the antidote to the Age of Information unbridled.

Rob Weir  

* Sadly, both Paxton and Headley died in 2017 shortly after this film was completed.