Sunday, January 15, 2012

Acting in the Night: Macbeth and the Places of the Civil War, by Alexander Nemerov

This was extremely difficult. Interesting, but it's been a long time since I read something this theory-heavy (probably not since college) and I had to take it slowly.

Nemerov is an art historian who writes about the impact of art on its contemporary surroundings, and vice versa, and in this he attempts to substitute an 1863 performance of Macbeth for a piece of art. I think he falters slightly in doing so: as he talks about theater it becomes clear that this is not his forte, although he does a good job of explaining that a nineteenth-century performance, with its static set-pieces and tableaux, is far better suited to this than a modern one.

His thesis (I think) is that a piece of art, or a theater performance, in an age of mass communication, is able to become both a "place" and also impact other places. The photographs of actors as their characters which were distributed after every performance, the photographs of the battlefields, and the telegraph connecting a command from Lincoln (who attended the performance in question) to his officers in the field hundreds of miles away, are devices which de-isolated individual places in a way not previously possible.

Nemerov tries to cram his thesis into a discussion of almost everything he finds interesting from the time period, and jumps around a bit much: for two pages he's talking about a painting of an interior and then suddenly he's discussing the death of a Confederate officer in a prisoner-of-war hospital (and I have to confess I entirely missed what the point of that death, as regards art or places, was). It all felt rather hasty at times, and hasty juxtapositions combined with dense theory writing are a tad overwhelming for someone out of practice reading the stuff.

When Nemerov just pulls out his art history chops and talks about a piece of art in its historical context, and its structure, design, impact, I liked this book quite a lot. I had a magnificent art history class my senior year of high school, and honestly thought that was what I was going to do with the rest of my academic career and possibly with my life. The art history department at my college turned out to have needed more people like my high school art history teacher, desperately, and back to the inevitable English major I went. But I still love the subject and its vocabulary.

Nemerov also occasionally describes something as "testicular"seemingly just for the sake of using the word. In no case did I think that what he was describing was actually testicular. One passage, about women on battlefields collecting bullets, which I kid you not included the phrase "goddesses of sterility gathering the balls of dead men, nuts of a landscape serried with earthworks", made me shriek with laughter while the faces of all the theory boys I've known flashed before my eyes.

Overall, an interesting and very challenging read with some flaws. And I definitely had to turn on parts of my brain which I haven't used in a good long time, and that's never a bad thing.

Next up: The Tiger's Wife, by Téa Obreht, though I'm allowing myself some recuperative re-reading in between.

1 comment:

  1. This makes me think of Garry Wills' Witches and Jesuits, which puts Macbeth in the context of its own Gunpowder-Plot-witch-fearing time, and which I tore through one night in grad school. One of the most readable pieces of criticism I've ever encountered. And when I looked that book up on the interwebs, I found that Wills has also written Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, which sounds better than the Gettysburg book I am currently reading. Bonus!