Elvis Presley Challenge No. 47 – William Shakespeare

Towards the end, D J Fontana visited Elvis in Graceland.   Elvis was overweight, disorientated and unhappy.  Fontana asked why

DJ Fontana and Elvis

DJ Fontana and Elvis

his friend was in such a poor spirit.

‘I’m tired of being Elvis Presley,’ said Elvis.  ‘Why can’t it be like when we started out?  We’d get in the car, go and play and just enjoy it.  It isn’t like that anymore.’

Fontana thought and looked around the opulent furnishings of Graceland.  ‘You just got too big, Elvis.’

In the documentary, ‘This Is Elvis’, there is film of Elvis at one of his parties.   The guests were messing around and having fun.  Elvis was not the centre of attention.   He quietly smoked a cigarette until he was forced to put down the book he was reading.    The film only was only shown after Elvis had died but, like much that followed, it indicated a man who preferred his own company much more than he felt obliged to pretend.

In one sense, Elvis can be described as the William Shakespeare of rock and roll.   The two men both had wide ranging ability.   Elvis mastered the different genres of American music and Shakespeare wrote on all the different aspects of the human condition as well as anyone.   Like some of the songs of Elvis, some of the plays of Shakespeare do creak.  But Elvis has the voice and sensitivity and ShakespeareShakespeare had a gift for the English language and psychological insight.   And it is the English language.  The quotes of Shakespeare may refer to classical writing but there are no Latin affectations in his verse.    The legend of Elvis may even imitate Shakespeare and prevail way into the future.   Few of us now remember the Elizabethan rivals of Shakespeare.    As the appeal of vocalists diminishes, it may be the same with Elvis.  We will go to Shakespeare to hear blank verse and put on an Elvis CD, MP3 track or whatever, to listen to someone sing in tune.

I visited the Globe Theatre last week to watch ‘Richard III.’    I am old enough to remember the actor, Sam Wanamaker, searching for finance and campaigning hard to have the original theatre rebuilt.  He was right and the doubters were wrong.  The place is a gold mine.  My daughter who bought the seats had to wait for months for an

Inside the Globe Theatre

Inside the Globe Theatre

available seat.    I am like many who first experienced Shakespeare in school.  For a long while, I could not have told you honestly whether I liked his plays or not.  You first encounter a text which has to be read and analysed.  I think I had written half a dozen essays about Shakespeare before I even saw one of his plays.  And, like Elvis, he ‘got too big’.  By the time you become familiar with the strange language, you have spent so long with the analysis you are not sure that liking him is being confused with merely understanding.  The man should be good on guilt.  He leaves plenty around.    Later, after I stopped being a teenager, I saw ‘King Lear’ and ‘Hamlet’.  After that, I understood the fuss although I was also convinced that there were few who responded to his work objectively.    Like Elvis, he had just ‘got too big’.

The Globe Theatre works.  The emphasis on authenticity reminds us that his plays suffer from mechanical plotting but the humour works in a way that I have not experienced outside this traditional context.   Shakespeare was an entertainer but he was also a tease who knew how to play a crowd.  It may not have been Elvis in Vegas but it did make me think of him.   His plays require audience participation and knowing winks.    The Globe was a relief after the recent ‘Hollow Crown’ series on BBC TV.   The history plays of Shakespeare have been converted by the BBC into realistic film drama with impressive natural locations.  They should be watched but when a Shakespearian actor has no audience to share his asides and winks he often sounds silly.   Much has been said of how Shakespeare loved life.  He was no snob either orthodox or inverted.  He accepted people and, as the violence in Shakespeare reveals, his talent for understanding human failings coexisted with a relaxed acceptance of the uncomfortable consequences.

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy, of course, was no fan of Shakespeare.  Before I read his criticism, I had assumed it must have been because he thought Shakespeare was glib about history.   His own ‘War And Peace’ avoids what happens in Shakespeare.  We are all familiar with the scenes in Shakespeare where the King is told of an overheard criticism or betrayal and then three scenes later armies are assembled on English fields.   But, no, Tolstoy was more concerned with the uncritical acceptance of human life.  Orwell eventually intervened and argued that Tolstoy was a man who was anti-freedom.  Shakespeare created the cowardly irresponsible braggart Falstaff but he believed that his fat fool should have sympathy.  Tolstoy only saw a villain and a breed that would undermine his plans for human spirituality.    Some critics of Shakespeare will say that Tolstoy is right and that is why Shakespeare suits the establishment.  He stops us thinking about revolution.  Certainly, his revolutionaries in Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ are all doomed but not because they are flawed.  They simply overestimate the potential for revolution.  But, and this is where we go round in circles,  Brutus in ‘Julius Caesar’ is always the equal of Mark Anthony.  And this, the defenders of Shakespeare argue, is what makes him great.   He has an ability to see the worth in all.

Then, who knows how great he was and did he know?  For example, in the productions at the Globe, the female parts are played by young men as they would have been when the plays were first seen by Elizabethan audiences.    Before the play is finished, belief is suspended and we think of the characters as female and forget that the actors are men.    Recently, though, the Royal Shakespeare Company set ‘Julius Caesar’ in Africa.  I do not mind modern productions.  In an odd way, the anachronism is equivalent to the artificiality of a bare Elizabethan stage.  It is preferable to the no expense spared realism of the ‘Hollow Crown’.  In the Royal Shakespeare Company production of ‘Julius Caesar’, the black female leads were fabulous and gave a dimension to their characters I had not noticed previously.  These were influential and powerful women but a contradiction, adoring and appreciative of their fortune they are also long suffering and resentful.  Their confident mature sexuality is important because it helps tame violent men.  Is all this in the play or did it require modern actresses?    The same debate exists about Elvis.  Is he talented or was his talent exaggerated by gifted musicians and songwriters.    Orwell argued that ultimately nobody could act as an arbitrator in art.  We like what we like and when we try and justify our taste we use words such as sincere, profound or elegant, words that have nothing to do with objective analysis.   There is a temptation to argue that the critics of rock music have needed, like Tolstoy, to insist that the best of rock music should represent a brave new world whereas Elvis with his swollen stomach was always obliged to embrace much more than that.  Elvis missed Falstaff in Vegas but we all know that, if they had met, he would have shown him respect and shook hands.    They may have even liked one another.




Elvis Presley Challenge No 43 – Remploy

‘Foul sin will break into corruption.’

These are the words uttered by Richard II to his usurpers in the play by Shakespeare.   Sometimes it is the detail that exposes best the callous cruelty in the hearts of carelessly ambitious men.   Wicked men have a spot in their souls that emits a stench but if they have power it can be disguised by fame and

Richard II

Richard II

supposed responsibility.  Stalin said one death was a tragedy and a thousand a statistic.   He was talking purely about the response of human beings to slaughter and he was correct.   We do struggle to appreciate massive human waste.   We have watched unemployment become entrenched in what should be affluent societies and starvation tolerated in the developing world as the IMF constantly pushes for a below subsistence standard of living for people who should be helped.  Millions have suffered needlessly and will continue to do so.  This is the absurdity of our commitment to free for all neo-conservatism.    The economic jungle that the rich insist is necessary to reward a work ethic.   The jungle that pays Bob Diamond £22m a year and G4S £30,000 for each security guard they recruit for a couple of weeks work at £8 an hour.   How much the company will be paid for the security guards they fail to recruit is unclear.  Compared to what has happened with the banks, the disastrous austerity plans, the lies spread by Murdoch and the wreckage that our smiling TV forecasters call a climate, the destiny of 1291 disabled people may not be that important.  Stalin was not daft.  It takes brains to slaughter millions of the population and retain popular support.   But neither was Shakespeare.   King Lear is not half bad either.  A solitary  act may be no more than a detail but sometimes the stench is stronger.

Remploy protestThe closure of Remploy is a foul sin that will haunt this government and every slick bureaucrat that ministers to their thoughtless plans.  The damage it will do to the lives of disabled people may not be noticed by the rest but the corruption will spread just as Richard II predicted.  Oh, we will hear garbage about assisted employment and the need to provide an opportunity for disabled people to integrate into the wider society.  The Department of Work and Pensions will have a spokesman pledging that JobCentrePlus will interview every disabled person made redundant.    But their statements will ignore one clear consequence.   The needless hurt caused to innocent people.   Some of the disabled people employed by Remploy will no doubt survive and even retain long term employment but the majority will finish their lives on the dole.  The only question is when.

Most people who have a conscience are baffled by how people with power can have so little sympathy for the vulnerable.   But then they do not understand the exceptionally ambitious.   Such people have a priority for self that makes gluttons of them all,   a priority nurtured by privilege and fortune that they never properly understand.     Today few of us use the words of Shakespeare.  Most of us would say something like this Government has finally crossed a line between stupidity and evil.  Expressed that way, the journey has probably been inevitable.

Up to this point we merely assumed that the oligarchy represented its own interests.  They were selfish perhaps but it was only a weakness in human nature, a weakness that had been mitigated in the Western World by social

Iain Duncan-Smith - the man responsible for closing Remploy

Iain Duncan-Smith – the man responsible for closing Remploy

democracy and progressive politics.    We had rules and regulations that stopped the rich from gorging themselves on their ridiculous sense of entitlement.  Later, the rich reacted and, supported by Thatcher, they insisted upon having more.  But this act, this foul sin is different.  This exposes the spot of pure corruption that exists in those who have no compassion and who think that people, to quote the words of the once Tory leadership candidate David Davis, ‘should be allowed to fall to their own level’.   When Davis uttered these words at a Tory Party Conference, words that evoked a society where starvation could be permitted because that was the appropriate level for some, the faithful Tory followers cheered and roared.   Just what did they imagine?  Presumably, they cannot picture hardship and failure and damaged children.  No, all they imagine is the poor taking advantage.   But if the poor take advantage in the way they assume why do poor people eat badly, live in inferior housing and have shorter lives and the rich possess money they do not know how to spend?   Something, some quirk in their nature or thinking gives them the cruel spot that always ignores this obvious truth.  The rich are the winners.  After winning, why do they have to be so brutal?  But, that was something else Shakespeare understood.   The need to cry havoc persists and others have to endure.

Remploy strikeOn Thursday of this week, the staff of Remploy went on strike.  A Remploy spokesman said that the disabled workers were not helping themselves.  The verbal nonsense has already started.  The implication is that Remploy workers should be striving hard to persuade others that they have an economic future but the spokesman ignores the decision already taken to close the factories.    Listen to the Government defend itself and remember the words of Richard II.   ‘Foul sin will break into corruption.’  It already has.

To link such a topic to an Elvis Presley Challenge makes me wary but that is what this blog is called and to ignore what is happening at Remploy would be irresponsible.    Elvis Presley fans are like anyone else.  Some of us have a social conscience and some of us do not.  This fan likes to think he has one.   The politics of Elvis were not consistent but I suspect he would have been outraged if he was alive and had somehow settled in England.  Elvis fans are aware of the life long friendship Elvis had with Gary Pepper who suffered from cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair.  Those critics who stereotype Elvis as a violent right wing chauvinist overlook this aspect of his character.  We should not be sentimental.  The relationship with Gary Pepper does not make Elvis a great human being although it makes him a lot more admirable than David Cameron and his Government.   I have tried but I cannot imagine Jeremy Hunt giving Remploy more than a second’s thought.   The compassion and concern within Elvis, though, is important.   Not only is it a reminder of a time when human beings were more complicated than the gratification addicts we are now so desperate to breed, it relates also to what is important about the music of Elvis.  He did proclaim a strong sense of personal entitlement.  But he also believed that the losers should not lose.  This is what makes him different from the powerful that prevail today.  They want not only to win but the losers to lose badly, to be allowed to fall to the lowest possible level.  They cheer when they hear the notion uttered.  Like extras in a Shakespeare history play, they revel in the carnage of others.    Somebody should calm this Government down and remind them how Greil Marcus described the key message of Elvis.  ‘No man is greater than me and I am greater than no one.’   Think about that Mr Cameron and Mr Hunt in your village retreats and think also upon your foul sins.

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