A ‘Tempest’-uous Reprieve for Western Civ

Prospero, Ariel and a sleeping Miranda, from a 1797 painting by William Hamilton (Wikimedia Commons)

Last week my wife and I attended a movie that was—not surprisingly—preceded by previews, during which we nearly walked out, figuring that anything associated with such garbage was liable to be trash, too.  Fortunately, we stayed, and it wasn’t.  Nonetheless, my painful memory of those previews (one in particular, advertising what threatens to be an abominable piece of cinematic ordure titled Ted) left me inclined to write for you, dear readers, a jeremiad on the decline and imminent fall of Western Civilization.

Let me be clear. I am no prude. Indeed, our language at home would make the proverbial sailor blush. But fart jokes simply for the sake of fart jokes, constant and indiscriminate use of  f*^%  just to titillate sub-moronic IQ’s, the substitution of cheap visual trickery for imagination, plot and dialog … Well, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1785 “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” (an observation, by the way, that hyper-patriots are for some reason inclined to overlook), Jefferson, I say, would likely have trembled for the state of what passes for popular culture had he been with us that night.

It’s an old saw, but even old saws can have sharp teeth, and this one does: To my mind, the coarsening of our public discourse really is something to deplore. (And something that is evident, by the way, in some comments regularly found even here, on the CHE Brainstorm blog, where I would have least expected it; I refer not to assessments of public figures—who, after all, are and ought to be fair game—but to uncalled-for ad hominem nastiness between commenters and bloggers, as well as among commenters themselves that is simply odious.)

In any event, just yesterday, I encountered an antidote to such unpleasantness: The latest instantiation of The Tempest, starring Christopher Plummer. It’s a long way from Captain von Trapp to Prospero, but Mr. Plummer doth span the decades (and the cultures, from kitsch to sublime) like a colossus. Although the supporting cast is no less than superb—especially the spot-on portrayals of Caliban, Ariel and the drunken steward, Stephano—Plummer is unquestionably the star around which everything and everyone revolves. He plumbs the rich diversity of Prospero’s personality with extraordinary panache: by turns angry and vengeful, tender and loving, philosophical and stoic, funny and deadly serious, injured and injurious.

Of course, it’s a small sample of what passes for today’s “popular culture,” and yet, given the persistence and excellence of such accomplishments as The Tempest—by which I mean not only Shakespeare’s genius but also the genius reflected in the current Plummer production—I find myself possessed by an unfamiliar optimism.

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