The Foreword to the new book “The Wisdom of Our Ancestors: Conservative Humanism and the Western Tradition.”
Green Shoots on Stage and Screen—or Not
This is a season of new beginnings in the worlds of cinema and stage. As we gather together again, we are palpably eager for new stories, and for stories that will make us feel renewed.” Yet the phoenix rises from its own ashes; it is reborn out of the remnants of its previous existence. To a considerable degree, this is always what art does: rework and repurpose its own past. As Mark Twain said of purportedly new ideas, they are merely old ones that we put “into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.” So I thought it appropriate that, even though they aren’t the first new works that I saw in a theater since the pandemic began, the first that I would tackle in this space were works that are quite consciously giving that old kaleidoscope a new turn, taking old works of art and making them new.
The Green Knight is writer-director David Lowery’s retelling of the anonymously authored Middle English tale of Sir Gawain, knight of Camelot. In the poem, the mysterious and formidable title figure arrives unexpectedly at King Arthur’s court on Christmas Eve and issues a general challenge: he will bare his neck for anyone bold enough to deal him a single blow with his own axe, on the condition that, one year hence, his opponent seek him out and receive a like blow in return. Sir Gawain takes the dare, beheads the Green Knight with a single swing, only to see his opponent pick up his head, remind him of his obligation the next Christmas, and leave on his equally verdant horse the way he came.
The poem breezily recounts Sir Gawain’s adventures seeking out the chapel where the Green Knight may be found, but most of it focuses on his ending sojourn in a friendly castle near his destination. As the Green Knight proposed an exchange of blows, the castle’s lord proposes an exchange of gifts: every day he will hunt and tender everything he kills up to his guest in exchange for whatever Sir Gawain himself receives in the course of the same day. Each of the three days Sir Gawain resides there, while the lord hunts, his wife attempts to seduce the visiting knight. Sir Gawain resists, but following the code of chivalry he must do so without ever showing his hostess the slightest discourtesy.
He is finally tempted not by sexual favors but by a magic green sash that his hostess says will protect him from all harm. While Gawain gives his host a kiss for every courteous kiss his wife gave him, Sir Gawain does not give up or even tell his host about the sash, and he confronts the Green Knight wearing it—only to discover that the Green Knight is, in fact, his host, magically disguised by Arthur’s sister, Morgan le Fay, to test his mettle as a knight. Sir Gawain keeps his head but receives a nick on the neck from the axe as a sign of his minor infidelity in not revealing the sash to his host.
It’s an enigmatic text, boisterous and humorous in tone (well captured in Simon Armitage’s contemporary translation), poised on the edge of parody. The figure of the Green Knight feels like he must have something to do with nature as both the source of life and of mortality, a pagan conception of death and renewal that harmonizes with the host’s role as vigorous huntsman (and his origin in sorcery) and his wife’s role as a fountain of eros. Sir Gawain’s final temptation, then, must be a Christian twist of the kaleidoscope, an attempt to escape his bargain by means of magic that ultimately stains him, where submitting to the axe would have redeemed him wholly. (It is a Christmas story, after all.) But with its comic exaggerations, and the absurdity of the final twist (why would Morgan le Fay want to test his virtue?), it could also be read as an almost Pythonesque send-up of the conventions of chivalric romance.
Whatever its relations to those conventions, though, they are the framework within which the story lives. The new twist that Lowery gives in his film is to shake those pieces out of the kaleidoscope entirely and give us a tale of Camelot shorn of chivalry.
By that I don’t mean that Lowery depicts the knights of the Round Table as a bunch of low-class hooligans. On the contrary: they are far more decorous than they are in the original poem, where they really do seem a bunch of roustabouts, always ready for a scuffle and a tankard of ale. They are also notably older: King Arthur (played by Sean Harris) appears to be nearing senescence and thinking of succession, more Fisher King than King of the Britons, and Guinevere (Kate Dickie) is nearly as old and stately as he is.
Gawain—Arthur’s nephew, but not yet knighted, as he repeatedly has to remind people—is the one portrayed (and played by Dev Patel) as anything but the would-be paragon of perfection that the poem describes. The first morning we meet him, he wakes up in a brothel where he has spent the night with his favorite bawd. Shortly thereafter, as he scurries into the castle, already late for court, his mother (Sarita Choudhury) asks where he’s spent the night and scoffs at his reply that he was in church.
When he finally gets to court, his uncle makes him sit by his side, regretting he hasn’t gotten to know him, and Gawain voices his feelings of inadequacy in the company of so many legendary warriors. We are immediately familiar with this Gawain: a son of enormous privilege still tied to his mother’s apron strings and cowed by his family’s expectations. And it is clear what his quest is going to have to be: to finally grow up.
The quest does not begin auspiciously. Solemnly given Excalibur by his uncle, he lops off the Green Knight’s head like splitting a melon—that’s how he describes it to his girl in one of my favorite lines of the film, encapsulating so succinctly his callowness: his lack of regard, in wanting a deed to make his name, for what it is he was actually doing. He then spends a year carousing, dining out on his newfound fame—we see children watching Punch and Judy shows of the decapitation—and before he heads out to find the Green Knight, his mother gives him a magic green sash to protect him from all harm. The apron strings are still tied plenty tight.
Sash notwithstanding, Gawain almost immediately falls into misadventure. Crossing a battlefield strewn with corpses that no one survived to bury—a reference perhaps to the Battle of Camlann, where Arthur fought Mordred and was mortally wounded (which may explain why he seems so feeble at Camelot)—he meets a very Shakespearean youth (Barry Keoghan), who slyly gives him directions that lead him into a trap. Waylaid by the youth’s henchmen, Gawain is despoiled of his horse, the Green Knight’s axe, and his mother’s magic sash, and is bound and left to die. We even see him dead, though only in his mind’s eye, a vision that prompts him to take the initiative for once and struggle out of his bonds.
Later he meets the ghost of St. Winifred (Erin Kellyman), who had been decapitated years ago by an angry knight who was attempting to rape her, and threw her head in a pond (in the saint’s legend, a spring instead gushes forth where her head fell). The ghost asks Gawain to retrieve her skull and restore it to her body so that she might rest. Later still he sees naked giants walking in the mist—the moment when their fingers wrap around the tops of the mountains feels like something out of Time Bandits—and cries out to them to let him ride on their shoulders. But they have their own unspoken business to attend to. He will have to walk on his own feet.
Finally, he arrives at the home of the lord (Joel Edgerton) who, as in the poem, tries him a second time. But his wife is played by the same actress (Alicia Vikander) who plays Sir Gawain’s beloved bawd, putting us immediately on notice that this whole encounter may lack reality. (The David Lynchian touch of having her elderly lady-in-waiting continually blindfolded contributes to that sense.) She has no trouble getting Gawain to submit to her gentle ministrations, restores to him the magic protective sash (as St. Winifred miraculously restored the Green Knight’s axe—the women in the film do seem ever ready to provide), and brings him to sexual climax directly into it, before concluding: you are no knight. Gawain flees from her to confront the Green Knight—preferable, perhaps, to confronting his own behavior—but runs into his host on the way, who takes from him (or gives him) the kiss that he is owed.
The sense that builds up from all these episodes is not just serious doubt about the capacity of our hero but also ambivalence about knighthood itself. We are shown neither courage nor forbearance in battle but only a comprehensively bloody aftermath; neither the ardently chaste devotion of courtly love nor the tactful demurrals the poem’s Sir Gawain offers his hostess, but rather the ghostly echo of an attempted rape and the present release of masturbation. But while he seems no knight, it’s not clear who actually is one. Any kind of respectable manhood seems tied to age and decline. Chivalry may claim to be about winning honor while adhering to a code of restraining conduct, but it seems really to be just about violence—being great as opposed to being good. That’s what the film’s Gawain thought when he lopped off the Green Knight’s head like a melon, and it half feels like the film is confirming it as he approaches the green chapel to meet his doom.
The climactic sequence that follows so directly borrows from a theologically inflected film that I have to believe we are meant to take it in the same spirit. Gawain faces the Green Knight and, as the axe is about to fall, he flinches, flees, and returns home, where he is greeted warmly. Who could know that he ran away, after all? His bawd gives birth, but the child is taken from her and brought to the castle while Gawain weds a more appropriate match. He inherits Arthur’s throne, and Excalibur, but the battles he leads his people into do not lead to victory. He has power, position, and honor, but it is hollow. In the end, sitting on his throne, he pulls the green sash—woven by his mother, or his lover, or the eternal female principle—out from around his waist, and his head topples to the ground. Suddenly we are back at the green chapel. Gawain takes off the sash and submits to the axe. At which point the Green Knight smiles, declines to strike, and declares him knighted after all.
It’s a clear reference to Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ, which ends with Jesus being tempted to step down from the cross and live out a normal life rather than die for mankind. We then see that life play out in all its normal domesticity until, on his deathbed, rebuked by Judas for betraying what they all believed, he desperately climbs back to Golgotha begging to be crucified and returns to the very moment on the cross when he dreamt of leaving. The sequence is a poignant evocation of what Christ’s human nature might have meant in that moment of extremis, a drawing out of lama sabachthani into a narrative. But Gawain is not being asked to embrace martyrdom. Submitting to the Green Knight’s axe is something else—an acceptance of mortality, of being part of nature, and therefore of the consequentiality of action. This requires a belated leaving of the womb of maternal protection.
Or does it? Yes, Gawain spent the film looking for shortcuts and tricks to get to adulthood, and finally decides to stop, and we may ask whether knighthood is just adulthood, or whether that decision is enough to earn the promotion. Gawain’s vision feels like the transformation from shame to guilt, from concern about social perception of him to concern about his own integrity. Well and good, but doesn’t he have to do something before earning his knighthood? Yet there’s something more. The Green Knight presents as a deep natural principle, moving and sounding like Treebeard on horseback. But in the film, the sorceress who conjured him was Gawain’s own mother—we see her do it at the beginning—just as she also weaves his protective sash. The poem takes place in a world of wonders, but the wonders at least seem to be out there in the world. The film is a closed circle, circumscribed by Gawain’s own skull, yes, but cradled, even at the end, in his mother’s arms. Gawain’s independence, the purpose of his quest, takes place within a world conjured by his mother to help him become a man.
I have to confess, I did not leave the theater convinced that one can become a man, much less a knight, that way.
What Are We Waiting For?
They say there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town (and they’re really the same story, told from opposite perspectives). If that’s the case, then “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is both: a stranger comes to town, and in response a man goes on a journey. By contrast, Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot wouldn’t properly be a story at all: there’s no town, nobody goes anywhere, the stranger never comes, nothing happens—twice.
Beckett’s play sprang from his own experiences in the French resistance of interminable waiting for orders that might never come, needing to keep faith that one is engaged in purposeful activity when, to all appearances, nothing is happening at all. Abstracted from that specific circumstance, the play became a metaphor for life itself. In fact, it’s a metaphor that the newly knighted Sir Gawain might benefit from contemplating: life as a meaningless series of comic routines we play out to pass the time, ideally in a condition of companionable friendship, such as Vladimir and Estragon share, less ideally as either master or slave, like Pozzo and Lucky. Since there is nothing to do with life but wait for it to end, how much really changes once you face your mortality?
Godot has been staged before in a way that de-abstracts it by tying it to a specific circumstance; I think, for example, of Christopher McElroen and Paul Chan’s staging in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Resituating it in this way infuses the play with urgency at a price of reduced scope; the feeling changes from “It’s true, we’re all just waiting” to “Why we can’t wait.” But the first play to reopen Broadway, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, goes a step further. She has rewritten Godot as an explicitly political fable for the age of George Floyd. Her Vladimir and Estragon are Moses (Jon Michael Hill) and Kitch (Namir Smallwood), two men living on the street in an unnamed city, waiting for—well, it’s not clear what they are waiting for. But it’s clear why they are stuck on this block, unable to leave. It’s because they are black, and the police are willing to kill them to keep them there.
That existential fact is voiced in the first lines of the play: “Kill me now,” “Bang-bang.” It’s a ritualistic incantation, a friendly way of reminding each other that they are together in this situation, akin to the rituals that Beckett’s tramps engage in, and there are many other allusions: the obsession with shoes, the manipulation of hats. But Moses and Kitch have far more awareness of a larger world than Vladimir and Estragon do. They fantasize about it all the time, playing a game called “promised land top ten” where they list the luxuries they intend to enjoy, from caviar to gold chains, new sneakers to female companionship, when they pass over to, well, whatever must lie beyond this block.
As in Godot, the highlight of the first act is the arrival of someone from the outside who has brought a picnic. In Godot, it’s Pozzo, preceded by his slave, Lucky, who carries his bags; the slave is held by a rope around his neck and controlled by shouted commands and whipping. It’s a brutally simple depiction of class relations that obtain regardless of the particular system of government—feudalism, capitalism, communism; all serve equally well—and a great deal of the comedy of the episode comes from our recognition of how well Pozzo’s pretensions and debilitating courtesies (such as his inability to sit down without a proper invitation) correspond to those of any real ruling class and their contrast with the transparent poverty of their situation. At one point, Pozzo eats a piece of chicken and tosses the bones. Estragon, starving, wants to eat them, but Pozzo explains that the bones properly belong to Lucky, and he is disturbed when Lucky refuses them, allowing Estragon to eat. This is what luxury looks like in Godot.
It looks far more extravagant in Pass Over, whose funniest and most engaging episode also involves the arrival of a member of the ruling class. A white man named Mister (Gabriel Ebert)—or possibly Master?—wanders onto the block, apparently lost, carrying a basket that he was bringing to his mother. (He’s wearing a red baseball cap rather than a red riding hood, but we immediately are primed to think of wolves, which I’m certain was the intent.) He magnanimously offers to share his picnic with Moses (who is skeptical) and Kitch (who is ravenous) and proceeds to pull from the basket a comically absurd plethora of comestibles, from roast chicken to collards and beans (Moses’s favorite, which finally draws him to partake) to apple pie (which they decide to save for later).
As he shares his meal, Mister engages Moses and Kitch in conversation, which circles around to their copious use of an infamously unspeakable epithet as a term of affection for one another. Why do they do that? The men have no clear answer. Well, Mister asks, why can they say it if he can’t? Because it’s ours, not yours, Moses replies. “Everything is mine,” Mister replies—showing the skull behind the grin and, not incidentally, the central point of the play.
I’m not going to debate whether the depiction of homeless men in the play is true to life, nor whether it is accurate to say that the police would eagerly kill them if they stepped off their designated block. Vladimir and Estragon are not true-to-life Irish (or French) tramps either. The question is whether the play describes a feeling that is real, and it is not hard to find testimony from black Americans to tell you that it is. The feeling is of a constraining system of violence aimed at keeping you in your place that you cross at your mortal peril. You can try to trick it—Kitch and Moses experiment at speaking in Mister’s gosh-gollyisms and manage to fool a police officer, Ossifer (also played by Ebert), into thinking they are respectable types, until the n-word slips from their mouths and, quick as a whip, out comes the officer’s gun—but that just moves the constraining forces inside your own skull. I will not argue whether that is how it is; from where I sat, the play was accessing an authentic feeling.
But feelings have consequences in art and in life. There’s a point in Godot where Estragon wonders whether Pozzo might be the person they’ve been waiting for. He has a certain aura about him, after all; he seems like the kind of person people might be waiting for. But he and Vladimir quickly conclude that it isn’t him at all. And in the second act, Pozzo and Lucky return again, only now Pozzo is blind, and he and Lucky quickly fall helpless to the ground. Pozzo’s utter misery in this scene, the torture he feels at even being seen and talked to, is palpable. He still has power and position—he still holds the rope, still wields the whip—but it has availed him nothing in terms of happiness. This cannot be Godot.
What about Mister, though? When he says, “Everything is mine,” is he exaggerating? In the world of the play, I mean. Is he, in fact, the Master of all the world—or the evil Gnostic demiurge responsible for the false creation that we all inhabit? I wonder.
Pass Over builds to a climax as Kitch and Moses form a mutual suicide pact—much as Vladimir and Estragon plan to hang themselves from their solitary tree and gain an erection thereby. After Kitch has struck Moses with a rock (shades of Cain and Abel, as well as the Hebrew slaves who fought in Egypt after Moses slew the overseer), Ossifer returns, and just as he is assaulting Kitch, Moses rises from the ground, imbued with prophetic power, and speaks to the police officer, commanding him to put down his gun.
I found myself squirming skeptically, remembering how thoroughly Beckett had skewered both rhetoric and reason when he had Lucky “think,” when suddenly here the entire upstage scrim rose up, revealing a verdant new Eden waiting just across the street. This miracle is yet another Godot allusion: at the top of Act II of that play, Vladimir discovers that the solitary tree has miraculously sprouted four or five leaves overnight. But in this case it’s an allusion that deliberately avoids the joke of the original in favor of earnest belief. Moses tells Ossifer that he can pass over, too, if he sheds all the trappings of civilization, class and race, and so he does, stripping naked to frolic freely in the forest. Moses follows him in turn—but before Kitch can make the crossing, Mister turns up again. He has three gold chains in his hand—featured prominently on Kitch’s promised land wish list—and offers them to Kitch, and they hold on that moment until blackout.
How are we to understand this ending? Is Mister the snake in the new garden, tempting Kitch with his worldly desires and therefore away from Eden? Does that mean the game of promised land top ten was part of what trapped them on the block in the first place? Or is he telling him: I am the Master here, too, and this Eden is as much mine as everything else—different in scale but not in kind from the miraculous picnic? Regardless, it did feel to me like Mister was the unacknowledged audience for the play itself. Pass Over has gone through as many endings as it has had productions: in earlier iterations, there was no Eden revealed, and Kitch and Moses returned to their block, as Vladimir and Estragon return to waiting by their tree. This places the audience in the position of Mister, the one being implicitly implored to change something to allow Kitch and Moses to pass over. How different, then, is the apparent hopefulness of the new ending? Is anyone different being implored?
I fear that stance is more flattering to the audience than anything else. If Pozzo really is Godot, then it’s going to be a long and disappointing wait.
Noah Millman is theater and film critic for Modern Age and a columnist for The Week.
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