“We like to think of the old-fashioned American classics as children’s books. Just childishness, on our part.”
These are the first lines in The Spirit of Place, the opening essay of Studies in Classic American Literature, D.H. Lawrence’s brilliant headfirst dive into the soul and cultural compulsions of the invented nation as evidenced in the creations of its early nativist storytellers, and they came to mind once again, for a few reasons, upon seeing Portland Shakespeare Project’s new production of The Tempest.
First, although The Tempest will never be mistaken for The Comedy of Errors or The Merry Wives of Windsor, its late-period reverie is counterbalanced by a brisk and overt playfulness that PSP’s production captures rollickingly – a childishness, if you will, to go with the familiar magic that so many of Shakespeare’s plays share with fairy tales.
Second, in addition to its undeniable place as a masterwork of the English dramatic literary canon, The Tempest has long struck me as a peculiarly American sort of work, the Shakespearean play that most clearly draws from early seventeenth century European acknowledgment and limited understanding of the so-called “new world.”
Third, Lawrence himself hinted at an almost soul-connection between The Tempest and the makers, or transgressors, of the new land.“Ca Ca Caliban/ Get a new master, be a new man,” he chants in The Spirit of Place, the doorway into a book that relentlessly explores the creation of the American character through the writings of Franklin, Crèvecoeur, Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Dana, Melville, and Whitman. I’m not sure how he missed Twain, whose satiric burlesques so effectively ripped aside the curtain of American “democratic” orthodoxy, but there you go. New masters, or no masters. New men, whatever the cost.