Thursday, June 7, 2012

O, For A Muse of Fire: Shakespeare’s Inspiring Love Scenes

Like a Costco of love scenes, Shakespeare has something for everyone. While there is no sex on the page, there is plenty of innuendo. Some rowdy, some sly, some witty, love scenes of every flavor abound from passionate, lusty, or dark, to outrageously funny, poignant, or earnest.

Shakespeare’s lovers are virginal youths, gods and goddesses, attractive opposites, and murderous spouses. The wonder of Shakespeare’s characters in love, coupled with his brilliant language – that can be bawdy, or transcendent – is something you will be struck by again and again. You’ll never fail to find gems within his work that will inspire your own creation of both evocative love scenes and rich characters.

Revisit the most famous, and oft-quoted, of his plays – “Romeo and Juliet” – and you’ll be wallowing in romance, love, desire, and rapturous words of love. He captures with eloquence the youthful energy and passion of the pair. Witness the speeches of Romeo and his Juliet where their impatience and lust are so evident. Romeo’s famous Act II, Scene II speech “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks, It is the East, and Juliet is the sun.”, conveys his emotions and hormones running amuck. And Juliet, as she awaits the return of Nurse, her agitation blatantly clear, bemoans, “O, she is lame! . . . Had she affections and warm youthful blood, She would be as swift in motion as a ball;”. Later, the all-encompassing power of her love is laid out for the reader in Act II, Scene II with its stunning conclusion:

“…Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
O, I have bought the mansion of a love,
But not possess’d it; and though I am sold,
Not yet enjoy’d. …”

On the opposite end of the love scene spectrum, you have the witty adult banter replete with sexual innuendo, foreplay if you will, between Kate and Petruchio, in “The Taming of the Shrew”. This famous meeting is a terrific example of Shakespeare’s bawdy bent (Act II, Scene I):

Kate: If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
Petruchio: My remedy is then to pluck it out.
Kate: Ay, if the fool could find it where it lies.
Petruchio: Who knows not where a wasp does wear his sting?
In his tail!
Kate: In his tongue
Petruchio: Whose tongue?
Kate: Yours, if you talk of tales; and so farewell.
Petruchio: What, with my tongue in your tail?
Nay, come again,
Good Kate, I am a gentleman.
Kate: That I’ll try

For the author crafting love scenes reading the plays of Shakespeare provides a bountiful wealth of inspiration.

In addition to his plays, there is also the breathtaking beauty of his poems and sonnets – rife with intense romantic emotions. The most famous, perhaps, Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), presents a lover’s litany to his lady of all her beloved characteristics. But my personal favorite literally chokes me up. In a few short lines it expresses the all-encompassing power of love:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

To paraphrase Portia, I rest my case.

P.S. Of course, among the canon of dramatic literature, lovers and love scenes abound. For other tastes, you might try:

“Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” – a great exploration of post-coital emotions by John Patrick Shanley

“Talk To Me Like The Rain and Let Me Listen” – a lyrical outpouring between 2 lovers exposing their deepest longings, by the master, Tennessee Williams.

“Frankie and Johnny In The Claire du Lune” - Terence McNally’s quiet exploration between two strangers, hesitate, ordinary, who succumb to loneliness and longing. This is an exquisite, passionate play, as lilting as the song the title it references.

“Fool For Love” – Again, this Sam Shepard play is sizzling with erotic tension and action between the two incestuous sibling lovers.

“Desire Under the Elms” – Like some other plays of Eugene O’Neill, “Anna Christie” and “A Moon For the Misbegotten”, “Desire”, with its theme of forbidden lust and love, is a deep and dark exploration of the human heart.

One of the most tortured pair of lovers in all of dramatic literature is Tennessee Williams’ very own Maggie the Cat and her husband Brick. The dynamics of familial pressures on a couple, Brick’s tormented secrets, and Maggie’s unrequited lust for her handsome husband are brilliantly explored. And perhaps the universal desperation of lovers’ can be summed up in Maggie’s classic speech:

“You know, if I thought you would never, never, never make love to me again – I would go downstairs to the kitchen and pick out the longest and sharpest knife I could find and stick it straight into my heart, I swear that I would! But the one thing I don’t have is the charm of the defeated, my hat is still I the ring and I am determined to win! What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? I wish I knew . . . Just staying on it, I guess, as long as she can . . . Later tonight I’m going to tell you I love you an’ maybe by that time you’ll be drunk enough to believe me…”

Friday, June 1, 2012

Heroes Found - And Lost

I like my heroes flawed. Conflicted, tormented, filled with issues, dark desires, contrary natures and imperfect. Paragons of heroic virtue bore me. In all the books I read and enjoy most the heroine (often flawed in her own ways) recognizes the hero’s flaws – but also the rock solid man beneath those flaws. And she is strong enough to love him in spite of them and help him become a better man in the bargain. If he has no reason to grow, why read the book?

Four years ago I discovered two heroes. Six months ago today, I lost them both. Sheriff Bo Handel, of Cado County, Texas populated several Southern noir crime novels, and a number of short stories. He was not a romance hero. Bo was older, a bit out of shape, and not as handsome a devil as we expect in our romances. But he had all the makings of a true romantic hero. He had flaws, but had faced them. He was brave, courageous, loyal and compassionate. He was a sexual animal true to his woman, a younger female deputy in his department – while never forgetting the memory of his deceased wife. He was good with a gun, fearsome with bad guys, and a force to be reckoned with by the foolish, ignorant, lazy, stupid, criminal and stuck-up. He was not above blackmailing a corrupt politician – but only to get more money for the salaries for his officers. He did not always equate right and wrong with what was necessarily legal or not. But his choices were always what he knew was honorable in his heart. His creator had hopes for a film option for his stories, and relished the thought of Tommy Lee Jones being cast as the crusty lawman.

Bo Handel was also not a surprising character to be have sprung from the fertile mind of my real-life hero, Milton T. Burton, of Tyler, Texas. Milton possessed many of Bo’s own qualities, from his diverse interests, feisty sense of humor, ill-tolerance of the fools of the world, and his treatment of women. And in truth, Milton himself possessed great vocal similarity to Tommy Lee Jones.

Milton passed away on December 1, 2011, after fighting valiantly against a series of ailments, including a hospital acquired infection, that in the end wore out his considerable, but not unlimited, strength. I was able to speak with him one last time two days before he died. I think he knew then that he wasn’t going to make it, but he never made a complaint. That’s certainly my idea of a hero. Before he died, he told his daughter that he had lived a good life. And while I knew of the trials he’d suffered, I knew too of his staunch love for his family, the joy in his diverse friendships, as well as the tremendous pleasure he took from the simplest of things – good food, good books, rousing conversation, the arts including theatre and music, as well as great films. He was tough, but funny, a redneck intellectual, and a curmudgeonly but comforting man.

Milton and I met, if you will, on a writers’ forum. He said he liked my sense of humor, and that I, too, was a writer, and invited me to a forum of his own, unlike any other, and I met a number of other wonderful, eccentric folk, thanks to him. He started asking my opinion of his writing, and from there it was off to the races. We began talking on the phone, and once we developed a personal relationship it was as if we’d been friends for years.

Every day, often several times throughout the day, I’d be greeted by Milton’s basso profundo, “Howdy, how you be?” greeting. Inconsequential topics, jokes, a good meal, a great video discovered, and most often, writing discussions were what we talked about. Our friendship morphed slowly, sweetly, into something more, though we never had the chance to meet. His Texas drawl and his belly laugh brightened many dark times for me, and he never failed to offer his sympathy, advice and support when I needed it. He also nudged me mercilessly about my writing if he felt I wasn’t producing. I was his reader, his cheerleader, and press rep. He called me his girlfriend, and I called him my man. Silly perhaps for 2 physical strangers, of more than a certain age, but true. His daughter, at the end of his days, told me she knew how very much I meant to him, and that I had added a great deal of enjoyment to his life.

So fictional Texas hero Bo Handel has ridden into the sunset. Alive on the pages of Milton’s published books, and the unpublished manuscripts I’m fortunate enough to have, yet no more adventures lie in store. Because my very own Texas hero is gone, too. Milton’s author’s bio said he’d been variously a college professor, cattleman, and political advisor but he’d been far more. He was most certainly flawed and would be the first to admit it. He was tortured, too. By his own mistakes, and by the bad hand fate had sometimes dealt him, most importantly in the death of his young son, George, who he mourned until the day he died. But he triumphed against adversity by sheer dint of willpower. He was a great friend, a generous mentor, a devoted father, beloved grandfather, and mischievous lover. And I know that of great importance to him, Milton was simply a superb storyteller. He never quit writing. He finished the final galleys of his last book, Mortal Remains, literally days before he went into the hospital. It was his swan song, and I know it would have pleased him had he known it would be his last work.

Over the years, Milton sent me dozens of photographs. I have saved them all, but I keep one of the last ones he sent me close at hand. It is a picture of his writing desk where he nurtured his fertile and creative imagination and wrote great tales of good, evil, men, women, and the world he loved.

Above his desk hangs the Confederate flag. On it sits, among the writing implements, his pipe. Against the desk lean his crutches.

I keep this picture close because I miss him. And because whenever I look at it, I can hear him say in his twanging growl:

“What have you written today?”