Books

William Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

Desmond Ryan
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Bryson's unassuming and enjoyable survey is a useful introduction that students and playgoers will find handy.


William Shakespeare: The World as Stage

Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 9780060740221
Author: Bill Bryson
Price: $19.95
Length: 199
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-10
Amazon

In adding to the groaning pile of this year's Bardlit, Bill Bryson at least offers two qualities William Shakespeare prized and that are in chronically short supply in many books about him -- brevity and wit.

William Shakespeare: The World as Stage is the latest addition to the Penguin Lives series, notable for the sometimes inspired and occasionally weird pairing of subject and author. "This book was written, not so much because the world needs another book on Shakespeare, as because the series does," Bryson admits with disarming candor.

And if the publication of his modest volume fills the annual Shakespeare quota and prevents another deranged academic from printing proof positive that Shakespeare's plays were written posthumously by Geoffrey Chaucer, then more power to Bryson.

What Bryson demonstrates in sifting through the scant known facts and documents of Shakespeare's life is that there is room for a sane secular voice amid the Babel of scholarly contention and wild conjecture that surrounds him. All too often, you pick up a new biography and find that speculation advanced in the timid subjunctive in the early going assumes the mantle of unassailable truth a few chapters later.

As one scholar in the field tells Bryson half in jest: "Every Shakespeare biography is five percent fact and 95 percent speculation."

So it is easy to take a few scraps of information to propose that Shakespeare was a Catholic (a dangerous faith to follow in Elizabeth's England) even if it is largely the author's wishful thinking. Nobody can trot out documents to prove you are manifestly wrong.

Fans of Bryson and his eclectic and popular resume should not expect the zanier humor and entertainment of some of his thoughts on language and, especially, his travel writing. What he offers here is a levelheaded assessment leavened with ironic asides that are more in character.

Fittingly, he starts with the celebrated Chandos portrait, whose authenticity is engulfed in a mystery of its own. Shakespeare's enduring enigma begins at birth. We cannot be sure that he came into the world on April 23, 1564. It's simply the traditional date.

Instead of concocting some plausible theories to fill in the many gaps in what we know about Shakespeare, Bryson draws a concise picture of his times -- from the working conditions and admission prices of the Elizabethan theater to what people ate, drank and wore. He notes with amazement that the consumption of beer was a gallon daily for each person, without seeming to realize that such tippling was a necessity because the water was too foul and dangerous to drink.

Although he has visited the archives that hold Shakespearean treasures -- such as the Folger Library in Washington with its unrivaled collection of First Folios -- Bryson doesn't pretend to any original scholarship. His Shakespeare is a work of honest synthesis.

I especially enjoyed his spirited rejoinder to the thriving industry that has developed to advance the claims of others as the "real" authors of Shakespeare's plays. This began in the mid-19th century with the idea that Francis Bacon was the man. Bryson is right to stress what has always seemed to me a compelling rebuttal: Nobody ever questioned Shakespeare's authorship in his lifetime. Nor did the two friends and colleagues who prepared the First Folio seven years after his death and put his name and image on the title page. For the next two centuries no one raised a hint of doubt.

The first stab at a Shakespeare life was published in 1709 by the poet laureate Nicholas Rowe. A later scholar noted that of the 11 facts asserted in the course of Rowe's 40 fanciful pages, eight were wrong. The avalanche of studies and biographies has continued unabated ever since, and it sometimes seems that Rowe's batting average set a standard for accuracy and plausibility.

If you want more considered and extensive recent consideration of Shakespeare, Frank Kermode's The Age of Shakespeare; James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare; and Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare are all highly commendable.

Bryson's unassuming and enjoyable survey is a useful introduction that students and playgoers will find handy. It is the work of a man who clearly loves Shakespeare and is bold enough to hold the conviction, heretical as it may be in some quarters, that he actually wrote the immortal texts that bear his name.

6

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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