The Twilight of the Equine Gods

The horse has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability. Our story resonates with an equine leitmotif – in our dreams, our fantasies, our histories, our literature, and our movies; in our aesthetics and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty.

Hey and away we go
Through the grass, across the snow,
Big brown beastie, big brown face,
I’d rather be with you than flying through space.
Mike Oldfield, On Horseback

Pastorale

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare

What is there not to love about a horse?

Its big, brown, doe eyes; its earthy, sweaty aroma from a land somewhere between babies and barnyards; the warmth of its neck on your palm; the rough feel of its mane in your fingers; the smell and the squeak of saddle leather; the jingle-bells of the bridle. The strength you sense through your thighs; an exhilaration that is close to fear as you kick his flanks into a trot, a canter, a gallop, and whoa! and you’re never one hundred percent sure she will obey you. And then, when it’s over, the radiated heat, the damp hide, the glow of sweat, almost a mist of equine energy as you dismount after the ride. You feel wired, alive, and at one with the horse, with the land, with nature.

I first rode a horse in the late seventies, on my first visit to Australia with my first wife. Her old man was a doctor on locum in Coolah, ‘beyond of the Black Stump’, which is to say, the back of beyond (and there really WAS a black stump on the outskirts of town, for the infrequent tourist to be photographed by in pre-selfie days). A local farmer had invited us out to ride his large property, and so we rode, in the heat haze of high summer, through wide, dry, open, paddocks, mobs of roos scattering as we approached, flocks of cockatoos roosting riotously in the branches of dead trees, and flies. Yes, I learned about the “Aussie salute” that summer. I fell in love with the Australian bush then and there, the “wide brown land” of Dorothea Mackelllar’s sunburnt country“. A few years later, as a newly arrived immigrant, I would go riding again, this time with country friends in the Dungog cattle country north of Sydney.

I was not a good rider, but I loved the craic. Not a natural like Adele. When we first met, she kept four horses and looked after a whole riding school of them, bringing them in bareback riding, stock-whip cracking, a proper jillaroo. ‘Western pleasure’, it was called. No jackets and jodhpurs – it was cowboy hats, boots and blue jeans – before helmets and Occupational Health and Safety. I rode her gorgeous chestnut quarter horse called Twopence, and she, a handsome palomino named Trigger (of course). A riding accident put me in hospital – and I never rode a horse again.

Twopence & Trigger

That was a decades ago, but living in the bush, I still feel pleasure when I see horses in their paddocks. The sight, sound, and smell strike a melodious, atavistic chord that many would  recognize as distinctively Australian. How many Aussies of a certain age would not thrill at the Banjo’s ballad of the bushman that is almost our national poem:

He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough’.

In this centennial year of the Palestine Campaign of WWI and the gallop of the Australian Light Horse towards the strategic Beersheba wells – praised, inaccurately, as history’s last great cavalry charge, the Light Horseman and his hardy “Waler” (from New South Wales) have achieved iconic status in a media supercharged on “Anzackery”. Calmer voices have argued that on the scale of the carnage on the western front, where Diggers died in their thousands, and indeed the Gaza battle itself, where the Anzacs were a very small part of a very large army, it was really no big thing, But never let the facts get between a politician and a photo-opportunity. During the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

And it was always thus. As German academic and cultural scientist Ulrich Raulff’s tells us in his captivating “micro-history” Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship: 

“Like love and the stock exchange, our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known facts…This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”.

Farewell to the horse

It is an easy segue from my Australian pastorale to Raulff’s illuminating canter through the story of the “Centaurian Pact” between humans and horses. it is at once a ride, a revelation, and a reminiscence of my short-lived ‘cowboy’ days.

“The horse” Raulff begins, “has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant into which we have entered has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability”.

He then recounts how over the span of a few decades, a relationship that endured for six millennia went “to the dogs” – excuse my awful pet-food pun. And it happened almost unremarked, unnoticed, and unsung. “For a century, the oat-powered engine was the universal and irreplaceable power unit of the forced mechanization of the world”. And then it was gone, replaced by the internal combustion engine. And yet, the term “horsepower” is to this day a measure of the performance of vehicle engines (although now mostly replaced by kilowatts) – a horse was the equivalent of seven men.

“The twilight of the equine gods”, as Raulff describes it, was a long goodbye indeed, and in the realm of myth, memory and metaphor, horses are with us still; or as he so lyrically expresses it: “ghosts of modernity” (echoes of Dylan, in my mind, at least) that “haunt the minds of a humanity that has turned away from them”.

Like its subject, Farewell to the Horse is a handsome, wide-ranging, beast. More elegy than epitaph, eclectic and imaginative in scope, viewing the horse as muse, as mount, and as metaphor, Raulff sings the song of the horse – and if ever there was a ‘horse opera’, this is it.

Eloquently and at times poetically translated, and generously illustrated with pictures from galleries, libraries, and photo archives, Raulff takes the reader through the many worlds of the relationship. On his academic home-turf of sociology and psychology, his references are primarily German, but straying from his academic stable, he ambles into a lush and diverse pastureland of history and mythology, politics and philosophy. economics and geography, industry and commerce, physics and biology, science and medicine, sport and recreation. And art and literature: how artists and writers brought their perspectives, personas and passions onto canvas, Kodak and the printed page. In many ways, its infinite variety reminded me of English historian Simon Schama’s fascinating Landscape and Memory.

Raulff has divided his book into four broad thematic sections, each with an evocative title – The Centauran Pact, A Phantom in the Library. The Living Metaphor, and The Forgotten Player – each exploring a particular aspect of the horse’s story. But he allows himself much extempore stream of consciousness as he periodically wanders off-script with childhood reminiscences and collected anecdotes, and dips into favourite paintings, books and films. And time-travels through six thousand years, and traverses the globe too in his long ride – from the Steppes of Eurasia to the Great Plains of America, from the cities of MittelEuropa to those of the Midwest, with side trips to the Middle East and Andalusia.

It was contagious. I too got to thinking beyond the page, recalling and contemplating a miscellany of ideas and images that came to mind whilst reading, and indeed, whilst writing this review, wandering down forgotten bridle-ways (literally, a horse riding path, or trail originally created for use by horses, but often now serving a range of travelers). And is this not what a good book should do?

The Song of the Horse

The horse, the intelligent mammal, the great vegetarian, a prey animal whose strength is in flight, who has no desire or need for confrontation or quarrel. It’s speed, its main asset, enabling it to flee its predators, is also what attracted it to the attention of man, with whom it entered into a long-lived, unequal devil’s bargain. “They were able to turn the inconspicuous potential energy of tough prairie grasses, inedible to almost all other animals into the spectacular energy of a fast endurance runner. Thanks to its natural properties as a converter of energy, the horse could bear kings, Knights, female lovers and rural doctors, draw carriages and cannons, transport hordes of workers and employees, and mobilize entire nations”. And indeed, Raulff takes us on a jaunt   through these tableaux.

He quotes historian Ann Hyland: “it was a small step, albeit a brave one, for man to mount a horse”, and writes: “The comparison with the moon landing is certainly not exaggerated. The moment when man began, by domestication and breeding, to connect his fate to the horse – not with a nutritional intention, but with a vectorial aim – may have been, before the invention of writing, the narrow gate through which man entered the realm of history”.

And lo, our story resonates with an equine leitmotif.

The horse is in our dreams and our fantasies, in our literature, and our movies, in our aesthetics, and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty. From the diverse mounts that conveyed Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury to that paragon of American folk culture, the cowboy. From the rambunctious centaurs of Disney’s’ Beethoven Fantasia to the gaunt quartet bearing the seer of Patmos’ horsemen of the Apocalypse. From the teenage innocence of National Velvet and Black Beauty to Thomas Hardy and Carey Mulligan’s sensual and photogenic jaunt in the recent remake of Far From the Madding Crowd. From the patriotic jingoism of Alfred J Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and Rudyard Kipling’s East is East and West is West to Banjo Patterson’s blokey bush ballad The Man From Snowy River, which I have quoted above (and will reprise below). The horse has even entered into the invented worlds of science fiction, with Joss Whedon’s rollicking space-pirate adventure, Firefly, and more recently, Westworld with its Wild West theme park populated by lifelike android cowboys and Indians on their robot horses.

Westworld

[If I have one small quibble about Farewell to the Horse, it is in its Eurocentricity. The Land Down Under doesn’t rate a mention even though the horse has played an important role in the evolution of Australia’s perceived national identity – “perceived” because here too, we are captive to that “powerful myth” that Raulff believes subverts fact]

Whilst drawing cleverly on the arts – and the book is well-furnished with illustrations that are  well spoken to in the text – Raulff does not venture into poetry, where there are to be found many wonderful images. Take but a few examples drawn from just one poem, and marvel at the metaphors in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Boys Own’ tale of a young British officer tracking down a daring Pathan bandit:

The Colonel’s son has taken horse, and a raw rough dun was he,
With the mouth of a bell and the heart of Hell and the head of a gallows-tree”.

“It’s up and over the Tongue of Jagai, as blown dust-devils go,
The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe.
The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above,
But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove”.

“They have ridden the low moon out of the sky, their hoofs drum up the dawn,
The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the mare like a new-roused fawn”.

And, of course, there are the songs. There’s the doomed Texan troubadour Townes van Zandt’s enigmatic anti-hero:

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel,
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho and Lefty

And whilst Raulff includes a poignant picture of a lone, pedestrian cowboy carrying his saddle through the scrub like a mariner lost on the land, he doesn’t mention Leonard Cohen’s bereft and distraught cowpoke :

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray
The Ballad of the Absent Mare

But more from St. Leonard of Montreal later…

Frederic Remington’s Bronco

A Phantom Limb

The horse’s glory days may be over, but the echoes of a long and fruitful relationship linger in our lines and in our language – in our idioms and our figures of speech: like, “getting back in the saddle”, “pulling the reins” and “taking the reins”, “champing at the bit”, “gaining the whip hand”, and the timeless put-down, “get off your high horse!” Phrases such as these are used everyday by people who have never been physically close to a horse let alone ridden one, and whose visual encounters are limited to country outings, circuses, televised equestrian events and westerns (in Australia, as in the US, we can still enjoy country fairs and carnivals that feature rodeos and endurance rides).

And note that these usages are somehow connected to power, control, and aggression – and often, casual, almost matter-of-fact violence (the idea of being “horse-whipped”) – violence inflicted not only on humans but on the animals too.

Raulff asks: Why is it that the most powerful visual images of horses are in their warrior role?  Does it not say more about ourselves than what was genetically a passive, docile, tame-able (we call it “breaking”) grazer?

Equestrian Statues

Salah ud Din al Ayubi, Damascus

The horse has a complex and varied curriculum vitae. For six millennia, it has been our dependable beast of burden, the bearer of people, packages and progress, shrinking distance and opening up new lands. But it has also been the agent of power, politics and pogroms. A bearer of great ideas, and also of great tyrants.

The horse has long been a living metaphor of power – the absolute political metaphor, indeed.

“The combination of horse and rider is a powerful symbol of domination, and one of the oldest in the book”. The caudillo, the martial “man on horseback” so beloved of painters and sculptors – and of putative dictators (although Stalin and Hitler, Raulff reminds us, despised horses). There’s Alexander the Great on Bucephalus, defeating Darius; David’s conquering Napoleon crossing the Alps; bodacious Boudicca reining in her chariot steeds on The Embankment. To be physically and violently unhorsed is to be taken down literally and figuratively. Hence Richard III’s anguished “my kingdom for a horse”, and George Armstrong Custer and the men of the Seventh Cavalry demountd and doomed on Last Stand Hill.

The rise of the horse changes the position of the people and along with it, their view of the world around them – what Raulff calls the ‘cavalier perspective’. It is rooted in an age-old fantasy of the fusion of man and beast, from centaur to chevalier. The unfortunate Aztecs believed the mounted conquistadors to be half man half beast. That dismissive rebuke “get off your high horse” echoes a primal fear of the mounted marauder, be he the Scythian archer, the Mongol warrior, the rogue knight or the Red Indian (“savage” he was called back in the day) of the Great Plains. Recall the Cossacks lining up on the snow-covered square, about to charge the defenseless marchers in David Lean’s Dr Zhivago. Recall the Dothraki, screaming their war cries, thundering down on the doomed Lannister infantry. “We still see traces of horses’ archaic role as inspirers of terror when required to intimidate picketing workers or to drive rallies of protesters out of shopping precincts”.

Something wicked this way comes – Clive Owen’s Slav King Arthur

During his travels, Raulff visited Israel, where he chanced to observe ultra-orthodox Jews protesting against their youth being conscripted into the Israeli Defense Force. Jerusalem authorities mobilized mounted police officers against the recalcitrant religious. He indulges in pogrom projection, imagining the Haredim being intimated by a Cossack Shtetl flashback. Fanciful, perhaps, but as a young man during the Vietnam demonstrations in London’s Grosvenor Square, I learned that there’s no greater killer of revolutionary passion than the sight of than a wall of fat horse’s arses backing towards you with those nervous hooves a’twitching.

And yet, the use of the horse in this manner forces it to go against its nature, trained to stand its ground in dangerous circumstances when all its instincts are to flee danger. Ostensible police brutality in Grosvenor Square was juxtaposed by the reality that police horses were stabbed by banners and tripped and stoned with glass marbles. Several were so injured that they had to be euthanized.

Horse meets Haredim in Jerusalem

…and meanwhile, in the other side of town

 The Wide Open Spaces

The power bestowed upon men by horses is much more than such authoritarian, martial muscle. The horse enabled landsmen to conquer what Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey called “the tyranny of distance”. For Rudyard Kipling’s “fluttered folk and wild”, it ushered in a tyranny of a malevolent kind.

The horse-led conquests of European and Asian empires during the second millennium BCE by the chariots and later, cavalry of the horse-people disgorging from the steppes like some equestrian blitzkrieg, transformed world history. They brought their political structures, their warfare, their masculine, spiritual character – their “asabiyyeh” or, literally “muscle” as famed Arab historian Ibn Khaldun put it. The Eurasian nomadic warrior, “that ‘natural born’ combatant, who, as tough and austere as his resilient horse, emerged as the terror of the sedentary populations of Europe and the orient”. The same could be said of the warriors of Islam as they erupted out of their Arabian heartland and reached the walls of Constantinople and the frontiers of the Franks.

One powerful factor in these invasions was the horsemen’s speed. “In every contemporary account of the Mongols, great stress is laid on their speed: suddenly they were there, only to vanish and appear somewhere else even more suddenly”. The alliance between man, horse, and the arrow was likewise significant, providing the ability to kill from a distance, whilst moving, on horseback.

“Thanks to the horse, distant territories could be conquered and vast dominions could be established. The horse and its rider made the land they traversed tangible, recognizable, and able to be taken”. The horse became indispensable in terms of control of the land, subduing its inhabitants, and enabling Its exploration. In America, it brought the conquistadors, and in time, ensured that The West was won with catastrophic consequences for the native Americans with the loss their land and hunting grounds .

A Day at the Races

Our pact with the horse was much more up more than the power and the glory, the conquest and the trail-blazing. Horses’ fleetness, stamina and beauty satisfied other, more hedonistic yearnings, and today, their days on the field of battle long over, they serve to give us pleasure – and profit.

And they have always done thus – particularly in the antecedents and descendants of the Ancient Greek hippodrome (named thus for horses and the racing thereof). In the downtime between warring and raiding, hunting and horse and chariot racing attracted many a warrior’s energy and enthusiasm, and provided  less martial spectators with, vicarious thrills. We have been racing horses for as long as they have been our companions, and wagering on their speed and stamina. This passion fostered complementary endeavours in breeding, training, thieving, and gambling.

The racing carnival still exerts an atavistic, ofttimes addictive spell over riders, owners and punters alike. “The spectacle of race day echoes times and indeed conflicts past, the jockeys’ bright colours, representing a return of heraldry, a way of distinguishing otherwise indiscernible participants”.

It’s there you’ll see the jockeys and they’re mounted out so stately,
The pink, the blue, the orange and green, the emblem of our nation,
When the bell was rung for starting, all the horses seemed impatient,
I thought they never stood on ground their speed was so amazing
Galway Races (Ireland, traditional)

In horse racing, nothing and no one is hunted, only the shadows of time”, Raulff notes prosaicly.

American author EC Morgan is similarly lyrical: “Time is a horse you never have to whip”,

In That Howling Infinite recently published a review of Morgan’s masterwork The Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about an old Kentucky horse-breeding family. She displays an unerring instinct for metaphor and music. A horse’s neck shudders under its rider’s hands “like a dreaming dog”. Of the racehorses, she writes: “they exploded out of the gate like doves from a cote”; and, “now the school of horses swung round the turn as if caught in a sweep net”.

Raulff explains why horse racing was indeed ‘the sport of kings: Britain emerged as the world power of thoroughbred racing under the racIng-mad Stuart Kings who transformed the sleepy village of Newmarket into the Mecca of the turf, supplanting hunting with punting as the favourite pastime of the idle rich and the indolent upper classes. When Scots King James wasn’t corralling and coaxing the best minds in the land into producing his beautiful Bible, he was both patron and participant with a keen eye for quality horse-flesh.

Teenage Daydream

Did I mention that horses can be dangerous? They are large, high, broad, heavy, and for all their tameness in the hands of a seasoned rider, they can also be excitable, unpredictable, and wild.  When you take up the reins, you literally put your life in your hands. In My Early Life , his biography of his cavalry days, Winston Churchill wrote: “No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle. Young men have often been ruined by owning horses, or through backing horses, but never through riding them, unless, of course, they break their necks, which, taken at a gallop, is a very good way to die”.

But danger can come in other guises.

There was probably no way a cultural scientist trained in sociology and psychology could or would avoid how in its variegated pedigree, the horse has also figured as a sexual metaphor, conjuring up thoughts erotic with images of fair maids carried away by amorous riders. Raulff’s copious images include those famous abduction scenes beloved of renaissance painters, but there are many encounters in literature, art, cinema and song that are much less violent. It is as if the rider’s skill with his mount presages his prowess in the sack. There is titillation, there is temptation, and perhaps, surrender. Picture Ross Poldark cantering broodily across the Cornish clifftop, and lifting his Demelza up onto Seamus’ back (that is indeed his name).

True you ride the finest horse I’ve ever seen,
Standing sixteen one or two with eyes wild and green,
And you ride the horse so well, hands light to the touch.
I could never go with you no matter how I wanted to.
Jimmy McCarthy, Ride On (listen to the song at the end end of this post)

Ross Poldark and Seamus

Ulrich gets into his stride, so to speak, when he commits to print his daydreams of the object of many a teenage baby boomers’ longing, the androgynous, pony-tailed cow-girl. He ponders also the puzzle of pubescent girls and horses – that tom-boy world, temporary “islands in the flowing river of time”: “Somewhere between a doll and a real-life partner, the horse is the ultimate sex toy. It’s the largest, most beautiful and final plaything before the transition from home and family to a new relationship with a sexual partner”.

Arwen Evenstar

Having raised the subject of women on horseback, there no ignoring the Amazons. Legend says that they were adept horse-women. As are the heroines of the literary canon who express their subversive sexuality in equestrian interludes – Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene. Each are subjected to the author’s affectionate attention. When JRR Tolkien wanted to present a strong and wilful heroine in his ostensibly homoerotic epic, he placed Éowyn on a horse, albeit incognito. But she was the exception to JRR’s macho rule. He would never have sent elf princess Arwen Evenstar out like that. But director Peter Jackson, sensing how well it would translate to film, substituted the luminous Liv Tyler for elf lord Glorfindel to confound the Nazgul riders at the ford of Bruinen.  Here is a Carey Mulligan in glamorous array as Bathsheba:

The Unequal Bargain

There are wealth of emotions associated with horses, such as pride and admiration, a desire for power, fear and joy, compassion, and companionship, and a lust for freedom. The pony is the cowboys’ closest pal. Western star and crooner Roy Rogers described it best:

Who carries your burden, who carries your load
On tumbleweed land or a long dusty road
Who asks you no questions, who tells you no lies
That four legged friend with the two honest eyes
A four legged friend, a four legged friend
He’ll never let you down
He’s honest and faithful right up to the end
That wonderful four legged friend
Roy Rogers, A Four Legged Friend (listen to the song at the end end of this post)

Over two millennia  we have lavished depthless emotion, boundless affection and unlimited treasure upon horses. But we have also been capable of great cruelty both casual and calculated,  – from willful neglect and senseless whipping to silent sacrifice as expendable extras on battlefields and motion picture sets. Raulff documents in prose and picture the violence inflicted upon our “four legged friend”, and also how pathos and sympathy for the horses’ plight evolved into a worldwide movement for the prevention of cruelty to all creatures great and small.

That very same Banjo Paterson who gave us the Snowy Mountain man’s famous ride also glorifying the race track – and yet the annual Melbourne Cup,  Australia’s ‘race that stops a nation’, sees horses killed every year. we as a nation continue to praise and perpetuate what many see as animal cruelty. In Paterson’s day, horses were valuable and relied upon for transport and pleasure – theft was common – yet they were treated appallingly. Read The Man From Snowy River and reflect on the agony the hero inflicts upon his mount, which could barely move by the end of the ride and ‘was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur’. Yet Banjo, like apologists for the deaths on the track today – suggests that the horse was reveling in the chase.

But  horses’ iconic place in our hearts and souls are sealed by their status as mobile metaphors of speed, of grace, of the wind in one’s hair, of wild, exhilarating, uninhibited freedom: “Run wild, run free”, like the troubled teen and the wild blue-eyed white colt in the 1969 British film of that name.

And it is with this in mind that Raulff concludes his epic ride, for it  is one of the most poignant paradoxes that the idea of freedom and movement associated with horses and being on horseback, the image of the wild mustangs in The Misfits and Banjo Paterson’s Colt from Old Regret, is juxtaposed with the reality that this “creature of the wind”, as the Arabs described him, has surrendered her freedom and free will in the service of man.

Quoting the poet Albrecht Schaefer, Raulff tells of how “the horse knows that it would like to be free … but the burden is never ending, and it is rarely allowed to run and has to stand there even when it is frightened and when it is seized by the urge to return to its nature, to flee … It is trapped in eternal captivity, always overshadowed by an inescapable will to which it resigns itself without ever realizing”.

This magnificent animal, Raulff  writes, “held in perpetual captivity, is seen by us as the epitome of all in nature that embodies nobility and magnanimity, stature, pride, and courage”.

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare


 Epilogue

The Troubled Trail – an equine parable 

When the white man came into the new world, he brought his horses. He conquered the land and broke it – its ecology, its  pre-Colombian history, and its people.

In the early years, the horses of the conquistadors humbled and harried the Native Americans. In time, many horses scattered and ran wild, and on the open prairie grasslands, they prospered and multiplied. The free people of the plains captured and tamed those feral mustangs, and so mounted, were better able to travel over great distances to fresh pastures and to the wide grazing grounds of the vast herds of buffalo, a rich source of food and fashion.

The horse gave the Native Americans mobility and speed, and an economic asset of value. They began trading horses with their neighbours, and also horse stealing, whilst their mounts gave them the edge in their territorial vendettas with neighbouring tribes. They bought steel axes and knives From the white traders who ventured into their lands from the east, and also, firearms which augmented their already effective mounted archery. This gave them a tactical edge when they first came up against the mounted soldiers of the US Army.

They were a formidable foe, their speed and maneuverability and their skill with bow and rifle, were more than a match for the clumsy, old-school heavy cavalry, and these, indeed, were compelled to adjust their own style and tactics to match their guerrilla adversaries, taking up light weapons – carbines and revolvers – and fighting on foot as circumstances dictated.

The irony of the Battle of Little Big Horn is that George Armstrong Custer and his men rode on to a battlefield in which they were out-horsed, outgunned, and outmaneuvered by their numerically stronger foe. But the US Army exacted a terrible revenge for Little Big Horn. The days of the Plains Indian were numbered as the army and the hunters destroyed the buffalo herds that fed and clothed the tribes, and killed their horses, ending forever their wandering ways. As Neil Young was later to sing in Pocahontas:

They killed us in our tepee
And they cut our women down
They might have left some babies
Cryin’ on the ground
But the firesticks and the wagons come
And the night falls on the setting sun

Frederic Remington’s Braves


The Ballad of the Absent Mare

Leonard Cohen 

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray
But the river’s in flood
And the roads are awash
And the bridges break up
In the panic of loss.

And there’s nothing to follow
There’s nowhere to go
She’s gone like the summer
Gone like the snow
And the crickets are breaking
His heart with their song
As the day caves in
And the night is all wrong

Did he dream, was it she
Who went galloping past
And bent down the fern
Broke open the grass
And printed the mud with
The iron and the gold
That he nailed to her feet
When he was the lord

And although she goes grazing
A minute away
He tracks her all night
He tracks her all day
Oh blind to her presence
Except to compare
His injury here
With her punishment there

Then at home on a branch
In the highest tree
A songbird sings out
So suddenly
Ah the sun is warm
And the soft winds ride
On the willow trees
By the river side

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky

And she comes to his hand
But she’s not really tame
She longs to be lost
He longs for the same
And she’ll bolt and she’ll plunge
Through the first open pass
To roll and to feed
In the sweet mountain grass

Or she’ll make a break
For the high plateau
Where there’s nothing above
And there’s nothing below
And it’s time for the burden
It’s time for the whip
Will she walk through the flame
Can he shoot from the hip

So he binds himself
To the galloping mare
And she binds herself
To the rider there
And there is no space
But there’s left and right
And there is no time
But there’s day and night

And he leans on her neck
And he whispers low
“Whither thou goest
I will go”
And they turn as one
And they head for the plain
No need for the whip
Ah, no need for the rein

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair

But my darling says
“Leonard, just let it go by
That old silhouette
On the great western sky”
So I pick out a tune
And they move right along
And they’re gone like the smoke
And they’re gone like this song

 

Grosvenor Square, London 1968

Poll Tax Riots, London 1990

Grosvenor Square 1968

That was the year that was

Reviewing 2017, I am reminded of Game of Thrones‘ Mance Rayder’s valedictory: “I wish you good fortune in the wars to come”.

On the international and the domestic front, it appeared as if we were condemned to an infernal and exasperating ‘Groundhog Day’.

Last November, we welcomed Donald Trump to the White House with bated breath and gritted teeth, and his first year as POTUS did not disappoint. From race-relations to healthcare to tax reform to The Middle East, South Asia and North Korea, we view his bizarro administration with a mix of amusement and trepidation. Rhetorical questions just keep coming. Will the Donald be impeached? Are we heading for World War 3? How will declining America make itself “great again” in a multipolar world set to be dominated by Russia Redux and resurgent China. Against the advice of his security gurus, and every apparently sane and sensible government on the globe (including China and Russia, but not King Bibi of Iz), his Trumpfulness recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Jerusalem. Sure, we all know that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel – but we are not supposed to shout it out loud in case it unleashed all manner of mayhem on the easily irritated Muslim street. Hopefully, as with many of Trump’s isolationist initiatives, like climate change, trade, and Iran, less immoderate nations will take no notice and carry on regardless. The year closes in, and so does the Mueller Commission’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the last presidential election and the Trumpistas’ connivance and complicity – yes, “complicit”, online Dictionary.com’s Word of the Year, introduced to us in her husky breathlessness by the gorgeous Scarlett Johansson in a spoof perfume ad that parodies Ivanka Trump’s merchandizing.

Britain continues to lumber towards the Brexit cliff, its unfortunate and ill-starred prime minister marked down as “dead girl walking”. Negotiations for the divorce settlement stutter on, gridlocked by the humongous cost, the fate of Europeans in Britain and Brits abroad, and the matter of the Irish border, which portends a return to “the troubles” – that quintessentially Irish term for the communal bloodletting that dominated the latter half of the last century. The May Government’s hamfistedness is such that at Year End, many pundits are saying that the public have forgotten the incompetence of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and predict that against all odds, his missus could soon be measuring up for curtains in Number Ten.

Beset by devilish twins of Trump and Brexit, a European Union written-off as a dysfunctional, divided bureaucratic juggernaut, appears to have found hidden reserves of unity and purpose, playing hardball with Britain, dismissing the claims of Catalonia and Kurdistan, rebuking an isolationist America, and seeing-off resurgent extreme right-wing parties that threaten to fracture it with their nationalist and anti-immigration agendas. Yet, whilst Marine Le Pen and Gert Wilders came up short in the French and Dutch elections, and centrists Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel hold the moderate middle, atavistic, autocratic and proto-fascist parties have risen to prominence and influence in formerly unfree Eastern Europe, driven by fear of a non-existent flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa (these are headed for the more pleasant economic climes of Germany, Britain and Scandinavia), and perhaps, their historically authoritarian DNA. Already confronted with the Russian ascendency in the east, and the prospects of the Ukrainian – Donetsk conflict firing up in the near future, the EU’s next big challenge is likely to be reacquainting itself with its original raisin d’etre – the European Project that sought to put an end to a century of European wars – and addressing the potential expulsion of parvenu, opportunistic member states who fail to uphold the union’s democratic values. As a hillbilly villain in that great series Justifed declaimed, “he who is not with is not with us”.

The frail, overcrowded boats still bob dangerously on Mediterranean and Aegean waters, and the hopeful of Africa and Asia die hopelessly and helplessly. Young people, from east and west Africa flee poverty, unemployment, and civil war, to wind up in Calais or in pop-up slave markets in free but failed Libya. In the Middle East the carnage continues. Da’ish might be finished on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, with the number of civilian casualties far exceeding that of dead jihadis. But its reach has extended to the streets of Western Europe – dominating headlines and filling social media with colourful profile pictures and “I am (insert latest outrage)” slogans. Meanwhile, tens, scores, hundreds die as bombs explode in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan, with no such outpourings of empathy – as if it’s all too much, too many, too far away.

Bad as 2017 and years prior were for this sad segment of our planet, next year will probably not be much better. The autocrats are firmly back in the saddle from anarchic Libya and repressed Egypt to Gulf monarchs and Iranian theocrats. There will be the wars of the ISIS succession as regional rivals compete with each other for dominance. Although it’s ship of state is taking in water, Saudi Arabia will continue its quixotic and perverse adventures in the Gulf and the Levant. At play in the fields of his Lord, VP Pence declared to US troops in December that victory was nigh, the Taliban and IS continue to make advances in poor, benighted Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Africa will continue to bleed, with ongoing wars across the Sahel, from West and Central Africa through to South Sudan,  ethnic tensions in the fragile nations of the Rift Valley, and further unrest in newly ‘liberated’ Zimbabwe as its people realize that the military coup is yet another case what The Who called “meet the old boss, same as the new boss”.

This Syrian mother and her child were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard.

In our Land Down Under, we endured the longest, most boring election campaign in living memory, and got more of the same: a lacklustre Tory government, and a depressingly dysfunctional and adversarial political system. Politicians of all parties, blinkered by short-termism, and devoid of vision, insist on fiddling whilst the antipodean Rome burns. All this only accentuates Australians’ disenchantment with their representatives, warps their perception of the value and values of “democracy”, and drives the frustrated, disgruntled, fearful and alienated towards the political extremes – and particularly the Right where ambitious but frustrated once, present and future Tory politicians aspire to greatness as big fishes in little ponds of omniphobia.

Conservative Christian politicians imposed upon us an expensive, unnecessary and bitterly divisive plebiscite on same-sex marriage which took forever. And yet, the non-compulsory vote produced a turnout much greater than the U.K. and US elections and the Brexit referendum, and in the end, over sixty percent of registered voters said Yes. Whilst constituencies with a high proportion of Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Chinese cleaved to the concept that marriage was only for man and women, the country, urban and rural, cities and states voted otherwise. The conservatives’ much-touted “silent majority” was not their “moral majority” after all. Our parliamentarians then insisted on dragging the whole sorry business out for a fortnight whilst they passed the legislation through both Houses of Parliament in an agonizingly ponderous pantomime of emotion, self-righteousness and grandstanding. The people might have spoken, but the pollies just had to have the last word. Thanks be to God they are all now off on their summer hols! And same-sex couples can marry in the eyes of God and the state from January 9th 2018.

Meanwhile, in our own rustic backyard, we are still “going up against chaos”, to quote Canadian songster Bruce Cockburn. For much of the year, as the last, we have been engaged in combat with the Forestry Corporation of New South Wales as it continues to lay waste to the state forest that surrounds us. As the year draws to a close, our adversary has withdrawn for the long, hot summer, but will return in 2018, and the struggle will continue – as it will throughout the state and indeed the nation as timber, coal and gas corporations, empowered by legislation, trash the common treasury with the assent of our many governments.

And finally, on a light note, a brief summary of what we were watching during the year. There were the latest seasons of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. The former was brilliant, and the latter left us wondering why we are still watching this tedious and messy “Lost in Zombieland”. Westworld was a delight with its fabulous locations and cinematography, a script that kept us backtracking to listen again to what was said and to keep up with its many ethical arcs and literary revenues. and a cavalcade of well cast, well-written and original characters. Westworld scored a post of its own on this blog – see below. The Hand Maid’s Tale wove a dystopian tale all the more rendered all the more harrowing by the dual reality that there are a lot of men in the world who would like to see women in servitude, and that our society has the technology to do it. To celebrate a triumphant return, our festive present to ourselves were tee-shirts proclaiming: “‘ave a merry f@#kin’ Christmas by order of the Peaky Blinders”.  And on Boxing Day, Peter Capaldi bade farewell as the twelfth and second-best Doctor Who (David Tennant bears the crown), and we said hello to the first female Doctor, with a brief but chirpy Yorkshire “Aw, brilliant!” sign-on from Jodie Whittaker.

Whilst in Sydney, we made two visits to the cinema (tow more than average) to enjoy the big-screen experience of the prequel to Ridley Scott’s Alien and the long-awaited sequel to our all-time favourite film Blade Runner. Sadly, the former, Alien: Covenant, was a disappointment, incoherent and poorly written.  The latter, whilst not as original, eye-catching and exhilarating as its parent, was nevertheless a cinematic masterpiece. It bombed at the box office, just like the original, but Blade Runner 2049 will doubtless become like it a cult classic.

This then was the backdrop to In That Howling Infinite’s 2017 – an electic collection covering politics, history, music, poetry, books, and dispatches from the Shire.

An abiding interest in the Middle East was reflected in several posts about Israel and Palestine, including republishing Rocky Road to Heavens Gate, a tale of Jerusalem’s famous Damascus Gate, and Castles Made of Sand, looking at the property boom taking place in the West Bank. Seeing Through the Eyes of the Other publishes a column by indomitable ninety-four year old Israeli writer and activist Uri Avnery, a reminder that the world looks different from the other side of the wire. The Hand That Signed the Paper examines the divisive legacy of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The View From a Balcony in Jerusalem reviews journalist John Lyons’ memoir of his posting in divided Jerusalem. There is a Oh, Jerusalem, song about the Jerusalem syndrome, a pathology that inflects many of the faithful who flock to the Holy City, and also a lighter note, New Israeli Matt Adler’s affectionate tribute to Yiddish – the language that won’t go away.

Sailing to Byzantium reviews Aussie Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire, a father and son road trip through Istanbul’s Byzantine past. Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion juxtaposes Khalil Gibran’s iconic poem against a politically dysfunctional, potentially dystopian present, whilst Red lines and red herrings and Syria’s enduring torment features a cogent article by commentator and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen.

On politics generally, we couldn’t get through the year without featuring Donald Trump. In The Ricochet of Trump’s Counterrevolution, Australian commentator Paul Kelly argues that to a certain degree, Donald Trump’s rise and rise was attributable to what he and other commentators and academics describe as a backlash in the wider electorate against identity and grievance politics. Then there is the reblog of New York author Joseph Suglia’s original comparison between Donald Trump’s White House and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But our particular favourite is Deep in the Heart of Texas, a review of an article in The New Yorker by Lawrence Wright. His piece is a cracker – a must-read for political junkies and all who are fascinated and frightened by the absurdities of recent US politics.

Our history posts reprised our old favourite, A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West, whilst we examined the nature of civil wars in A House Divided. Ottoman Redux poses a hypothetical; what if The Ottoman Empire has sided with Britain, France and Russia in World War I? In the wake of Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster movie, Deconstructing Dunkirk looked at the myths surrounding the famous evacuation. On the seventieth anniversary of the birth of India and Pakistan, we looked at this momentous first retreat from Empire with three posts: Freedom at Midnight (1) – the birth of India and Pakistan, Freedom at Midnight (2) – the legacy of partition, and Weighing the White Man’s Burden. Rewatching the excellent sci-fi drama Westworld – one of the televisual gems of 2017 –  we were excited to discover how the plays of William Shakespeare were treasured in the Wild West. This inspired our last post for the year: The Bard in the Badlands – Hell is empty and the devils are here, the title referencing a line from The Tempest.

Happy Birthday, Indiaekkent

Our continuing forest fight saw us return to Tolkien’s Tarkeeth, focusing this time around on fires that recalled Robert Plant’s lyrics in Ramble On: In the darkest depths of Mordor. The trial in Coffs Harbour of the Tarkeeth Three and the acquittal of two of our activists were chronicled on a series of interviews recorded by Bellingen’s Radio 2bbb, whilst other interviews were presented in The Tarkeeth Tapes. On a lighter note, we revisited our tribute to the wildlife on our rural retreat in the bucolic The Country Life.

And finally to lighter fare. There was Laugh Out Loud – The Funniest Books Ever. Poetry offerings included the reblog of Liverpudlian Gerry Cordon’s selection of poetry on the theme of “undefeated despair”: In the dark times, will there also be singing?; a fiftieth anniversary tribute to Liverpool poets Roger McGough, Adrian Henri and Brian Patten, Recalling the Mersey Poets; and musical settings to two of our poems, the aforementioned Oh, Jerusalem, and E Lucevan Le Stelle.

And there was music. Why we’ve never stopped loving the Beatles; the mystery behind The Strange Death of Sam Cooke; Otis Redding – an unfinished life, and The Shock of the Old – the Glory Days of Prog RockLegends, Bibles, Plagues presented Bob Dylan’s laureate lecture. We reprised Tales of Yankee Power – how the songs of Jackson Brown and Bruce Cockburn portrayed the consequences of US intervention in Latin America during the ‘eighties. And we took an enjoyable journey into the “Celtic Twilight” with the rousing old Jacobite song Mo Ghille Mear – a piece that was an absolute pleasure to write (and, with its accompanying videos, to watch and listen to). As a Christmas treat, we reblogged English music chronicler Thom Hickey’s lovely look at the old English carol The Holly and the Ivy, And finally, for the last post of this eventful year, we selected five christmas Songs to keep the cold winter away.

Enjoy the Choral Scholars of Dublin’s University College below. and here are Those were the years that were : read our past reviews here:  2016   2015 

In That Howling Infinite is now on FaceBook, as it its associate page HuldreFolk. Check them out.

And if you have ever wondered how this blog got its title, here is Why :In That Howling Infinite”?

See you in 2018.

 

 

The Bard in the Badlands – Hell is empty and the devils are here

What happens when the robots, androids, replicants, call them what you will, feel emotion and sentiment, establish relationships, and recall memories, like humans do? When the boss starts disrupting the storylines, the ‘droids go off-script, think their own thoughts, and live their own “lives”. And lo! bad things happen! Before you know it, robots start quoting the Bard of Avon.

Westworld addresses some disturbing concepts. The mechanical and moral arcs of Artificial Intelligence. The ethical implications of an escapist theme park where well-heeled guests indulge in gamer-like fantasies, some of which that would see them jailed in their mainstream, material lives – play poker in a saloon (and cheat), go with a whore (of either sex), ride out with a posse, witness or even participate in a gunfight – and rape and pillage through a simulacrum Wild West, killing and fucking whomever they liked.

And then there are the hosts, the oh-so-realistic (“are you one of them” is a question often asked by a fascinated and impressed guest) robots, androids, cyborgs, replicants – call them what you will depending on your favourite sci-if film – who play out pre-written, sometimes derivative, mostly anodyne, but often perverse storylines, with added code for improvisations to move the guests’ adventures along, and for prohibitions on the use of knives, axes and firearms, because management mandates that whist guests might get injured, by accident or for the thrill of it, none must get themselves killed.

.

The hosts are men, women, and children – cowboys and indians, bar-tenders and whores, soldiers and civilians, bandits and desperados. There cyber horses, cattle, dogs, wolves and snakes, even. They are the entertainers, the surrogates, the fantasy-toys, the extras in the guests’ real-time fables (and yet, you never a tourist raise a camera or a cell-phone on this unforgettable dream holiday).  And they are also the victims. Assaulted, bludgeoned, raped, massacred, and brought off-set for repair, maintenance, and software enhancements and updates designed to give the guests improved service. Periodically, their memories are erased, and new roles assigned, and they re-enter the vast, geographically and scenically amazing park with new clothes, new skills, and new storylines.

 Until one day…

Most people of a certain age in the western world may recall the violent finale of the 1971 film Westworld starring Yul Brynner as the violent and relentless Man in Black. And yes, this is where Westworld Redux is taking us.

What happens when these robots, androids, replicants, call them what you will, feel emotion, and sentiment, establish relationships , and recall memories, like humans do? When they succumb to thatvold Pinochio syndrome. When the boss, played by that redoubtable chameleon Anthony Hopkins, starts disrupting the storylines, the ‘droids go off-script, think their own thoughts, and live their own “lives”. And lo! bad things happen. Before you know it, robots start quoting the Bard of Avon:

By most mechanical and dirty hand. Rouse up revenge from ebon den…  Henry IV Part 1

These violent delights have violent ends.  Romeo and Juliet

I shall have such revenges on you. The things I will do, what they are, yet I know not. But they will be the terrors of the earth”.  King Lear

When we are born, we cry that we are come. To this great stage of fools. King Lear

For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come. Hamlet

Hell is empty, and all the devils are here!  The Tempest

I am bound, upon a wheel of fire, that my own tears do scald like molten lead. King Lear

Daniel Pollack-Pelzner writes in Slate Magazine:

“Westworld suggests that once these replicants, who yearn like some feral Pinocchio to be real boys and girls start quoting Shakespeare, they can break free from their oppressors’ sadistic games. But Shakespeare’s lines aren’t the antidote to Wild West exploitation. They supplied the script for manifest destiny”.

He continues:

“What these portentous allusions don’t seem to register, however, is the actual role that Shakespeare played in the American West…(Settlers) performed Shakespeare from Missouri to San Francisco in the Wild Frontier. Gold-miners queued up to land a plum part in favorites like the bloodthirsty Macbeth or Richard III. “Traveling through America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” An army scout in Wyoming traded a yoke of oxen for an edition of Shakespeare; mines named Cordelia, Ophelia, and Desdemona dotted the Colorado mountains. More recent evocations of this period link the Bard to territorial conquest…When the United States prepared to defend the newly annexed state of Texas from Mexico in 1846, Ulysses S. Grant was cast as Desdemona in an army production of Othello in Corpus Christi”.

Daniel’s source for this is an enthralling, very well-researched article in The Smithsonian by American author Jennifer Lee Carrell, which I reproduce in full below. Resident in Tucson Arizona, and a teacher and historical author by trade, she is well placed geographically and well-credentialed academically to tell the tale of How the Bard Won the West.

Westworld references not just Shakespeare, by the way. There are literary, music and art motifs aplenty, and if this alternative universe seems at times to resemble a frontier Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, that is because it is meant to. One character quotes Alice verbatim: “Dear dear, how queer everything is today and yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night.” And another, the Mad Hatter: “If I had a world of my own everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t”. In Westworld’s vicarious and mechanical dreamland, things are constantly changing. Time Magazine has published a handy guide to Westworld’s many references.

Android Armistice

Westworld is not the first post-modern western to tread the boards, however.

Over a decade ago, there was David Milch’s Deadwood – in my opinion is one of the most enthralling and memorable of historical dramas. Set in the lawless west of the eighteen seventies, it ticks all the parental guidance boxes: substances, sex, strong language, and that ambivalent catch-all “adult themes”. As a bonus, the acting is superb, the characterization likewise, and the script, inspired and inspiring,  traversing from the sacred to the (very) profane. It borrows heavily from the raw vernacular and from language that channels Shakespeare, Milton and Melville.

Deadwood offers its myriad gamblers, pimps, whores, miners, cowboys, carpet baggers, and fortune seekers only the lowest forms of entertainment (not counting the inevitable bar-room piano (in Westworld, there is an automatic player-piano (of course).  Enter stage east,  Brian Cox’s flamboyantly eloquent Jack Langrishe and his disparate troupe of travelling players, seeking both financial opportunity and a chance to bring art and culture to the barbarians. He converts an old schoolhouse recently refurbished as a boutique brothel into a theatre, and opens it with a surreal and surprising amateur night, a come-all-ye music hall that that brings out many of the lights that the townsfolk have been hiding under their bushels. Its an all-singing, all-dancing jamboree with jugglers, plate-spinners, axe-balancers, and an a dance of the several veils. Keeping faiith with Carrell’s thesis, Jack Langrishe is based on an actual Deadwood historical theatre owner and comic.

Milch claims in an interview for American Heritage, The  Man Who Made Deadwood, that profanity functioned as a kind of social equalizer, a way for people from all walks of life to communicate with one another. “Many of them might have been illiterate, but they knew the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and that’s what shaped the way they thought and the way they expressed themselves.” Regardless of whether they were familiar with the works of Shakespeare, it is telling that Milch brings up the influence since almost every review of Deadwood compares it to Shakespeare.

Read and enjoy Carrell’s intriguing piece. Watch and be captivated by Westworld and Deadwood. And see also:  Brogan Morris’ Deadwood’s Critique of the Rich and Powerful Matters Even More in 2016, and Ethan Tussey’s piece of the language of Deadwood in Critical Commons, and Deadwwod – An Introduction in Unaffiliated Critic.

See other posts on American history from In That Howling Infinite: Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana and Rebel Yell.


 

How the Bard  Won the West

By Jennifer Lee Carrell, Smithsonian, August, 1998

Sometime late in 1863, a tall, thin man rode out of an Army camp in the Wyoming territory and headed across the prairie. He was just under 60 years old, one of the greatest scouts and Indian fighters, a man from whom Kit Carson took orders. It was the wild places that Jim Bridger liked best; following strange tales into the unknown, he was probably the first white man to see the Great Salt Lake. At that moment, however, he was headed toward people, not away from them. Not too far off, the Oregon Trail snaked westward across the landscape. Traffic had dwindled by 1863, but this trail still ranked as a highway by the standards of men such as Bridger; you could hardly follow its hard-packed earth so much as a day without running across somebody. That was exactly why Bridger was headed there.

He was looking to do some trading. What he had to offer was a yoke of cattle, then worth about $125, or almost a month of his wages as an Army scout. What Bridger wanted, and what he thought he could get from a wagon train, was a book. And not just any book, but the book that an Army officer had told him was the best ever written. He wanted Shakespeare.

Bridger’s quest might sound unlikely, but all over the American West trappers, cowboys, miners, outlaws, proper ladies, prostitutes and Army officers regarded Shakespeare with a familiar ease and delight that might astonish the average American in the late 20th century. The history of the West, in fact, is a history of playing Shakespeare, of playing with Shakespeare, in what now may seem peculiar places and surprising ways.

The Oregon Trail

Bridger, for instance, got what he wanted: someone, going west in wagons that could hold only the most necessary and precious possessions, had brought along a volume of Shakespeare. Out on the prairie, that someone judged the book not quite so precious as a yoke of cattle. For the additional sum of $40 per month, Bridger hired a German boy to read his new book to him. For though he could speak English, French, Spanish and a dozen Indian languages, and though he could draw, freehand, highly accurate maps of the West, Bridger could not read.

He could listen, however, and listen he did. Bridger was already well known as a storyteller. Because he sometimes embellished the already extraordinary natural marvels of the West, and because writers and others made up wild tales and attributed them to him, he also had a growing though undeserved reputation as a liar. That winter, however, he added to his repertoire: from then on he could quote Shakespeare at length. The prospect of an old mountain man spouting Shakespeare now seems more fantastic than the same man spinning tales about salt lakes, glass mountains and hot- and cold-running rivers. Nonetheless, Bridger came to know Shakespeare’s cadences of speech so well that his own speech could slide through the poet’s rhythms, especially the insults. One of Bridger’s tricks was to insert his own oaths into Shakespeare, so that his audience did not know where the playwright stopped and the mountain man began.

In search of the places that Bridger and others once took Shakespeare, I find myself heading off the main roads, and then off-road altogether. Up in Colorado’s Gunnison County, I wind north through a wide valley filled with quaking aspen and tall trumpet flowers. Passing beneath the mountain whose sky-hungry spires gave the town of Gothic its name, the road bounces up over a pass and creeps into a darker forest of pine and spruce. This is country that in summer is still best covered on horseback.

But I am horseless, so when I give up on the car, I set off on foot. For somewhere up here, say century-old documents that briefly sound more like The Hobbit than legal records, “at the foot of the Treasure Mountain” there lies a mine called Shakespeare.

Treasure Mountain, Colorado

It was not a spectacularly rich mine, but it was respectable. Two years after it was located in 1879, the last of its original owners, John Blewett, sold out for $30,000. Blewett may have revered the Bard, but he didn’t spend all his free time reading. Having sold his rights to the mine, he promptly made his way down to Gothic and won a shooting contest.

The name is scattered all over the West: “Shakespeare” names a town and a canyon in New Mexico, a mountaintop in Nevada, a reservoir in Texas and a glacier in Alaska. But it was the miners who most often staked Shakespeare to the earth. Nineteenth-century claims called Shakespeare dotted the landscape of Colorado and spilled over into Utah. The mines that still scar Western mountains now seem a curious honorific for a great poet. Yet, Shakespeare takes his place among heroes and sweethearts.

In their quest for distinctive names, the miners delved into the Bard’s stories. Colorado sports mines called Ophelia, Cordelia and Desdemona. There is even a “Timon of Athens,” revealing that some prospectors dug into remote corners of Shakespeare as well as remote corners of North America, because Timon is one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays. It is a fitting name for a mine, though, because the play’s hero — a mad, bankrupt misanthrope — accidentally discovers “yellow, glittering, precious gold” while digging in the forest for roots.

I did not, in the end, find the valley where modern survey maps and ancient mining records suggest the remains of Blewett’s mine lie. Far to the south, however, I did find an entire town called Shakespeare. By 1879, Ralston, New Mexico, was short on respectability, having been the site of a diamond-mine hoax that had produced a bank failure, a suicide and substantial losses for investors. In April of that year, therefore, Col. William G. Boyle renamed the town Shakespeare. He already owned the Stratford Hotel, and Main Street was familiarly known as Avon Avenue; soon after, Boyle organized the Shakespeare Gold and Silver Mining and Milling Company. The townsmen joined the trend, organizing the Shakespeare Guards to defend the place against Apache raids.

Shakespeare was more than a name to miners, however. During the gold rush, playgoing had a prominent place among the drinking, gambling and carrying on that was the miners’ usual relief from hard and dangerous work. From Colorado to California, theaters that played Shakespeare more than any other playwright perched just across the street, or sometimes right upstairs, from the saloons and gambling halls that were sometimes brothels as well. All over the West, towns built elaborate gilt-and-plush theaters grandiosely called opera houses. A few of these jewel-box theaters still survive in former boomtowns such as Nevada City, California; Tombstone, Arizona; and Aspen, Central City, and Leadville, Colorado. When theaters weren’t available people gathered in saloons, hotel hallways or even tents to watch actors play on stages made of packing boxes or boards laid across billiard tables and lit by kerosene lanterns; in Calaveras County, California, actors performed on the stump of a giant redwood.

The greatest actors from the Eastern Seaboard played to packed houses on these stages. Edwin Booth (elder brother of John Wilkes Booth) played his first Shakespearean leads on the magnificent and makeshift stages of California.

From left to right: John Wilkes, Edwin, and their father Junius Brutus Booth in Julius Caesar, 1864

That this caliber of actor regularly appeared in such venues might have been for adventure’s sake, but it was also partly because there was fame and wealth to be found among the miners. In the 1850s, top actors could earn up to $3,000 a week in San Francisco; the best theaters in the East were offering only a tenth as much. But it was up in the boisterous camps that the actors struck gold. In places with names like Rattlesnake, Rough and Ready, Git-up-and-Git and Hangtown, theater tickets were bought with gold dust, and cheering miners tossed nuggets and bags of gold dust onto the stage at curtain call.

The first people to carry Shakespeare into the West were trappers, who threaded their way into the Rockies along the rivers on their quest for beaver. Mountain men were legendary for gathering around campfires to tell bear stories both hair-raising and hilarious. According to the recollections of trappers Joe Meek and Bill Hamilton, however, though they might indeed be swapping bear stories, they might just as well be sharing a little Shakespeare. Or they might even be doing both: after all, the Bard’s most infamous stage direction, from The Winter’s Tale, is “Exit pursued by a bear.”

Alfred Jacob Miller, Moonlight — Camp Scene, 1858-60, Watercolor on paper
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

On the frontier, Shakespeare was not “Art” to be adored in silent, solitary reading; Shakespeare was a set of stories to be told aloud, language to be tasted, toyed with, tossed about over a campfire. Bridger is a case in point: after he bought his precious book, it never seems to have occurred to him to learn to read. What he wanted from the book was specifically what was in it. Like Bridger, other Westerners might get their Shakespeare out of books, but in books they did not let him stay. The 19th century was an age of oral storytelling and public speaking; if Shakespeare was taught at all, it was taught as oratory and recitation — then parts of the most basic schooling. Since Shakespeare was seen and heard more than read, no one needed much, if any, formal education to have at least a passing acquaintance with the works. Montana rancher Philip Ashton Rollins said that many ranch owners brought Shakespeare west with them. It was not unusual to see “a bunch of cowboys sitting on their spurs listening with absolute silence and concentration while somebody read aloud.” Further, Shakespeare was popular because of the poetry, not in spite of it. After listening to the blood and thunder “dogs of war” speech in Julius Caesar, one top hand told Rollins, “Gosh! That fellow Shakespeare could sure spill the real stuff. He’s the only poet I ever seen what was fed on raw meat.”

Roundup Camp, Wyoming, 1880s

Among Westerners, the most popular Shakespearean plays were the tragedies and epic histories, with Richard IIIHamletOthelloMacbeth and Romeo and Juliet heading the list. Westerners, however, were not silenced into tongue-tied awe by high tragedy. Like Bridger — who was once heard to say that Falstaff (or “Mr. Full-stuff”) liked beer a little too much for his own good and might have been better off with bourbon — cowboys, outlaws, miners and trappers embraced Shakespeare. They brought it to life, retelling it in a mix of remembered poetry and the teller’s own salty language.

Along with the enthusiasm came irreverence. It was common in 19th-century American theater to follow the main play, no matter how profound, with a comic song, a dance, and finally a farce in which the principal actors often reappeared. In Denver in 1859, a troupe followed Richard III with a polka and a farce called Luck in a Name; in San Francisco, King Lear was once followed by a dancing horse named Adonis. Sometimes the kind of mischief that led Bridger to alter Shakespeare’s oaths took over the stage completely. Audiences loved farces with titles like Hamlet and Egglet and Julius Sneezer, and burlesque Shakespeare was popular minstrel fare.

Westerners also delighted in creative casting. In Army camps, all-male performances were not uncommon. In Texas on the eve of the Mexican War, Lieut. Ulysses S. Grant was drafted into the role of Desdemona because he supposedly looked the part. Before opening night, however, his superiors had to send off to New Orleans for a real woman, because Grant failed to show “the proper sentiment.” Great actresses playing Shakespearean heroes in serious productions were ticket-selling curiosities. The women’s success led to the brief vogue of having little girls play the major tragic roles; thus did Anna Maria Quinn, age 6, play Hamlet to a mostly adult male audience at San Francisco’s Metropolitan Theatre in 1854. In Deer Lodge, Montana, on the other hand, miners and cowboys were treated to the spectacle of an actress playing Juliet with an imitation Romeo: a “blockhead in every respect” reported one witness delighted by the wooden dummy outfitted with wig and red cambric gown, and even more by the parodic performance that followed.

Because Shakespeare — as story or poetry or theater — was shared by so many people, it became a kind of imaginative meeting place. The readings organized by Bridger, for example, brought together an illiterate mountain man, a German boy and the well-educated Army officer who had first recommended the Bard. In the theater, there was no assumption that Shakespeare should be delivered in the plummy tones of the British upper class; audiences flocked to hear their favorite actors play Shakespeare in English heavily laden with German, Polish, French and Italian accents in addition to regional British, American and Australian inflections.

For all the intensity of their love affair with Shakespeare, Westerners had no monopoly on it. In 1849, what is still one of the bloodiest riots in American history broke out in New York City — over styles of acting Shakespeare. A vigorous style was said to be democratic and American while more cerebral acting was said to be aristocratic and English. Enraged by a supposedly elitist performance of Macbeth, a crowd of 10,000 surged outside the Astor Place Opera House (Smithsonian, October 1985). When the mob turned from hurling insults to hurling paving stones, the New York militia opened fire, shooting directly into the crowd at least 22 people died and 150 others were wounded.

The Astor Place Riot, New York City, 1849

As the frontier straggled westward, the differences that had chafed in crowded New York were stretched out across the continent; Westerners favored flamboyant acting while disdaining polished elegance as snobbish and Eastern. Less than a year after the Astor Place Riot, Shakespeare arrived along with the forty-niners in the California goldfields, and by 1856, the Californians, too, were brawling over Shakespeare. In the West, though, it was not politics but the combination of characters acting badly and actors acting badly that provoked riots.

At a Sacramento performance of Richard III, the audience began to get restive in the face of Richard’s mounting evil and the actor’s obvious incompetence. When at last Richard stabbed one of his victims in the back, the audience began tossing any and all handy garbage onto the stage: bags of flour and soot, old vegetables, a dead goose. At the request of the stage manager, the audience allowed Richard to reappear, but when he placed his sword in the hands of Lady Anne during the wooing scene, “one half the house, at least, asked that [the sword] might be plunged in his body,” the Sacramento Unionreported. The actor was finally driven from the stage by a “well directed pumpkin… with still truer aim, a potato relieved him of his cap, which was left upon the field of glory, among the cabbages.”

In their noisy displays of pleasure and displeasure, Western audiences preserved and even heightened an exuberant tradition of theatergoing dating back to the Elizabethan audiences that Shakespeare knew. They expected to enter into the spirit of play, and the same enthusiasm that could produce showers of either rotten vegetables or gold dust also provoked, at less frenzied moments, stamping, cheering, whistling and hooting, as well as quips and running commentary on the play, the players and the production.

This freewheeling audience participation had once been common all over America, but in the late 19th century Shakespearean theater was fast becoming an elite and stately affair in the East and in Europe. Western audiences preserved longer their right to play during the play. Appearing as Othello in 1886, Tommaso Salvini was so disturbed by the laughter and popping of champagne corks coming from “Silver King” Horace Tabor’s personal box in Denver’s Tabor Grand Opera House that he sent a note up during intermission threatening to stop the play if things in Box A did not quiet down. “My theater is a playhouse as much for the audience as for the actors,” Tabor reportedly bellowed back. “If that Eyetalian wants to pray,” Tabor fumed, “let him go to church.”

The Tabor Grand Opera House, Denver, Colorado. Photo by J. Collier

Nonetheless, changing attitudes eventually traveled westward; Lawrence Levine of George Mason University, in Fairfax, Virginia, has speculated that Shakespeare’s fall from popularity in America was caused by large-scale shifts in ideas about what is entertainment and what is art. When Shakespeare stopped being story and began to be art, it began to seem distant; when accuracy became more important than entertainment, it became boring; and when the language of Shakespeare ceased to be commonly heard aloud, it began to seem difficult. Beyond doubt, however, changing attitudes toward Shakespeare have resulted in what now looks like a paradox: Shakespeare’s popularity in the American West dwindled as the West was settled and ceased to be wild.

Shakespeare has not, however, disappeared from the West without a trace: it still shapes the myth of what we think the West was, or ought to have been. The novel that established the genre of the western, Owen Wister’s The Virginian (published in 1902), features an aloof hero who is a dead shot and a deeply honorable man. He is also prone to quoting Shakespeare; the poet’s lyricism captivates him. “The singing masons building roofs of gold,” he says at one point, quoting from King Henry V. “Ain’t that a fine description of bees a-workin’?…Puts ’em right before yu’, and is poetry without bein’ foolish.” Following the novelists, Hollywood, too, has borrowed from Shakespeare in shaping our idea of the West that was. The film Broken Lance (1954), for instance, tells King Lear in the guise of a western, while Jubal (1956) reshapes Othello.

 

Today up in Leadville, you can, as I did, climb onto the stage of the Tabor Opera House and stand in front of the painted scenery that once backed Romeo and Juliet. Facing the plush seats that curve toward you, you can let your voice roll out into the hushed and waiting darkness on the cadences of Shakespeare. In the ghost town of Shakespeare, you can, as I did, duck out of the New Mexico sun into the shade of the Stratford Hotel’s long narrow dining room, where the desert wind will send the fine silt of crumbling adobe drifting over your skin and through your hair; there you can listen to the stories that the town’s present owners, Janaloo Hill and Manny Hough, have spent a lifetime collecting from old-timers.

The Stratford Hotel in Shakespeare, New Mexico. Photo by Jennifer Lee Carrell

Yet Shakespeare is more than a ghost in the West. After the Bard ceased to be part of their everyday life, Westerners began to pioneer the Shakespeare festival. Every summer tourists descend upon the towns of Ashland, Oregon, and Cedar City, Utah, to gorge themselves on Shakespeare brilliantly brought to life in faux Elizabethan theaters set down among the forests of the Pacific Northwest and the red rock canyons of the Southwest. Scattered over the West as well are productions aimed more at local audiences, such as the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder and the Grand Canyon Shakespeare Festival in Flagstaff, Arizona. In Boulder, you can spend a summer’s evening picnicking on a wide lawn and then wander into a Greek-style amphitheater hewn out of local red stone. As the sky deepens to sapphire edged by the strange, stark shapes of the Flatiron Mountains that loom behind the set, you can be swept away to some far country on the tide of Shakespeare, sharing the laughter of a thousand Coloradans as Beatrice baits Benedick, or shivering with the hiss of indrawn breath as Romeo forever drinks poison a scant moment to early to see that Juliet still breathes.

Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Boulder

But here, as I listen to the crowds dispersing downhill through the trees, the laughter and the sorrow are tinged with surprise: that Shakespeare is here, that it is so good, that they have enjoyed it so much. In the frontier West, the fact that Shakespeare tells good stories, and that those stories should be told well in the West, was no surprise at all — at least not to Westerners. From Jim Bridger, to the forty-niners, to the cowboys, the old wanderers would hardly recognize anything in the modern cities that rise on the plains and mountains, strung out like glittering beads along the Interstate freeways. Yet they might recognize and be glad of one thing on such a summer night: Shakespeare still plays well under Western skies.

© 1998 by Jennifer Lee Carrell
All Rights Reserved

Originally published in the Smithsonian, vol. 29, number 5 (August, 1998): 98-107.

Back Story and Further Reading

Image of Shakespeare in a cowboy hat courtesy of Northwest University Drama, Seattle