Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sopranos Watch: The Wild Ducks at Coole

All the attention to the end of The Sopranos may seem extreme, or ridiculous, or both. But I like to think of it as an updating of the crowds who waited on the dock in Victorian New York to get the next installment of The Old Curiosity Shop.

I bet our Victorian antecedents merrily explicated plot points and compared intricate ending scenarios while waiting for the bowlines to be secured and the cargo to come ashore, and who are we to think of ourselves as above those good people?

So as I straighten my corset, and with a nod to the genius of Dickens—who first demonstrated the power of the serialized narrative---I must now state: CHASE SAYS THE IRISH RULE!

Thomas Cahill wrote a book called How the Irish Saved Civilization—and it’s not a punchline. (It traces the work of the Irish monks, who wrote down history while Europe was being sacked and burned.) Now to that we must add How the Irish Saved The Sopranos.

Yeats, the Anglo-Irish mystic uber nationalist, arguably the preeminent poet of the 20th century, seems to be the blueprint to the end of the HBO tale of an Italian-American Mafia family. Chase invited Yeats into his fictional world with the episode called "The Second Coming," with all its explicit and implicit reference to the poem. But the Yeats/Chase thing may be much bigger than that, even beyond the lovely assonance of their names.

A gloss about the poet from the BBC site:

"William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin of Protestant parents. Separated by his background from the Roman Catholic majority and rejecting the materialist values of the dominant Protestant minority, Yeats turned from the beginning to pagan Ireland for his inspiration. He was also interested in esoteric mysticism, founding a society in Dublin to study Hinduism and Asian religions."

One side of the whole Chase/Sopranos phenomenon that I find interesting is the question of ethnic identity. I come from a Long Island town where the Italian/Irish thing was very strong. The Italians were the Gambinos, Joey Buttafuco, and everyone in the Knights of Columbus—the Irish were the Baldwin Brothers, Peggy Noonan, and everyone in the Holy Name Society. There were spirited tribal attachments on both sides—a sense of belonging, and a self definition by “not the other.”

Chase’s given name is DeCesare, or DelCesare, a very ethnic name. And yet his Wikipedia entry said he was raised in a Baptist family (well, it used to say that—it’s been deleted. Hmm). That’s an interesting background. Like Yeats the Protestant in the Catholic Republic, Chase was in a Baptist household in a Catholic Jersey town, with at least cultural Catholic heritage somewhere in his family. These fuzzy lines can leave a longing to be part of a well-defined group. It can also give insight to what it feels like to reject a closely or narrowly defined world, and seek the freeing power of the mystic. Tony, it seems, is a creative product of both reactions.

I don't know if Chase was unduly influenced by Yeats through the years, outside of the recent specific episode. But you can find some interesting Yeats/Chase universe overlaps:

The Sopranos begins with those blessed ducks in Tony’s pool. The ur source for that is Yeats’s “Wild Swans at Coole Park,” Lady Gregory’s estate.

“I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
. . . .
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold . . . .Their hearts have not grown old

"No Second Troy"
“Why should I blame her that she filled my days/with misery, or that she would of late/Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways
. . . .
Why, what could she have done, being what she is? Was there another Troy for her to burn?

Livia. Enough said.

"Easter, 1916"
"This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart.
. . . .
He too, has been changed in his turn
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born."

There is no beauty in Tony. But he was transformed, utterly, beyond general vainglorious lout when he became a killer for life.

On the lighter side:

Words for Music Perhaps:

Crazy Jane and the Bishop
Crazy Jane Reproved
Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman

I have always wondered if Springsteen’s "Spirits in the Night" lyric was an echo of this Yeats series, especially since Yeats actually wrote : Words for Music

“Crazy Janey and her mission man were back in the alley tradin' hands
`long came Wild Billy with his friend G-man all duded up for Saturday night”

It would be beautifully fitting if this song is in one of the last episodes. Personally, I think that a Springsteen song should be in the finale.

Finally, in the montage for the last two episodes, there is a quick shot of A.J, and it looks like he’s in a marsh land, on his back, either in pain, or dead.

"The Stolen Child"
"Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.
. . . .
Away with us he's going,
The solemn-eyed:
He'll hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
from a world more full of weeping than you can understand."

The poem is about the mythical side of Irish folklore, which played upon the imagination that there were faeries who would steal children. But it could be about any child taken away.

Chase’s readers will be out on the dock until June 3, waiting for the next installment. It is funny to think that we are wondering if Tony dies just as our great grandmothers worried about Little Nell. Of course, we have our modern Oscar Wilde and Chestertons on the subject as well.

Cross-posted at newcritics.


Kathleen said...

Oh, thank you for Yeats. Tony Soprano? Never heard of him. But "The Stolen Child" is so heartbreaking and beautiful I can't believe I hadn't seen it before now. A.J. is one of the many poets I haven't read yet. Have you noticed this?
More people speak of "change-lings" every day.