Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Stage 5

Sorry to keep harping on Titus, but he just seems to keep popping up, so I'm going to give him the floor to kick off this week's discussion of The Sopranos:

A better head her glorious body fits
Than his that shakes for age and feebleness.
(T.A., 1.1.190-191)

Mafia dons, both the real ones and the much more interesting fictional ones, have long liked to link themselves with their Roman ancestors, none more so than History Channel fan Tony Soprano, who once used the reign of Augustus to attempt to tutor Uncle Junior on being a benevolent dictator. And as The Sopranos winds down, it appears that Tony and his colleagues are learning the lesson of their fictional ancestor Titus.

In declining to be named Emperor, Titus argues that he is an old man, soon to die, which would only lead to them having to find a new emperor sooner rather than later. He is man that has achieved success through brute force and physical strength. He has survived 40 years on the battle field seeing many younger men, including his 21 sons, fall, and that has added up to . . .what? His physical strength is rapidly dissipating, his body is betraying him, he is too old to be emperor. What is waiting for him at the end of the road? If the play has a redeeming quality, it is this affecting portrayal of a man out of time, who only knows one thing and can't do it anymore, who is a stranger in the land in the fought to protect, in many ways more of an foreigner than his Goth prisoners.

It is a drama modern sports fans are intimately familiar with. Like the ancient epics and mythologies handed down over generations of oral storytelling, sports deals in similar master narratives retold for every generation with new actors in the lead roles. One of our favorites is the star past his prime who refuses to hang it up. It is superb tragicomic tale. Elite pro athletes are made up of two things: a natural athletic ability combined with an unhealthy competitive streak. From puberty (at the latest), their entire existence revolves around perfecting a very specific skills and using it to destroy their competitors. Then, in their late-30s, just as their peers in almost every other profession are just starting to hit their professional stride, that natural athletic ability starts to disappear, though the competitive streak is still there. So they hang around until they have been embarrassed by younger versions of themselves enough times that they finally are forced to give up the only thing they have ever know how to do. And they are only 40, with close to half their life left to live. Like Titus, their fortune is made by their bodies, which then betray them.

Which brings us to Tony and his pals. Let's take a look at the last three episodes, going back to last season's finale:

"Kaisha": Phil Leotardo, acting boss of the New York family and Tony's chief rival, suffers a heart attack and has quadruple bypass surgery.

"Soprano Home Movies": Tony, boss of the New Jersey family, celebrates his 47th birthday and gets his ass kicked by his creampuff, model-railroading brother-in-law Bobby, and spends the rest of the episode lamenting his lost manhood and worrying that Carmella will no longer be attracted to him.

"Stage 5": Johnny Sack, currently-incarcerated boss of the New York family, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and dead by episode's end. At the beginning of the episode, he is told that it is Stage 4 lung cancer, and fills in the blank himself "And there's no stage 5, is there?" Later, Phil, still recovering from his heart surgery, tells Tony he does not want to be boss: "Being a boss is young man's game."

Tony, Phil and Johnny Sack, the three most powerful men on the show in terms of mob hierarchy, are all being betrayed by their bodies. A mob boss's power is not embued by sovereignty or rule of law, but physical strength. However, having spent possibly all of that strength getting to the top, they no longer have the strength to hold on to it.

All of this takes us back to show's first season. Forty-something acting boss Jackie Aprile dies of cancer, creating an opening at the top. Mob bosses, like Roman emperors, always have trouble with succession because it is neither strictly heritary or strictly meritocratic. In this case, the captains want Tony, but Uncle Junior thinks the title is rightfully his. Tony creates a compromise by giving Junior the title, but running things behind his back. Junior, like Titus, has fought his way to the top, only to be too old to rule once he got there. Tony is now facing the same problem.

A quick off-topic note: Radio Open Source, a public radio show from Boston, excerpted my "Batshit Crazy" post on their website in conjunction with an episode entitled "Entertaining Violence", dedicated to a Boston of production of Titus. It is a great listen, and very relevant in light of the Virginia Tech incident on Monday.

Speaking of Virginia Tech, I feel like I should say something in light of Monday's comments on Grindhouse and Paglia's Mozart/Jack the Ripper comparison, and I will eventually, but I just don't think I can right now.

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