The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: “Meal Ticket” (2018)

“Cold, Hard Facts, But No Newspaper Nor Legend”

One of the most cited moments in John Ford’s revisionist Western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962) occurs near the end: Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) completes his confession to the town’s newspaper editor. A lawyer turned U.S. Senator, Ranse has risen to power through a lie: everyone thinks it is he who killed the barbarian, ironically named Liberty Valence (Lee Marvin), when in fact it was the true Westerner, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne).

After he hears the full story, the newspaperman decides to bury the truth: “This is the West, sir… When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Ford’s film demonstrates that civilization is built atop a repressed barbarity. Earlier in the film, Ranse’s girlfriend Hallie starts a school. Tom’s African-American manservant, Pompey (Woody Strode) attends class. Hallie has Pompey recite the foundational texts of American democracy. When he stumbles upon the line, “all men are created equal,” Hallie assists him. In a powerful moment of irony, Pompey apologizes that he cannot remember that part. Of course, the point is that he shouldn’t remember, because the racist American 19th century has refused to make it true.

While not particularly interested in racial justice, Ranse does earnestly want to bring civilization to the American West. Early in the film, as he travels to the dusty frontier town to bring the rule of law, the evil Liberty Valence robs him, beats him, and rips apart his law books.

Because Hallie then falls in love with Ranse, the man who loves her, Tom gives her a secret gift: he shoots Valence just as the evil gunslinger is about to kill Ranse. Tom then plummets into the dustbin of history, having sacrificed his own happiness with Hallie for her sake.

The couple—Hallie with her school, and Ranse with his law books—forge the territory into a State in which the rule of law orders civilization. As Ranse and Hallie leave the town after Tom’s funeral, steaming on a train eastward back to Washington, D.C., Hallie observes that he has brought civilization to the wilderness. Ranse knows that it is not he, but Tom who has done so, ironically rising to trump Valence’s barbarity with his own.

A conductor tells Ranse that they will transport him as fast as they can back to the nation’s capital: “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valence.” Ranse gazes down at his feet, emasculated, unwilling to threaten civilization—not only statehood, but also Hallie’s love for him—by telling the truth.

Ford’s elegant interrogation of the ironic need for barbarity to forge civilization out of the Western frontier’s barrenness pales in comparison to the bitterness of Joel and Ethan Coen’s short film, “Meal Ticket,” part of their stunning post-revisionist Western, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The six stories that comprise the film are, taken as a whole, a complex and fascinating engagement with the films of John Ford.

The opening film, with the eponymous title, features a deconstruction of the singing cowboy as hero. While John Ford never directed a Roy Rogers or Gene Autry film, the Coen Brothers begin theirs with an extreme long shot of Monument Valley, the iconic setting of Ford’s Westerns, most importantly, The Searchers (1956). Like the schoolroom scene of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, “Meal Ticket” chooses to examine the relationship between civilization, learned culture, and the barbarity that constantly threatens to destroy them.

The final film of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs consists of a stagecoach ride to the underworld, a vicious desiccation of Ford’s pre-revisionist Western, Stagecoach (1939), in which a microcosm of America within the conveyance travels across the American soutwest, having to brutally repel an Indian attack in order to get to a dusty town, an early outpost which will eventually allow civilization to stabilize the Old West.

In the Coen Brothers’ ironic film, there is no Indian attack, and the stagecoach has no Old West through which to traverse: the revived characters from Ford’s Stagecoach are all already doomed to oblivion even as their story begins.

Situated in the middle of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, “Meal Ticket” is a startling film because, unlike The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, it does not sideline a study of civilization in the Old West, but instead renders it central.

The film has virtually no plot: an unnamed villain (Liam Neeson) has imprisoned Harrison (Harry Melling), a man with no arms and legs, making a living off of having the captive young man recite passages from the Old Testament, William Shakespeare, British Romantic poetry, and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln.

The villain markets his captive as “the wingless thrush.” An avian conceit dominates the thematic structure of the film: the songbird is eventually replaced by a chicken, the former who soars in performance but cannot fly in the real world, the latter who is too dumb to do either.

Figure #1: The villain advertises his performer, Harrison as “the wingless thrush”

Every night in a new frontier town, the villain sets up his wagon as a sparse stage on which Harrison sits as if on a pedestal. Early in the film, enough people come to the show allowing the villain to eke out a living. By the end, the icy winds of the brutal winter drown out the orator’s performances, and very few people come to the nightly show anymore. To make ends meet, the villain buys a sideshow act, a chicken who can purportedly do math.

Figure #2: The villain converts his wagon into a make-shift stage in “Meal Ticket”

Having found a new meal ticket, the villain drives his wagon to a precipice overlooking a raging river. The villain tosses a heavy rock off of the cliff to gauge the situation. As the film ends, the villain drives his wagon toward his next meal, the caged fowl having replaced the songbird who could not fly. This bleak ending grotesquely perverts that of the first film in the omnibus, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in which the evil gunslinger ascends to Heaven with wings, singing a jaunty tune. We presume Harrison falls like a stone into the icy waters, to join Tom Doniphon in oblivion.

Figure #3: The villain arrives at the cliff where he will dispose of his “wingless thrush,” replacing him with a chicken

“Meal Ticket” is built out of snippets from Harrison’s nightly literary performances. It is among the most literate Westerns ever made, interrogating in far more complex ways than do the films of John Ford, the incompatibility of civilization and the American West. The representation of literary performance in “Meal Ticket” is one of the great new contributions to the genre of the American film Western as has been produced since the great revisionist projects of the Hollywood Renaissance period (1969’s The Wild Bunch, 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, etc.).

This largely untold cinematic story of Shakespeare in the American West strikes at the heart not only of the barbarity of the frontier, but the contemporary distortion of the work of William Shakespeare. The Bard’s work is ripped out of its original early 17th century context as popular entertainment, now forced into a deadened form of high culture. The joy of encountering the work on a stage is murdered off by the forcing of students in school to read Shakespeare because it is purportedly good for them.

In his book, Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe, Andrew Dickson examines the status and performance of Shakespeare in the 19th Century American West. In an online article summarizing that work, “West Side Story: How Shakespeare Stormed America’s Frontier,” Dickson quotes the primary source of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French scholar who wrote most eloquently about the 19th Century United States, whose observations came from his ability to see the country from an outsider’s point-of-view. De Tocqueville states, “There is scarcely a pioneer’s hut… where one does not encounter some odd volumes of Shakespeare.”

In traveling wagons such as the one featured in “Meal Ticket,” Shakespeare came to the Old West in an often rickety fashion. The Bard’s words were “performed on the stump of a giant redwood tree,” Dickson continues, “[by] gutsy, tight-knit groups of actors [who] roamed the mining camps on what became known as the ‘gold circuit’.” It is here that the Coens stage their most radical adaptational project, even more complex than O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), their beautiful reconstruction of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, forced into the American context in the Depression era.

According to Ashley Thorndike, “No other writer [than Shakespeare] was so quickly assimilated into the wilderness.” Dickson asserts that Shakespeare was the most performed playwright on the 19th century frontier.” This differs substantially from the eastern part of the United States, the location of most of the population of the nation, where George Aiken’s theatrical version of Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) was the most performed play in America. While both cultural traditions address the threat barbarity poses for civilization, the British playwright found more traction in the American West than did Stowe’s Abolitionism.

The Shakespeare of late 16th and early 17th century England, almost equally a place of barbarism, found traction in the American West because his portrait of lawless murderers wielding power over Europe would have made complete sense to people living on a frontier in which the rule of law was easily trumped by unfettered violence.

Figure #4: A large audience attends Harrison’s performance at the beginning of “Meal Ticket”

Dickson claims, “The most popular play in the 19th century American West was Richard III.” In that play, a murderer of children takes political control over England. Shakespeare develops the brutal irony that Richard is by far his most interesting, and relatable character. However, the structure of the play is such that we come to revel in Richard finally getting his comeuppance. An equine as helpful as in the vast American wasteland of the frontier territories, Richard’s reign of terror fails because he cannot get a horse to fight his way to escape.

The joy in the grotesque nature of Richard III is a Shakespeare that the 20th century American educational system has beaten out of the Bard, turning him into a high cultural celebration of the best that civilization has to offer. Dickson explains how that process had not yet begun in the American West: “Whereas on the east coast and back in Britain, Shakespeare was increasingly regarded as the purview of the snobbish middle classes, in the west there seemed to be little sense that he was anything other than popular entertainment.”

By foregrounding Harrison’s recitations of The Merchant of Venice (1605), The Tempest (1611), and two of Shakespeare’s love sonnets (1609), the Coen Brothers remind us that Shakespeare’s original status as popular culture, for rich and poor people who both attended the Globe Theater, persisted in the New World, still a mythical land when Shakespeare wrote his last play about a magician who lives in Bermuda.

As American Studies scholar Leo Marx argues in The Machine in the Garden, The Tempest was the first text of American literature: Shakespeare wrote the play in the wake of trans-Atlantic adventurers returning from the 1607 Jamestown colony. The reports offered a contradiction, but one that precisely expresses the civilization versus nature conflict of the American Western: some of the returning British found the new land a garden of Eden, while others described it as Hell on Earth.

“Meal Ticket” is an American film Western about literary history that has virtually no precedents. One literary exception is Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), which features a vicious American parody of Hamlet and Macbeth. To place “Meal Ticket” in the same orbit as Twain’s brutal analysis of the failure of American civilization testifies to the power of the Coen Brothers’ new film.

The grand irony is that, little does Huck know that when he lights out for the territory at the end of Twain’s novel, he will not discover freedom. Instead, what lies in wait for the little scamp are beasts who enslave their brothers, discarding them over cliffs when the public’s taste for entertainment shifts from the recitation of poetry to fowl who, via charlatanry, feign computational skill. For America, the chickens have come home to roost: crass entertainments in the guise of superhero movies push the sophisticated analysis of literature in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs off of the cliff, into the rushing waters that is the chaos of Netflix.

Figure #5: Through charlatanry, hucksters present a chicken doing math in “Meal Ticket”

In his performances, Harrison orates the following texts: British Romantic poet Percy Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias” (1818), the story of Cain and Abel from the Book of Genesis in The Holy Bible, Shakespeare’s 29th and 30th sonnets, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863), and the two Shakespeare plays, The Merchant of Venice and The Tempest.

The show begins with Harrison’s oration of the entirety of Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias.” The poem begins: “I met a traveler from an antique land, / Who said—Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert. . . .” While we cannot trust what the villain tells us–he says that he found Harrison on the streets of London and took him in as an act of kindness–we can attend to the linkages between Harrison’s orations and his predicament. We have no sense that the villain is literate, in fact he rarely speaks. I am left to conclude that Harrison sings of his liberation through the only medium he is given, the ramshackle stage that the villain provides only so that he may eat.

Shelley’s poem is a meditation on the unearthing of a statue of Pharaoh Ramses II, stolen from its resting place in a tomb by a colonial army in Egypt, brought back to Britain as the spoils of war, through the colonial conquest of the Third World. In Biblioteca Historica, the first century BCE Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus states that the lost inscription on the bottom of the statue was: “King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.” In his recitation of Shelley’s poem, Harrison does just that, celebrating the power of the human spirit to invoke civilization amidst the most horrendous of social circumstances.

Figure #6: The statue of Ramses II on display at the British museum, only the torso having survived the ravages of time

In the poem, Shelley reflects on the significance of the 1817 re-discovery of the sculpture. The statue of Ramses II is ripped out of his purportedly final resting place; his new home would become the British Museum in London as of 1821. The fate of Harrison recalls Ramses: both are ripped out of their homeland, their lives ended in swirling nature, of raging, icy water and blowing sand, respectively. Like Harrison, the statue of Ramses II is an incomplete depiction of the human form, consisting of “two vast and trunkless legs of stone.”

The Coens engineer a slippage between Shelley’s depiction of the Pharaoh and Harrison’s identity as a statue on the same sort of pedestal that Shelley describes. The delivery of the poem is a theatrical tour-de-force, matched by the Coens’ filming of our first encounter with Harrison’s work as an artist, reciting from memory the entirety of Shelley’s poem. The unveiling of the curtain revealing Harrison placed on the stool, as if an artwork on a pedestal, is shocking, but the aggressiveness with which Harrison lunges into the recitation of the poem leaves us little time to reflect upon our biases against people different from us.

Figure #7: The first revelation of Harrison on the stage in “Meal Ticket”

Harrison makes the poem his own with the excellence of his oratory skills, but for us, we track the strange relationship between Shelley’s meditation on an ancient Egyptian statue and the contemporary artist Harrison propped in front of us. Both Harrison and the Egyptian sculpture are about travelers: Harrison has been kidnapped from “the streets of London” (at least that’s what the villain says), forced by his captor to roam the American West. For its part, the statue of Ramses, a leader long since forgotten, is reborn as a captive, to be put on display in London for the “educated” to be confirmed in their superiority to the cultures which preceded them. Harrison suffers an inverted fate, ripped from London, forced to roam the American West under circumstances completely out of his control, still alive and fully aware of the abuse of his personhood.

The theme of Shelley’s poem is that even great men will die and be forgotten: “nothing beside remains / Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck.” Indeed, because of the ephemeral nature of Harrison’s art, the same is true of him. When the villain throws his torso off of the cliff, there is no record of his beautiful performances of the poetic words of Shelley and Shakespeare. Harrison’s final resting place is even more unstable than Ramses’: the rushing river into which the villain discards the living torso sculpture will lead the corpse to parts unknown downstream, and certainly not to a warm museum in Shakespeare’s London.

It is only the Coens who have the power to intervene. They do so not in the world of the narrative, but via the fictional book in which Harrison’s story is situated, nestled among the Coens’ other made-up reconstructions of the literature of the American West.

The color plate in front of the text of the story of “Meal Ticket” is deeply ironic. We see Harrison laying in state inside a coffin, a dignified burial he will never receive. The caption below the image reads, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” a quotation from Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice.

Figure #8: The color plate in the book at the beginning of “Meal Ticket”

The quotation itself is a reconstruction of The Holy Bible. Verse 32 of Deuteronomy states: “My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distill as they dew; as the small rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herd.” Literary scholar Harold Fisch calls this a “pastoral in reverse,” a formulation that might be equally apropos of the American Western as it is of the Bible. Industrialization would come to overrun the pristine nature of the actual American West, just as the Garden of Eden was ruined by the human desire to use knowledge to forge their own future via dirty technologies antithetical to glorious nature.

The context of the Shakespeare quotation is that Portia is in love with Bassanio. The woman, disguised as a lawyer, Balthasar, argues for the court to deny the villain Shylock’s quest to cut out a pound of flesh from Bassanio’s benefactor, Antonio. Through her mastery of both the poetic and the legal, Portia wins the case, arguing that Shylock can cut out the pound of flesh, but that the letter of the law states he has to do so by not spilling a drop of blood.

Within the world of “Meal Ticket,” the brutality of the mangling of the human body is merely implied. We have no idea what happened in the backstory such that Harrison was stripped of his arms and his legs. The citation of The Merchant of Venice points to the possibility that the villain of “Meal Ticket” is Shylock, who somehow was wronged by Harrison. After the villain has sex with a prostitute, she inquires whether Harrison has ever had any “lovin’.” “Once,” mutters the villain. Could it be that Harrison had sex with the villain’s wife, causing the enraged man to extract his pound of flesh in vengeance over the lifetime ahead of them?

It is no surprise that the dismemberment of human beings is part and parcel of the barbarity of the American West as depicted in the Coens’ “Meal Ticket.” In a world where the white clad singing cowboy, Buster Scruggs shoots off all five of a man’s fingers, it is just one more small step toward the extreme that results in some monster severing all of Harrison’s four limbs.

Not only through the lack of perambulation, but also through the power of vision, Harrison is denied the basic human dignity which he so poetically performs via the literary tradition. Before the villain has sex with the whore, he turns Harrison around, creating an image where we are able to look at both Harrison in the foreground and the fornicators in the background. As is true in virtually every other shot of him in the film. Harrison merely passively looks horrified, past the camera. Here, his oration of culture has no place, the beastly activities of his captor take place outside of his purview, in a location where to narrate would only result in more harm to his body.

Figure #9: Harrison and the villain at the whorehouse

This might explain the appearance of the Shakespearean sonnets (number 29 and 30) in Harrison’s recitations. In these so-called “Fair Youth” sonnets, Shakespeare’s persona within the poems laments his inability to fully connect to the love of a man who has been cruelly withheld from his life. All he can do is use his art to invoke the love that he feels.

Similarly, Harrison could be invoking his lost love (perhaps of the villain’s wife, but not necessarily). More allegorically, Harrison sings of the best of human civilization while on the stage, but when taken off his pedestal and returned to the cruel material world, he refuses to speak altogether. As in Shakespeare’s poetry, the fulfillment of love appears to be tantalizingly just beyond our reach.

Ironically, The Merchant of Venice reference also positions Harrison as a potential Shylock. In his famous speech against the anti-Semitism of Renaissance Europe, Shylock states, “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs…” The victim of dismemberment, Harrison endures a life of defenselessness. Just as Shylock is subjugated to the Christian power surrounding him, so too is Harrison at the mercy of the villain.

This slippage between the villain and Harrison is one of the most compelling aspects of “Meal Ticket.” Neither man speaks while alone together. Harrison celebrates the poetry of human civilization, but only in the parroted words of others while in the cradle of the safety of the stage. The villain only speaks when he is fulfilling his carnal desires with the prostitute, and reluctantly at that.

It is not at all clear who is the “meal ticket” in the Coens’ film. Harrison provides the labor which allows the two men to eat. However, the villain is the one who feeds Harrison, also holding him in his embrace to allow Harrison to urinate (and presumably defecate, the impropriety of which even the Coens cannot abide).

With the arrival of the chicken, Harrison is easily replaced not only by a performer, but an animal whose usual function is as a meal. The most grim possibility of what happened to Harrison’s arms and legs is that the villain, wandering the isolated, barren landscape of the snowy American West, severed the limbs and ate them, a future that most surely awaits the chicken after the end of the film.

Figure #10: The villain drives Harrison in his wagon through the wintry landscape of the American West at the beginning of “Meal Ticket”

The slippage between the chicken and Harrison creates grim resonances. Dissolving the animal-human boundary, which usually defines civilization (animals act on instinct, humans rise above such base instinctual urges to fulfill their needs), “Meal Ticket” in a shockingly cavalier way presents the villain’s replacement of Harrison with the chicken as a routine matter of course.

Figure #11: In the back of the villain’s wagon, the chicken looks at Harrison, but the man is not given the agency to look back at his avian replacement

This is an allegory for the difference between the art of civilization (the Coen’s film, Shelley’s and Shakespeare’s poetry, Lincoln’s elegant lamentation at the butchery zone that is Gettysburg) and the banalities of life (formulaic genre films which celebrate violence, very much the kind of films Hollywood makes, but the Coens do not). The story of Cain and Abel that Harrison invokes in his oration strikes closest to home in the conflict between Harrison and the villain, but it is the least interesting of the clues his speeches give to what he imagines his life to mean.

Figure #12: The villain cannot believe the crowd gathered around to see the chicken perform

In a film so devoid of words save those endless repetitions of the same speeches Harrison delivers on the stage, the Coens rely on the visual, particularly withholding Harrison’s point-of-view. When the villain purchases the chicken, Harrison knows something is amiss when he shares the back of the wagon with the bird. He must know that the villain does not need two birds, and that the “peckin’ Pythagorean” has replaced “the wingless thrush.” A camera position from the front of the wagon, where the villain is driving the horse, allows us to contemplate the horrific meaning of the arrival of the chicken. A cut to a close-up of Harrison allows us to share in his apprehension.

Figure #13: With eyes wide open, Harrison realizes the meaning of the chicken in the cage before him

As opposed to the visual conceit of the rest of the film, where we follow the villain’s actions in setting up the wagon, the passive unmoving camera merely observes Harrison on the stage. As with us rivted looking at Harrison perform on the stage, the film’s ending emphasizes the emotional impact of us gazing at Harrison looking. As the villain throws the rock off of the cliff, Harrison cranes his neck in horror. It is the last time we see him. As the story ends, the camera position which formerly revealed the back of Harrison’s head with the chicken next to him is now a shot just of the chicken, with Harrison’s body evacuated from the frame.

Figure #14: Harrison foresees his death

In shooting the film in this fashion, the Coens have rendered cinematic that which the fictional book within their film presents merely as words on a page. As the film begins, the story’s opening paragraph reads: “Aspen and pine lined the wagon’s route, indifferent spectators to the passage of Man. Or was it men? Lone driver sat the wagon’s backboard, but was there passenger within? Impossible to say…. If passenger there were he was content to ride in silence, peering perhaps out the back window, which was open.” Whereas the literary narrator cannot see into the wagon, the Coens force us to look inside with their camera. What we find there is as bleak as anything ever seen in an American Western.

Figure #15: Opening text of the short story, “Meal Ticket” within The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

After the villain has thrown Harrison off of the cliff, he walks back to his wagon with an evil grin on his face, finally having executed his full revenge for an unknown sin that Harrison must have committed against him. He has fulfilled his role as Cain in the Biblical story that Harrison earlier rendered in soliloquy with poetic passion.

Figure #16: The diabolical grin on the face of the murderous villain in “Meal Ticket”

Harrison’s lack of wings allow his murder, both because he cannot fly away from the villain in the first place, but more importantly because he cannot lift himself out of the canyon after he is tossed off of the cliff. Harrison only soars on the stage.

In the violent West of American barbarism, his passionate delivery of learned culture cannot take flight, despite a brief moment at the beginning of the film when people came to his show in significant numbers. “Meal Ticket” is about human devolution. As the crowd for Harrison diminishes, the barbarity increases. The transcendent thrush is replaced by another flightless bird, this one at least edible without the stain of cannibalism.

Figure #17: The crowd for Harrison’s transcendent orations of civilization’s great achievements has dwindled to unsustainable levels

Whereas Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence complexly yet affirmatively celebrates the mythology of the American West, the “Meal Ticket” story within The Ballad of Buster Scruggs refuses any such palliative. The Coens’ short film ends with an absence, Harrison’s artistry easily replaced by the economic promise of the “calculatin’ capon.”

The emptiness of the back of the villain’s cart is expressed by the same camera set-up that captured both the chicken and Harrison in the same shot earlier. All that remains at the end of the film is the chicken. What would otherwise be a hilarious comic callback to the prior shot becomes heartbreaking given the Coens’ earlier celebration of the talents of the thespian.

Figure #18 : A callback to a prior shot of the chicken and Harrison in the back of the villain’s cart reveals a structuring absence: all that is left in the world is the animalistic

The story Harrison tells of his imprisonment knowingly ends with Shakespeare’s and Prospero’s surrendering the power of the stage in The Tempest: “Our revels now are ended / These our actors as I foretold you / Were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air.” The mythology celebrated in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is forwarded by the newspaper printing press that exists even in the Old Western frontier town. However, no such material apparatus of redemption exists in “Meal Ticket.”

The villain is able to dismantle his stage in a few minutes, returning it to the mobility of a wagon that jots from one town to another, leaving no record behind. Shakespeare in the American West was even more ephemeral than the Bard could have predicted: “the great globe itself, / Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a rack behind.” Like the mythology of the American West, Shakespeare’s ephemeral stage pieces were preserved by the folios, and hundreds of years of repetitions of its theatrical contents.

In “Meal Ticket,” Harrison’s performances are reduced to nothing but fiction: the book which invokes his very existence is merely an invention of the Coens’ camera. He is no less a result of charlatanry as is the faux figuring fowl. In the Coens’ existentially pessimistic hands, Harrison’s oratory masterpieces prove no more meaningful than the chicken’s. A bird in Joel’s and Ethan’s hands is worth none in the sagebrush.

–Walter Metz

Works Cited

Dickson, Andrew. “West Side Story: How Shakespeare Stormed America’s Frontier.” The Guardian. April 15, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/apr/15/william-shakespeare-american-west-pioneers. Accessed: December 26, 2018.

—. Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys Around Shakespeare’s Globe. NY: Henry Holt, 2016.

Fisch, Harold. “The Song of Moses: Pastoral in Reverse.” Poetry with a Purpose: Biblical Poetics and Interpretation. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1990.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Idea in America. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000 [1964].

Shelley, Percy. “Ozymandias.” 1818. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46565/ozymandias. Accessed: December 26, 2018