Thursday, November 29, 2007

"Anything Goes": What Recording is the Top?

Doesn't this make you want to go on a transatlantic cruise in the 1930s--preferably with Cole Porter writing the music? Poster from lapl.org

Writing my 1934-play last weekend, I got struck by a mania to listen to Anything Goes, the year's hit musical. The lyrics of "You're the Top" alone provide enough mid-1930s topical references to transport me to the past. And songs like "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" and the title song are just great, great musical-comedy treasures. The other songs found in Anything Goes, though, can vary depending on which version of it you see. The show's Wikipedia article thoroughly explains the revisions that have been made over the eyars.

I couldn't find much information comparing different recordings of Anything Goes (that's why I'm writing this blog post) so I checked out two of them from my school library. One is the 1987 Broadway revival starring Patti LuPone, which featured a rewritten book and several interpolated songs, including Cole Porter favorites like "Friendship" and "It's De-Lovely." The other is the 1989 EMI studio recording, which bills itself as "The First Recording of the Original 1934 Version." Maybe it was produced in reaction to the 1987 revisions?

Like Ethel Merman, who originated the role of Reno Sweeney, Patti LuPone is a star performer with an instantly recognizable voice and personality. Her mannerisms are on full display here: a torchy, dark-hued voice; a slight sloppiness of phrasing and enunciation. But she definitely has Reno's diva-charisma. Kim Criswell, who plays Reno on the studio recording, is not as idiosyncratic. She has a bright, clear, powerful belt voice, which sounds higher and more exciting than LuPone's--and perhaps more Mermanesque. Yet she sings "I Get a Kick Out Of You" with a tenderness that Merman could never achieve.

Both of the actors who play hero Billy Crocker--Howard McGillin in 1987, Cris Groenendaal in 1989--sing very well. Advantage goes to McGillin for his dreamy near-falsetto at the climax of "All Through the Night" and "De-Lovely."

Opera star Frederica von Stade sings the role of ingénue Hope Harcourt on the studio recording. Perhaps her mezzo-soprano timbre is a little too warm and mature for 21-year-old Hope, but it's a lovely voice, and she generally avoids being too "operatic" with it. At any rate, she's much better than the Broadway Hope, Kathleen Mahony-Bennett, whose thin and breathy soprano is not pleasant to hear, and far too cutesy when she sings "De-Lovely."

Neither actor who plays the comic role of Moonface Martin is a very good singer. Bill McCutcheon (Broadway) mumbles and strains his voice; Jack Gilford (studio) barely has enough breath to get through his solo. (In fact, he died the next year.) However, you can tell that Gilford might once have had a pleasant voice; McCutcheon seems like he never did.

The "Ambrosian Chorus" take on choral duties in 1989, singing in a "square," classical style. This works for the sailors' hornpipe "There'll Always Be a Lady Fair" and the satiric hymn "Public Enemy No. 1," sung with the proper rhythmic and harmonic precision. The Broadway version tries to make these songs swing, which feels wrong. But for the rest, I prefer Broadway's more casual, jazzy chorus.

The 1987 version assigns solo songs to more characters than the 1934 version does. Gangster's moll Erma now gets to sing "Buddie, Beware" (instead of Reno)--and it makes more sense for this character, even if singer Linda Hart's voice is a little raspy. The even raspier Rex Everhardt, playing Elisha J. Whitney, sings a pointless few bars of "I Want to Row on the Crew." Hope's solo "The Gypsy in Me" gets reassigned to her fiancé Evelyn Oakleigh, becoming funnier in the process.

The studio recording's insistence on using all the original orchestrations, arrangements, and lyrics means that it can get a little monotonous. All seven verses of "You're the Top" are sparklingly witty, but since the orchestration doesn't vary enough with each verse, it's "as the French would say, de trop." The recording is so complete that it even includes three cut songs as an appendix: "There's No Cure Like Travel," (a nifty countermelody to the song "Bon Voyage"), "Kate the Great" (solo for Reno that Ethel Merman vetoed as too bawdy), and "Waltz Down the Aisle" (sung by Hope and Evelyn--melody later revised and recycled as "Wunderbar" from Kiss Me Kate).

The Broadway version cuts the more obscure or overkill lyrics, as well as some pointless songs like "Where Are the Men?", and fills out the recording with additional dance music. You really get a sense of how the big songs worked as production numbers. And the orchestrations are great--love the musical joke after Reno sings "the feet of Fred Astaire" in "You're the Top"!

For my main purpose--getting a sense of the world of 1934--the studio recording proved invaluable. I loved learning additional lyrics to the title song, which reference topical events like the Depression:
And that gent today
You gave a cent today
Once had several chateaux
When folks who still can ride in jitneys
Find out Vanderbilts and Whitneys
Lack baby clo'es
Anything goes.
But I can understand if modern audiences prefer the trimmed-down and more "Broadway" 1987 recording--even if it does have some pointless interpolations and bad singers. The studio cast is maybe slightly stronger...but Howard McGillin and Patti LuPone are great too. So, in the end, I'm not sure which recording is the best, if you could only buy one. Um...anything goes?

Links for your pleasure:This should tide you over for a while. I've got a very busy week ahead of me and doubt I'll blog much.
So my blog goes bust
For a week it must
Close shop
But if, baby, it's the bottom
You're the top!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Yearbook Photo is Forever

In the next week or so I have to select a photograph of myself for my college yearbook. I'm always interested in how people choose to immortalize themselves in photos--how they choose to be remembered--so I'm probably agonizing far too much about the matter.

You know, I want a photo that's something more than me mindlessly grinning at a camera--a portrait that captures my true facial expressions and personality. I want to stand out, but without looking too wacky--since I'm not "that wacky girl" in real life. I want my photo to be better than a cheap candid, but not so perfect that people will assume I'm a raging egomaniac. The background will have to be nice, but not obtrusive; the lighting and angles will have to be right; and it'll need to look good in black and white.

My favorite photo of any Vassar student, ever, is the famous one of Edna St. Vincent Millay, taken by Arnold Genthe. She poses with a magnolia tree, delicate and pensive and wood-nymphy. It is almost like a Japanese print:


Four years ago I had to go through this same shenanigans of choosing a photo for my high-school yearbook. My dad took a lot of pictures of me in a local garden, and while I doubt I was consciously thinking of this Millay photo, that's definitely the image I was going for. (In high school I romanticized melancholy. I thought all my smiles looked fake.) I ended up choosing one where I posed next to a white birch tree, looking fragile and wistful.

Four years later, I want something with a little more oomph--my mood now is more confident, striding toward my future with determination. So my photo needs to capture that feeling--and needs to work as an aesthetic object, but, as I said, it can't work too well, or people will start to call me pretentious. This is a situation where my perfectionistic tendencies plus my sense of aesthetics plus my respect for posterity--for printed images that will endure--combine to make something difficult when it should be easy.

Photo from Wikipedia.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Idyllic Childhoods and Rude Awakenings

Today in the New York Times Online, Kurt Campbell blogs about how the Republicans are now trying to impugn Bill Clinton by saying he treated his presidency like a "holiday from history," ignoring global problems in favor of a "Gatsby-like...fun-filled and frolicking interwar period." I found this article interesting and thought-provoking. Although I am a Democrat, I guess I too had thought of the 1990s as a "holiday from history." Campbell makes a good case for Clinton's real foreign policy achievements, but you have to admit that these are not as well publicized or as flashy as other events of the Clinton years.

Perhaps I can be excused for not knowing this about Clinton--I was a child, aged 5 to 13, during his presidency. And though all parents try to give their children a carefree childhood, I think that growing up in the 1990s was especially idyllic. I never had to worry about "the Commies." I never thought of America as having any real enemies, and if we got involved in a war, I was sure it would only be to help an innocent little country that was threatened by a nasty dictator (like Kuwait or Kosovo). I thought there would never be an attack on American soil, nor would America ever become the aggressor in a war. And though part of this is just childish naivete, I doubt I was the only person who felt this way. After all, the 1990s were the decade when people talked seriously about Francis Fukuyama's "End of History" theory.

I was 14, beginning my sophomore year of high school, on September 11. The external, foreign world came crashing into America and all I could think of was that old cliché "This is the first day of the rest of your life." And usually that's a positive, optimistic sentiment, but I saw it as something darker. I knew that the 1990s tranquility had vanished--for the rest of my life. And of course I was saddened and angry with the terrorists. But I have also felt increasingly betrayed by the Republican administration, whose policies make peace and tranquility even more a relic of a bygone age.

And now that I'm writing a play set in 1934, I can't help imagining that the girls I'm writing about experienced emotions similar to mine. They were born circa 1913, so the first five years of their lives were taken up by the "Great War," which probably frightened them, but they were too young to really understand it. Then, from the time they were 5 to the time they were 16, they experienced that "Gatsby-like interwar frivolity" that Campbell mentions. It was the Roaring Twenties, business boomed, the international community was basically at peace, it was just as idyllic as the 1990s were for me. But when they were about 16, the stock markets crashed, and the rest of their high school and college years were an attempt to find their way back to normalcy in an increasingly unstable world.

You can even draw further parallels, saying that in both cases, the crisis (9/11/01 or 10/29/29) occurred on a Tuesday in autumn, when the president (Bush or Hoover) hadn't even been in office for a year. This reinforces the sense that something had shifted: a new decade, a new president, a new era. Though of course, the people of the 1930s at least gained hope when they kicked Hoover out of office in 1932 and elected Roosevelt. Me, I've had to resign myself to spending my formative years, ages 13 to 21, under George Bush's presidency...and I couldn't even cast a symbolic vote against him in 2004.

Though my play is set in the past, I want it to be relevant to the present, so I'm trying to bring out this theme of an idyllic childhood suddenly shocked into brutal reality. I think my peers ought to relate. It's interesting to note that in the "Generations" theory of history, which sees things as cyclical, my generation (the Millenials) and the generation of the girls born in 1913 (the G.I or Greatest Generation) are categorized as belonging to the same point in the cycle. We are born during an Unraveling and come of age during a Crisis. Sounds pretty accurate to me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Portland Humor

Carrie Brownstein, Fred Armisen and the Portland skyline. Photo: thunderant.com

Most people on campus are going home for Thanksgiving but, since I'm from Portland, that's not exactly practical. So I'm missing Portland a little these days.

Thanks to the New York Times' Paper Cuts blog, then, for letting me know about ThunderAnt, the unlikely duo of Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney) and Fred Armisen (SNL), who are filming funny video sketches in Portland--three so far. They embody the city's laid-back, DIY attitude, too.

Paper Cuts highlighted the "Feminist Bookstore" sketch, which pokes fun at all the crazy aging feminists, neo-hippies, New Age healers, etc., that populate Portland. Those are genuine Portland advertising flyers that Fred and Carrie examine--absurd as they may appear!
I know the bookstore where they shot it, and though I'm an unabashed feminist and Portlander, I can take a good-natured mocking.

"This Is Nice" shows some Portland street scenes but is the least funny of the three.

"Boink!" is supposed to take place in Manhattan (though I suspect a Portland in-joke when Carrie's character says her last name is "Overton," one of our streets) but Fred gives a hilarious portrayal of Saddam Hussein as an aging British rock star.

I can't embed the videos in my blog, so I encourage you to go to ThunderAnt and watch them!

Am I a Jane Austen Heroine?

I had to write an essay on Northanger Abbey this weekend, and what better way to procrastinate than taking personality quizzes about 19th-century literature?


Which Classic Female Literary Character Are you?


You're Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen!
Take this quiz!

Love the cute line drawings that illustrate the results of this quiz. And I'm happy to get Elizabeth Bennet as a result--doesn't every girl want to be Lizzy?--though at the same time it's disappointing that this is the most common outcome, with 41% of users obtaining it. (And that's a little far-fetched--it's not like 41% of all the girls I know are Lizzies, but wouldn't it be nice if they were!) Also, if I'm honest with myself, the Austen heroine I most identify with is Elinor Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility: I'm not nearly vivacious and mischievous enough to be Lizzy. Elinor--responsible, principled, considerate, but hiding her deeper emotions--is much closer to the real me. But Elinor wasn't an option on this quiz, though several Austen heroines are, as well as other iconic ladies like Jane Eyre and Scarlett O'Hara.

But in this Austen-only quiz I get to be Elinor! (She's the second-most-common result.)




Which Jane Austen heroine are you?


You are Elinor Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility! You are sensible and possess great strength of understanding and coolness of judgement. Your affectionate heart feels deeply, however, you guard your emotions carefully, so that others might be ignorant of your feelings towards them.

Take this quiz!


I read all of Austen's novels the summer I turned 18, which IMO is the perfect age to do it, since most of her heroines are 16 to 21. And though I felt the greatest kinship to Elinor, I also identified with different aspects of nearly every heroine. Sometimes I'm naively unsure of how to behave in social situations, like Catherine Morland; sometimes I'm confident to the point of arrogance, like Emma Woodhouse. When I was younger, I considered myself a hopeless romantic, like Marianne Dashwood; I can still remember how that felt, but now I'm more of a wry Elizabeth Bennet. And though I don't really identify with Persuasion's Anne Elliot (maybe because she's significantly older than the other heroines), I still found her story involving and moving.

That leaves only one Austen heroine to whom I absolutely cannot relate--Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. Even in the early 1800s, readers had trouble with this character: Jane Austen's own mother called Fanny "insipid." And because our own era is even less patient with passive female characters, Fanny becomes increasingly hard to like.

What's funny is that on the surface, Fanny seems similar to Elinor Dashwood. Both are "good girls" who love and suffer deeply, but do not let the world see this. Quiet and introverted, they possess a strong moral code. However, their personality differences make it reasonable to like Elinor and dislike Fanny. Elinor is just introverted, but Fanny is timid. In social situations, she wants only to fade into the woodwork, she is so afraid of inconveniencing others or coming off as frivolous. (To those who say that Fanny's timidity is just a natural reaction toward relatives that belittle her, I direct you to Jane Eyre. That book proves that a woman in 19th-century literature can grow up a despised "poor relation" but retain her fighting spirit.)

Elinor will never be the life of the party either, but she enjoys intelligent conversation and low-key social situations. Her father dies when she is about 19 and it is up to Elinor to take responsibility for her mother and younger sisters. Yes, she's repressed: she keeps her emotions bottled up and, if she cries, she'll do it alone, in secret. But I'd rather be like that than like Fanny Price, who seems liable to burst into tears at the dinner table. I also can't imagine Fanny taking charge of anything, since she has so little self-confidence.

In short, I'd like to befriend Elinor--though she'd be hard to get to know, she'd make an intelligent, loyal and kind companion. But I don't believe I could ever befriend Fanny Price. I'd constantly have to encourage her to be more confident, plus I'd feel like she was judging me all the time. Then again, Fanny wouldn't want to be my friend either, since I wish to devote my life to the theatre--something she considers highly immoral!

Still, maybe I'm "protesting too much," as though I were afraid of what it would mean to identify with the timid and moralizing Fanny. Especially because a friend of mine saw The Jane Austen Book Club and said I reminded her of the character of "Prudie" (Emily Blunt), because I have bobbed hair and am apt to talk pretentiously about literature and French. Evidently each of the women in The Jane Austen Book Club parallels an Austen heroine and Prudie's analogue is Fanny Price. Oh dear.

P.S. Need a refresher course on Austen's female characters and their personalities? Try this funny and perceptive blog post about what jobs Jane Austen's heroines should have if they lived in the 21st century!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Men Who Read Too Much?


"Don Quixote in His Library" by Gustave Doré. Image from doreillustrations.com. (Click here to see it enlarged--the detail is amazing.)

I didn't expect to have more thoughts about literary characters who read too much so soon after my previous post, but inspiration can come from the oddest sources, and it did today.

I was reading Aphra Behn's delightful farce The Emperor of the Moon, which concerns a silly old doctor who is fascinated by astronomical and esoterical books, and is convinced that there is a kingdom on the moon. Two young men pretend to be princes of the moon kingdom in order to marry the doctor's daughter and niece. When the doctor finds out that he's been duped, and there is no lunar empire, he vows:
Burn all my books, and let my study blaze,
Burn all to ashes, and be sure the wind
Scatter the vile contagious monstrous lies.
Here the editor notes an allusion to Don Quixote, who also burns his books when he becomes aware that they have deceived him.

And that made me realize: in literature, it's not just women who read too much. Because the granddaddy of all those 19th-century female characters is Don Quixote de La Mancha--the most thoroughly literature-deluded character ever created. And one of the most memorable--and from one of the world's earliest novels.

I love how, nearly from the start, novels have satirized other genres, commented upon themselves, made claims about storytelling, described how a good novel requires a wise and critical reader. I just love that.

The missing link between Don Quixote and Northanger Abbey might be a 1752 novel by Charlotte Lennox called The Female Quixote, or the Adventures of Arabella (thanks, Wikipedia). It's the comic story of a girl who has read too much and convinced herself that she should behave like a beautiful and dazzling romance heroine. Thus she is ancestor to Catherine Morland, Tatiana Larina and Emma Bovary.

And also to Briony Tallis. Because I may be stabbing in the dark here, but I think I've discovered an Atonement allusion/in-joke. In the novel, 13-year-old Briony writes a play called The Trials of Arabella, and her plot has some similarities to Lennox's. Lennox's Arabella "suffers a severe illness caused by her leap into a river to escape imaginary ravishers" (source) and during her convalescence finally realizes that she can no longer live her life as a romance. Briony's Arabella "contracts cholera during an impetuous dash towards a seaside town with her intended" and during her convalescence realizes that "love which did not build a foundation on good sense was doomed" (source).

The more I think about Atonement the more it seems to self-consciously tie in with various literary traditions: country-house novel, war novel, modernist novel of shifting perceptions... and now, with references to Northanger Abbey and The Female Quixote, novels about reading the world versus reading a novel. And that's what gives it so much resonance and power--its reshaping of past traditions. Isn't the world's literary heritage grand?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Women Who Read Too Much

"La liseuse" by Fragonard. Photo from mtholyoke.edu

This week I had to lead a discussion in English class on Northanger Abbey. An unorthodox choice of Austen novel to study--but because the course is all about how different authors construct heroism, and the first line of the novel is "No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine," surprisingly appropriate. I'd first read Northanger two years ago on a "read the complete works of Austen" kick, and though it's her most lightweight novel, I find it utterly charming.

Rereading it, I recalled an offhand comment one of my professors once made: 19th-century literature is filled with women who read too much and get in trouble for it. He made this comment in an opera course where we read Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin to see how Tchaikovsky adapted it. Its heroine, Tatiana, commits a major faux pas when she emulates the heroines of the French romance novels she loves, and writes a love letter to Onegin, whom she barely knows.

I'd never explicitly noticed the pattern before, but it's very true. Two other major examples of 19th-century women who read too much are the aforementioned Catherine Morland, who reads too many Gothic novels and can't tell fact from fiction. And Emma Bovary, who wants to live her life like a romance heroine, only to be rewarded with dissatisfaction, ennui, and an ignominious death. I'm sure there are more, but I may not have read them yet.

From a feminist point of view, perhaps there's something sinister about this--an effort by patriarchal societies to demean women's reading? These books often make fun of the genres women like (romances) as well as women's naiveté in thinking that life can be like a novel.

When I was in France there was a coffee-table book for sale called Les femmes qui lisent sont dangereuses (Women Who Read are Dangerous) which analyzes paintings of women reading. I always meant to buy this book for my mom (she's decorating a spare bedroom with prints of reading women) but it's a heavy, expensive tome all in French... Still, I'd be interested to know what the book says about the gender implications of women reading. Why is it "dangerous"?

And there's something odd about people writing novels that demean people who read novels. Jane Austen points this out in her spirited "Defense of the Novel" in chapter 5 of Northanger Abbey:
I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel–writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works [...] [A novel is] only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language. (Full text here)
Still, Northanger Abbey alleges that novels can be dangerous for naive readers who fall prey to their seductions and fail to distinguish fact from fiction. But meanwhile we are falling prey to the seduction of Austen's writing--its "wit and humour," its "knowledge of human nature." Don't you think it's funny that we love Jane Austen's characters and talk about them as if they were real people? Does this make us bad, naive readers?

The notion of women reading too much and getting in trouble for it seems mostly a 19th-century phenomenon. I can think of bookish females in 20th-century novels (such as my beloved Frederica Potter) but they are not punished for their reading in the same way.

One possible exception is Atonement--which takes its epigraph from Northanger Abbey (the end of chapter 24, where Henry reprimands Catherine for imagining wild and melodramatic things about his family). This really is the perfect quote to begin Atonement, and Ian McEwan suggests that Briony's having read too much contributes to the error she makes. Still, Briony is just 13--younger than Catherine, Tatiana, or Emma. We can no longer accept an adult woman being as naive a reader as those three ladies; but we can still accept it in a child.

I mentioned Atonement to my English professor because of the Northanger connection, and though he had never heard of it, he was thrilled to be told. "You know I hardly ever read anything from later than the sixteenth century," he said, "and when I do, it's because it has some connection to those earlier works." The mere notion of its title got him excited--"It came out about 5 years ago? The early 21st century? To think that in this day and age, a book called Atonement could get published--and you say it was a success, they've even sold the movie rights? Amazing!" He expounded upon the idea of "atonement," an ancient concept that often comes up in the medieval-theological stuff he reads, but sorely lacking and desperately needed in the modern world. It's a fundamental human question, he said: can we ever atone? Red-faced with excitement, he said he'd run to the bookstore right after class and purchase Atonement--"If it's as good as its title, I'll love it!"

Monday, November 12, 2007

A feminist wrestles with "A Feminine Ending"


Gillian Jacobs as "Amanda." Photo by Joan Marcus from broadwayworld.com

Show #2 of my Playwrights Horizons subscription was A Feminine Ending, by young Yale graduate Sarah Treem. I was very excited and happy to see this world premiere, because I had seen the play developed at Portland Center Stage's JAW: A Playwrights Festival in summer 2006. (Caveat: at that time I read the play and saw some early rehearsals, but did not see the final staged reading, since I had to go out of town.) Back then I was very fond of it. Sure, it's not an earth-shattering play, but I thought it was a nice comedy about a young woman's coming of age. I liked how it dealt with her career and her love life and her parents, rather than hitting only one or two of these important components. And Amanda, the main character, reminded me a bit of myself: an artistically inclined only child who is more the dutiful daughter than the rebel. In an interview, Treem said she wrote this play out of frustration at the fact that women playwrights seem to have it harder than men--and realizing that it's even worse for female composers. (Amanda is an oboist hoping to become a composer.) No wonder I can relate!

Portland Center Stage is going to produce A Feminine Ending this winter so when I worked in marketing there over the summer, I got to think more about the play and how to promote it. It's funny: the dynamic between me and my baby-boomer boss was a little like the dynamic between Amanda and her mother Kim in the play, with regards to our discussions about how feminism has changed from her generation to mine. My boss said, "This whole thing, in the play, with Amanda wondering what guy she'll end up with? That would never have happened in my time. We knew that another guy would always come along, but in the workplace there was that huge glass ceiling, so you would do everything you could for your career. We didn't have time to worry about guys!" (Or like Nathalie Baye says in the 1973 movie Day For Night: "I'd give up a guy for a film, but I'd never give up a film for a guy!") I liked having these conversations. It proved that the play wasn't just a romantic comedy, but was relevant to modern society.

But seeing the world premiere at Playwrights Horizons on Saturday, I felt disappointed. The play seemed more self-consciously quirky than when it was at JAW, with more cheap laughs. The characters' tics and obsessions now struck me as attempts to jazz up a conventional story. For the first time, I considered Amanda a whiner with depressingly little self-knowledge. The actress who played her, Gillian Jacobs, delivered her opening monologue as if already on the verge of hysteria, rather than charming the audience into following her on her journey toward self-actualization.

I thought it was unfair for Charles Isherwood to spend a paragraph of his review lambasting Treem for naming her heroine "Amanda Blue," but several things in this play didn't ring true for me, either. Most jarringly, the character of Billy says he studied "linguistics and women's studies" in college, so he can deliver a monologue about those subjects that tells us the theme of the play. The whole thing is way too pat, like attending a lecture instead of a dramatic performance. Does anyone really believe that this nice but underachieving kid from rural New Hampshire, who is now working as a postman, actually would have chosen to study linguistics?

What's unfortunate is that this monologue of Billy's comes right after a very good monologue of Amanda's, where she describes her choices, regrets, and confusions. Confession time: though it's probably not good protocol to audition with a monologue from an unproduced play, I liked this speech so much that I used it last fall. So I have it on my computer--and IMO, it's just good writing. (Apologies for any changes that Treem may have made to this speech in the past year--but it sounded very similar to this on Saturday.)
AMANDA: Hey Billy? If you brought me up here to catalog my dreams deferred, don’t bother. I know what they are. I’m the one that let them go— (Beat) I mean – put them on hold. Temporarily. They’re on temporary hold.
BILLY: Why?
AMANDA: (Pause) When I was young, it was just me and my oboe. And then you came along. And that was fine, but then one day my parents became people. Who had a whole set of expectations. And from there, it’s just a slippery slope. Because once I realized other people existed, I suddenly saw them everywhere. I had to pay attention to them.
BILLY: Why?
AMANDA: Because I didn’t want to be a bitch, Billy. Nobody sees a girl alone with an oboe and thinks she must be brilliant. They think she must be weird or maladjusted or stuck-up. I wanted people to like me. You get all these perks when you’re a girl and people like you. You can open doors with a smile. Eventually I realized that those doors don’t open very far at all, and besides that, they’re the wrong doors and besides that, I didn’t even know what doors I should be looking for, because I was too busy watching the boys when they gave that lecture in class. But even that, I thought, was a responsible decision, to watch the boys, because there seemed to be a time crunch. And a limited supply. And everyone else was getting one…
So I started to think I’d better put the music aside and get one too. And I did. I found one. A great one. A real catch. But it wasn’t easy getting him. Because a lot of people wanted him. And it won’t be easy keeping him, no matter how much he loves me. So that means more time away from music.
I began thinking, recently…I have a few years now. Before Jack’s career…before children…of relative security. I could really…get something done. So I take a deep breath and look around for those doors… They’re gone.
It used to be the world was filled with doors. Now there are tables and closets and plenty of windows. But very few doors.
I’m not making any sense, am I?
So Treem can write. She can make an extended metaphor (of the "opening doors") that feels organic to the character. She can identify one of the problems of being female in this society--you're supposed to be likable above all else. She can delineate a young woman's emotions and fears. But too often in A Feminine Ending, she doesn't do this. Part of the reason the above monologue is so successful is that Amanda delivers it to Billy, and there's a strong objective behind it--the need to justify her choices to him. But the rest of Amanda's monologues are delivered directly to the audience and completely violate "show, don't tell."

In some sense, though, I feel guilty for criticizing Treem. The words I've used--"whiny," "hysteria," "conventional"--are the words men have always used to trivialize women's writing. If I complain that Amanda doesn't really change during the course of the play--she ends up not much further on from where she started--Treem can say, with Virginia Woolf and other feminist theorists, "Well, women's writing is circular and discursive, and only MEN want a linear narrative with characters who change!" (That's why that whole "écriture féminine" thing irks the hell out of me--but I'll save that for another post.) It's hard for me to find fault with A Feminine Ending without feeling like a self-loathing female. I'm reminded of Curtis Sittenfeld writing, "To suggest that another woman's ostensibly literary novel is chick lit feels catty, not unlike calling another woman a slut -- doesn't the term basically bring down all of us?" Maybe you should click that link and read Sittenfeld's whole piece. Maybe that's what I'm trying to say about A Feminine Ending.

P.S. After all this talk about different generations of women--A Feminine Ending provides a simple test of what generation you belong to. When Marsha Mason walks out onstage in the role of Kim, do you recognize her? Do you give her entrance applause? Or, like me, do you think her name sounds vaguely familiar but know you have never seen one of her movies? Mason did a fine job, but I just thought it was weird to hear someone get entrance applause in a theatre as small as the Peter Jay Sharp...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Put your overeducation to good use!

Isn't this a great way to save the hungry/learn new stuff/procrastinate?

FreeRice.com donates rice to the United Nations if you play a vocabulary quiz game and get the right answers!

I'm not quite sure what the connection is between feeding the hungry and learning difficult vocabulary (other than they are both good things), but this is just the kind of charity appeal that gets someone like me excited.

There are 50 vocabulary levels (get a word wrong? go down a level) and I am consistently dancing on the border between levels 46 and 47. They say it is rare to get above level 48, but I'm determined--and from such determination, hungry people are fed!

Evidently there are about 30,000 grains per pound of rice, and if you play this game for 10 minutes you can maybe earn 1000 grains--so the more participants, the better.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Another tune for a dancing bear

At About Last Night blogger Carrie Frye just posted about translations of a famous quote from Madame Bovary. My first encounter with it was Geoffrey Wall's translation for Penguin Classics, where it reads:
...and human speech is a cracked kettle upon which we beat out tunes for dancing bears, when we wish to conjure pity from the stars.


(let it sink in)



What do you think? This is one of my favorite lines in any novel, ever. I still remember where I was when I first read it--in a Vassar auditorium waiting for a film screening to start--and I just had to put the book down and say Wow. Rarely does a single sentence hit me that hard.

I've since realized that this is perhaps Flaubert's most famed and admired quotation--it gets cited by everyone from Carrie Frye to Michael Dirda to The New Yorker to...well, just google "flaubert bears dance OR dancing" and you get 110,000 results. But I came across it without any foreknowledge--the best way--and I knew that I was reading something of genius. In a way, I'm annoyed to discover that it's so well-known--I'd planned to make it my personal favorite quote, something between me and ol' Gustave! And now I learn it's nearly as famous as, say, "Parting is such sweet sorrow" (139,000 Google hits for "parting sweet sorrow shakespeare")?

What's interesting is that it retains its genius in just about every translation. But for the record, here's Flaubert's original French:
La parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des melodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.
I wonder, though, how Flaubert would react to all the various translations of his work--he, famed for constantly seeking le mot juste. (If he wrote a page in a week, he considered that a good week.) I'm taking a translation seminar right now, and we really could have a field day with this one phrase--so short, but full of traps. For instance, English does not have a simple equivalent for the important verb "attendrir"--it literally means "to make tender," but "we wish to make the stars tender" sounds stupid, which accounts for the variety of translations like "move to pity," "conjure pity from," "melt," etc.

Truly, this is a perfect sentence. While apologizing for the inadequacy of human language, it, in its original version or any reasonable translation, proves that language nevertheless can have power...can be memorable and move beyond cliché...can be used to connect with our fellow human beings...can conjure pity from the stars, or at least from the heart of anyone who reads it.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Quote(s) of the day

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
--Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Quote courtesy of NaPlWriMo and my dad, who called it to my attention saying it echoed with my statement "I'd better fall in love with my play so deeply that I can't not write it."

OK, after I saw the quote, and knowing how many misattributed quotations are out there, I decided to try to find Saint-Exupéry's original quote in French--that would teach me if it was authentic or not.

Seems like someone else has already done the work, dredging up Saint-Exupéry's poem "Dessine-moi une navire" ("Design me a ship") which expresses the same concept, but in much less romantic and evocative language.
Créer le navire,
ce n'est point tisser les toiles,
forger les clous,
lire les astres,
mais bien donner le goût de la mer.
To create a ship
is not at all to weave the sails,
forge the nails,
read the stars,
but rather to give a taste for the sea.
(my translation)
The other version is perhaps an improvement--but it ain't-exactly Saint-Exupéry.

Mighty Pens, Mighty Swords

I was talking to a fellow playwright last night and we got to lamenting the fact that while modern playwrights may create fantastic worlds on the page, our everyday lives tend to be quiet and constrained. We go to college and then get MFAs; we hole up somewhere and write a play; we submit it to contests; we format everything in that regimented one-page-equals-one-minute style... "Why don't we live back when playwrights actually did things?" we cried. These were the kind of adventurous writers we were thinking of, who don't seem to exist anymore:
  • Christopher Marlowe, who is thought to have worked as a royal spy, which might explain his mysterious murder in a tavern
  • Aphra Behn, one of my heroes (obviously!) who worked as a spy for Charles II in Antwerp in 1666, before turning to playwriting
  • Samuel Beckett, who worked heroically as a courier for the French Resistance
  • Vaclav Havel (another of my heroes, obviously!) whose plays, other writings, and political activism helped defeat Communism in Czechoslovakia
I especially like knowing this about Beckett. Sometimes he seems like such a distant and untouchable figure--the craggy sage whose plays espouse such a bleak, lonely vision--that he needs to be humanized, a little. So it's good to know that he fought for the French Resistance. And intriguing that his rejection of James Joyce's daughter Lucia helped drive her to schizophrenia. And comforting to visit his grave in Montparnasse Cemetery and see him buried next to his partner of 50 years, Suzanne--to know that despite the loneliness of his writing, in life and death he was not alone.

Photo from Wikipedia.

And I've always been intrigued by the notion of spying, à la Behn and Marlowe. They say Behn's spying contact, William Scott, was her lover--I hear that and I start imagining a scenario straight out of Hitchcock's Notorious, one of my all-time favorite movies. It also might be the most realistic espionage film ever made: it has no wacky James Bond gadgets, no superhumanly strong and intelligent spies, no shadowy government organizations. Just three heartbreakingly real and flawed people, and the shadowy mysteries of the human heart.

But of course, even if its emotions run deeper and its characters are more human than in a typical spy film, it's still a glossy '40s Hollywood product, and more exciting than anything I am ever likely to experience. Which brings me back to the beginning: what ever happened to the time when being a writer meant being adventurous...meant being notorious?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Into the Woods: Now and Hence and Ever After

There's a wonderful tribute post on Into the Woods up at Edward Copeland on Film right now. The show opened 20 years ago today and, while it was somewhat overshadowed that season by The Phantom of the Opera, the intervening years have shown it for the truly clever, entertaining, moving work of art that it is. Woods will be around for a long time to come...Phantom has already turned into a joke.

And Into the Woods will always hold a special place in my heart because just a year ago, I played "Lucinda" (one of the stepsisters) in the Vassar production. It was a thrill to fulfill my dream of performing in a Sondheim show before I give up acting to focus wholly on playwriting. In a way, I don't want to act in any other show, because it would feel anticlimactic after Into the Woods. I like the idea of going out on a high note surrounded by knotty Sondheim harmonies. I don't want the magic to vanish!

Cleopatra in Bias-Cut Lamé

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra. Photo from jurgenfauth.com

One of the many cultural artifacts I am incorporating into my new play is Cecil B. DeMille's 1934 movie of Cleopatra starring Claudette Colbert. After all, the premise of my play is Hallie Flanagan and a bunch of Vassar girls performing Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra in 1934, so how could I not mention it?

The movie is a rather bizarre mix of tones. Sometimes it's very stilted, the dialogue clumsily "rhetorical," too much emphasis placed on DeMille's eye-popping spectacle. At other times, the characters are very modern and earthy--sometimes jarringly so. In one Roman party scene the dialogue could pass for 1930s cocktail banter and the ladies' "togas" could pass for stylish Art Deco evening gowns.

But this made me think of the intriguing website The Cleopatra Costume, which investigates what the real Cleopatra might have worn, and how she has been costumed in movie and stage versions of her story. The conclusion? Cleopatra's costume nearly always reflects the fashions of the day. Colbert's Deco-style gowns are just one example.

Hallie Flanagan definitely would have approved of this. In her 1934 production, Cleopatra wore a sleek turquoise velvet sheath dress, and the soldiers wore white uniforms based on the uniforms of Mussolini's troops in North Africa. Hallie scorned "historical or archaeological" designs, and wanted to make the play immediately accessible to her audience. She preferred to capture the essence of "Seductive Queen" or "Soldier" rather than getting trapped in irrelevant historical detail.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

NaPlWriMo?

I'd heard of NaNoWriMo before and now it seems that authors of other genres are jumping on the bandwagon. For dramatists, there's now NaPlWriMo...write a play of at least 75 pages between 12:00 AM November 1 and 11:59 PM November 30.

I'd be tempted to become an official NaPlWriMo writer, because that's basically what I need to do for my senior thesis play...write it this month. (I've been slacking off, to my chagrin.) However, I don't qualify, because I've been thinking about this play and doing research for years, I have some scenes already started, and I don't really feel like "reporting to the forums every week on my process." Maybe that's meant to be encouraging...but writing's always been a solitary activity for me. I get self-conscious. And also, paranoid that other writers are going to steal my ideas.

Think of me, then, as the "shadow" NaPlWriMo participant. It will get done--and it'll be more than 75 pages, because it needs to be that length--but I know I can do it. Last December I wrote 40 pages in 4 days. Fueled by lots of caffeine and greasy diner food.

Now I've just got to motivate myself to plug away at it. And, preferably, fall in love with my play so deeply that I can't not write it. Pep talks encouraged in the comments!

The Allure of the Tubercular Courtesan

Greta Garbo as Camille. Photo from stanford.edu/~brooksie

She's a venerable figure in 19th-century literature, beautiful, self-sacrificing, redeemed through suffering and love: the tubercular heroine, and specifically the tubercular courtesan. The lady who began it all is Marie Duplessis, a real-life courtesan who died of tuberculosis just after her 23rd birthday, and whose lovers had included Alexandre Dumas fils. Dumas turned her into Marguerite Gautier, his Dame aux camélias (Lady with the Camellias, aka Camille), Verdi adapted this into La Traviata featuring Violetta Valéry, and they inspired Baz Luhrmann's "Satine" in Moulin Rouge. (The DVD features reveal that his original plot was even closer to the Camille/Traviata story than it is in the final film--Christian and Satine had an idyllic interlude in the country, etc.)

These ladies may die, but their story is deathless: modern-day academics analyze the trope of the tubercular heroine and lately, I've been thinking about it too. I dressed up as Marguerite Gautier for Halloween, as well as two other times in the past year. And I'm jealous that one of my dearest friends is named Marguerite Camille--wouldn't I love to be named after a literary heroine!

I read the original novel last year for a music course focusing on how works of literature get adapted into operas. Of course it's a sentimental tearjerker, and the hero, Armand Duval, is annoying, weak, and whiny. If Dumas was like this in real life, I wouldn't want to have known him! But Marguerite is always vivid and sympathetic (Verdi had the right idea to make her the central character) and the book has an interesting narrative strategy. Like Wuthering Heights, it's one of those 19th-century novels where narrations nest within one another. The first narrator is an unnamed man who hears that courtesan Marguerite Gautier has died, and becomes intrigued by her life. Then he encounters Armand, Marguerite's lover, who tells his sad story to Narrator #1. Then the climax of the story comes in Marguerite's confessional letter to Armand--a third nested narrator.

The most surprising part of the book is the true meaning of Marguerite's famous camellias. I'd always assumed they were purely symbolic--their virginal whiteness denoting that although Marguerite is a courtesan, she has an unstained and noble heart. But actually, the camellias serve a much more mercenary function...
Every time a new play opened, one was sure to see [Marguerite] there, with three things she never left behind [...] : her lorgnette, a bag of bonbons, and a bouquet of camellias. For twenty-five days out of the month the camellias were white, and for five they were red; no one ever knew the reason for the change in color, which I mention without being able to explain it. (my translation)
Oh Narrator, stop being so coy! You know the reason perfectly well--we all do. Yes, you wrote at a time when people were supposed to pretend that women don't menstruate or indeed have any bodily functions--but your novel is about a woman who sells her body! So stop with the faux innocence. It's tipped over the line into salaciousness. (Anyone want to add "wearing red camellias" to the list of euphemisms like "visiting Aunt Flo" or "on the rag"?)

After his novel became a success, Dumas adapted it into a play that served as a star vehicle for many actresses including Sarah Bernhardt (see the beautiful Alphons Mucha poster at left--image from art.com).

Now, when I was in France, my fantastic host family insisted that I throw a dinner party for my friends, and, naturally, I chose French Theatre for its theme. Everyone had to dress up as a character from a French play, and I went as Marguerite Gautier. After all, it's an incredibly easy costume--all you have to do is look pretty and wear camellias. I couldn't find any cut camellias (only potted bushes) in Paris flower shops, so I made do with a silk flower in my hair. I wore it with a black skirt and a black silk top with a small white floral print. None of my friends guessed who I was, which disappointed me.

Then, last week, a French professor held a Halloween party at his apartment where everyone had to dress up as a French literary or historical figure. Out came the Dame aux Camélias outfit again! This time, I had more silk camellias--two in my hair, one in my sash, one at my neckline--and wore them with a red velvet dress that I bought in France. And I did my makeup more elaborately, aiming for that consumptive complexion, pale with very flushed cheeks. I was a "modern" Marguerite--I didn't have a big froufrou 1850s gown, but I tried to catch the character's essence. It was kind of like Anna Netrebko's costume in this video of the "Brindisi" from La Traviata--not that I claim to look like Ms. Netrebko, opera's glamour-girl!



More people guessed who I was this time, and one of my friends even chastised me for not carrying around a big bloodstained handkerchief and coughing into it. And I suppose if someone had asked me to do a "trick" to get a "treat," I'd have sung "Sempre libera," albeit very poorly and with much fudging of lyrics. Certainly not like Angela Gheorghiu, whose great rendition seems to have become the YouTube standard for this aria:



Yesterday, my Tubercular French Courtesan outfit got yet another airing, because one of the dorms on campus had a "Moulin Rouge"-themed party and I helped distribute free crêpes for the French Club. This time, I made the costume less the ethereal, self-sacrificing Marguerite, and more the fun-loving bohemian cancan girl, by tying up the skirt of my red velvet dress with a red ribbon to make it shorter, and wearing black lace stockings. My friend (the same one who'd said I needed a bloody handkerchief) now told me that my drapey tied-up skirt looked "very Poiret," which I took as a great compliment.

This story all comes full circle, though, because my inspiration for buying that red dress in the first place was... Moulin Rouge! The movie came out when I was 13, the perfect age to fall in love with it; it quickly became my all-time favorite and I still adore it. (Further IMDB-review thoughts here.) Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor have never looked better nor had to cover so much ground in a performance--singing, dancing, comedy, tragedy... And as soon as Kidman stepped out in that gorgeous red satin gown, I got a craving for a red dress of my own--even though it's not my best color.

The more direct reason I bought my red dress is that the other student who lived with my host family in France was throwing his dinner party a month after mine, with a "Red" theme. In between the two parties, I'd fallen out with this guy and his friends, so I was not exactly looking forward to the occasion. But damn it, it gave me the excuse to buy the red dress I'd always wanted, and when I walked into La Redoute, and saw the deep-red velvet dress massively marked down, and available in my size only...well, it was meant to be, n'est-ce pas? I knew I'd be the best-dressed party guest--overdressed perhaps, but I didn't care. (Isn't there a whole history of red dresses symbolizing defiance? See Gone with the Wind or Jezebel.)

Still, I felt deeply hurt underneath my external defiance. And so when I listen to "Sempre libera" and Violetta sings "Sola, abbandonata, in questo popoloso deserto che appellano Parigi!" (Alone, abandoned, in this populous desert called Paris!) the words strike me to the heart. I know how it feels, Violetta.

And while researching this blog post I just discovered that Paul Poiret designed Sarah Bernhardt's costumes for years--including for the film of La Dame aux camélias.

Really, it all comes full circle.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Book-to-Movie Anticipation, Part 2: Atonement

Keira Knightley as Cecilia Tallis. Photo from awardsdaily.com

In the first part of this post on how two of my all-time favorite books are being turned into movies this fall, I looked at Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, which became my favorite book when I was 9 years old. And it retained that position for quite a long time--I loved its sequels too, and there were other books I enjoyed, but I don't think it ever had a serious challenger. By the time I was in high school, though, I began thinking it silly that my favorite book was a children's novel. And when I was 15, I finally read a book that knocked The Golden Compass off its pedestal: Atonement, by Ian McEwan.

I read Atonement on a high-school trip to Cuba (a long story which I may get around to telling someday). It was 2003 and the Iraq War had just begun, so you could draw a parallel between that and the depiction of World War II in the novel, though I doubt I was conscious of it at the time. The book had gotten good reviews and was half-price at Costco, so I picked it up rather on a whim--thinking "This had better be good, or I'll be stuck in Cuba with a lousy book."

And at first I read it leisurely--the first section is slowly paced in that classic "British country house novel" way--though I was impressed with McEwen's attention to detail and shifting perspectives. And then, as the book's inexorable chain of events got set into motion, it hooked me in the same way The Golden Compass had. I'd vowed that on our bus trips through Cuba I would observe the countryside instead of reading; soon, that vow was broken. When I finished the book, I stared blankly out the bus window, feeling swelled-up with emotion and ready to cry; just then, we went down a particularly twisty road and the kid in front of me got carsick--the bus had to pull over so he could vomit out the window. That was all anyone could talk about for the rest of the day--"David threw up!" Me, I barely noticed. As it has done to many other readers, that last section of Atonement knocked me flat. Devastated me.

Due to Atonement's critical acclaim and general brilliance, as well as the public's appetite for romantic dramas, I was sure it would be made into a movie someday. Still, I worry that something fundamental may get lost in the translation to the screen. *VAGUE SPOILERS* The end of the book is so powerful because you discover that it's a novel about the act of writing. In order for the twist to function the same way in a movie version, you'd have to make the older Briony a film director instead of a novelist, but I highly doubt that change took place.

*SPOILERS END*

James McAvoy as Robbie Turner. Photo from workingtitlefilms.com

All the same, I'm excited about the movie. I was surprised how much I liked director Joe Wright's film version of Pride and Prejudice, which looked beautiful and brought the characters' emotions to life. (You can read my IMDB review here, though it seems that some Austenites took offense at my statement "I admire Jane Austen's novels, but admire good filmmaking even more.") Screenwriter Christopher Hampton proved with Dangerous Liaisons that he can turn a difficult-to-adapt novel into a lively drama. Wright obviously enjoys working with Keira Knightley and she did a good job in Pride and Prejudice--though I wonder if she's too beautiful and glamorous to play Cecilia.

I had a bit of the opposite reaction when I heard James McAvoy would be playing Robbie. Now, as you can see from the photo above, he's not a bad-looking chap, he seems likable, decent, and sympathetic--all qualities that Robbie requires. But I'll admit I pictured Robbie as much more traditionally handsome, and rough around the edges (he's the cleaning lady's son after all) where McAvoy is wet behind the ears. Still, I have heard good things about McAvoy's acting talent and hope to be pleasantly surprised. This movie was made to fulfill Wright's and McEwan's visions, not to fulfill my own romantic dreams, you know!

I will always love Atonement, but I'm less willing to call it my Favorite Book of All Time, as I did when I was sixteen or seventeen. I now think it's a little foolish to single one book out as my all-time favorite, as well as awfully hubristic that both of my former All-Time Favorites, The Golden Compass and Atonement, were written during my own short lifetime. It's exciting, though, that two such high-profile movies based on two such great books are coming out this fall. Often I love the kind of books that would never be made into movies!