Saturday, May 31, 2008

With Apologies to Frank Loesser

OK, I have a new theory about why it's taking me so long to recover from the cold I picked up over a week ago. Maybe it's all due to stress over still not knowing what my future holds. Call it the "Adelaide from Guys and Dolls" theory of infectious disease causation...

The av-er-age jobless youngster
Basically insecure
Due to some keen frustration may react
With psychosomatic symptoms
Difficult to endure
Affecting the upper respiratory tract.

In other words, just from waiting around to learn whether she’ll get employed
A girl’s health can be destroyed.
You can treat her with miracle cures, but they will do no good
Even if she eats healthy and drinks lots of water just as she should
If she’s tired of not knowing how she’ll earn her livelihood
A girl’s health can be destroyed.

In an economic downturn
Young people lacking jobs
Show a neurotic tendency, see note:
Chronic organic symptoms
Headaches that pound and throb
Infections of eyes, of ears, the nose and throat

In other words, just from worrying if they’ll make her a job offer
A person can turn into a cougher.
You can give her some pills that will cure all her ills and make her nose clear
But the medicine can’t do a thing that will put her in good cheer
If she doesn’t know in what city or town she will live next year
A person can turn into a cougher.

And furthermore, just from wondering, wondering, wondering what she’ll do
A person can develop the flu.
When she gets interviewed for an op’ning and doesn’t break a sweat
The employer says kindly “We’ll tell you soon, no need to fret,”
Then it gets to be three weeks later—and no news yet,
A person can develop the flu,
The flu,
The phlegmatic goo,
She’ll get stuffy
Then get huffy
On account of that damn interview

From worrying if she should sit back and wait or should act more bold
A person can develop a bad, bad cold!

Friday, May 30, 2008

So, I Got this Piece of Paper Written in Latin...

Yeah...I can finally stop checking off "Some college" on forms that ask for my education level, and start checking off "Bachelor's degree."

And while I'm certainly not as lost and alienated as Benjamin Braddock, I do share some of his confusion (still can't make my Where I'll Be Moving To announcement...) and his discomfort: I came down with a really nasty cold a week ago and still haven't shaken it off. I suffered through my graduation on Sunday with body aches and a sore throat, went hoarse saying goodbye to all my friends, STILL haven't gotten my voice back, and coughed my head off for several nights in a row.

I'm back in Oregon slowly recovering, then: eating Chinese chicken soup, drinking tea, and watching old movies like His Girl Friday (my review)...would you believe that I had never seen it? I only recently realized just how many fantastic movies were directed by Howard Hawks and now I just learned that it is his birthday today!

Because of this illness that is making me tired, fuzzy-headed and cranky, I haven't had a lot of time to think about my graduation or the implications thereof. I fully expect it to hit me as soon as I've recovered...

The graduation ceremony was nice, though, even if we sat in our robes and mortarboards for nearly three hours--in the sun, facing south. Our speaker was Randy Cohen, of "The Ethicist" fame. Fortunately, his speech was concise, funny, and not at all sanctimonious. His advice is stuff that I can fully agree with, without rolling my eyes: seek variety in life, live in a city, take public transit, and learn from the works of the great authors.

My last name comes toward the end of the alphabet so probably most people weren't paying attention when I received my diploma...but I did make someone special take notice. Eyewitnesses (my parents) reported that when it was announced that I won honors in Drama, Meryl Streep (Vassar alumna and trustee) perked up and looked at me. Once a Vassar theater person, always a Vassar theater person.

Friday, May 23, 2008

graduation hiatus

Just so you know, there'll probably be no new posts until at least Wednesday, May 28. My college graduation is Sunday and I'm pretty booked up both before and afterwards, as you can imagine.

I also hope that by Wednesday I can announce where I plan to move after graduation! (I'll spend at least a few weeks in Portland right now...but I'm getting out of there, sometime this summer.)

Obama in Oregon

I am so proud of Portland, Oregon right now. Last Sunday, Barack Obama had his biggest rally ever--75,000 supporters in Waterfront Park on a hot, sunny day; and on Tuesday he won the Oregon primary, 59-41. I look at these photos from the rally and I wish I could've been there (it doesn't hurt that the Decemberists played beforehand!).

Portland is the whitest city of its size in the country--which is not something I'm proud of--so I found it very moving to see these photos of a black man drawing such a crowd of mostly white faces--something that would not have happened earlier in our nation's history.

Also on Tuesday, Portland became the largest city in the country to elect an openly gay mayor, Sam Adams. From what I've seen of Adams, I like him--he had an anti-Wal-Mart sign in the window of his office at City Hall, and he gamely made a guest appearance in one of the "Commission Commission" plays at Portland Center Stage last summer, playing a mad scientist with a German accent.

Seeing these photos and hearing these election results made me realize that even when I move away from Portland (in a few months, or less), I will always feel Portland pride at moments like these. I was at a party when the polls closed on Tuesday night, and ran upstairs to check the election results on a friend's computer. Then I was so happy I hugged my friend Grant, a fellow Portlander, and we talked about how lucky we are to come from a city that is just so incredibly cool.

I know I haven't talked much about politics on this blog, but my feelings about them have grown stronger throughout the primary season. I started off simply preferring Obama to Clinton--I liked his optimism and message of "change," and worried that Clinton isn't electable simply because too many people hate her from the eight years when Bill was president. It also slightly irritated me that Hillary Clinton achieved her high position in politics largely because she is married to a former president--that she didn't get here on her own steam, but simply "made a good marriage"--which is SUCH an archaic notion! Still, I thought she was intelligent, capable... I respected her.

But now, with Clinton's fuzzy math and increasingly outrageous statements, I am losing my respect for her, and worrying that she is going to ruin things for the Democrats in the fall out of her own selfish motives. On Monday, Clinton actually said "If we had the same rules as the Republicans, I would be the nominee right now" and "Karl Rove thinks that I am the stronger candidate" (source). Ugh! Hillary, you're just betraying your own political party right there. I also don't like her insistence that she needs to stay in the race to set an example for younger girls and women, and to combat all the misogynists who want to see ambitious women get cut down. But I am a young feminist, and if a male candidate were saying and doing the same things as Hillary Clinton right now, I'd be just as mad with him as I am with her.

I hope Clinton will realize the virtue of bowing out gracefully before the Democratic Party gets torn even further apart...and I sincerely look forward to casting my first-ever presidential ballot for Barack Obama in the fall. (Disappointingly, I was only 17 years old in 2004, so couldn't cast a vote against Bush.) Already, it was very satisfying that the Oregon Democratic primary actually mattered this year...and that Obama won!

Photos from The Oregonian, via flickr.com

Monday, May 19, 2008

Jessica Mitford, Red Sheep

Like many people who are intrigued by the 1930s, by British aristocrats, by women who defied expectations, I have a healthy interest in the six Mitford sisters. A few years ago I read eldest sister Nancy's comic novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, inspired by her family's history but with names changed and roles reassigned. And yesterday, I finished next-to-youngest sister Jessica's memoir Hons and Rebels.

Jessica Mitford, known as "Decca," called herself the "red sheep" of the family--an ardent Communist among conservative English aristocrats. Her older sisters Diana and Unity were famously attracted to Nazism, making Decca's position even more remarkable. At the age of 19, she used the money that she had saved for years in a "running-away fund" to flee to Civil War-riddled Spain with her second cousin Esmond Romilly. The young anti-fascists got married soon after, though their time together was cut short by Esmond's death in World War Two (Hons and Rebels stops a little before this point).

I knew the outlines of Decca's story but very much enjoyed reading it in her own words. For instance, most sources simplify things by saying that Decca and Esmond "eloped to Spain," but she tells it a little differently. She'd had a crush on the intriguingly rebellious Esmond from afar, but had never met him due to family disapproval. In 1937, Esmond was in England recuperating from an illness contracted in Spain, and by chance a mutual relative invited Decca to spend a weekend at the country house where Esmond was staying. Esmond said he planned to return to Spain in about a week and Decca begged to go with him--not as a lover, but as a fellow anti-fascist. Esmond and Decca concocted a plan and ran away together just a week later; only when they got to France did they admit they loved each other. The chapters of Hons and Rebels surrounding Decca's escape are absolutely thrilling even if you know the outcome--because of the many ways her plan could have failed, and the very romantic idea of young lovers on the run.

Hons and Rebels can be divided roughly into three sections. First, Decca discusses her isolated childhood, her eccentric family, her growing frustration, and the birth of her Communist beliefs. The Mitford parents had strange ideas about raising children, to say the least; e.g. they prohibited all doctors and medicine, except surgical operations, because of the "biblical sanction in the passage 'If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out'" (40). Decca describes the Mitford children's made-up language, their brutal teasing games, and her relationships with each of them. For a long time she is closest to her two Fascist sisters--Diana, beautiful and charming when she's not supporting Hitler, and Unity, as eccentric and frustrated as Decca, but channeling that frustration into the opposite political philosophy. This section of the book also looks humorously at upper-class traditions, a few months spent in France, and a Mediterranean cruise; Mitford has an eye for the telling detail in all these situations.

The second section of the book is the aforementioned running-away and its aftermath, which thrusts Decca into a totally different milieu. She doesn't actually spend a lot of time in Spain, but she and Esmond learn to live on not much money, first in France then in England (though Esmond has an awful weakness for get-rich-quick schemes). They have a hard time reconciling their lingering aristocratic upbringing with their downtrodden, working-class surroundings, though, and they become frustrated that they cannot do more to stop fascism.

Eventually, English snobbery and pessimism overwhelm them, so they move to America. This means no more funny Mitford anecdotes, and Decca spends a bit too much time praising the warmth and generosity of Americans as compared to Britons, but there are some great scenes in this section too. Her stories of how she and Esmond supported themselves (selling Scottish tweeds at the World's Fair, selling stockings door-to-door, bartending) are hilarious.

Decca ends the book by summing up some of the people in her life, especially Esmond and Unity. She shows an admirably nuanced attitude to her beloved older sister, wondering how "a person of enormous natural taste, an artist and poet from childhood, [could] have embraced [the Nazis'] cruel philistinism" (273). And Decca admits her own faults, as well: "[Unity] was always a terrific hater--so were all of us" (273) and "The qualities of patience, modesty, forbearance and natural self-discipline that the worker brings to his struggle for a better life, the instinctive respect for the fundamental dignity of every other human being [...] were on the whole conspicuously lacking in [Esmond and me]" (280).

Still, after reading Hons and Rebels, I admire Decca's courage, resilience, humor, and sheer nerve. I must say, though, that I identify more with Nancy: as I noted yesterday, I'm an aesthete, not a revolutionary. Nancy doesn't always come off well in Hons and Rebels--Decca has no patience for aesthetes, and describes Nancy's personality as "astringent," "cutting" etc.--though she admits that Nancy had enormous strength of character to stand up to their parents: "She had broken ground for all of us, but only at terrific cost in violent scenes followed by silence and tears" (29). I suppose it's rare that the eldest daughter is the greatest maverick in a family; so in a way, Nancy cleared a path for Decca to become the Communist rebel she always knew she'd be.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Mai 1968: À bas le vieux monde

It's 40 years since Mai '68, the month of student uprisings and labor strikes in France aimed at bringing the optimistic idealism of the 1960s to the conservative French government. Since the French love nothing more than self-analysis and philosophizing, I am sure that the newspapers there are filled with articles comparing the national mindset then and now. Meanwhile, the Vassar French department got in on the act, posting Mai '68 slogans in the cafeteria. (You can read many such slogans translated on Wikisource and untranslated on this Belgian site.) There were also blank posters inviting us to create slogans for Mai '08. After some thought, I took a pen out of my bag and scrawled
AUX ARMES CITOYENS
AUX ARTS CITOYENS
AUX ARBRES CITOYENS
A L'ARDEUR CITOYENS

(To arms, citizens / To the arts, citizens / To the trees, citizens / With ardor, citizens)
A small crowd gathered to watch me graffiti. I refused to write the English translation, to explain myself, or even really to make eye contact. I capped my pen, turned on my heel, and walked calmly away, leaving people to puzzle things out for themselves. I figured this was in the proper revolutionary spirit.

As for my slogan, it probably wouldn't have passed muster in Mai '68--an era that hated all references to old patriotic traditions ("Aux armes citoyens" is, of course, a line in the Marseillaise) and scorned the notion that art could save us. Slogans from the time included "Lisez moins, vivez plus" (Read less, live more) and "La culture est l'inversion de la vie" (Culture is the inverse of life). But I DO believe in art--maybe that's a flaw of mine, that I am naturally an aesthete, not a revolutionary. In fact, you might sum me up with another Mai '68 slogan: "Je suis marxiste, tendance Groucho" (I'm a Marxist--the Groucho kind).

I prefer art to polemics, and I do believe you can separate the two. In Mai '68, film director François Truffaut was joining the protests and helping to shut down the Cannes Film Festival--but he was also making a light-as-air romantic comedy, the wonderful Stolen Kisses (my IMDB review). Stolen Kisses has the spirit of 1960s youthful optimism, but I can relate to it because it's not specifically concerned with the day-to-day problems of 1968. For that reason, I am much more interested in Truffaut's universal, humanistic outlook than in Godard's explicitly political and theoretical films.

Yes, film was a big part of the Mai '68 spirit, and to celebrate that, the French Department also sponsored an outdoor screening of Barbarella last week--another movie that doesn't explicitly tackle politics, but couldn't be a better expression of the free-love, down-with-authority '60s. I got excited as soon as the screening was announced.

See, my friends Molly and Thane introduced me to Barbarella last December, when they screened it to help people chill out during finals. I had my laptop in front of me, frantically trying to finish a draft of The Rose of Youth, and beside me Thane and Molly were yelling out their favorite Barbarella quotes and playing a drinking game: you take a sip every time Barbarella changes her outfit or has an orgasm. I adore a good campy movie, and as soon as I heard the first words of the opening song, "Barbarella, psychadella," I knew I was in for a treat.

The plan last week was to screen Barbarella in French with English subtitles, but that fell through, because the French dialogue track did not have subtitles. So, while I was a little disappointed not to hear Jane Fonda say "De-crucify the angel or I melt your face!" in French, I still had fun, watching the movie with Thane and Molly again, quoting along with them this time. We seemed to be the only people there who got the campy joke of Barbarella. Everyone else watched it politely, respectfully, raising their eyebrows at the silly parts, or just getting fed up with it--as if it were meant to be educational! The three of us giggled, and gleefully anticipated our favorite moments, and go-go-danced during the end credits.

There's kind of a coda to all this--if you want to over-extend the metaphor, a reminder that the '60s are long past. On Friday Thane e-mailed me that actor John Philip Law, who played the blind angel Pygar in Barbarella, has died at the age of 70. He's more of a lifeless pretty-boy than a real actor, but that means he provides some of the most amusing moments in the movie, with his spaced-out readings of hippie-dippy lines like "An angel does not make love, an angel is love." Indeed, despite the dubious quality of Law's acting, and of Barbarella, and of some Mai '68 slogans, I do feel a little sad that such statements never could occur today, neither in the movies nor graffitied in the streets.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

"Endgame," at the end of my college years

Elaine Stritch and Alvin Epstein as Nell and Nagg. Photo by Richard Termine from playbill.com.

I will be leaving the East Coast in less than two weeks, so it's appropriate that the last play I will see in New York City for quite some time was Endgame. (I feel Beckett would've appreciated the humor in that.) Many thanks to my Shakespeare professor for the opportunity to see this--he offered me a ticket as a way of apologizing for not being able to see my play. He drove 9 of us students to the matinée at BAM on Sunday.

As always happens when Vassar takes students to BAM, we sat up in the balcony, but at least this time I was in the front row of the balcony, not the very back--a decided improvement, even though I believe Endgame would work best in a smaller theater. At least I was close enough to realize that John Turturro, especially with the stubbly beard and dark glasses that he wore to play Hamm, looks remarkably like one of my uncles. Which makes a kind of sense, if you think about it--Turturro is an Italian-American who has successfully played several Jewish characters (Barton Fink, Quiz Show) and my uncle is half-Italian and half-Jewish.

(Coincidentally, this same uncle gave me an amazing edition of Waiting for Godot/En attendant Godot, with the English and the French texts on facing pages, last Christmas. "You're the only person I know who'd appreciate it," he said.)

I think the scene between Nagg and Nell was my favorite part. I never expected that I'd get to see Elaine Stritch live onstage, least of all in a Beckett play, and her playbill bio is a real hoot! After listing most of her credits in straightforward fashion, she writes:
She then won an Emmy for the edited version of Elaine Stritch at Liberty produced by Sheila Nevins and John Hoffman for HBO. Following her triumph (she just won't quit) she filmed Paradise for Showtime TV in Salt Lake City; the movie aired in November 2004. She can also be seen in Monster-in-Law starring Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez, as well as Romance and Cigarettes, directed by John Turturro, whom she adores. Oh, and by the way: she opened the Café Carlyle in September 2005 with her very first cabaret--ever. And, in September of 2006 she did her second ever cabaret. Where else? The Café Carlyle. No need for a car and driver for this gig--she lives (over the deli) permanently at the Carlyle Hotel. Time goes on, or by, or whatever, and in April 2007 Ms. Stritch was introduced on the last episode of this season's television show 30 Rock as Alec Baldwin and Nathan Lane's--would you believe--mother! For which she won an Emmy I'll have you know.
Her co-star, Alvin Epstein as Nagg, also has an impressive resumé. He "made his NY stage debut in 1955 with Marcel Marceau, then as the Fool in Orson Welles' King Lear, Lucky in the American premiere of Waiting for Godot...Clov in the American premiere of Endgame", and "more than 150 other productions on and off Broadway," including many other Beckett works. I love how he says that as founder of American Repertory Theater, "he acted leading, supporting, and tiny roles." Really, an incredible career--my God, why doesn't this man have a Wikipedia page?

Anyway, these old pros were very sweet and touching as Nagg and Nell. In a way, though they are the oldest characters onstage, they are the easiest for the audience to relate to--since they best remember the time before whatever apocalyptic catastrophe befell their world. They may start off as grotesques, but really, they're the most human figures in the play.

Hamm, on the other hand, sees himself as a larger-than-life character. When I think of Turturro I tend to think of the whiny, adenoidal Barton Fink, so I was impressed with the rolling, self-consciously theatrical voice he used for Hamm. I will not soon forget the booming cadences as he shouted, "The dialogue!" (in response to Clov's question "What is there to keep me here?"). Max Casella emphasized the comic aspects of Clov, playing him with a bandy-legged limp and a jutting-out belly, like a character in a silent film.

I once read a theory that Hamm is like "hammer," and Clov, Nagg, and Nell all are etymologically related to "nail" (clavo in Spanish, nagel in German, nail in English). Which is interesting, because in the play Hamm really does hold the power, wield the force. How does he get such power, being blind and wheelchair-bound? I also started thinking about the connections between Endgame and Shakespeare's most apocalyptic tragedy, King Lear. (I see I am not the first person to think of this.) Specifically, how in Lear, Edgar tells the blind old Gloucester a lie in order to save his life (the marvelous "mock suicide" scene). In Endgame, Clov lies to Hamm too, but is he doing it to help him, or to cruelly torment him? Can it be both?

Oh well, I don't want to get too bogged down in theories of Beckett. In the end, you can't stage or act a theory--a point that Turturro, Epstein, Stritch, Casella, and director Andrei Belgrader are all quick to make. I'll leave you with this great interview they did with backstage.com, including several classic Elaine Stritch-icisms, such as "I think [Beckett] is a selfish son of a bitch."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Rauschenberg and the '60s


I am not extremely familiar with the artwork of Robert Rauschenberg, who died this week at the age of 82, but I do remember writing a short response to his silkscreen-collage, "Signs" (above) my senior year of high school.

Every year, my school would display a selection of prints borrowed from a wealthy art collector, and my senior year, my art history teacher had us choose a print from that year's art show and write about it. Out of all the interesting artwork on display, "Signs" fascinated me the most. I was amazed how it contains every image that we nowadays associate with The Sixties--the Kennedys, MLK, the space program, Vietnam, awesome music--yet Rauschenberg didn't have the benefit of much hindsight when he made the print, since it appeared in 1970.

Rauschenberg's prescience, his ability to distill a decade down to its essential people and its essential feelings--rage, grief, death coming before its time, the astronauts on the moon looking back at the Earth, that little conflict-ridden bauble hanging in the sky--convinced me that this was the work of a great artist. I first saw "Signs" in 2003 or 2004--now it's 2008 and I still don't know how I would visually sum up this decade in a way that would still resonate forty years from now.

Robert Rauschenberg grew up in the same Texas town as Janis Joplin, explaining her presence in this print. Evidently he created "Signs" as a magazine cover, though it was never used for that purpose. "It was conceived to remind us of the love, terror and violence of the last ten years. The danger lies in forgetting," he once said.

With memorials like these, I don't think there's any danger of forgetting the '60s.

I'm less certain about our own decade--which feels turbulent, too, but lacks the utopianism of the '60s, and so complex that it is impossible to distill things down to a few images. How would you describe the "look" of this decade, its symbols, its preoccupations? We can't even give it a name! And if naming something gives you power over it...well, then, we don't even have the power to take charge of our own era.

I said this to a friend the other day, who immediately retorted "The Aughts!" (He is an anglophile.)

"Half the people in this country don't know what that means," I said cynically. "And then what do we call the next decade? The Teens?--but then what about 2010, 2011? The Tens? No, I don't think things will get better till 2020. And then we'll still get depressed, because we'll realize it's been one hundred years since the 1920s, and we'll feel old."

On a more upbeat note, if you've got time and want to commemorate Rauschenberg, why not read Chuck Mee's exuberant homage, bobrauschenbergamerica? (Like all Mee's plays, it's available for free online). I had a good time at a student production of it last year. Rare to see a play that celebrates suburban Americana rather than denigrating or satirizing it!

Image from billsheppard.com

Friday, May 9, 2008

Arms, men, supermen, superheroes

I don't think I'll get around to it this weekend, but I kind of want to see Iron Man. As I've said before, I like superhero movies if they're well-done, and Iron Man has gotten great reviews--plus my housemate, who saw it the day it came out, really enjoyed it.

One of the biggest Iron Man raves comes from Time magazine, but the review also contains an error that amuses me. What's wrong with this sentence: "Tony is an arms dealer, an occupation that has fascinated playwrights for ages (George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman, Arthur Miller in All My Sons)"?

Answer: Man and Superman isn't Shaw's play about an arms dealer--Major Barbara is. I wonder if the reviewer slipped up and wrote Man and Superman because he had superheroes on the brain? And I also wonder if it's possible not only to mix up Man and Superman and Major Barbara, but to add Arms and the Man to the confusion. Out of all these titles, Arms and the Man sounds like it really OUGHT to be about an arms dealer (and would make a good alternative title for Major Barbara), but it's not.

Speaking of superhero movies, in my post about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (linked above) I made a parenthetical remark about enjoying the first two Spider-Man movies. I didn't realize at the time that Michael Chabon actually helped write the story for Spider-Man 2 (which I like even better than the first movie)! So now it seems that I adore superhero books and movies only if they are written by Chabon. Or something. Because I really hope that I'll have fun at Iron Man too, when I get around to seeing it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Not a dud at all

I read on About Last Night that Elaine Dundy, author and ex-wife of Kenneth Tynan, has died. It's thanks to Terry's blog that I first heard about Ms. Dundy and her novel The Dud Avocado--last spring, when I was still living in Paris, Terry announced that he had written the introduction for New York Review Books' new edition. Instantly, I knew I had to read it: a 1950s comic novel about a 21-year-old American girl and her misadventures in Paris? Sign me up! But I didn't get around to reading it till spring break this year, and never got around to blogging about it either...so.

The Dud Avocado and its narrator, Sally Jay Gorce, are charming from the first scene, which has Sally Jay wandering down the Boul' Mich' at eleven o'clock in the morning wearing an evening gown (since all her other clothes are dirty), running into an old friend from back home, and deciding she's in love with him--so how can she get out of her current affair with a suave middle-aged Italian? (When I was in Paris I considered the Boul' Mich' my stomping grounds too, and Sally Jay's Montparnasse lodgings are very close to the building where I had my classes. Yes, I read The Dud Avocado with my Paris map by my side.)

Sally Jay's time in France is filled with too many men, too much alcohol, too many late nights, and too many misadventures--especially when she and some friends decamp on a vacation to the South of France and get involved with a movie crew. All this is paid for by an indulgent uncle who wants Sally Jay to enjoy her wild oats. When she ends up in jail one night, she takes it with equanimity: "Uncle Roger, I thought, you can't say I'm not trying."

As in many comic novels, the plot is cheerfully preposterous: characters reappear at unexpected times and the denouement has a fairy-tale quality. So the book really sustains itself on the strength of Sally Jay's voice. Once again I am across the country from the book I'm writing about, so I can't describe it or quote from it as much as I'd like. Still, Sally Jay's most important quality is that she is very knowing and very innocent at the same time. Her observations of other characters' behavior are often dead-on and funny, yet she can't stop herself from making mistakes that are obvious to the reader, or from having an inflated view of herself. (There's a moment when she's sunburned and her hair is green from too much hair-dye and sun-bleaching, and she thinks she's the most ravishing creature alive.)

But what's interesting is that the novel also reads like an early critique of the "hook-up" culture. Toward the end, Sally Jay becomes disillusioned, wondering what is the point of looking attractive and flirting and having quick failed love affairs, and how much longer she can go on doing this. So, while the events of the denouement are not really believable, Sally Jay's growth as a character feels all too true. And that's a difficult thing to pull off in a comic novel--to have your charmingly madcap heroine wonder "Is that all there is?" and return to the States, sadder but wiser.

R.I.P. Elaine Dundy. The Sally Jays of this world, the American girls dashing around Paris, will live on after you.

Image from nyrb.com

Monday, May 5, 2008

No more pencils, no more books

I just had my last-ever class at Vassar. Still have to write two papers and a one-act play before I graduate, but other than that, I have learned everything that I will ever learn at college. Weird!

One thing I won't be sad to leave behind are some of the scholarly essays, especially the works of "literary theory," that I have had to read here. Granted, much of what I read increases my knowledge or even helps me see things afresh...but some essays are laden with jargon or digressions or pompousness, and I can do without them. My Shakespeare professor asked us which of our readings we liked the most and the least, and I gave my thumbs-down to an essay called "Out Damned Scot: Dislocating Macbeth in Transnational Film and Media Culture", by Courtney Lehmann. Ridiculously bad, it encapsulates everything that annoys me about certain trends in scholarship.

"Out Damned Scot" is full of pretentiousness, over-analysis, irrelevant leftist politics, and bizarre claims. It analyzes several recent film adaptations of Macbeth--we read it after watching Scotland, PA, a 2001 indie film that sets the Macbeth story at a 1970s fast-food restaurant. The essay's ostensible thesis deals with how these Macbeth adaptations respond to globalization, as well as how Macbeth, a "noir western," negotiates "desire and drive" to reinforce a corrupt capitalist system. (Or something.)

The essay begins with this confusing thesis, and a pretentious simile about how watching a DVD is like "the contested province of the thistle--a cross between a lone flower and a menacing mass of weeds" and thus like Scotland. Other pretensions include frequent use of the word jouissance, referring to our era as the fin de siècle, and citing Walter Benjamin, Homi Bhabha, Fredric Jameson, and Slavoj Zizek.

Much of Lehmann's essay ascribes absurd social significance to works of art (works of entertainment?) that probably can't bear such scrutiny--like In the Flesh, a porn adaptation of Macbeth. Lehmann writes, "The weird sisters proceed to get downright freaky among themselves [... culminating] in the head witch using a double-pronged dildo to pleasure the other two. In the broader context of the film, this image suggests the proverbial fork in the road." Um, perhaps not?

Then Lehmann discusses Star Wars: Macbeth, a short comedy film made by students at Glen Ridge High School in 1997 (you can watch it here; I haven't). Without any real evidence to go on, Lehmann decides it is a response to a traumatic event in Glen Ridge history: the 1989 rape of a retarded girl by high-school jocks. According to her, it shows the "revenge of the nerds," as well as an attempt to retreat to the golden days of the 1970s, before the rape occurred. When a nerdy Macduff kills an athletic-looking Macbeth and then "departs in a replica of the Millennium Falcon," "the implication is that [he] is headed 'back to the future' with a clean slate, having eliminated the evildoers who will give the school and surrounding community a bad name a decade later." Perhaps. But I'm more inclined to think that Star Wars Macbeth is just a youthful high-jink, the kind of skit that could be made by nerdy teens anywhere in America. Children have short memories and since the Glen Ridge trauma occurred when these kids were 10 or younger, I doubt many of them were thinking about it when they got to high school.

Lehmann also makes irrelevant jabs at the Bush Administration. In the porno Macbeth, when Banquo's ghost participates in an orgy while Macbeth sits and watches, Lehmann writes that this "[renders] the murder a failure and Macbeth an unlikely victim of John Ashcroft syndrome." Huh? A footnote explains that Ashcroft was defeated in a 2000 election by Mel Carnahan, who had died the previous month. (And Lehmann gets it wrong: the men were not competing for governor, but for the Senate.) I don't like Ashcroft either, but I know when he is relevant to a discussion versus when an author is trying to score points with leftist academics.

The analysis of In the Flesh concludes with the bizarre claim that masturbation reminds us of "self-detonating war instruments," and thus "the zero-sum game of suicidal terrorism," and "the spectacle of remote control warfare with smart bombs and unmanned planes, which remain the isolationist prerogative of those nations with the most pleasure and the least guilt." Gee, and I thought it was supposed to be fun...

Since Lehmann is discussing capitalism and globalization, it is relevant to point out how Scotland, PA amusingly plays with the similarity of "McBeth" and "McDonald's." But how does she possibly reach this conclusion: "The fetishized arches of the letter 'M' in this film ominously point to what comes after 'M'--'En'--as in noir and, of course, Enron." Maybe that's how her mind works--but do you immediately think of "Enron" when you see a big letter M?

So, good riddance to this kind of scholarly writing--so over-the-top, over-reaching and confused that I still can't explain Lehmann's thesis despite having read the essay three times. In fact, the more I read it, the more I decide it must be a parody of poorly written contemporary scholarship. But the sad part is, it's not.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Underrated Peter Shaffer

As students of playwriting, we're taught to concentrate on those influential dramatists with blazingly original styles, overwhelming visions, and large-looming reputations. But that can get a little intimidating--not every one of us is destined to be a Shakespeare or a Beckett--and in moments like these, I look to the next tier of playwrights for inspiration. The ones whose works probably didn't change the world, but are consistently intelligent, solidly crafted, and theatrically effective. And one of my favorites of this underrated bunch is Sir Peter Shaffer.

Shaffer will celebrate his 82nd birthday on May 15. (His identical twin brother Anthony, author of Sleuth, died in 2001.) Sir Peter is best known for his plays Equus and Amadeus; I am also familiar with Black Comedy and Lettice and Lovage. All in different genres; all with something noteworthy about them.

Black Comedy, which I saw many years ago in a high-school production, is a British farce, with all the silliness that implies--governed by the theatrical conceit that when the lights are fully illuminating the stage, for the characters it's a pitch-black power outage. Lightweight entertainment, but it's stood the test of time for over forty years, so it must have something that other farces lack. And perhaps it inspired Alan Ayckbourn, whose comedies often play with theatrical conceits in a similar way.

Equus, which tends to be remembered as "that play where the boy gets naked and falls in love with a horse" is actually an intense and moving theatrical work. I saw it at Vassar in a student production where the actors did not get fully nude and the role of the psychiatrist was played by a woman (Martin became Margaret), and I still found it a powerful work of art. If that doesn't testify to the play's sheer indestructability, I don't know what does.

Amadeus, now better known in its excellent film version, is another drama that just works. Mixing historical fact with a dash of legend, it's not just a "bio-play," but taps into the deep fear we all have of being "mediocrities" like Salieri. Its juxtaposition of Mozart's beautiful music with the ugly emotions of jealousy and rage give it its power.

Lettice and Lovage, like Black Comedy, is fluffy, but even it has a number of interesting features. "Star vehicle" comedies were once a huge part of the theatrical landscape but have now died out; Lettice and Lovage is one of the last, written in 1987 for Maggie Smith. The play provides outstanding roles for two middle-aged actresses; it concerns women as they relate to one another, not to their children or husbands or lovers; and the humor is sophisticated, relying on knowledge of British history, etc.

You can't instantly recognize a Shaffer play from reading a page of its dialogue (as you can with some playwrights), but his works do have a theme and a voice running through them. As Frank Rich wrote of Lettice and Lovage, it is "a high camp, female version of the archetypal Shaffer play, most recently exemplified by Equus and Amadeus, in which two men, one representing creativity and ecstatic passion and the other mediocrity and sterility, battle for dominance." Yet because Shaffer explores this theme in such a variety of settings, it doesn't feel like he's repeating himself.

And, though Shaffer is not a great avant-garde innovator, he has an eye for the theatrical; none of these plays are small and sitcom-like. Just think of the actors-as-stylized-horses in Equus, for instance. (Side note: My freshman-year roommate was in the student production of Equus that I saw, and kept as a souvenir one of those abstract, soldered-metal horses' heads. It hung on our wall for the rest of the year--a little frightening.) In his preface to Amadeus, Shaffer writes that his plays are "intentionally gestural and spectacular in effect"; in his preface to The Royal Hunt of the Sun (I still haven't read the play itself--soon, soon!) he writes "I did deeply want to create, by means both austere and rich--means always disciplined by a central aesthetic--an experience that was entirely and only theatrical."

To me, that is a noble goal--something that I myself want to achieve as a playwright. I have a lot of respect for Peter Shaffer's ability to craft plays that are theatrical, smart, and entertaining all at once, and wonder why I have never heard other writers cite him as an influence. (Still, I can see it in places--I think M. Butterfly is a Shaffer-esque play.) By way of comparison with another of my favorites, Tom Stoppard, Shaffer is ten years older, less well-known, less prolific, and less "intellectual." But isn't it admirable that Shaffer's plays are always intelligent, yet not intimidating the way Stoppard's sometimes are?

Photo of Shaffer from wilmatheater.org, which also hosts a worthy interview with Shaffer about Amadeus and other matters.