Saturday, April 18, 2009

Recent(ish) Used-Bookstore Acquisitions

The Complete Plays of Charles Ludlam.

Tony Kushner, in an introduction to a volume of five selected Ludlam plays, writes:
The Complete Plays of Charles Ludlam was published by Harper & Row in 1989. It’s now out of print, one further bit of proof, if you needed any, that we’re slipping into barbarism. The book was over nine hundred pages long and it contained twenty-nine plays. Ludlam’s is a dazzling and significant body of work, and it should be accorded a place of greatest regard and honor in the American dramatic literary canon. The plays are funny, erudite, poetic, transgressive, erotic, anarchic, moving, and so theatrical they seem the Platonic ideal of everything we mean when we use that word. His vocabulary! What other American playwright has ever used so many different words? The endless references, the quotes, the great arias of perversion, the Great Silliness […] Any serious lover of the theater [should] read everything Ludlam wrote.
Well, where Kushner commands, I aim to obey--and the words he used to describe Ludlam's plays made them sound right up my alley. So when I saw this volume at Moe's Books in Berkeley for $12, I snapped it up.

It was a good day, the day I got it, last November. My housemate had driven me into Berkeley and taken me to a football party and a sorority house, which I observed with the inquisitive detachment of the anthropologist. I had just extricated myself from that crowd and walked several blocks down Telegraph Avenue in the rain (it rained like mad that whole day), when I wandered into Moe's to dry off, and spotted the Ludlam book. Then I had a slice of chocolate cake while reading American Theater magazine. Then I went to see the inaugural performance by my friend Mo's fledgling ensemble, the Strangefellowes. Then we all went out for drinks at Beckett's Pub, watched over by portraits of Samuel B. and Oscar W. A good day.

I've barely made a dent in it, since it's not the kind of book you carry around on MUNI; but I am glad to have it on my shelf and be able to savor it at my leisure. I started out by reading Ludlam's famous travesty of La Dame aux Camelias, since you know I have a thing about that story. He borrowed Dumas' plot, Verdi's three-act structure, Garbo's demeanor and costumes, laid a lot of very silly jokes over top, and... well, I suppose it's rather like Moulin Rouge, what with the seesawing between earnestness and parody, wanting the audience to cry but knowing that that cannot happen without also winking at the 100+ years of pop culture that have gone by since Dumas first wrote his tale.

Also, there is something that appeals to me immensely (I guess it's my obsessive side?) about having a playwright's Complete Plays in one volume. This one joins the complete works of Shakespeare, Shaw, Aristophanes and Chekhov on my shelf. (Or rather, it metaphorically joins them, since the others are still in Oregon...)

Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre, by Joanne Bentley.

Wow! What a discovery! When I was writing my play about Hallie Flanagan over a year ago, I got to go into the Vassar College archives and read many of the interviews that Bentley conducted while doing research for this book. (Bentley was also Hallie Flanagan's stepdaughter, and ex-wife of drama critic Eric Bentley--who divorced her when he realized he was gay.) I never read the finished biography, though; and I certanly didn't expect I'd come across a copy of the book in a used bookstore in the Inner Sunset of San Francisco!

"There are books we find, and there are books that find us," said the bookseller when I told him this story. Because, really, if I hadn't moved to the Inner Sunset, who else would have bought this book from him? It might have languished on his shelf for years... And while I don't think I'm going to read it right away, it is an invaluable addition to my library. I think of what's on my bookshelves as an extension of what's in my brain, after all.

There's a bookplate in the front of this book, and just for a lark, I Googled the name: "Toby Cole." Turns out that Ms. Cole was an amazing woman in her own right: theater agent, radio broadcaster, Federal Theater Project actress, progressive activist. She died less than a year ago and I guess someone must have donated her books to this store. Next time I go there, I'm going to see if I can find anything else good from her collection...

Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie.

Less obscure than the other two books, but no less valuable to me. When I was a preteen/young teenager, my family had a tradition of going to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and staying at the Mount Ashland Inn. We always stayed in the same room, which always had a dozen or so books in it, including Haroun. It's a quick read, and the only one of the books that was really suited to a girl my age, so for three or four years, I had a tradition of reading it every summer, perched in my little log-cabin nook on Mount Ashland. So I've never owned a copy, but since I'm no longer going to the Mount Ashland Inn, I obviously need one now.

Also, it's an enormously likable fantasy-adventure on the surface, but moving, too, when you note that it's the first thing that Rushdie wrote after the fatwa was declared, and it is a fairy tale about the freedom of expression and the need for art and storytelling, and he wrote it for his young son, whom he could not see in person...

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