Thursday, November 5, 2009

Dorothy Parker, Playwright in Disguise

Of the books I've read lately, the one that I can sense will most influence my playwriting, and has inspired me to sit down and write a few scenes, isn't a playscript or a book on theater history. It's Dorothy Parker's Complete Stories.

These days, Parker seems best known for her persona: the iconic Algonquin Round Table wit, one of the world's first snarky women, author of mordant little poems. But that leaves a lot out. For one, we forget her deep troubles, that she was "one of the saddest rapid-burnout cases in American letters," as Joan Acocella once described her. (My father once accused me of "wanting to be Dorothy Parker"--Heaven forbid, I say!) But we also forget that, out of all her writing, she was evidently proudest of her short stories, not her poetry or epigrams.

I picked up the Penguin Classics edition of Parker's Complete Stories (I have a Penguin Classics fetish and a "complete works" fetish, so this was a must-buy), and, after I got past the irritating introduction by scholar Regina Barreca, discovered some wonderful writing. (This review at the site Words on Us perfectly expresses my grievances with the introduction. Basically, Barreca noisily defends Parker against every criticism that has ever been leveled at her--even though some of those criticisms are valid, and not just malicious invective cooked up by the patriarchal establishment.)

I'll begin with a criticism of my own: yes, Parker was funny and cynical, but she could rely too much on cheap ironies. Reading this collection, it gets to the point where you can anticipate the plot of the story from seeing its title: if a story is called "Oh! He's Charming!" or "The Wonderful Old Gentleman," you can predict that the man in question is going to be horrible.

But not all of the stories are this simplistic--and, as I said, I was surprised and thrilled to discover that most of them function like one-act plays. A man and a woman, or sometimes two female friends, have a conversation in a taxicab or on a banquette at a cocktail party--and that's the story, the effects all achieved with dialogue. Some of my favorites: "A Terrible Day Tomorrow" (guy tries to get a girl drunk--his speech getting more and more rambling as he drinks), "Arrangement in Black and White" (which indicts racist attitudes by letting us overhear the patronizing things said by a woman at a party), and "Dusk Before Fireworks" (a painfully observed account of a clever young woman in love with a man who keeps stringing her along). Interspersed with these stories-in-dialogue are some other stories, told in the first person--that is, "dramatic monologues." The narrator of the monologue is often Dorothy Parker herself, complaining humorously about her broken garter or her awful dance partner or her insomnia. But sometimes she writes in a different voice--check out "Lady With a Lamp," the monologue of a rather unlikable woman visiting her friend, who is indisposed after having an abortion. It captures the personality of this "frenemy," and I am sure it was quite daring for 1931!

Has anyone ever acquired the rights to some of Parker's stories and adapted them into a theater piece? I can picture it now--"A Dorothy Parker Evening." It would alternate her dialogue sketches with her dramatic monologues, and then finish up with a dramatization of one of her longer stories... might I suggest "The Game" (a collaboration with Ross Evans, from 1948), which is a fantastic, tense story about a game of charades that reveals a sordid secret. It would be a fun evening in the theater--and because of Parker's name recognition, I think it would also have commercial appeal!

And in the meantime, I know I'll be returning to Parker's stories, examining how they work and how much her dialogue conveys. I love discovering "playwrights-in-disguise"--authors of prose fiction whose greatest asset is their dialogue. There's Parker, Hemingway, Armistead Maupin... who else?

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