Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Millers' Son

As Dolores pointed out in the comments to this post, Arthur Miller's claims to being a great moral example are severely compromised now that the story of how he institutionalized his son, who had Down's Syndrome, has been revealed. What really stings is the fact that Miller rarely visited and never talked about Danny; it's one thing to decide that doctors and professionals can take care of your disabled child better than you can, but another thing to pretend that he doesn't even exist.

Though it can never be easy to raise a disabled child, I feel it must be worse for people who work in creative fields--people who don't earn a steady salary and who need time each day to be alone with their thoughts. For someone who works a regular nine-to-five job, raising a disabled child may require cutting back on overtime hours, advancing more slowly up the career ladder, socializing less often with friends. But for a playwright like Miller or a globetrotting photographer like his wife, Inge Morath, it may require completely abandoning one's artistic vocation--an integral part of oneself. And most artists aren't even as successful/famous as Miller and Morath were when they had Danny; if Miller needed money he could always give lectures or something, but most other artists need to have a day job to pay the bills. It would be superhuman for anyone to work full-time, and raise a disabled child, and write great plays. It might be possible to do two of those things, but not all three...

Therefore, even though I'm not sure whether I want to have children and if I do have them it will be many years in the future, I already worry about giving birth to a severely disabled baby and being forced to give up writing and theatergoing and everything that I have worked so hard to achieve. Could I accept it without bitterness? Could I find the strength and selflessness that would be required of me?

Even if I didn't have playwriting aspirations--if I were just an intellectual young woman--these worries would still haunt me. I have written before that I think I am very much like A.S. Byatt's character, Frederica Potter. In Babel Tower, Frederica is the mother of a little boy named Leo. Previous books show Frederica as very cerebral and quite self-centered, so you assume she'll be a cold and distracted sort of mother, but I like that Byatt makes a less obvious choice. Although Frederica doesn't really do baby-talk and cuddles, she is nevertheless a very good mother--because she takes Leo seriously, listens to what he has to say, answers his questions with care and honesty. The mind is so important to Frederica that she cannot help but be concerned with what is going into the formation of Leo's mind and personality--as all parents ought to be.

This strikes me as a very truthful portrait of how cerebral women express their love for their children. And if I ever am a mother, I think I will be similar to Frederica. Thus, the idea of having a child who is mentally disabled--who may never learn to talk--with whom I could never share a mature conversation, or even the kind of conversation that adults have with curious five-year-old children--frightens me a lot. Because it wouldn't play to my natural strengths as a mother. Because to me, the reward for raising a child is watching him develop all the way to adulthood and feeling your relationship with him evolve.

Other people must have similar worries, and in fact, I just learned about a new play that addresses this issue. When Jason Grote tweeted that a play called Precious Little is the best thing he's seen in years, I quickly looked it up. It is by Madeleine George (who, let me note in passing, is another former winner of the Young Playwrights Contest) and deals with "a linguist who, in her early forties, decides to have a baby on her own and discovers through prenatal testing that the child may have a genetic abnormality... She tries to figure out whether she can deal with having a child who might never speak to her."

I'm intrigued already.

Monday, June 22, 2009

2-Year Blogiversary / Off to Japan

Tonight is the night before my long-anticipated trip to Japan. It also happens to be the 2-year anniversary of marissabidilla. When I started this blog, I'd quite recently come back from France--now I'm about to take my first overseas trip since that time.

I'm not bringing my laptop--meaning that this will be the longest time in, I think, 5 years, that I will be away from my computer. It should be healthy for me--clear my head a bit, separate the woman from the machine. I'll borrow my friend's computer to check e-mail and read the headlines, but I don't plan to write any new blog posts from Japan. I have set up a few things to post in my absence, though, so keep checking back here!

Surely I'll write plenty of posts about Japan when I return, but in the meantime, I see that Slate.com has a columnist in Japan this week and next, so you might enjoy reading his articles too. Maybe I'll have to compare my experiences to his!

Japan, I think, will be the first place I've ever traveled where I'll really, really feel like a foreigner. Well, I guess that in Cuba I stood out as a foreigner too, but there I was nearly always with a big group of American students, so we all stood out, as a unit. When people stared at me there, they were staring at my whole group; in Japan I will attract attention as an individual. All the more so because Japan is such a collectivist society. In Cathy Davidson's book, she writes that in Japan, "if you are young, or tall, or blond, you are treated as if you are a movie star." Through no fault of my own, I hit the young-tall-blond trifecta, so I am prepared for some weird experiences.

I almost think it should feel even weirder, though, to be an American visiting Japan. Because after all, only one country has ever attacked another with an atomic bomb--my country, attacking theirs. And the city where I will be staying--Kobe--was firebombed almost to smithereens by the Americans! (And then half-destroyed again in the 1995 earthquake. Poor Kobe.)

As for this being the two-year anniversary of marissabidilla--well, I haven't become a blogging superstar, but I think I like it that way, and I believe that keeping a blog has made me a more positive person. When I started this blog, I expected that I was going to write a lot more ranty posts than I have ended up creating--maybe fitting the stereotype of the angry citizen-blogger, using this democratic New Media form to puncture inflated reputations and open my readers' eyes to the truth. But you know what? I don't like spending my Internet time with bloggers who come off as negative and angsty and humorless! So my blog should not be that way either. Of course, if I have negative feelings about a play or book, I'll let you know it. But I try to do it fairly, and I try not to make this a place for bitching about random idiots I encounter or the minor frustrations and humiliations of life.

So, gradually, this blog has become a repository of things that I love, rather than things that make me angry. And, somewhat to my surprise, I keep discovering more things to love and to post about and to share with you! Two years ago, I didn't know whether I could sustain a blog for this long. But now, when I think of all of the things I love that I have barely even mentioned on this blog yet, it makes me giddy!

I'll return from my vacation on July 3.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Trompe L'Oeil "Tosca"

I saw Tosca at San Francisco Opera over a week ago, but I haven't written about it yet mainly because it did not affect me that deeply--and because I can't figure out why it left me so unmoved, I wasn't sure what to say about it. Yet I wanted it to touch me--the way it did Harvey Milk in the last scenes of Milk!

It was a very traditional staging, but since thousands of people have been moved by traditional productions of Tosca over the last century, I can't pin the blame on that. All right, the scenery, which mostly consisted of trompe l'oeil painted flats, was rather too old-fashioned for my taste. If an opera house cannot afford to construct or store full sets for an opera like Tosca, I would prefer some tastefully minimalist scenery to these huge walls of trompe l'oeil--and I think many operagoers my age would agree with me. As for the direction, I thought Tosca's leap could have been more impressive, but I really liked the moment in Act I when Scarpia's minions arrived on the scene. Somehow, they managed to slide onstage silently and appear among the crowd of priests and altar boys before you realized how they'd arrived there--it was really scary!

The cast was not as starry as the one Harvey Milk saw in 1978, but Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca), Carlo Ventre (Cavaradossi), and Lado Ataneli (Scarpia) were all suited to their roles. I can see how Tosca could be played as an imperious diva, but Pieczonka stressed her neurotic, insecure side; she really seemed vulnerable when Scarpia made her believe that Cavaradossi was cheating on her. This interpretation--with its emphasis on a weakness or sickness in Tosca's soul--also made you understand why she cracks under Scarpia's pressure in Act II, something that a more domineering Tosca might have trouble conveying. Ventre was an appropriately passionate painter, especially when using the last ounces of his strength to shout out a ringing "Vittoria!" in Act II. Ataneli was not a physically overpowering Scarpia, but he was very sly and slimy. He was also quite charming at the curtain call: his eyes twinkled, the embroidery on his coat twinkled, and he smiled as if to say "See? I'm not really a nasty bastard!"

This was my first time seeing Tosca, and though it's known for its melodrama, I was surprised how much humor is in it--the Sacristan's comments that undercut the romanticism of "Recondita armonia," Tosca's crazy jealousy, and her later efforts to teach Cavaradossi how to "play dead." I also thought about how amazingly fast-paced the story is--Tosca begins her day as a rather self-absorbed artist, and ends it as a murderess, a revolutionary, a martyr. And I noticed the themes of art, life, theatricality and ritual that run though the opera. The hero and heroine are artists, and Scarpia manipulates everyone around him, like a particularly evil playwright or stage manager. The Te Deum mass is an elaborate pageant, and after Tosca kills Scarpia, she arranges the body in a ritualistic fashion. The big arias all deal with the themes of art and life. (Indeed, in a more "conceptual" production, the use of blatantly artificial, painted scenery could reinforce these themes. But somehow I don't think that this was the case here.)

But these are all intellectual responses. And I wanted to have an emotional response.



Photos from San Francisco Opera. Top: Act One. The trompe l'oeil nature of the scenery was much more evident in the opera house than it is in this photo.
Bottom: Pieczonka and Ataneli, Act Two.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

"Timebends," Crooked Lives, Warped Humor

I've finally finished reading Timebends, Arthur Miller's dense and twisty memoir. Despite its length, Miller still leaves some things out (he hardly discusses his first marriage, and, of course, never mentions his Down's-syndrome son — more on that in a later post). Nonetheless, it is very revealing, sometimes overly so. At one point Miller casually admits to having an Oedipus complex, as if it were no different than having a stomachache. Does he not know how weird this makes him sound? Or does he just not care? On the one hand, it's valuable that Miller reveals stuff like this; on the other hand, it's not fun to read a memoir if you're constantly raising your eyebrows at the author.

Miller spends a lot of the book trying to justify his actions, but sometimes this has the opposite effect--he makes some feeble excuses. You know, if he'd written, "It was the 1950s, I was going through a lot of angst, McCarthyism frightened me, my marriage wasn't working out, women found me attractive now that I was famous, so I'm not saying it was a nice thing to do, but I cheated on my wife," that would be honest and humble, and you could forgive him. But instead he makes it sound like the hardships of McCarthyism not only caused him to cheat on his wife, but justified it--because he deserved the succor that only contact with the "eternal feminine" could provide. (Can female artists ever think that "the eternal feminine" is anything but hogwash? You never hear us extol "the eternal masculine.") The New Yorker titled its review of Timebends "Apologia Pro Vita Sua," and I can't think of a better description.

I have never read this much non-fiction writing from one dramatist before, and it is good that Miller discusses his major plays in depth. And undoubtedly, he has a very clear vision of what theater ought to do. For him, plays must specifically engage with and respond to major social and political trends; otherwise they are worthless. He is right, up to a point--of course theater should be relevant! But his vision can get way too didactic and dreary; it leaves out everything that has to do with amusement and style and the thrill of live performance. In the last part of the book, he veers close to sounding like a grouchy old man who says "Entertainment? Bah, humbug!"

Yes, it makes sense to decry the mind-numbing, commercialized entertainment of the late twentieth century. But when I think about the playwrights who have brought me the most joy and whom I admire most--I don't believe any of them would ever have said "Bah, humbug!" to entertainment.

Then there is the related matter of Miller's humorlessness. Or perhaps I should say, his bizarre sense of humor: in Timebends he says he considers Death of a Salesman a funny title. ("Out of the laughter the title came one afternoon. Death Comes for the Archbishop, the Death and the Maiden Quartet--always austere and elevated was death in titles. Now it would be claimed by a joker, a bleeding mass of contradictions, and there was something funny about that, something like a thumb in the eye, too." A strange thing to say about a play that Americans have always considered "austere and elevated.")

Yet there is also a suggestion that Miller finds humor vulgar and embarrassing. On the last page, he writes, "If only we could stop murdering one another we could be a wonderfully humorous species." As if humor were a frivolity that has no right to exist until all the world's problems have been solved. As if we were not already a wonderfully humorous species, despite all the tragedies that remain with us. As if humor were not a way of dealing with those tragedies. If we lived in a perfectly harmonious world, I daresay we would not need humor--it would not even tempt us. Doesn't some of the best humor result from righteous anger in the face of adversity? The world is imperfect, and therefore the world is humorous.

Very few of my favorite artists lack a sense of humor--especially when it comes to playwrights. (For some reason I seem to find humorlessness easier to take in novels, e.g. Atonement, a great book but entirely solemn.) This is why something like Synecdoche New York leaves me feeling almost betrayed--because Charlie Kaufman's other screenplays show that he has a profound and original sense of humor, but it was hardly evident in Synecdoche.

Oddly enough, in the first part of that movie, Caden, the protagonist, directs Death of a Salesman using a "concept" that he hopes will make it even more depressing: Willy and Linda are played by young actors, and Caden wants the audience to realize that the young people will inevitably grow up to become like Willy and Linda, though they seem so full of promise. And the rest of the movie proves Caden's thesis--a perfect storm of humorlessness, really.

Now, before I go to Japan, I am trying to finish up the Anthony Lane compilation as well as read The Complete Short Fiction of Oscar Wilde. In other words, I require not one, but two, preternaturally witty Brits to serve as palate-cleanser after the humorless American. Wilde, the man who said "Style, not sincerity, is the important thing," is a very good antidote to 600 pages of Miller.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Uneasy in my Easy Chair, It Never Entered My Mind

You might not have guessed it, since I wrote a few blog posts in advance to be published while I was away--but the weekend of June 6 & 7, I took a brief trip up to Oregon. And I mean brief, as in "so brief I didn't even get a chance to go to Powell's." But I did get to see a play and hang out with theater people and be gobsmacked at how much cheaper drinks are in Portland than in S.F.

The play I saw was called The Uneasy Chair, by Evan Smith--presented by CoHo Productions. Kind of an offbeat comedy, set in Victorian London, that both avails itself of, and mocks, our stereotypes of the Victorian era and the dramaturgy of that time. It's very much in the Oscar Wilde/Gilbert & Sullivan vein: the plot is set in motion by a misunderstanding, laws get interpreted in absurd ways, characters are driven to do absurd things because of misplaced pride and a fear of society's condemnation. There is a very funny scene when all four of the main characters--spinster landlady Miss Pickles, retired soldier Captain Wickett, and their respective niece and nephew--meet for the first time, and each of them affects a personality that puts them at odds with everyone else. Still, even when the characters drop these masks and reveal their true natures, things don't get much better--for their true natures are stubborn, miserly, and narrow-minded. Ah, that's comedy!

The Uneasy Chair was produced in New York in 1998 and I think one of the jokes might even be funnier now than it was then. The climax of Act Two (yes, it's in three acts--how Victorian) has a judge refusing to annul the marriage of two people who obviously despise each other, because he believes in "the sanctity of marriage"--now that the struggle for gay marriage has made that phrase into a pundits' favorite, it got a big laugh.

Before the show and during intermission, I was having too good a time chatting with Mr. Mead to read my playbill, but when I got home and glanced through it, I learned that Evan Smith went to Vassar, and he won the Young Playwrights Contest! Just like me! I'm rather surprised I haven't heard of him, but it is encouraging to see that someone with a similar background to mine is making it as a playwright. I think I should try to get in touch with him, don't you?

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Any idiot can misattribute a quote

Today in a bookstore I saw a greeting-card for sale emblazoned with a quote from Chekhov: "Any idiot can face a crisis--it's the day-to-day living that wears you out." I think I ran across this quote a few weeks ago, too (can't remember where) and was of course struck by its utter Chekhovishness. The truth, the humanity of it. The scorn for the "idiots" who think that our true personalities are revealed only in extreme situations, rather than by the routine ways each of us spend our lives; mixed with a tender, if wry, sympathy for the problems of the "little man."

So when I got home I looked it up--to find out from what play or story or essay it derived. And I couldn't find a source for it at all.

So does this mean that the quote is just too good to be true? Too Chekhovian to be genuine Chekhov? Something that some other clever person once dreamed up, said "Hey! That sounds like Chekhov!" and pretended that it was Chekhov's own words?

I would love to know what the story is with this quote. Sometimes the history of how something gets falsely attributed--and how the lie gets perpetuated--is even more interesting than the quote itself.

My quest for the source of this quote did enable me to spend some quality time with the Wikiquote page on Chekhov--always a valuable undertaking. Two of the quotes there absolutely broke my heart: "I would like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret God has not given me the strength to be one" and "Lermontov died at age twenty-eight and wrote more than have you and I put together. Talent is recognizable not only by quality, but also by the quantity it yields." These come from letters he wrote in the late 1880s--by the time he died in 1904, had he changed his beliefs, or did he go to his too-early grave convinced that his output was too meager to qualify him for artistic greatness, still doubting his own ability?

On the other hand, I--who have still never written a one-act play that I consider to be any good--found this quote surprisingly heartening: "In one-act pieces there should be only rubbish—that is their strength. "

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"God of Carnage" Clafoutis

I spent the afternoon sitting in Golden Gate Park and reading Le Dieu du Carnage. Yes, in French, because I am just that pretentious. A year and a half ago, at Christmas, my French host parents, Thierry and Catherine, sent me a copy of the script, which had recently premiered in Paris. To my chagrin, I didn't make the time to read it until now, when the Broadway production is one of the hits of the season. Yasmina Reza is now the first woman--and the first person who doesn't write in English--to win two Tony Awards for Best Play. Congrats!

Now that God of Carnage is such a success in the States, I wonder if it is going to popularize the traditional French dessert, clafoutis. (A good deal of dialogue is devoted to a clafoutis that one of the characters bakes, including the quintessentially French debate as to whether it is a cake or a tart.) If this becomes the next big culinary trend, I want everyone to know that I have been talking about this dessert to anyone who will listen--and cooking it when I get the chance--for well over a year. As The Minimalist says, this is "the fastest fancy dessert you can possibly make"--it looks much more difficult than it actually is.

A clafoutis is basically a pancake--a thick, eggy, oven-baked Dutch Baby pancake--with fruit folded into the batter. It is most traditionally made with cherries, which you do not pit. Keeping the cherries whole prevents their juice from running out and staining the batter; furthermore, the cherry pits somehow lend a delicious hint of almond flavor to the dessert. Some people will try to convince you that this "almond flavor" thing is just a myth. But trust me: it works.

It's cherry season here in California, so to satiate my God of Carnage-caused cravings, I just baked a cherry clafoutis. The first time I ever made clafoutis, I improvised the batter by modifying my dad's recipe for a Dutch Baby pancake (or as we call it chez nous, "oven pancake") but tonight I used Mark Bittman's recipe from How to Cook Everything. Tasty, if not a complete success: it took a LOT longer to bake than the recipe said it would, and I prefer a slightly thicker batter.

All the talk about clafoutis in God of Carnage makes it fit into a rarefied subcategory of plays: those that include recipes in the course of the dialogue. Ever since my theatrical dinner party in Paris (a party encouraged, bien sur, by Thierry and Catherine) I have a minor hobby of noting when food gets mentioned in a play. So just as Cyrano de Bergerac includes a recipe (in verse, no less!) for Ragueneau's almond tarts, God of Carnage gives you enough information to let you replicate Véronique's clafoutis. It includes pears, apples, and bits of gingerbread crumbled into the batter. Yum! If I ever throw a theatrical dinner party in the autumn, this is what I'll be making.

Oddly enough, God of Carnage also fits into another subcategory that only I probably care to note: works of art that mention corporate shareholder meetings. (It's because of my job.) One of the characters, Alain, is a lawyer who represents a pharmaceutical company; he's stressed out because a study has just attributed negative side effects to one of the company's medications, and it's fifteen days before the annual shareholder meeting! He spends half the play on his cell phone, scheming to suppress or discredit the results of the study. In a sign, though, that I know far too much about corporate shareholder meetings for my own good, I thought "Wait, this play is supposed to take place in November. But if Yasmina Reza had done her research, she'd know that most French corporations have their annual meeting in the springtime!"

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Summertime, And the Opera is Splendid

The summer season at San Francisco Opera is now in session, and yesterday, I managed to get a standing-room ticket to the opening night of Porgy and Bess. Then, as I stood at the back of the auditorium waiting for the opera to start, a woman came up to me and offered an extra ticket she had in Row E! I was a little hesitant to take it (I'm an able-bodied young person who wouldn't have much trouble standing for three hours; some of my fellow standees were much older) but really, what else could I do? So I ended up paying $10 and sitting in a seat that normally costs $200. I was so close I had to crane my neck to read the surtitles (fortunately this opera is in English); so close that when the singers came over to my side of the stage, their voices really boomed out.

I'd been wanting to see Porgy and Bess for a long time: I love Gershwin and the 1930s and works that can be considered either unusually sophisticated musicals or unusually unpretentious operas. (To give you some idea of how hard Porgy and Bess is to classify: Stephen Sondheim has said that he is really not a fan of opera or through-sung musicals--and also says that Porgy and Bess is his all-time favorite score. Go figure.) And I came away thoroughly impressed. "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" is as great a love duet as has ever been written for either an opera or a musical. During intermission I walked around the opera house hallways humming that, and "I Got Plenty Of Nothin'," and "It Ain't Necessarily So"--I couldn't help myself!

Occasionally I thought that there were a few too many scenes of "local color" in Porgy and Bess, which got in the way of the storytelling (when a woman came onstage selling strawberries, I thought "enough with the street vendors already"). And I agree also with the program note that says that the role of Bess is a bit vague--defined by whatever man she happens to be with at the time, not by her own innate personality. But these are minor quibbles for what really is a great work. Can you believe that the same man who churned out perky '20s ditties like "I've Got a Crush on You" could also write the very complex choral work and orchestrations of Porgy and Bess? Or that he could so well imitate African-American spirituals--not just their melodic characteristics, but their stirring sense of faith? The final moments are wonderfully bittersweet and inspiring.

This production moved the setting to the 1950s, I'm not quite sure why. So some of the stage pictures ended up reminding me of West Side Story, of all things: the stylized, balletic knife fights, and the garishly colored lights that lit up the stage when Bess put on her Anita-esque orange dress and ran off to New York with Sportin' Life. (At curtain call, the director, Francesca Zambello, came out wearing an orange blouse that I was sure she had chosen to match Bess's costume!) Overall it was a fine production, except for some movement depicting Jake and Clara's deaths in the hurricane, which didn't really work. Also, why was the hurricane represented by strobe lights and thunderclaps? We should all know by now that a hurricane is not a thunderstorm!

The singing was very strong and everyone seemed well suited to their parts, physically as well as vocally. Eric Owens, who played Porgy, has a kindly face that made him instantly sympathetic; there is also something touching about seeing such a big and powerful man hobble around on a crutch. Laquita Mitchell, in a role debut as Bess, made sense of this victimized woman and sang in a rich voice. Chauncey Packer gave a wonderfully physical performance as Sportin' Life--I loved his dance moves in this scene-stealing part. Angel Blue had a beautiful voice with which to sing "Summertime" and begin the opera. Question: people always say that Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionized musical theater by beginning Oklahoma! with a cowboy singing a gentle ballad, not with a big flashy production number--but didn't Gershwin get there the previous decade, beginning Porgy and Bess with a young black woman singing a lullaby to her baby?

Porgy and Bess is all sold out, so if you want to see it, you'll have to be like me and try for standing room. May you be as lucky as I was, and may you enjoy it as much as I did!

Top: Owens and Mitchell, "Bess, You Is My Woman."
Bottom: Packer, "It Ain't Necessarily So."

Monday, June 8, 2009

Cell Phones and Kidney Lamps

It was the lamp, shaped like a kidney, that really pushed me over the edge. Prior to the appearance of this bizarre prop, I'd been hedging my bets on the production of Dead Man's Cell Phone that I was watching at the SF Playhouse--liking some of the amusing characters and lines of dialogue, but also frustrated at how much of the play seemed forced, rather than organic. The characters were overly prone to engage in philosophical reflections about how the cell phone has affected modern life; some of the attempts at whimsical humor fell flat because they tried too hard, e.g. "You are very comforting--like a very small casserole"; and even though the play was about the death of a real nogoodnik, and the woman who tells increasingly big lies about him to his grieving family, I could see a "redemptive" ending approaching from a mile off. Though I suppose I should know to expect that kind of denouement from a Sarah Ruhl play by now--even if it doesn't always fit. (For the record, I thought that the ending of Passion Play was forced--if ever a drama deserved a tragic death scene, it's the story of the Passion!--but that the redemption worked all right in The Vibrator Play.)

But, as I said, that lamp was the last straw. Jean, who was sitting in a cafe near a stranger named Gordon when he died, and has since been answering his cell phone and "comforting" (that is, lying to) his relatives, has just learned that Gordon was in the business of organ trafficking. When his phone rings and it's one of his business contacts, Jean consents to fly to Johannesberg and meet her at the airport, but instead of bringing the agreed-upon kidney, she makes a papier-mache lamp shaped like a kidney and attempts to give it away instead. And that's where I completely gave up on the play. The kidney-lamp was neither funny nor cute; worse than that, this was not even a recognizably human thing for Jean to do. I felt as though the actors were floundering up there, trying to make sense of a character who behaved in a completely alien way. (I had a similar reaction to The Clean House when Charles came onstage dragging a fifty-foot-long yew tree, having chopped it down in Alaska and flown it in a personal plane across-country, as a healing gift for his sick wife.) And after that, the play continued to go downhill--a poorly choreographed fight sequence, a trip to the afterlife, a revelation of the oh-so-whimsical things that Gordon's relatives are doing several months after his death, a coy love scene, and a self-conscious curtain line. Sheesh. At least The Clean House had a good final line.

I believe that there are very few subjects that are inherently "bad" ideas for a play--what really matters is how you dramatize the material. Act One of Dead Man's Cell Phone works because it is basically a character study of Jean's interactions with Gordon's relatives; if the play had stayed on this, recognizably human, level, it might have succeeded. Could have got a bit Six Degrees of Separation-ish, even--the story of someone who tells lies to ingratiate herself with a group of strangers. I liked the scenes with Gordon's mother (an imperious dowager in a fur stole) and the one where his widow was getting drunk at a bar. These characters are not really subtle, but they're not going around giving kidney-lamps to people, either. Another fun scene is the monologue that opens Act II--Gordon talking about the day he died. Paradoxically, the dead man becomes one of the most alive characters in the whole play, because he gets to be snarky and nasty and cheerfully amoral--all qualities not usually possessed by the inhabitants of Sarah Ruhl-land. That is, until the redemptive urge starts to kick in, and Gordon confesses "I saw her across the café... She looked like an angel." And with that, the monologue dies on its feet.

Then again, this play seemed to have been written more as a way of laying out a series of philosophical arguments about cell phones and human connection, than to investigate the inner lives of its characters and the truth of their stories. The musings on cell phones aren't profound enough to justify this approach; and I daresay that this is the wrong impulse from which to begin writing a play, anyway...

Photo: Amy Resnick, as Jean, holds the offending lamp.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Miller vs. Williams

There is not a lot of material in Arthur Miller's Timebends about Tennessee Williams, the other great American playwright of the era. Nonetheless, in one short paragraph, Miller seems to get at something essential about the difference between his worldview and Williams'.

In the late 1940s, Miller became interested in the corruption and brutality that resulted from the Mob control of the Brooklyn waterfront, and sometimes told Williams about what he'd discovered. He writes, "Tennessee, I thought, regarded my interest as remote from him as a writer and yet quite parallel to his lifelong sense of living among the unjust and the cruel. He sat listening to my descriptions of waterfront indignities [... and] seemed moved, although it was particular persons and words that touched him more than any general condition of men."

Miller seems to slightly disapprove of the fact that Williams was more moved by specific stories than by the "general condition" of injustice. But mightn't that be better, for a playwright? We are in the business of dramatizing the lives of "particular persons," after all, not writing journalistic exposés of corruption and exploitation.

I'm not saying it's bad to have a well-developed sense of morality--only that playwrights need to make sure that it doesn't overwhelm the stories they're trying to tell. IMO, Williams' characters are more vivid and memorable than Miller's, and this passage from Timebends suggests why. Though both playwrights often wrote about cruelty, Williams took each instance of cruelty on its own terms, as a matter for human drama; while Miller saw each instance of cruelty as just one more exhibit in the long history of Man's Inhumanity to Man...

Friday, June 5, 2009

Oneiric/Minimalist

Life has a way of falling into patterns sometimes. So, just as a couple of months ago I saw a French-language play inspired by Hamlet at the school where a friend of mine teaches, followed by a minimalist one-man show at the Cutting Ball Theater... well, this week, that happened again.

The French play was called Rêver peut-être, which means, of course, Perchance To Dream. It was written by Jean-Claude Grumberg. Here is my translation of the blurb:
The story of a sleeper in pajamas who wanders onto a stage peopled with Shakespearean characters. During the day, Gérald B. rehearses the role of Hamlet. And at night, like all of us, he sinks into the arms of Morpheus. A highly criminal activity, according to the female gendarme who turns up in his bedroom one morning. Called before a judge, the actor is accused of having committed several murders in his dreams. Charged with "inhumanity," he finds himself commanded by his lawyer to produce, in his defense, some dreams filled with love for his fellow man. Clinging to his bed, Gérald B. undergoes a voyage to the deepest parts of his unconscious...
This premise is so very Continental, isn't it? The idea of the gendarmerie policing Gérald's dreams is Kafkaesque, and I think Europeans have always been much more fascinated with dreams/psychoanalysis/the unconscious than Americans have. It was in my theater class in Paris that I first learned the word "oneiric" (or oneirique), in that case referring to the dream-logic employed by Pirandello--and a lot of major European art movements (Symbolism, Expressionism, Surrealism) have an oneiric quality, but this form is rarer in English and American drama.

The actors in this production were all teachers at the lycée, and it seems like half the fun, for the audience, was the chance to see their teachers cut loose. One woman wore a miniskirt, another belly-danced, and the guy who directed the play also performed the role of the judge, in fishnet stockings, short-shorts, and makeup that made his face look like Jean Cocteau had sketched it. (Cocteau: another master of the oneiric.)

I can't say I totally got the play, though. My French basically suffices for me to understand the characters' words, sentences, and conversations, though I missed a few punchlines that had everyone else in the theater roaring. But on the larger level of understanding why the characters were having these conversations, why this scene followed that scene, why the play ended when it did, I was less certain. The play utilizes dream logic, after all, and when it's dream-logic in a language that isn't your native tongue, it can get difficult. (Don't they say that the moment you're become truly fluent in a language is when you start dreaming in it? And I've had dreams that include French phrases, but never a complete dream in French.) I'm not used to being so bewildered by the structure of a play. Indeed, three or four years ago I discovered I'd begun to watch plays "like a playwright," that is, with a hyper-awareness of their underlying construction and the tricks-of-the-trade used by the playwright. But I'm still uncertain what tricks Grumberg used; perhaps I should try to locate a copy of the script...


A few days after that, at five p.m. last Sunday, I went to the Exit Theater to catch a production of Krapp's Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett. I thought it was pretty nifty, how they scheduled this short play at an unorthodox time: you could be downtown shopping or whatever, pop over to the theatre, spend forty-five minutes seeing one of Beckett's major works, and when you left it would hardly even be time for dinner. (I also liked how this saved me from having to be in the Tenderloin after dark. There's a reason that the other two times I have seen a show in this neighborhood, I have been accompanied by tall men!) On the other hand, I'm not sure this is really the best way to absorb Beckett--should he really be consumed so quickly, sandwiched between more mundane or frivolous activities? Ah, well. Such is modern life.

There was a woman of about sixty at Krapp's Last Tape, pushing an older and very frail woman in a wheelchair. After the play finished, I overheard her say to her companion, "I saw this play when I was in my twenties. I knew it would be interesting to revisit it again now. Because I think it bewildered me, when I first saw it. How could it not?"

As a young twenty-something myself, I know that I probably won't get as much out of this play as an older person will, since it's all about aging and memory and regret... But because I've kept a diary since I was fourteen, I can understand how it feels to revisit the person you once were and think "How could I have ever thought this?" Or "How could I be so naive?" Or "I'd forgotten all about that--why did it seem so important at the time?"

And I could have sat in a bookstore and read Krapp's Last Tape in about fifteen minutes, but I know it wouldn't have had the same impact. Yes, it's a stripped-down little piece, but it's entirely theatrical, because every word and gesture counts. My heart ached for Krapp every time he uncorked his liquor bottle and took a swig. And mind you, this happens when Krapp is offstage, so it's not even anything in the actor's performance that created this effect--just that lonely, hollow pop as the bottle is uncorked hit me like a shot. And at the end, when, as he listened to his younger self talk about going boating with a beautiful woman and burying his face in her breasts, he cradled his old reel-to-reel tape recorder, and the two spools of it were like a poor mechanical echo of the shape of the woman's breasts--I would not have seen this beautiful image if I had only read the play.

As a writer, minimalism does not come naturally to me. But plays like Krapp's Last Tape make me wish that it did.

Photo: Paul Gerrior as Krapp. Image from the Cutting Ball Theater.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Arthur Miller, and My Grandfather

I am currently in the middle of reading Arthur Miller's autobiography, Timebends. I cannot honestly say that Miller is one of my all-time favorite playwrights, but at the same time, very few playwrights of his stature have written such a thorough autobiography, and he worked at such an interesting time in the American theater, that I felt it would be good to read it.

Timebends is an appropriate title for this work--its chronology jumps around so that, for instance, Miller talks about the triumph of Death of a Salesman in chapter 3, but doesn't describe the first play he ever wrote until chapter 4. And I guess it's appropriate that Miller uses this technique: as The New Yorker recently reminded us, "We are now so familiar with the theatrical trope of flashing back and forth in time within a character's mind that we've forgotten we owe the device to [Death of a Salesman]." The book is dense (six hundred pages) and it takes a while to get used to the time-bendy rhythm of it; admittedly, the first part of the book, about Miller's childhood, can get tedious.

Fortunately, I have an additional reason to want to learn about Arthur Miller's boyhood, apart from the fact that he was a playwright. You see, my maternal grandfather and Miller were born about a year apart, and both grew up in New York City Jewish families. (There are some differences of course: Miller's was an upper-middle-class family that lost everything in the Depression, whereas my grandfather's family was never well-off.) When they grew up, they looked a little bit alike--tall, lanky men in thick-framed eyeglasses--and both broke out of the narrow ethnic community where they'd been raised, and married Catholic women. I get the impression that their personalities were similar, too. Both Miller and my grandfather were very serious men, I think; both felt guilty for surviving the Holocaust, even though neither of them were ever in any real danger; both were proudly liberal, and very concerned with the moral and intellectual side of things. At the same time as Miller was defending human rights as president of PEN, my grandfather (who owned a Manhattan greengrocery) was driving around in a truck that said "We boycott the produce of South Africa because of its cruel racial laws."

My grandpa, or "Papa," as I called him, died about five years ago, without ever having told me, or even his own children, much about his youth. (My mother was in her forties before she learned that Papa grew up in Manhattan, not in the Bronx, as she had always thought. I am not kidding.) So when I read Timebends, and learn about the games Miller played as a boy and the way life was for Jews in 1920s New York, I'm not just learning about the formative years of an important American playwright. I'm also wondering if my grandfather played these same games, saw these same sights, had similar experiences during his own formative years.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Key Fairy-Tale

Stop me if you've heard this one before: A young woman marries a wealthy older gentleman and goes to live in his beautifully appointed mansion. She is given the run of the place, except that she is forbidden to go into the cellar, which her husband keeps locked. Unable to contain her curiosity, the woman steals the key to the cellar and sneaks in. There, she uncovers a dreadful secret. She quickly leaves, endeavoring to conceal the fact that she went where she was forbidden to go. But a telltale dark-red stain alerts the husband that his wife broke into the cellar and discovered what he was hiding there. He becomes enraged and is on the point of killing his wife when, at the last possible moment, a rescuer arrives and saves her life.

Obviously, this is "Bluebeard," as told by Charles Perrault, right? Yes... but isn't it also the story of Hitchcock's Notorious?

The connection hit me today with such force that I'm surprised I never noticed it before--because I love Notorious and am fascinated by "Bluebeard" (I even wrote a "Bluebeard" song once). The dark-red stain is especially remarkable--Bluebeard's magical bloodstained key vs. the traces of red wine in Alex Sebastian's sink.

Of course there's more to the story of Notorious than this, and it functions on many more levels than Perrault's tale does; the addition of the Cary Grant character turns it into an extremely complex love triangle, rather than a fable about curiosity. I love knowing, though, that one reason the movie is so powerful is because part of its story is based on this time-tested and mythic structure...

Photo: Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) prepares to open the cellar door. Image from the 1000 Frames of Hitchcock Project.