Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The British Invasion comes to "Mad Men"

Last Sunday, shortly before 10 PM, my roommate put on the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" and began to fold her laundry. Since I can't resist the '60s Stones, I came into her room and we had an impromptu dance party. After "Paint It Black" we listened to "Sympathy for the Devil," hoo-hooing in harmony.

10 PM, that is, the start of the new season of Mad Men, was drawing nearer, and we had time for just one more song. (I am a Mad Men devotee; my roommate had never seen it but was curious to check it out.) "In that case," I said, "we have GOT to listen to 'Satisfaction.'"

For what could be more appropriate? It occurred to me a few months ago that "Satisfaction" is like the theme song of Mad Men. Isn't the show about people in the '60s who all, for various reasons, can't get no satisfaction? Not to mention Mick Jagger's anti-advertising rant: "When I'm watching my TV / And the man comes on to tell me / How white my shirts can be / But he can't be a man 'cause he doesn't smoke / The same cigarettes as me"--doesn't that just reinforce the Mad Men theme?

Season 3 of Mad Men ended in December 1963. Privately, I thought it would be amazing if Season 4 jumped ahead to the summer of 1965, when "Satisfaction" was the big hit song (according to my father, it "played all up and down the New Jersey shore"), and the first thing we heard in the new season was the Stones' vamping guitars and sneering vocals. More than anything else, this would signal that the angst and rebellion so commonly associated with the '60s had come crashing upon the scene. Totally visceral, totally rock-and-roll.

As it turns out, Season 4 begins in November 1964, too early for "Satisfaction." But I wouldn't be surprised if the song turns up in a later episode this season (although perhaps that's too predictable for Matthew Weiner and co.?). Furthermore, I loved how this week's episode ended with a more obscure British Invasion song playing over the end credits: "Tobacco Road" by the Nashville Teens. While I wasn't familiar with the song, I instantly recognized it as having that distinctive British Invasion sound. It was like a whole new sonic world had suddenly opened up.

So watching Mad Men has helped me understand just why the Beatles and the Stones and the other British Invasion bands had the impact that they did--they truly brought a new musical style across the pond. It also helps me understand why "Satisfaction" became such a big hit: it's not only due to the catchy guitar riff. Its lyrics really struck a nerve!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Vivie, and Other Vivid Shaw Heroines

Anna Bullard plays Vivie Warren. Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Last week I went to see Mrs. Warren's Profession at CalShakes. Mrs. Warren and her daughter Vivie are both great roles for women, and at CalShakes they were expertly acted by Stacy Ross and Anna Bullard, respectively. I loved how Ross slipped from a posh to a working-class accent in the scenes where Mrs. Warren reveals her secrets to Vivie!

The role of Mrs. Warren has always attracted famous middle-aged actresses (Cherry Jones will play it in an upcoming New York revival) but, if anything, I am even more impressed by Shaw's characterization of Vivie. So often when I read or see old plays written by men, I don't really believe in the female characters as people. Especially when the female characters are young and marriageable (ingenues), they often seem cobbled together from sentimental ideas of what women are like, rather than what such women would actually think, feel, and do.

Vivie, however, is bracingly real and unsentimental. You can tell that Shaw had fun writing her, upending the old cliches. A 22-year-old Cambridge grad with a head for mathematics, a firm handshake, and an aversion to art, she wants nothing more than to set up shop in London as an actuary. She carries on a summertime romance with feckless neighbor boy Frank, but marriage does not seem to loom large in her future plans. She is a "New Woman," placing work, not love, at the center of her world.

She's the protagonist, too--the play is about how Vivie is affected by learning her mother's profession (prostitute/brothel madam). And so Vivie has a really wonderful arc: initially brash and confident, then destabilized by the events of the play.

Furthermore, the audience is never sure what to make of her: is she admirably straightforward and smart, or is she priggish and pigheaded? Our uncertainty about Vivie goes all the way through to the end. The way I see it, Vivie has given into sentimentality just twice in her young life: first in her romance with Frank, then in her sudden outpouring of love and sympathy for her mother at the end of Act II. And both times, she gets punished for it, badly. Frank turns out to be her half-brother, and Mrs. Warren turns out to be a hypocrite who earns her money by exploiting others. At the end of the play, Vivie rejects both Frank and her mother, and the audience is meant to applaud her for having done what is morally right. But it is equally clear that Vivie, having learned to be wary of love, will spend the rest of her life as a cold, lonely woman. So the play ends on an ambiguous note; we can't be as happy for Vivie as Shaw wants us to be.

Now, I have a lot of actress friends in their 20s, and they're always complaining about the lack of good roles available to them, even in contemporary plays. And it strikes me, watching Mrs. Warren's Profession, that very few playwrights--male or female--are writing roles for young women that are as complex and rewarding as that of Vivie Warren. I had a similar thought when watching a contemporary adaptation of Pygmalion at my college, which made Eliza an African-American who had to learn to talk less "street." I didn't think that this adaptation worked too well--but that raised the question: why aren't more American playwrights writing plays that deal with class as incisively as Shaw does in Pygmalion? And why aren't they writing more roles for young women that are as good as Eliza Doolittle?

Indeed, despite the class differences, there are similiarities between Eliza and Vivie. Both are ambitious young women whose primary goal is to work in a respectable occupation. Both have a love interest, but the young man in question is rather silly, and the love story is a subplot. And both plays are very concerned with the choices available to women in Victorian/Edwardian England. Mrs. Warren's Profession contains the following exchange:
MRS. WARREN: Do you think I was brought up like you? able to pick and choose my own way of life? Do you think I did what I did because I liked it, or thought it right, or wouldn't rather have gone to college and been a lady if I'd had the chance?

VIVIE: Everybody has some choice, mother. The poorest girl alive may not be able to choose between being Queen of England or Principal of Newnham; but she can choose between ragpicking and flowerselling, according to her taste.
It is as though this passage contains the seeds that would blossom into Pygmalion.

Shaw had very strange relations with women in his personal life; but somehow, when he wrote about them, he was sympathetic, insightful, and unsentimental. Not that many of his contemporaries appeciated this. If you google "shaw heroine," one of the first results that pops up is an essay written by Francis Neilson (b. 1867) denouncing Shaw's female characters:
Characterization was not his forte, nor indeed were the women female, in the universal sense. They had no power of reaching the realm of the tragic, such as we find in Regan, Lady Macbeth, or Queen Margaret, the wife of Henry VI. There is nothing to remember of tenderness and love in Shaw's heroines, such as there is in Juliet, Cordelia, Imogen, and Rosalind.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote "Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created — nothing." Shaw began with vividly drawn individuals like Vivie and Eliza, and ended up creating a type of the Shavian "New Woman" (I could go on analyzing the heroines of his other great plays, but this post is getting long enough as it is). Many lesser male playwrights, however, could only see woman as a "type" and place her in limited roles. No, Shaw's women are not grandly tragic, nor sentimentally tender and loving. But they are real human beings, whose goals and desires still strike us as worthwhile, and whose choices we can still debate.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Enjoyment and Achievement

"It was a matter of choosing between enjoyment and achievement, between the demands of life and art. The choice is presented several times to everyone at a very early period in his life, and after he has chosen one or the other a few times in succession his course is almost irrevocably determined. Such apparently random and unimportant decisions are much more serious than they appear; for, alas, the direction of one's life does not wait on maturity or wisdom, but is settled in the most offhand manner by emotion, appetite, and caprice. It was Balzac, I think, who said it was vital for a young man to decide very early on his ambition in life, simply because he was bound to attain it. But I did not know this, and telling myself once again that I could always return to the toilsome life of art, I chose once more the primrose path of present enjoyment. The important thing in life was to have a good time."
--John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse

Sunday, July 18, 2010

For Literary and Typography Nerds

You have probably seen the "I Write Like" thing that is going around: plug in several paragraphs of text, and discover which famous writer's style is closest to your own.

So who are my stylistic antecedents?

Well, when I give I Write Like prose that I have written in my own voice (i.e. blog posts or journal entries), I pretty consistently get David Foster Wallace or Vladimir Nabokov. I'll take those! Both Wallace and Nabokov have a knotty but energetic writing style--and I suppose I aim for that as well.

Unfortunately, I Write Like doesn't work well as a tool to evaluate dramatic writing; after all, the whole point of being a playwright is to write in the voices of your characters, not in your own voice. When I plugged in a monologue that I wrote for my play The Rose of Youth, the computer told me that I wrote like Stephenie Meyer. Well, the speech was melodramatic, and it did use too many ellipses, so I can understand that. It worked for the character, though. As long as my essays or blog posts don't sound like Meyer, I think I'll be OK.

Also, you may have taken the wonderful "What Typeface Are You?" interactive quiz that was going around last winter, but if not, may I urge you to do so? The quiz told me that my type was Archer Hairline: "Emotional, Understated, Progressive, Disciplined. If you are outwardly composed, but occasionally duck into the bathroom for a quick laugh or a quiet cry, only to emerge to the world outwardly composed again, then Archer Hairline is your type." Very accurate, I would say. And a beautiful typeface. For some reason it reminds me of an Art Deco calling card.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Theater, the Why and Wherefore

Today someone asked me the important philosophical question, "Why theater? What do you think theater provides that movies and novels--being the two art forms most akin to theater--cannot provide?"

I thought of all the fun I've been having at the San Francisco Olympians Festival recently--selling tickets, raffling off prizes, inviting the actors and audience members to drink with us at the White Horse Pub following every show--and said "Well, unlike with movies, you can go out drinking with the actors afterwards!"

This may sound glib (I was trying to be witty), but I do think it gets at a deeper truth. The same truths identified by playwright Lauren Gunderson in her "Wherefore Theater?" essay, which got published recently on the Huffington Post and has been linked to by several of my Facebook friends. Gunderson identifies four main things that distinguish theater from other art forms:
  1. The Here-and-Now: "Going to theater isn't just watching a story, it's being in it. By sitting in a theater with live actors you become part of the drama and/or comedy. You are in the moment with real, live humans."
  2. Theatricality: "Theater has very simple (no CG required) tools to blow your mind. Basically, if we say that a character is a ghost, they are. [...] Theatricality works just on the basis of shared imagination."
  3. It All Starts Here: "When theater works it's a combination of the very basic human instinct to embody a story, and the best of visual, musical, literary and performing arts."
  4. Accessibility: "Theater is just plain easy to be a part of. It wants you to participate, to show up, to try it yourself, to engage, to applaud."
So I guess it was point #4, "accessibility," that I was trying to get at, with my answer about "you can go out drinking with the actors afterward." Furthermore, unlike with novels or films, the barriers to entry for theater are lower. Yes, anyone can film a micro-budget indie movie, but good luck getting it distributed (there was a great article in the San Francisco Panorama Magazine about just how hard it is for films to get distribution these days). Or, anyone can write and self-publish a novel, but good luck getting readers who aren't your immediate family and friends. Furthermore, even if you do manage to get your movie distributed or your novel published, you don't necessarily know who's reading/viewing it, or what they thought.

With theater, you do have to find a company to produce your script, or self-produce it, but at least in larger cities, there are many companies seeking new work and new voices. And, even if it's produced in a 50-seat black box theater, I can guarantee that the audience will not be "friends only," and that you will be able to gauge their reaction and know exactly what they thought of it.

Now, if the barriers to entry for theater are lower than for other art forms, perhaps that means that there is more crappy theater out there than crappy novels or films. (I don't really believe this--have you seen what is playing at the local multiplex lately?--but hear me out.) And maybe that is why audiences are sometimes wary of going to see new plays in small theaters; they've been burned before and don't want that to happen again. But the good thing about theater having low barriers to entry is that it enables artists to hone their craft in front of an audience, and to learn from their mistakes. We can chide the American theater for getting caught up in the pursuit of "new voices" and "new writers," perhaps at the expense of ignoring mid-career and established playwrights. But isn't that better than Hollywood, which seems to be looking for directors and writers who can copy established formulae, rather than for fresh new cinematic voices?

One more point I would make about theater is that it aims to be thought-provoking and encourage conversation. The best novels and films do this too, of course, but it is made more difficult because they are not such live, visceral media. What happens when you read a great novel, or watch a DVD of a great film, but then have no one to discuss it with? You miss out on a key part of the experience, is what happens. Because theater requires an audience, it's got a built-in group of people who can discuss the work of art when it is over. And because of that, theater is ideally suited for asking the hard questions, for leaving things unresolved, for stimulating not just an emotional response, but a thoughtful reflection as well.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Theater of the Alcoholic

The other day, I was telling one of my theater friends about the "French Theater Dinner Party" that my host family and I threw when I was an exchange student in Paris. (See my previous post, Un dîner théâtral, for information on the party and the thematically appropriate dishes on the menu.)

"Now you've got me wondering--what would you serve if you hosted an American theater dinner party?" my friend asked.

We racked our brains, but could come up with nothing as appropriate and clever as Gogo and Didi's Carrots, or Ragueneau's Almond Tart. In fact, we had a hard time thinking of any American plays that featured memorable foods... all we could think of were beverages, and alcoholic ones at that. The Tyrones' whiskey. Stanley Kowalski's beer; Blanche DuBois' Southern Comfort. George and Martha virtually emptying their liquor cabinet in the course of one long and harrowing night.

There is probably something to be said here about the differences between French and American culture, and French and American theater... a subject for further investigation. Indeed, I just remembered that the final line of Cocteau's Orphée is "Peut-être arriverons-nous enfin à déjeuner" (roughly, "Perhaps now we can finally have lunch"). The act of sitting down to lunch, in that play, is a signal that everything has been happily resolved. Eurydice pours wine for the other characters, but you can tell that no one is drinking to get plastered, the way they do in American plays. How civilized!

P.S.: Evidently the April 2010 issue of American Theatre magazine was all about the links between theater and food and community, so maybe things are changing in this country. See also Mead's post about an upcoming production, On the Table by Sojourn Theater in Portland, that culminates in a communal dinner. I wonder what's on the menu?

Monday, July 5, 2010


On this day in 1889, Jean Cocteau was born. "The most versatile artist of the 20th century," he was a playwright, filmmaker, poet, novelist, artist, designer, librettist, and more. He was deeply involved in the Parisian art scene from about 1910 to 1960, meeting, influencing, arguing with, befriending the most important artists and performers of his time. He did so much that it's hard to get a grip on his career and his personality; this New York Times article is a valiant effort.

Cocteau's house in Milly-la-Forêt has just been restored and opened to the public as a museum; see this excellent article on

I first encountered Cocteau's work when I saw La belle et la bête as a teenager, on the big screen at a revival house. I was friends with a boy named Danny who went to my church, and after Mass one day, Danny's father cornered me and my parents and said "We're going to go see Cocteau's La belle et la bête this afternoon... you mean to say you've never seen it? Oh, you MUST. You HAVE to." And so I entered Cocteau's world of aesthetic beauty, of striking images, of adaptations of old myths and fairy tales...

It was only this year, though, that I read any of Cocteau's plays; but once I did, I was captivated--despite not always thinking that the English translations I read were much good. That's why I am about to begin the process of translating his 1925 drama Orphée. (First, though, I have to obtain the rights to translate it--this could get interesting.) Orphée is notoriously difficult to translate, because it is full of puns that are deeply woven into the fabric of the script. Nonetheless, I love a challenge, and I am already thinking of solutions to make these puns work in English...

Now, another thing I learned recently is that the adjectival form of the name "Cocteau" is "Coctelian." (Adjectives can be funny, can't they? Like "Shaw" becomes "Shavian.") And I LOVE this, too, because it makes a perfect multilingual pun: the word for "cocktail" in Spanish is "coctel."

And Cocteau's plays, Coctelian dramas, are indeed crazy cocktails, mixing up ancient myths and modern avant-garde techniques and some motifs that seem to come completely out of left field, such as the horse in Orphée. That's why I like them so much, and why I am eager to keep exploring Cocteau's artistic creations... and trying to understand the indefatigable, elusive, complex man who made them.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Box Three, Spool Five

Made it out to catch the final performance of Cutting Ball's revival of Krapp's Last Tape last night. As you probably know, this is a play about a man spending his 69th birthday sitting and listening to a tape made by him on his 39th birthday--and, on the tape, the younger Krapp talks about just having listened to a tape made when he was 27 or 29. It's a play about the follies and delusions of youth, the resignations of old age, the tug of nostalgia, the unpredictability of memory, the desire to re-capture the past, etc. etc.

So, can I just say that it is a really weird experience to see this play/production again, approximately one year after I saw it the first time... and especially because I am just a few days away from my own birthday?

It's kind of a mindtrip. But I feel that Beckett would approve.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

July is Olympians Month!

Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays for the rest of July, the gods will come to life in San Francisco! The San Francisco Olympians Festival, featuring staged readings of 12 new original plays that each focus on one of the major gods of the Greek pantheon, is going on all month at the Exit Stage Left (156 Eddy Street).

A little more about the plays, authors, and schedule (copied from the Facebook event page):

DIONYSUS by Nathan Tucker, July 8
An esoteric mystery cult in San Francisco invokes the godhead of an ancient deity, manifesting his presence and unleashing the Wrath of Dionysus.

APOLLO by Garret Groenveld, July 9
Apollo's Gift - that of foresight - was given to Cassandra out of love and proves the undoing of their chances.

POSEIDON by Bryce Allemann, Dana Constance and Kathy Hicks, July 10
Fish speak because they have something to say; Gods because they have to say something.

HERMES by Bennett Fisher, July 15
Four derivative traders seeking to benefit from the Greek financial meltdown create a fraudulent company to mask the debt as an asset. This act of deceit brings unforeseeable consequences and an unexpected visitor.

ARTEMIS by M.R. Fall, July 16
By escaping to the beach, Artemis thought she would outrun the clouds of dread building inside her; little did she know a storm was waiting for her along the shore…

ZEUS by Helen Noakes, July 17
If Zeus is your daddy does it make you a delightful delusional, a delicious demigod, or just plain fabulous? Zeus Story tells all!

DEMETER by Claire Ann Rice, July 22
Anyone who knew the rituals have paid the ferryman for passage elsewhere and all that is left are Goddesses without believers, prayers without answers, and mothers without children.

APHRODITE by Nirmala Nataraj, July 23
In this dark comedy about the lengths women will go to for love and acceptance, a washed-out infomercial star confronts her demons through dating mishaps, plastic surgery, and mysterious visitations from the paragon of feminine allure—Aphrodite herself.

ARES by Sean Kelly, July 24
Bill is due to ship out on a Third-World peace-keeping mission when he accidentally makes a sacrifice to Ares, God of Bloodlust. Together they turn a basic military action into a violent quest for revenge.

ATHENA by Ashley Cowan, July 29
While trying to balance her rational intelligence and notions of romance, Athena finds herself in a personal exploration fueled by the timeless question: can only fools fall in love or can it also exist among reason and logic?

HERA by Stuart Bousel, July 30
A Victorian-Era parlor drama about the perfect wife and mother, and the secrets which threaten to destroy her extensively engineered domestic bliss.

HEPHAESTUS by Evelyn Jean Pine, July 31
The world of Hephaestus, god of fire and volcanoes, erupts when his creations -- three gorgeous, golden robots -- revolt.

12 different gods. 12 different aspects of what it means to be human. I'll be working the box office for the festival every night... so stop by, say hello, buy a ticket ($10), and see some great new plays. Go to 4 readings, and get the 5th free!

All readings begin at 8 PM; box office opens around 7:30 (we do not take reservations). Before the show, you can check out our lobby exhibition of original artwork inspired by the 12 Olympians... and after the show, hang out with the writers and actors at a local bar!

Lots more information available at