Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Handy Guides to San Francisco

The other day, I was standing at the bus stop reading Oh the Glory Of It All (which I am loving, by the way) and came upon this dazzling paragraph about the city I now call home:
San Francisco looks like a hand. A right one, palm side up, forearm the peninsula leading down south. And this is true down to the details: the correspondences of palm lines to major streets, whorls to neighborhoods, fingers to bridges, calluses to hills: the crease of the "lifeline" the smooth arc of highway 80 curving off the Bay Bridge of the pointer; the lower and more diagonal of the two other main hand lines ("headline" and "heartline" in palmistry) replicates the diagonal of Market Street, while its companion is the kink of the Geary Expressway arcing into and becoming Van Ness. There's a nameless groove that doubles for Lombard Street, a perfect crosshatchy area for the alleys of Chinatown, the fat lump anchoring the thumb is Potrero Hill and Hunter's Point, right where they should be. The Bay Bridge is the pointer, the Golden Gate the ring finger, the rest of the fingers are gone--unless you count the finger piers.
And then later that night when I got home and was reading some of my favorite blogs, guess what I found posted on Strange Maps?

A different hand-related visual representation of the San Francisco area! (Click here for the original Strange Maps post, including a much larger image.)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

American Equus?

Now that the Equus revival has opened on Broadway, the reviews seem generally favorable, but several of them (Ben Brantley, John Simon) praise the actors while criticizing the script. They consider Shaffer's play theatrically exciting, but also a dated psychodrama with a heavy-handed homosexual subtext. I've got an idea, though, for making Equus relevant again--and it doesn't have to do with elaborate theatrical effects or a former child star getting naked onstage. No, what I'd like to see is a production of Equus that is set in the United States.

On the one hand, I agree with Terry Teachout's contention that Equus is one of the myriad of artistic works about "British middle-class inhibition," what with its veddy British playwright and British leading actors. On the other hand, I wonder if these days, its central conflicts--conformity vs. individualism, puritanism vs. permissiveness, quiet desperation vs. unbridled passion--are not more American than they are British.

In order for the play to work and its homosexual subtext to make sense, it has to take place in a rather staid, conservative, and Christian culture. Alan's mother Dora is a by-the-book Christian and Alan's horse-worshiping belief system turns out to be a twisted version of Christianity. In the 30+ years since Equus premiered, Britain has become an increasingly secular society while America has been gripped by a series of "culture wars" over homosexuality, abortion, religious freedom, etc. When I first saw Equus I was bemused by the character of Dora Strang: "There are fundies in England?!" I thought. But if it were set in America, there wouldn't be such a cognitive disconnect.

Were I producing an American Equus, I think the obvious thing to do would be to set it in Kentucky. A state famous for horse farms, with a relatively large Evangelical/conservative population--what could be more appropriate? Of course the director would need to make sure the production didn't tilt too far toward Southern Gothic, since that would make Equus seem more silly and dated instead of less so. (I don't think that the Strang family should be portrayed as ignorant rednecks, for instance.) But it could be very effective if some or all of the actors spoke with light Southern accents, as long as they did not condescend to their characters.

Come to think of it, the only Equus production I've ever seen (by a student theater group) had the actors speak in their standard American accents as opposed to adopting British ones. I don't know if this was a conscious decision to set the show in America--it might have been more a case of "we have half a semester to rehearse this show, build the sets, and weld together six horse-shaped masks, so let's make things easy on ourselves and not worry about doing British accents"--but the production was very effective, nonetheless.

Image by Sara Krulwich, The New York Times.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Searching for the Blue Flower

A few weeks ago there was a Guardian article interviewing a judge from each year of the Booker Prize, and three of the forty people interviewed said something to the effect of "In 1995 Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower should've won the prize, but it wasn't even nominated, what a shame." I decided that a book with this many passionate defenders was worth a read, and found a used copy at Green Apple Books that weekend. (Green Apple Books: the nearest thing to Powell's that I've been able to find in S.F. And walking distance from where I live!)

The Blue Flower is a biographical novel set in 1790s Saxony, centered on Friedrich "Fritz" von Hardenberg, who achieved minor fame as the Romantic poet Novalis before dying at the age of 28. Fritz studies philosophy at the lively University of Jena, begins writing poetry and fiction, is forced by his father to earn a living as an Inspector of Salt Mines, and--most unusually--falls in love with Sophie von Kühn, a child of 12. To Fritz, who lives with the Romantic feeling of immanent transcendence always upon him, Sophie is his "dear Philosophy" and "spirit's guide"; to everyone else, she is an amiable but unremarkable child whose mind will never be a match for Fritz's.

All of this story, and some additional plot-threads, get packed into 50-some vignettes comprising just 220 pages. Fitzgerald has a wry sense of humor, a talent she gives to several of her characters, so a "punch line" caps off most of these episodes. I liked the way that Fitzgerald grounds the story in the details of real life: she understands that a whole novel about a young genius who sees mystical connections between all branches of knowledge and lives in a world of ideals would quickly grow tiresome. So she acknowledges that even while philosophers work in their ivory towers, the washing must get done, the family finances must be kept in order, and illnesses must be treated according to the best 18th-century techniques (which to a modern reader seem quite gruesome). Thank God for this common-sense attitude, because I really could not have taken another novel of lofty ponderousness right after reading Divisadero. But it does have the effect of making the supporting characters of The Blue Flower more vividly drawn than the ostensible hero, Fritz. It is hard to make a character who lives so much in his head, and whose head is filled with such idiosyncratic ideas, come alive on the page, especially when he is surrounded by down-to-earth folks.

Penelope Fitzgerald has been compared to Jane Austen and that feels valid, and not just because The Blue Flower takes place at around the same time that Austen was writing her novels. Both women have a similar sense of humor, are skilled at delineating characters, and are interested in family relationships and marriage. Most of the characters in The Blue Flower belong to a few families, following Austen's dictum of writing about "3 or 4 families in a country village." As I noted before, these authors are also unlikely to get lofty or abstract; they'd rather write about the intricacies of everyday social customs. For instance, Fitzgerald points out (to the modern reader's surprise) that Sophie's age isn't the real obstacle to her marriage with Fritz--under the law, she can marry when she turns 14. Instead, the problem is that Fritz belongs to the lower nobility while Sophie is merely bourgeois, so his father disapproves of the match--despite the fact that Sophie's family is wealthy and the von Hardenbergs are impoverished. Furthermore, if Fritz eloped with Sophie, he wouldn't be able to support her, because most professions--copy clerk, night wachman--are closed to members of the nobility. Can't you see Austen enjoying writing about this situation?

The subject matter of The Blue Flower also reminded me a little of Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia in the way it portrays young people whose fascination with German idealistic philosophy conflicts with their experience of life as full of frustrated love and untimely death.

There is a lot to admire about Fitzgerald's writing, especially the economy of it: she packs so much detail into a slim volume, but the effort doesn't show. Her skill is quiet rather than flashy, which may explain why this novel was overlooked for the Booker. Indeed, while I certainly recommend The Blue Flower, I wouldn't go as far as to rave about it in the way that those three judges quoted in that article do. While I don't know if it's the best novel never to have been nominated for the Booker, it may well be the best-ever historical novel about German Romanticism, as well as a worthy addition to the bio-novel genre.

P.S.: As I mentioned, Fritz von Hardenberg wrote under the name of Novalis, and when I took a college course on Fairy Tales, I had to read his short fable "Hyacinth and Roseblossom." Rereading it after reading The Blue Flower, I can see how it might have been influenced by his love for Sophie von Kühn...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Fade-out: Humberto Solás

I just found out that the Cuban film director, Humberto Solás, died on September 17 at the age of 66. Here is the best obituary I could find--however, he doesn't seem to have been eulogized at length in any major newspapers.

Why do I know, or care, about Sr. Solás, you ask? Well, when I visited Cuba with a school group in 2003, it was somehow arranged for Solás to come and give us an informal talk about being a filmmaker in Cuba.

I wish I could remember more about what Solás said (or wish, at least, that I had my Cuba diary here beside me) but mostly I just remember the room it took place in: small and dim and windowless, which gave the whole proceedings a clandestine air, as if we were hiding from Castro. And most of the questions, I recall, involved people asking about how it was to make films under the Castro regime, to deal with the embargo, etc. Or about the themes and messages of his 2001 movie Miel para Oshun, which we had all watched together a few nights previously.

But as I've said before, my primary orientation is aesthetic rather than political, and I grew annoyed that my classmates had a respected artist in front of them yet were only asking him questions about politics. I wanted to hear his opinions on the art of film itself. So I stood up and shyly asked if there were any films or directors that had particularly influenced him, or that he'd particularly recommend.

"John Huston," he said. "Fat City."

I dutifully wrote that down in my notebook, even though at the time I had barely heard of Huston.

As for his own movie, Miel para Oshun, it pains me to say that I found it very boring at the time. However, I wasn't watching it under ideal conditions--there were about 30 of us trying to watch it on a small TV screen, and it didn't have subtitles, and Cuban dialects can be hard to understand. I'd be willing to give it another shot, but I don't know if it's available in the United States. Maybe it would be easier to pay respect to Solás' memory by watching some John Huston movies instead.

Picture of Solás from fineproductions.info

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Theater is Disturbing, And I Love It

For all of last year (senior year of college) I basically lived in a Theater Bubble: writing my thesis play, founding and managing the Dynamo Theater Lab, going to all the drama kids' parties. I could even have conversations about Sondheim musicals and McDonagh plays at any hour of the day or night with one of my housemates, who, though she wasn't a drama major, was a devoted and opinionated theatergoer.

But living in such a bubble means forgetting that the rest of the world is outside the bubble. And over the past week, I've had a couple of rude awakenings: moments where I talk as though I were still surrounded by my theater friends, only to realize that 99% of the population thinks that theater people are really weird.

Last week I had a job interview (unsuccessful, for reasons that will become clear in a moment) where, after my interviewer asked me the typical questions, he threw me this curveball: "What's your favorite comedy movie?"

I hesitated. I don't have one favorite comedy movie, and usually I prefer films that, while they may have humorous elements, are also dark or poignant or something else besides pure comedy. E.g. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And while I do have a surprising amount of fun at silly comedies like Superbad, I'd never call that movie my "favorite" anything.

Seeing my hesitation, my interviewer added, "Or your favorite comedy play, if you'd prefer." (We'd already discussed my playwriting/theater background.)

So naturally, I decided that this would be the perfect time to talk about how amazing Martin McDonagh is, not least because he has written both plays and movies! I started off by describing The Lieutenant of Inishmore--"It's about this terrorist who is too violent even for the IRA, and the only thing he loves in the world is his kitty-cat, and when his cat dies he goes on a murderous rampage..."

"Wow," said my interviewer, clearly disturbed.

Somehow I didn't get the message, and pressed on. "And In Bruges, well, that's his movie that came out this spring, and it's about these two hit-men in Bruges, and it's really dark, and violent, and irreverent, I mean there's a midget..."

I think I might have even said "dark" and "violent" a few more times before I realized that I should shut up.

I must've cut a strange figure--a young lady in a pantsuit and pink blouse, revealing her love for bloody and twisted humor! Lord help me, the man probably expected me to say Sex and the City. It occurred to me later that I would not have talked this way to a female interviewer--that I'd been acting like "one of the boys" on purpose--and I was a little surprised that I had bought so willingly into gender stereotypes.

Then, a couple of days ago, my new housemates and I were hanging out in our living room with the first Harry Potter movie on in the background. One girl said she heard Daniel Radcliffe was starring on Broadway in a play where he had a nude scene.

"Oh yeah, Equus," I said, as my house's resident theater geek. "It's a really good play."

"There's a nude scene?" my housemates asked. "What's it about? I heard it's about this kid who has sex with horses..."

Anxious to clear up their misconceptions (especially because they seemed very grossed out at the thought of Harry Potter having sex with horses), I said "Oh, no, no, what it's really about is, he plays this kid who blinds six horses with a metal spike--"

Grimaces of shock and disgust on their faces, worse than before.

"--no, it's a really good play!" I protested. And I delivered the following speech with a big smile on my face, in an attempt to prove that I am Friendly and Not Psychotic, but that probably made it even worse: "Well, what it is, is he's got this kind of mystical obsession with horses, and then he tries to have sex in the stable with a girl he's met there, just a normal girl, but he can't do it with the horses looking on, and so he blinds them... I know you all think I'm very disturbed right now, to like this play, but it's really good, I swear!"

I am not sure they were convinced.

I thought McDonagh's works and Equus are relatively accessible as far as contemporary plays go--they've got strong plots, memorable characters, a vivid theatrical sense in the case of Shaffer and a unique sense of humor in the case of McDonagh--they're not off-puttingly experimental or avant-garde. And yet people still seem so resistant to them! Why will people happily go see violent R-rated movies but grimace at the thought of seeing a violent play? (Maybe this testifies to the power and immediacy of theater--it's more disturbing because it's happening right in front of you.)

And yet, isn't this what theater has always done, maybe even its raison d'etre: to raise provocative questions, to test the boundaries of society, to reproduce scenes of terror and violence in order to provoke a catharsis?

I can picture it now, how Theater People have been defending themselves for thousands of years:

"Dude, I just went to the amphitheater and saw this play about a guy who kills his father and marries his mother, I mean like they have kids and everything together--and then it gets better...when they find out the truth, his wife, I mean his mom, commits suicide and then he blinds himself! What? No, I'm serious, it's not gross, it's a really good play! Didn't you see, it got great reviews? Aristotle thinks it's genius! No really, just because I liked this show doesn't mean I'm a freak..."

Sunday, September 21, 2008

With Apologies to Michael Ondaatje

Several years ago I read Michael Ondaatje's most famous novel, The English Patient, as part of a course on the depiction of romantic love in Western literature. One of our assignments was to write a short piece of fiction in the style either of Ondaatje or of Hemingway, another author we read. I picked Ondaatje because I thought he was more of a challenge--Hemingway, though I love him, is too easy to turn into a punchline, what with the annual Bad Hemingway Contest.

Though I didn't intend this piece as an all-out parody (i.e. I did not exaggerate things for the sake of humor), rereading it does make me laugh, because I managed to cram most of Michael Ondaatje's stylistic tics into 1300 words of prose. These include:
  • Lush descriptions of the natural world
  • Similes/metaphors relating to landscapes and cartography
  • Focus on sex and romantic love...
  • ...including heavy-handed sexual symbolism relating to the natural world
  • The POV switches between multiple characters...
  • ...including a narrator who interrupts the story to expound on arcane knowledge or quotations
  • Dialogue sometimes enclosed in quotation marks, and sometimes not, seemingly arbitrarily
  • Switching between present-tense and past-tense narration
  • Characters with extreme knowledge of and respect for famous works of art
  • Characters who have pithy-but-deep conversations within moments of meeting
  • A sudden lashing-out of physical violence
  • Not every step of the narrative is described; reader must work his/her way through the metaphors and symbols
  • Therefore, a tendency toward the abstract rather than the explicit
So, chuckle if you like, but note that this was written in a spirit of affection rather than meanness. (Though after reading Divisadero I feel rather more snarky...)

Here Be Dragons
By Marissa Skudlarek, 2004

She lies in the grass, face down, one hand dabbling in the pool of sunlight near her forehead. In its proximity to her unblinking eye, her skin looks as rough and mazelike as an old map. Tiny beads of sweat gather in its creases, its canals, shimmering like green lightning in the afternoon sun. She slides her hand away and blindly strokes a blade of grass. Instinctively, she can feel where the juicy white root flattens and develops edges, becoming a green spear. At one time, she spent too long caressing plants, running her fingers along the smooth emerging tip of a potted amaryllis, or weighing pendulous tomatoes in her palm.

She pushes those thoughts away and twists her neck to the left. Her other hand, as minutely sparkled as the first, rests on the base of the old stone statue. She squirms over and presses her cheek to the warm granite. It is as broad and flat as the plain of his shoulder blade. Yet his flesh, against her face, was always slightly clammy, boiling underneath. She still can see the blue flames that licked the creases of his skin, intermingled with a brown as rich as that of an aged parchment map. She imagines meandering her fingers along one of these scribbled, feather-thin canals.

Here be dragons, she whispers.

* * *

There are many kinds of dragons. There are the hydra and amphisbaena, with their multiple vigilant and snapping heads. Their opposite, the ouroboros, a round and balanced hoop to match his rounded name. The Indian nagas, the knowing shape-shifters. The Oriental lungs shake their silken manes over river and tide, over floodplain and misty mountain. The Aztecs with their feathered serpent, their Quetzalcoatl, their supreme deity. All of these snake-bodied figures can lurk at the edges of old maps, as a warning to those who venture off course.

But then there are other dragons, not so exotic. The drakes and wyrms and wyverns coil through the barrows of England, or knot themselves to fit into wells. Somehow, people have been lulled into coexistence with them. The fire they breathe has become nothing more than a cheerful blaze, and when villagers find sheep carcasses littering the mountainsides, they attribute the death to wolves instead.

Anton was that kind of dragon. He had muted the fire that ran in his mouth and through his skin, subsuming it until only traces of it shimmered on the hottest summer days. He had pretended to dull the edges of his teeth, and walked from the frayed edges of the map into its hectic center. Meanwhile the dangerous blue bolts coursed beneath his brown skin.

* * *

She continues resting on the warmed stone of the statue, feeling around to the patches of velvety moss. The summer sun has dried it out now, so that it flakes off in her hand. When they met, it had been late wet spring in the garden; the moss’s fur sodden, the rosebuds still curled in their pink secrecy.

* * *

What he first noticed about her was her fingers, delicately caressing the statue’s lichened nose. Then he saw the way the gentle fingers flowed into arms that moved with vigorous industry. And how she balanced on the statue’s narrow base, her feet wedged between Saint George’s legs, her knees hugging his lozenge-shaped shield. When she turned her body to face him, he could see the damp patches that the moss had caused on her pants and shirt. It did not strike him at this time how odd the suddenness of her turn was, as if she had expected him or heard his approach. Though he always went through gardens reverently and without calling out to the souls he saw among the foliage.

Now the soul of this strange girl, teetering on the edge of her granite platform, had felt his presence. And as she drew him in, he found himself translating her from a woman into an image. In every sense, she was about to fall and break like an ice sculpture dropped from a precipice. She seemed quite unconscious of her own fragility, and greeted him with a wave.

“Donatello,” she said. “I can’t see him get dirty.”

“It’s a copy,” he said.

“I don’t see why that matters.”

“It’s a very fine copy, though.”

She drew herself up as best she could, bracing herself against the saint’s slender bulk. Her eyes burned gold with hurt pride. “I knew you would say that. I knew that’s all that matters to you. Craftsmanship! It could be the worst copy in the world yet I’d still be up here. Since at bottom, it is art.”

He padded forward a few more steps, pasting a serious expression on his face as he walked. He drew his lips over his teeth, refrained from jutting with his elbows. “Of course,” he said. “Since even a copy tells something about the person who copied it. Since every setting gives it a new context. I was just trying to make conversation.”

She hopped down from the base of the statue, wiping her hands on her jeans. “Thanks,” she said. “I’m glad you understand.”

“I’m Anton,” he said. He was walking forward again, once more concealing the danger in his tread. He tried to concentrate on this girl’s bedraggled clothing, her moss-green eyes, the way her red hair made a vulgar frizz against the statue.

But all he could see was Saint George looking down at him balefully. Those damned noble eyes, that earnest brow. Still, no matter. What good could a fossilized saint do against a living dragon skilled at shielding his fiery breath?

* * *

I don’t mind you like this, she says.

They sit in the late-summer grass beneath the statue, her ear resting on his shoulder.

Yes? he says. He is drowsy.

Here. Lying here. I can see exactly who you are. The blue threads shining in your skin, you can’t hide them. But you can’t do anything to me, either. I have made you powerless.

No you haven’t, he says. I’m just hibernating.

She doesn’t want to believe him, but dragons never lie. They hoard knowledge as they hoard treasure; they mock and belittle and bite, yet never falsify. She suddenly flings herself against him, slamming him off balance and into the hard granite.

She cries, I wish to God that I’d married Saint George when there was still time.

* * *

And after that, George had returned as suddenly as he left, spent three days vanquishing the dragon, and marched away again.

Now, months later, she can finally think about them both with peace. She even respects what Anton did to her, his ability to destroy things with such dazzling grace that no one else can tell they have been destroyed. He balanced things out, redrawing her boundaries according to what she needed and deserved, not what she wanted. And after she had learned enough from him, and green had begun to thread her own skin, George had swooped in as rescuer.

Left alone with her statue and the garden, she can return to picking the lichens off the granite, or stroking the surfaces of plants. Now, when she raises her head to look at the statue, all she can see is the dullness of his stone, his stiff idealism, his ridiculously chaste shield. She peers at her hand one more time. Green lightning and unexplored pathways. She rolls violently onto her back, presses her hand to her breast and looks down at herself. She has become a being lined with fire. A being that hoards knowledge and cannot lie. Squeezing her eyelids shut, becoming the only thing in her world, she invokes her new self with a shout to the sky.

Here. Be. Dragons.

Image of Donatello's St. George from Wikipedia.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

On Divisadero Street

Since I am renting a sublet a block and a half from Divisadero Street in San Francisco, I decided I should read Michael Ondaatje's latest novel, titled Divisadero. As one of the characters explains, the name of the street might mean "division," or it might come from the Spanish verb "divisar," meaning "to gaze at from a distance." Not a bad title, considering that Ondaatje here writes about divided families and about examining the past.

Other than this, Divisadero doesn't illuminate anything about what it means to live in my new neighborhood--most of the action takes place in Napa Valley, in Nevada, or in France. I wouldn't have minded that, though, if Divisadero had illuminated anything about anything else. Instead, I found it a frustrating reading experience. I knew from the start that the book lacks a conventional narrative, but that's not what bothered me. I agree with the New Yorker review that "The sacrifice of plot is tolerable [...] What is damaging is the sacrifice of character. [Ondaatje's] characters are ciphers. We have no affective connection with them. Their stories are too spare, and most of them are impossibly wan figures who seem to be floating outside of time."

Divisadero bothered me not so much for what is in the novel, but for the parts of life that it leaves out. For instance, Ondaatje's world has no place in it for people with a sense of humor. Or for chatty people (characters in Ondaatje novels tend to speak in oblique pronouncements), or for mildly neurotic folks (his characters have Deep Wounds) or for people who aren't as well-read and romantic as himself. Ondaatje's heroes all have exquisitely nuanced appreciations of art and reverently quote from literature. (His villains, naturally, are Philistines.) And these sorts of characters appear in the unlikeliest places. When Anna, a teenage girl, runs away and gets picked up by a truck driver, he is an Ondaatje truck driver, a sensitive and sympathetic fellow who quotes Charles Dickens and takes Anna to visit "the beautiful pastel-painted houses" of a California ghost town. Later, an adult Anna has an affair with a French Gypsy guitarist who carries basil and cilantro in his pockets. Ooh, exoticism much?

I've already alluded to the fact that you shouldn't read Divisadero for its plot. The first 150 or so pages skip around in time to tell the stories of Anna, Claire, and Coop, three people who were raised as siblings on a Northern California farm but who became estranged following an incident of passion and violence. Then, for the last 100 pages, Ondaatje abandons these characters to recount the life story of Lucien Segura, a French writer whom Anna is researching. What's annoying is that when events do happen in Divisadero, they are often implausible. Though Anna runs away from home at 16, and changes her name to ensure that her father could never find her, she somehow manages to become a professor of French literature at Berkeley. In our modern world of SAT tests and academic bureaucracy, is that even possible? Coop, meanwhile, becomes a cardsharp, in scenes that owe more to Hollywood B-movies than to any semblance of reality.

Although this doesn't seem to be the typical reaction, I actually preferred the Segura section to the Anna/Claire/Coop story. It meanders less and quotes less, and I found some scenes of it more moving. But I also think that Ondaatje's style is naturally suited to writing about the past, rather than the modern world. It's easier to accept his romanticization of "gypsies, tramps and thieves" when these characters lived 100 years ago instead of the present day. Easier to accept his propensity to write about nature when he's describing an era in which people were more closely tied to the land. Easier to accept his narratorial pseudo-profundities, even, when they do not describe characters who belong to our century. Meanwhile, his poet's heart seems unable to deal with modern quotidian reality; it's jarring when he mentions skateboards and hair-dryers.

But of course the hair-dryer that Claire uses in 2003 is supposed to parallel Lucien Segura's friend Marie-Neige drying his hair with her shirt 100 years earlier. Divisadero is full of such patterns and repetitions; just about every incident and character has a parallel or two buried elsewhere within the novel. Though Ondaatje's prose is seemingly abstract and meandering, a lot of thought obviously went into the construction of this book. But what is it all supposed to mean, that in two different eras characters get injured by shards of glass and have passionate sex and ride horses in the countryside? History repeats itself in Divisadero, but neither as tragedy nor as farce--so what is Ondaatje trying to say, other than that he really likes certain themes and motifs?

Further reading: This is the funniest and most thoughtful negative review of Divisadero I have found--from the London Review of Books.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Frida and Lee: Must a Female Artist Suffer?

When I went to the SF MoMA last week, the Frida Kahlo exhibit occupied the most prominent gallery space (and it was crowded, even at 11 AM on a Thursday!) but I also looked forward to visting the exhibition of Lee Miller's photography. I first became interested in Miller's work after seeing this photograph last summer at the Maryhill Museum of Art--one of the most striking photos I have ever seen.

Miller, though less famous than Frida Kahlo, is also an interesting character: a blonde American beauty who started out as a model, became an acclaimed Surrealist photographer, and then was the only female combat photographer in World War II.

Seeing the Kahlo and Miller exhibits on the same day made me think about the different perspectives they provided on the life of a female artist in the first half of the twentieth century. There's a number of rather striking similarities between these women: both were born in 1907, both produced work associated with the Surrealist movement, both had romantic relationships with famous male artists, both were little-known during their lifetimes and then rediscovered circa 1980. Kahlo died in 1954; Miller lived till 1977 but gave up photography by the mid-1950s.

After seeing the Kahlo exhibit, if I had to pick just one word to describe her art, it would be "suffering." Her famous self-portraits have a mildly grotesque air, what with her emphasis on her unibrow and mustache, but many of her other paintings are less often reproduced because they are so viscerally disturbing.

Indeed, it has been suggested that our present-day adulation of Frida Kahlo and other women who suffered (Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf) leads to thinking that a woman must suffer in order to be a great artist. (See this very interesting article by Stephanie Mencimer.) As a woman with artistic ambitions, I say this had better be just a pernicious myth!

And the work of Lee Miller seems to offer a more hopeful alternative. Here I will have to disagree with Robert Zaller, who wrote that Miller lived with "a wound perhaps no less painful than any of Frida Kahlo's." I'm not saying that Miller had a hunky-dory life: she was sexually abused as a child and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after photographing World War II. But in contrast to Kahlo, whose physical and psychological pain emanates from every brushstroke, the tragedies of Miller's life seem incidental to her art, not an integral part of it. "Suffering" is not the first word I think of when I consider Miller's work.

As a war photographer, Miller took it upon herself to observe and record the suffering of others. She could have refused to look at the horrors of the concentration camps, or turned back when it got too grisly, but she kept on nonetheless--out of a sense of a higher duty. Whereas Kahlo used the suffering of others as a metaphor for her own pain, constantly reinscribing her own emotional turmoil even when she wasn't painting self-portraits.

Here is Kahlo's A Few Small Nips, ostensibly based on a news story about a man who stabbed his girlfriend--but Kahlo chose this subject because she had just learned that Diego Rivera was cheating on her with her own sister, and felt stabbed in the gut by the news.

And here is Miller's photograph of a young German woman who killed herself upon her country's defeat in the war. This image is also disturbing, but in a quieter way than Kahlo's. It's almost an example of the "banality of evil"--at the same time we register the girl's death, Miller also wants us to notice the button that's hanging loose from the tufted couch, or the position of her pale hands in the light.

And most of Miller's 1930s work doesn't have to do with suffering at all--just studies of light and shadow and how everyday objects can look strange when you view them from a different angle, such as this image of a nude woman bent forward.

Frida Kahlo looked into herself, while Lee Miller looked out at the world. Of course, this might have something to do with the artistic media they chose--Kahlo smearing colored fluids onto a canvas, Miller looking through a machine made of metal and glass. Is painting, by its very nature, more emotional than photography? And, if more emotional, more stereotypically "feminine"?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The 1930s are Back! (and not just economically speaking)

For a long time I have been interested in fashion from past eras, whether it is seeking out authentic vintage clothing, or buying new clothes with vintage-inspired details. But even faux-vintage, like everything else, is subject to trends.

Especially online, a lot of the reproduction-vintage shops go for a 1950s rockabilly-pinup-bombshell vibe, with sweet crinoline skirts or sexy wiggle dresses. It is also fairly easy to find 1960s shifts and baby-doll dresses. But what if you're a '30s and '40s kind of gal? And I don't mean slinky satin '30s-style evening dresses (there are always plenty of those around, and too few occasions to wear them!), but day dresses and separates. For those of us who would rather be Ginger Rogers singing "Pick Yourself Up" than Marilyn Monroe singing "Havin' A Heat Wave," it's not always easy.

This fall, however, I have been surprised to see a few dresses in mainstream stores that wouldn't have been out of place in the 1930s. I wish these had been around six months ago when I was trying to costume my play that took place in 1934!

This is the "Silk Ruffle Dress" from Banana Republic. One of my favorite things about 1930s fashion is that silk crepe wasn't just a fabric for evening gowns; day dresses were often made of silk as well. This revives the idea of a silk dress that you can wear to the office.

This is the "Quotidian Dress," on sale at Anthropologie. It is also made of silk crepe. The fabric-covered buttons and narrow belt are, for me, what make this just so 1930s. Can't you picture it on the sweet and innocent heroine of a movie from that time, perhaps Joan Fontaine in Rebecca?

(addendum 9/17/08: here's a randomly found photo of Broadway actress Ashley Brown wearing this dress.)

I also like the color choices for these two dresses. Again, because of the rockabilly-pinup thing, a lot of vintage-inspired clothing is in vivid shades like black, cherry red, and hot pink. But these soft grays and blues feel much more authentically '30s-'40s to me.

I've tried on both these dresses, but haven't bought either of them (though if I had unlimited money I certainly would). Instead, the dress I most recently purchased is inspired by the '60s, not the '30s. I can't seem to find a picture anywhere online, but it's a Banana Republic black sheath sweaterdress with 3/4 sleeves and princess seams. I'm calling it my "Joan from Mad Men goes to a funeral" dress. All right, maybe it is fun to pretend you're a bombshell sometimes...

Monday, September 15, 2008

To infinity and beyond

With Infinite Jest in the news these days, I was thinking about how its title comes from a Shakespeare quote:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio--a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times.
Then I remembered that back in April I blogged about two other memorable uses of the word "infinite" by Shakespeare:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite. (Juliet, R&J)
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. (Enobarbus, A&C)
So this prompted me to search all of Shakespeare's plays for the word "infinite": it seems he used it on 42 occasions. Not all of these lines are important or memorable, but my search did remind me that "infinite" appears in two additional all-time great Shakespeare quotes, both spoken by the title character of Hamlet:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable!
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
So that's 5 memorable uses of the word "infinite" out of 42 total times--a very good batting average, I would say.

And then I thought that perhaps this is one reason we revere Shakespeare's writing: he grappled with the infinite. I very seldom use the word "infinite" in my own writing, for fear that it would come across as exaggeration or insincerity. If I ever, say, was tempted to describe a character as having "infinite variety," the skeptical voice in my head would immediately retort "Yeah right, that's impossible" and I'd have to find a different, less all-embracing adjective.

But Shakespeare writes boldly, without mincing words. He holds Polonius, that prince of word-mincers, in utter contempt; and even though Hamlet is a very confused young man, his confusion is a Painful Clash of Big Ideas rather than a low-level muddleheadedness. To Hamlet, man is both "infinite in faculty" and "the quintessence of dust": strong words, but memorable ones.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The agonies of self-consciousness

Since my last two posts dealt with
1) a play by Itamar Moses
2) Dave Eggers being clever and self-conscious and doing gimmicky things like interviewing himself,
I thought I'd link to something that combines the two subjects: Itamar Moses interviews himself in Eggers-esque style. Extremely hilarious--especially because I feel that some of the playwriterly neuroses ring all too true.

And then, since it's today and I'm discussing neurotic, self-conscious, big-thinking, structurally-clever writers, it would be churlish of me not to say an encomium for David Foster Wallace, wouldn't it? I've never actually read any of his work, but it has been recommended to me by several very smart people (including, oddly enough, Itamar Moses). Reading the heartfelt tributes posted online today make me even more sure I'd appreciate Wallace's work, and sadder that the world lost such a writer. Anyone whose work "acknowledge[s] the agonies of self-consciousness and the 'difference between the size and speed of everything that flashes through you and the tiny inadequate bit of it all you can ever let anyone know'" (as Laura Miller writes in Salon) sounds like a writer I need to check out. And having just reread AHWOSG, I feel especially sad for Dave Eggers--knowing that he is once more faced with the far-too-early death of a talented friend.

Writers like Eggers and Wallace have been derided as "hysterical realists"--criticized for loading their books with too much of everything, too much arcana and energy and fury. But for some of us, our brains actually work this way, straining to see the connections between everything. And when we perceive these connections, it can be comforting, or it can be disturbing and eerie, because it feels like the world is collapsing in on itself and everything in it drawing closer together, as into the crushing depths of a black hole. Yes, it can be too much. Too much indeed.

Heartbreaking as well as staggering

When I came to San Francisco, I brought two books to reread: The Maltese Falcon and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I remembered that AHWOSG (so called for convenience's sake) deals with being a 20-something in the Bay Area: in the early 1990s, after Dave Eggers' parents had both died of cancer within weeks of each other, he and his little brother Toph moved to California to start afresh. I will probably post some Eggers quotes about San Francisco in the coming weeks, but now I want to discuss other aspects of his memoir, which, I now realize, is one of my Formative Books.

I first read AHWOSG the summer I was fifteen, at the time I was learning what "po-mo" means and why it's cool to be "meta." So I loved the book because I was basically amazed that you could do this kind of stuff in a memoir and get away with it. A jokey and rambling acknowledgments section; characters who break out of character to point out the writing techniques that Eggers is using; Eggers interviewing himself while pretending it is his audition for The Real World; an upside-down section of errata and corrections at the back of my softcover edition. All of this appealed to me because this was the point in my life when I became increasingly self-analytical (I started keeping a diary at age fourteen and a half; haven't stopped) and learned to think about thinking. You know, I read Gödel Escher Bach that same summer (what was I doing, reading these books at such a tender age?) and reading two such playful, digressive, self-conscious, uncategorizable books in quick succession must've expanded my mind...

So rereading AHWOSG, I can see how it influenced the way I view literature. But I also have a newfound appreciation for its emotional and thematic content. I am now the same age that Eggers was when his parents died, which makes his story seem that much more real and frightening to me. There's a section of the book where Eggers attempts to scatter his mother's ashes on Lake Michigan. I used to read this scene as a kind of comedy of errors; now the full horror and pain of the incident hits me viscerally.

Or, take Eggers' descriptions of his paranoid thoughts, e.g:
I messed up the words to the song I was singing, and though it was two fifty-one in the morning, I became quickly, deeply embarrassed about my singing gaffe, convinced that there was a very good chance that someone could see me--through the window, across the dark, across the street. I was sure, saw vividly that someone--or more likely a someone and his friends--over there was having a hearty laugh at my expense.

That must drive you insa--
Oh please. What would a brain do if not these sorts of exercises? I have no idea how people function without near-constant internal chaos. I'd lose my mind.
Six years ago, I might have mildly chuckled and thought "Boy, that guy has problems!" But now, rereading it, I guffawed out loud because I recognized it. I feel the same way: what was my brain designed to do, if not to brood and obsess and spiral off into hypothetical or counterfactual tangents? Ah, and now I am a little scared of what will happen if I ever have kids: many of Eggers' paranoid thoughts involve awful things happening to Toph, and I suspect that I will have similar thoughts if I'm ever a parent. My mom, who is also an AHWOSG fan, says that one of her favorite aspects of the book is how it evokes the challenges of parenting; and I used to discount that, thinking it was really a story about the power and promise and terror of youth. But those two themes are related, aren't they, after all?

Eggers' thoughts on fame, self-disclosure, and the act of memoir-writing feel newly relevant to me as well. In 2000, when AHWOSG was published, hardly anyone had a blog; I couldn't have predicted that I'd eventually spend so much time blogging and reading Web-based New Media. But Eggers' writing about the rise of the self-disclosure culture--"We've grown up thinking of ourselves in relation to the political-media-entertainment ephemera, in our safe and comfortable homes [... We] are people for whom the idea of anonymity is existentially irrational, impossible"--now seems downright prescient in this age of Facebook et cetera. I also relate to his tortured, self-conscious thoughts about wanting fame, wanting to do something world-changing and triumphant, but being disgusted by the thought of coming across as a vapid fame-whore. I know some people say that Eggers comes across as exactly that...but to me, AHWOSG is the furthest thing from vapid.

Image of Dave Eggers from phillymag.com

Friday, September 12, 2008

"Yellowjackets" isn't black and white

Oh jeez, I promised you more about Yellowjackets, didn't I, and now over a week has gone by? All right, better late than never. After all, the show is at Berkeley Rep for another full month--till October 12.

I went to see Yellowjackets with Anushka, a friend of mine from high school, who turned out to be the ideal theatergoing companion. Because Yellowjackets takes place at a high school, it made us reminisce about our own teenage years and how the characters reminded us of people we used to know. Plus, back in the day, Anushka directed me in a production of Spinning Into Butter, which, like Yellowjackets, is a play about an ostensibly liberal and p.c. school confronting tough issues of race and class.

Spinning Into Butter is simple and straightforward, however, compared with the interwoven voices and subplots of Yellowjackets. The play feels like it could explode at any moment--because Berkeley High School in 1994, the play's setting, is also on the verge of explosion. It takes place in the '90s because that's when Itamar Moses, the playwright, was himself a student at Berkeley High, but the themes still feel very potent and contemporary. These kids could be today's kids, except that they are wearing awful flannel shirts and pale jeans. Though who has time to think about fashion when you're going to high school in the middle of one of the most liberal cities in the country, and yet you feel like you're going to get beaten up any day? Or when you resent the school for its "tracking" system, in which students are separated according to ability? Or when you've got to head up the student newspaper or prepare a skit for Cinco de Mayo or be sure you get into the best college?

I should mention that Itamar was one of the first playwrights I ever met, three summers ago when he was workshopping Celebrity Row at PCS. He's a cool guy, he's been rather dazzlingly successful at a young age, and his writing style--big, smart, energetic plays that grapple with tough questions without losing their sense of humor--is one that appeals to me. So I was looking forward to Yellowjackets, and the script definitely feels "Itamar-esque." Refreshingly, it's a play about teenagers that isn't about "teen angst"--or, if it does feature some troubled kids, also delves into the larger social forces that cause their troubles. The play propels itself via smart and fast-paced dialogue (Anushka and I wondered if we were ever so articulate as teenagers) though there is one dazzling moment of physical action in Act Two that gets repeated to end the show.

Yellowjackets examines the issues from all sides and refuses to name a villain--indeed, if it chose a villain, mightn't that be interpreted as racist in some way? We learn that many of the conflicts in the play arose because of poor communication and the like, so no one is really to blame, and yet everyone (i.e. "the system") is to blame. But the eventual "the kids are alright, if only they reached out and listened to one another" message felt a little naive, like the play was pulling its punches and underestimating how powerful racial hatred can be.

The cast of Yellowjackets is mostly young, because the script requires every actor to play a high-school student as well as an older authority figure or two. Because I've seen so much student theater, I had no trouble accepting young actors as older characters, but I wonder if that might be more jarring for other audience members. Some of the actors play their older characters as caricatures with funny accents or physicalities, but my favorite performers were equally believable as teenagers and as adults. For instance, Jahmela Biggs is convincing as both high-school basketball star Tamika and as sensitive-to-racism teacher Ms. Robbins. Brian Rivera is the only cast member who doesn't convince as a high school student (he just looks too old) but I liked him in the role of Mr. Behzad, a teacher filled with Chicano pride.

The multilayered plot of Yellowjackets kept me absorbed throughout, except during Act Two, when someone in the audience had a loud coughing fit and I briefly took my eyes from the stage. As I looked around the theater, I was startled, freaked out even, to realize that virtually every face in the audience was white. I suppose I should be used to this by now--I go to enough mainstream theater to know I rarely see ethnic minorities there--but man, it's sobering. And it jibes with the point of Yellowjackets: that even in a place as self-congratulatorily liberal as Berkeley, there are still hidden systems that keep different ethnic groups separate.

Links: The LA Times and the SF Chronicle have both published profiles of Itamar in the last week.... Berkeley Rep has started a blog on their website to take you behind the scenes of Yellowjackets.

All images copyright Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Top, Jahmela Biggs and Ben Freeman; bottom, Craig Piaget and Brian Rivera.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Arias and Rastafarians

I'm willing to bet money that I am one of the few San Franciscans to attend both the reggae concert/activist event "Power to the Peaceful" in Golden Gate Park yesterday, and the free San Francisco Opera concert in a different corner of the park today. What can I say, I like to keep it eclectic.

I don't think I would've gone to Power to the Peaceful if my new housemate hadn't invited me. I like reggae music all right, but don't think I'll ever really get into the "scene." After hearing a few mellow songs about how "we are all one" and "love is my religion," I start thinking "OK, now I want some music about angst and passion and despair!" (Which explains why opera is more my speed.)

We heard Ziggy Marley sing, then Michael Franti and Spearhead. Before singing "No Woman, No Cry," Ziggy proclaimed "This is for all da women out there in da struggle... I love women, I respect women, I treat dem right." This confused me, because I had always thought that this song was misogynistic, the title meaning something like "Women will always make you cry, so if you don't have a woman, you won't cry." But I hadn't been listening to it carefully, and the real meaning is "No, Woman, Don't Cry." Obviously I like that a lot better.

The event was packed with the SF hippies I expected to see there. On the bus I actually stood next to a girl who had the Haight-Ashbury street signs tattooed on her inner wrist. "Dear Lord, I hope that's fake," I thought. "She is going to regret that." At the event lots of booths sold tie-dye and jewelry and promoting activist causes. One prominent booth advocated "Free Mumia," which amused me, since I've been rereading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Dave Eggers talks about seeing "Free Mumia" signs in mid-1990s San Francisco. So it's over 10 years later and the city hasn't changed.

The crowd was mostly young--a few aging hippies, but many more families with small children. Despite being born to peace-loving parents, these little kids seemed to prove that violence is inherent in human nature. Give them pretty peacock feathers, and in no time at all they'll use them to sword-fight. Ignore them for two minutes as you bop to the reggae beat and they'll be knocking each other down and crying about it.

I dodged more hippies in Haight-Ashbury on my way to Opera in the Park, which attracted a crowd that was mixed in age but self-consciously "cultured"--bottles of wine and Whole Foods olives. There were fewer children than at Power to the Peaceful, but they were better-behaved--so much for the stereotype that kids hate opera.

The event began with the national anthem. I stood and sang, but the guy behind me remained seated and when it was over, shouted "Long Live the War Empire!" People like that--who want to make everyone around them feel guilty when it's not appropriate--really annoy me. Besides, as the emcee said in his opening remarks, this was a time to forget politics and just enjoy beautiful music (though he couldn't resist joking that the Sarah Palin baby drama might make a good opera).

Instead of playing an opera overture, the orchestra performed a lively selection from the film score to Captain Blood--composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose opera Die Tote Stadt is in the SF Opera season. And the highlight of the concert was when the Die Tote Stadt stars, Emily Magee and Torsten Kerl, previewed "Glück, das mir verblieb." Before today, I had only heard this beautiful piece as a soprano solo, not with the tenor joining in. And the harmonies that Korngold wrote for the two singers take it to another level. Though it requires two very powerful voices (Magee and Kerl later sang Wagner selections), its lyrical melody is the #1 antidote to the popular idea of German opera as all about loud declamation. It did its job in convincing me that I must see the full Die Tote Stadt production!

The Figaro-Rosina duet "Dunque io son" also went over very well, with singers Daniela Mack and Lucas Meachem hamming it up in charming style. Previously, Mack had opened the concert (after Captain Blood) singing Cherubino's "Non so piu." Not sure that this was the best choice. It has absolutely no orchestral introduction for the singer to get acclimated to the stage, and Mack sounded tense and nervous throughout the first half of the aria--more nervous than even the horny-and-excited Cherubino is supposed to sound.

The first act ended with an aria from an opera that I had never even heard of: "Ozean, du ungeheuer!" from Oberon (Carl Maria von Weber, 1826). The title translates to "Ocean, you mighty monster!" and it is sung by a shipwrecked woman, so I was expecting something dramatic and ferocious--the female equivalent to "Fuor del mar" perhaps. But soprano Heidi Melton made it sound more like a sad lament--perhaps the tempo was too slow? (Go here for a fiercer rendition.) In Act Two, Melton performed a lovely "Vissi d'arte," and Tamara Wapinsky followed with another Puccini favorite, "Musetta's Waltz." However I did not think Wapinsky's voice was lush and seductive enough for Musetta.

At this concert, I learned that there is almost nothing so thrilling as being in a crowd of people watching a young, unknown tenor tackle "Ah, mes amis." I mean, it's wonderful to listen to Pavarotti or Juan Diego Flórez perform it--but we know that they can hit the nine high C's. Alek Shrader, however, is an unfamiliar quantity, and you could feel the crowd holding their breath and pulling for him. Shrader's high C's were not rich, perhaps, but he hit them solidly and without falsetto. And his French pronunciation was better than Flórez's (who has the annoying habit of singing "J'y sa flamme" instead of "J'ai sa flamme").

The traditional ending to this concert is an audience-participation "Libiamo ne'lieti calici." Mr. Irritating behind me decided that he was going to sing as loud as possible--it felt as though he were making fun of the concert he'd just seen as opposed to appreciating it--and he rushed the tempo. Still, the crowd had so much fun that we encored it, and I sang along, discovering that I have not completely lost all my high notes (and getting some compliments for it). Singing in public is so rarely socially acceptable that one ought to take advantage of it whenever possible.

Power to the Peaceful poster from their myspace page. Image of Kerl and Magee from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Overheard: The "If You're That Jaded, Maybe You Do Belong in New York" Edition

Geary Street bus, about 4 PM this afternoon. It is over 90 degrees outside and very sunny, though thankfully not humid.

GIRL #1: If it has to be this hot outside, I wish I was in New York City.

ME: Thinking of New York City when the temperature is above 90...the oppressive East Coast humidity...the crushing crowds of people...the dirty littered streets...the way that the subway platforms become like grubby saunas...ugh ugh ugh, thank God I'm not there.

GIRL #2: Why?

GIRL #1: Because you're always exited when you're in New York. But this is just San Francisco. Ho hum.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Sometimes a Great Blog

In my Googling to find out more information on Monsterism (see previous post) I came upon Blogomatopoeia, written by an actor named Karl Miller. His blog seems to have taken a political turn recently but his archives contain lots of interesting posts about theater--Miller is a fan of the Monsterist manifesto and has starred in challenging new plays by writers like Sarah Ruhl and Jason Grote. And this past spring he had the lead role in Sometimes A Great Notion at good old Portland Center Stage! (Another large-cast play that I wish I'd gotten to see--the script was very compelling, when I read it.)

Anyway, you should check his blog out, is what I'm saying. It's going in my sidebar.

Attack of the Monster Yellowjackets

Sunday night I went over to Berkeley (my first time in the People's Republic of B.) to see a preview of the new play, Yellowjackets, by Itamar Moses. I'll post something later that goes into more detail about the script and the production... but for now I want to highlight one specific aspect of it. Yellowjackets is a Big Play--11 actors playing 23 characters in a story that eventually connects many different subplots.

Now, the conventional wisdom is "more than 7 actors and your play won't get produced" but over the last year alone I have seen several new American plays that violated this rule and thank heaven they did. Besides Yellowjackets, there's Passion Play (11 actors) and August: Osage County (13 actors)--some of the most celebrated plays of the past few years, and ones that I immensely enjoyed. Not all subjects lend themselves to Big Plays, of course, but there are times when it's necessary. Itamar's play Celebrity Row has a complex, epic structure but uses only 5 actors in 20-odd roles. And I don't think it works as well as Yellowjackets.

I'll admit I am biased toward Big Plays. I seek them out, I feel inspired and invigorated when I see them, and I cheer them on when they do well. I have always been drawn to dramas where ideas explode and collide, where people interact with a variety of other characters instead of just one or two, especially now that I am an author myself. I don't want to have to fetter my creative imagination or sense of scale, and I take heart from the fact that these playwrights have been allowed free rein. Not to mention that I spent this winter writing a Big Play (16 actors--oy!) and this spring helping to produce it, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.

Over in Britain a group of playwrights have actually banded together and written a manifesto encouraging Big Plays--they call themselves the "Monsterists." Here are the qualities of the work they want to see more of (and I find myself nodding in agreement):
  • Large scale, large concept and, possibly, large cast
  • The primacy of the dramatic (story showing) over storytelling
  • Meaning implied by action (not by lecture)
  • Characters caught in a drama (not there to facilitate a polemic)
  • The exposure of the human condition (not sociology)
  • Inspirational and dangerous (not sensationalist)
  • The elevation of new theatre writing from the ghetto of the studio "black box" to the main stage
  • Equal access to financial resources for plays being produced by a living writer (ie equal with dead writers)
  • Use of the very best directors for new plays
  • Use of the very best actors for new plays
If anything, a similar movement might be even more necessary in the States--as we look over enviously at those Brits with their government-funded theaters! Though, at least judging from the evidence of the plays I've seen in the last year, we Americans have been doing pretty well despite not being formally organized into a movement...

I have my own personal name for this kind of theater. You've heard of "kitchen-sink drama"--downbeat stories of working-class families in realistic settings? Well, this is the opposite. This is "Everything-But-The-Kitchen-Sink Drama."*

But whatever name you call it, I like it!

*Google reveals that this phrase has been used in a Guardian headline from 2007. But I swear that I came up with it myself in 2004 after reading Stoppard and Kushner for the first time and becoming inspired.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The election-season circus

Well, this has become one crazier-than-usual election, eh? On Thursday night I attended a convention-watching party at a hotel downtown, and brought along an old friend of mine who during the primaries was a huge Clinton supporter. (She's got her own blog so you can read her take, if you're curious. It's like point-counterpoint!) I guess it has been hard for us Obama supporters to realize that Hillary fans still bear hard feelings. And because we've tapped into the "Young People Love Obama!" meme, we aren't used to meeting or understanding Hillary supporters our own age.

My friend, Anushka, is still going to vote Democratic, though. She wishes she could feel more enthusiastic about Obama's candidacy, but this election is too important to sit out or to vote McCain in protest. I think young people, especially, understand this; George Bush has been president for over a third of our lives, after all. Along with Obama, it is time to say "Enough"!

Two of Obama's points that got major applause in San Francisco were "We are more compassionate than a government that lets veterans sleep on our streets" (S.F. having quite a visible homeless population) and "Surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination" (for obvious reasons).

Afterwards, Anushka and I speculated about who McCain would pick as VP the next morning. Since I am a pessimistic person who concocts Worst-Case Scenarios, I said I most feared that he would pick Condoleezza Rice. If he chose a black woman who had experience in the highest levels of government, I thought, he'd surge ahead in the polls.

"I don't know," said Anushka. "Somebody was telling me...there's some female Republican governor..."

But she couldn't remember the governor's name and I couldn't help her out. Though, you see that she was right! I agree with Anushka's post that the selection of Palin seems like the worst kind of tokenism. I mean, the thought has crossed my mind "Would Hillary Clinton have gotten where she is if she hadn't married a powerful man?" and yet next to Sarah Palin, Hillary looks like the most qualified person who ever sought office. Clinton impressed millions of voters in New York State as a senator, then millions more all over America during the primaries... Alaska has about half a million residents of voting age!

When the inexperienced Ms. Palin was announced as veep, I mainly assumed that she might crack under the pressure--more pressure than she's ever had in her life, presumably--and a few weeks from now, make some embarrassing gaffe. I didn't guess that she was such a hasty choice, barely even vetted by the McCain camp, and that a variety of incendiary stories about her would dominate the news cycle over the next few days. On the one hand, I'm glad that reporters are working hard to demonstrate to the public that she is an incompetent candidate. On the other hand, maybe the Democrats should be worried that nobody is talking about them anymore--it's all Palin all the time, even if most of the news serves to discredit her.

As someone with a guilty love of melodrama, I was intrigued by the weekend's rumor that Palin's baby was actually her daughter's child; as someone who thinks that politics should not be equivalent to scandalmongering, I was hoping that it turned out to be false. Face it, I don't want Palin to get elected, but I also don't want to have to think of her as someone who would perpetrate an elaborate lie in the name of "family values." Still, all these stories combined just make me think of her as irresponsible and unready to lead. Even the fact that she has a four-month-old special-needs baby... I'm not saying she should have aborted the child, nor that she should stay at home to raise it. But don't you think that a woman in her forties, who knows that her age puts her at risk of complications if she gets pregnant, who already has several children, and who has just started a very demanding job, ought to be extra-specially attentive to contraception?