Monday, July 25, 2011

David Foster Wallace, Romantic Hero

From, 7/20/11:
There's a David Foster Wallace character in Jeffrey Eugenides' new novel. Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, his long-awaited follow-up to 2002's Middlesex, arrives in bookstores in October [...] The protagonist, Madeleine Hanna, is a graduating senior at Brown who loves nineteenth- and twentieth-century novels and her scientist boyfriend, Leonard Bankhead. She is loved in return by the religiously minded Mitchell Grammaticus. Grammaticus shares some qualities with the author himself. Like Eugenides, Mitchell's a smarty-pants of Greek descent who attended Brown and grew up in Detroit [...] But the Bankhead character is more recognizable still, as David Foster Wallace. Leonard Bankhead is a philosophy double major who chews tobacco, wears a bandanna, disdains ironic detachment, and has a history of mental illness that has led to multiple hospitalizations — just like David Foster Wallace. [...] Certainly, Leonard is distinct from DFW in a number of ways as well — the particularities of his family situation, his being a total stud, that he's a manic-depressive, not just a depressive, that he's not a writer, and all the vagaries of the plot — but the similarities are so iconically David Foster Wallace (a bandanna and chew are not common accoutrements) that Eugenides, who did not have a well-known or documented friendship with Foster Wallace, must intentionally be calling him to mind.
Well, isn't this what I said when an excerpt of The Marriage Plot appeared in The New Yorker a year ago? ("Did the character of Leonard in this story (Madeleine's love interest) make anyone else think of David Foster Wallace? I mean, he's an overachieving, somewhat obsessive, double-majoring, tall guy who chews tobacco--sound familiar?") Score one for me!

Eugenides' novel will add to the Wallace mystique, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. Last month I was talking with a friend about David Foster Wallace and his lasting influence on our generation (the Millennials), even intruding into Millennial mating rituals. That is, my friend and I have both had memorable experiences involving cute boys and David Foster Wallace (cute boys telling us to read DFW, us telling other cute boys to read DFW, becoming closer to a romantic partner by reading DFW with him, etc). And we feel that other women like us have had similar experiences, that this is becoming a "thing" or even a cliché. Prediction: Within the next five years, there will be an indie romantic comedy that features a scene of characters reading Wallace.

On the surface of it, there's no reason why David Foster Wallace should become associated with young lovers. (This is not Goethe and The Sorrows of Young Werther.) In his New Yorker essay on Wallace, Jonathan Franzen pointed out "the near-perfect absence, in [Wallace]'s fiction, of ordinary love. Close loving relationships, which for most of us are a foundational source of meaning, have no standing in the Wallace fictional universe. [...] David's fiction is populated with dissemblers and manipulators and emotional isolates." Yet Franzen goes on to say, "The curious thing about David's fiction [...] is how recognized and comforted, how loved, his most devoted readers feel when reading it. [...] This very cataloguing of despair about his own authentic goodness is received by the reader as a gift of authentic goodness: we feel the love in the fact of his art, and we love him for it."

And thus it does make sense that we Millennials, in love or hoping to be, would make Wallace a part of our romances. In sharing our love for Wallace with a potential lover, we signal what kind of person we are: "I love David Foster Wallace" has become shorthand for "I am impressively smart, but also achingly vulnerable, deeply caring, and worth getting to know, despite the difficulty." Plus, reading Wallace and finding an understanding boyfriend or girlfriend have the same end result -- of making us feel less alone in the world. So Wallace and romance and our sense of self all get mixed up together.

And then, maybe the logical next step is for David Foster Wallace himself to be depicted as a young lover and a romantic hero -- as he is, it seems, in Eugenides' novel.

Well, it might have taken Jeffrey Eugenides to make Wallace a small-r romantic hero, but society already treats him like a capital-R Romantic hero. That is, every generation needs someone whose life plays into the Romantic myth of the artist as a tormented individual who sees more clearly than his fellow man, but suffers greatly for it. David Foster Wallace has become that figure for my generation. The myth goes, "Wallace understood and wrote about The Modern Condition better than anyone else, and because he perceived the truth too profoundly, he was doomed to die. He stared into the sun and went blind from what he saw."

Adding to Wallace's mystique and myth are his notable eccentricities -- not just his stylistic quirks as a writer, but external stuff like the bandannas and the chewing tobacco. (After all, it was the mere mention of chewing tobacco in Eugenides' story that got me wondering, "Was this character based on Wallace?") And so I'm beginning to wonder if there will come a time when Wallace's mythos will overshadow his actual work.

Last week I was considering Ernest Hemingway -- another American author with a highly recognizable prose style and several personal eccentricities, who died by his own hand -- and the way that Hemingway's persona now overshadows his work. Hemingway is no longer A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises, he is Bullfights-Mojitos-Safaris-Masculinity-Monosyllables. Will there come a time when David Foster Wallace is no longer Infinite Jest and Consider the Lobster, but merely Bandannas-Tobacco-Tennis-Depression-Footnotes? And does making him into a romantic hero and a Romantic hero just hasten the onset of that?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

And Now the Final Frame

Tributes to Amy Winehouse are tending to center around two things: The Voice (raspy, smoky, sexy, old-school, a big bluesy voice in a tiny little body, capable of holding you spellbound without resorting to show-off diva tricks) and The Problems (drugs, addictions, fights, self-destruction, a knack for being her own worst enemy). What has not been mentioned as often as it should, I think, is that she was an amazingly talented songwriter. "Rehab" is that rarity: an extremely catchy pop song that isn't annoying when it, inevitably, gets stuck in your head. (In summer 2007, it got stuck in my head so often that I wrote a parody of it.) And in her ballads she found memorable turns of phrase to sing about that oldest of subjects, the pain of love. I particularly liked her use of alliteration: "I tread a troubled track" from "Back to Black," or "Memories mar my mind," from "Love Is a Losing Game."

"Love Is a Losing Game" just might be my favorite of her songs -- there is something almost classically beautiful about it, in the purity of its sadness and its hard-won wisdom. The lyrics sit perfectly on the music. Not a word is wasted.

Here is her demo recording of the song:

And here she sings unplugged versions of her four biggest hits: "Back to Black," "Love Is a Losing Game," "You Know I'm No Good," and "Rehab":

In performances like the ones in the video above, she was so present -- clearly connecting deeply with the songs as she sang them, she varies the phrasing and the melody from the album version. Seeing this, it's all too easy to lament the times she took the stage and wasn't fully present, due to drinking or drugs -- and also lament that we won't get any more Amy Winehouse performances, sober or not. We ask, how could she write songs that were so beautifully crafted and displayed such wit and insight -- then live a life that was so out-of-control and such an inevitable downward spiral?

She lived fast and died young, and while I find it ghoulish to speculate upon the appearance of her corpse, she did leave behind a beautiful body of work. And it's the work of an old soul.

As I read elsewhere on the Internet earlier today, Back to Black has just become the saddest album of the '00s.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Under the Sea: "Salty Towers" at Thunderbird Theatre

Pity poor Poseidon. After he and his two brothers defeated Cronus and divided the world between them, Zeus gained dominion over the heavens and was crowned king of the gods. Hades gained dominion over the underworld and an everlasting bad-ass reputation. And Poseidon gained dominion over -- the ocean? Well, maybe some gods would have made the best of it, but Poseidon doesn't seem to have been too happy. Most of the myths about him depict him as an angry and resentful god, unleashing mighty storms upon unlucky mortals (Odysseus, Hippolytus, Idomeneo). And in perhaps the most famous myth featuring Poseidon, he loses the contest to become patron god of Athens when he gives the city a spring of salt water (whereas Athena provides an olive tree). Not very impressive, to be sure.

For their play Poseidon in the San Francisco Olympians Festival last summer, authors Bryce Alleman, Dana Constance and Kathy Hicks decided to accept that Poseidon is an underdog among gods, and mine that for comedy. As they see it, Poseidon is the beleaguered proprietor of a shabby undersea hotel. He hopes to win the right to host the Olympics and thus get revenge on Athena, but complications arrive in the form of his venomous wife Medusa, his mischievous hotel staff of sea creatures, and several troublesome guests.

Twelve months later, Thunderbird Theatre is giving this play a full production, having hilariously re-christened it Salty Towers in the meantime. Yes, it's a parody of Fawlty Towers, with Poseidon in the John Cleese role. I should note, though, that I've never seen an episode of Fawlty Towers but didn't feel lost or confused during the play. (And yes, this also means that the plays of last summer's Olympians Festival are now batting 3 for 12 when it comes to full productions!)

Salty Towers authors Bryce, Dana, and Kathy are all company members of Thunderbird, which was founded over 10 years ago with the goal of producing original comedic plays. Not black comedies or drawing-room comedies, but unabashed broad humor, farce, and parody. As such, Salty Towers was written in "Thunderbird style," featuring a large cast and a story that is more a succession of incidents than a complex narrative. New characters and sub-plots are constantly introduced throughout the play, and then everything gets resolved by a deus ex machina: Poseidon accidentally gets knocked out for two days, has a dream sequence, and when he comes to, everything is OK. You could argue that the Greeks invented the deus ex machina and thus it is brilliantly clever for a Greek-inspired play to employ this technique, but I feel like that would be overthinking things. Though it would be more challenging, I did wish to see the characters work their conflicts out organically.

The large cast of characters parading across the stage, though, provides a great showcase for Sara Briendel's witty costumes. The gods wear 1970s styles on top and togas on the bottom, while papier-mache and puppetry allows actors to portray sea creatures. As for the characterizations of the gods -- always one of my favorite parts of an Olympians Festival play -- I liked the comic depictions of Dionysus as a Jim Morrison-quoting stoned hippie and Hestia as a giggling, frumpy nerd. But I'm not sure I understood the decision to portray Hermes as a snooty closeted homosexual (usually he's more of a trickster jock), and while it was briefly amusing to hear fire-stealing Prometheus talk like a 1930s Chicago gangster, the portrayal was overly broad. Meanwhile, Poseidon himself is sympathetic, but not the most memorable or compelling character in the play. Throughout it, he's essentially reacting to the crazy hi-jinks of his customers and staff, not making decisions of his own.

One of Poseidon's employees at the undersea hotel is a Portuguese man o' war. In the real world, this jelly-like creature has long venomous tentacles, but in Salty Towers, it's portrayed more like an electric eel, with tentacles that light up and deliver electric shocks. And maybe that's a good metaphor for Salty Towers as a whole. It has the capacity to deliver jolts of wit, laughter, and electricity. But the play also lacks an internal structure that would give it a more solid shape.

Salty Towers is playing through July 23 at the Exit Theater. See for more info.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Script for Un-Scripted

The Un-Scripted Theater Company is producing my script.

It sounds like an oxymoron, but it's real, and coming up soon: July 28 at 8 PM.

The Un-Scripted Theater, San Francisco's premiere improv theater group, is collaborating with playwrights for the first time ever. For their Act One, Scene Two project, they asked local playwrights to submit the beginning scene of a play. On the night of the performance, the Un-Scripted actors will do a cold reading of that scene and then improvise the remainder of the play -- 90 to 120 minutes, including intermission!

Moreover, the goal is to improvise a play the style of that evening's playwright, so at the very beginning of the show, I'll have to get onstage and answer questions about my writing style, common themes in my work, etc.

I saw opening night of Act One, Scene Two on July 9 and can attest that the Un-Scripted improvisers are super talented, amazingly quick-witted, and sure to provide a memorable evening of theater.

The scene I wrote for this project is titled "Manifestation" and while I can't reveal too much about it (it's supposed to be a secret until the night of the performance), I can say it's a little sillier than what I usually write, but also has some of my favorite themes/motifs. Oh, and don't bring small children or your easily offended grandma :-)

I can't wait to see the play that results from my little scene and the Un-Scripted actors' boundless imaginations -- and if you're in San Francisco, feel free to join me for what is one of the weirdest, but most exciting, opportunities I have ever had as a playwright.

As I said, this is a one-night-only deal, Thursday July 28, at 8 PM. (If you can't make it, I urge you to check out another Act One, Scene Two show -- it's playing well into August and there are lots of great playwrights in the lineup.)

The Un-Scripted Theater Company performs at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available here.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

One Constant, If I May

A few New Yorker-ish things:

* The short story "Homage to Hemingway" by Julian Barnes from the July 4 issue was very thought-provoking. A combination of fiction, literary criticism, playful meta-textuality... good stuff, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hemingway's death. And I loved this little passage:
He told them his theory of writers and cooking. Novelists, who were in it for the long haul, were temperamentally equipped for stewing and braising, for the slow mixing together of many ingredients, whereas poets ought to be good at stir-fry. And short story writers? someone asked. Steak and chips. Dramatists? Ah, dramatists – they, the lucky sods, were basically mere orchestrators of the talents of others, and would be satisfied to shake a leisurely cocktail while the kitchen staff rustled up the grub.
Bonus link: Julian Barnes reads Hemingway's "Homage to Switzerland," which inspired "Homage to Hemingway."

* Paul Muldoon, the magazine's Poetry Editor, gave the commencement speech for the Bennington College writers' program -- in terza rima. Actually, this poem is a meta-textual homage too, to W. H. Auden's poem for the 1946 Harvard commencement, "Under Which Lyre". I'm not sure Muldoon's poem will endure as long as Auden's (there might be too many snarky pop-culture references in it), but I enjoyed several passages from it, especially this one:
The challenge is how to kick-start
ourselves and name some grand ambition shining there
at which we may, albeit briefly, set our caps
before throwing those same caps in the capricious air.
and the concluding advice:
think outside the frame
unless you’re a photographer; be frugal
in everything but praise; never jump a small claim;
always write “some pig” of the least porker
in the barnyard; remember those who fly far look like fair game;
refuse to pay corkage; make every line a corker;
let your main tactic be tact
and—one constant, if I may—read The New Yorker.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

"Tales of the City: A New Musical" - San Francisco in Song

Shortly after moving to San Francisco in 2008, I read Armistead Maupin's first Tales of the City book and then learned that it was being adapted into a musical -- which I thought was a great idea. So I was very excited to see the world premiere, at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) here in town through the end of the month.

Adapted from Armistead Maupin's columns and novels, the musical has a libretto by Jeff Whitty and a score by Jake Shears and John Garden, of the 1970s-influenced band Scissor Sisters. (After writing this and Avenue Q, Whitty has cornered the market on musicals about young urbanites exploring their identities while living in a crazy apartment house presided over by a gender-ambiguous proprietor.) Shears and Garden draw on a mix of musical styles for the score, not limiting themselves to Scissor Sisters' glam-rock/disco sound. In an interview in the playbill, they make the point that the 1970s were a diverse era in music and that '70s Broadway composers (Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, John Kander) wrote music influenced by pop, rock, folk, jazz, traditional Broadway, etc. Thus, the score includes such items as a thumping disco number for the famous scene where Michael "Mouse" Tolliver participates in a jockey shorts dance contest, Janis Joplin-style blues-rock for Mona Ramsey's songs, and an outrageously campy Broadway-gospel song called "Homosexual Convalescent Center." Lyrics are more functional than brilliant, though I liked the rhyme of "marijuana / co-ed sauna" in a song where Mary Ann Singleton's friends enumerate the good things about San Francisco.

The Tales of the City characters are so beloved that it must be intimidating for actors to portray them, but this new musical is perfectly cast in its central roles. Betsy Wolfe is a sunny Mary Ann and her clear, pure voice suits her character's innocence. Wesley Taylor is an adorable Mouse, making his character's romantic woes instantly sympathetic. Judy Kaye is warm and dignified as Mrs. Anna Madrigal. At first, for all her kindness, she seems somehow distant from the other characters, but when Mrs. Madrigal's big secret is revealed at the end of Act 1, everything makes sense. Mary Birdsong captures Mona Ramsey's cynical, self-destructive side and delivers the funniest lines in the show.

The smaller roles sometimes suffer for not giving the performers enough to do or otherwise being underwritten. The character of DeDe Halcyon-Day gets two broadly comic songs and Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone plays them to the hilt, but she functions more as comic relief than as an integral part of the show. DeDe's husband Beauchamp (Andrew Samonsky) duly performs his plot function of seducing Mary Ann, then basically disappears from the show. A brief scene in Act II shows Jon Fielding (Josh Breckinridge) and Beauchamp hooking up at a gay bathhouse, but this should probably be cut because it raises more questions than it answers. One of the key features of the Tales of the City stories is their blend of high-society characters with marginalized, outsider characters. But the musical often seems to wish that the upper-crust characters didn't exist, in order to go back to having more fun with those crazy and wild folks on Barbary Lane.

Indeed, that's the pitfall of adapting Tales of the City into a musical. Yes, the '70s atmosphere is fun, yes, the characters are lovable and relatable, yes, the big events of the plot give them something to sing about. But there's just too much plot and the creators still haven't found the best way to shape and balance it.

For instance, most of the reviews have mentioned as an emotional high point Mouse's "Dear Mama," where he sings his coming-out letter in the form of a simple folk ballad, unrhymed and all the more affecting because of it. I could hear grown men in the audience crying during this song. But the trouble, from a storytelling perspective, is that we never find out Mouse's mother's reaction to the letter. Does she accept her gay son, or spurn him? It's a good song, but a weak choice to have Mouse sing it to Mary Ann and Mrs. Madrigal (he wants them to hear the letter before he sends it). Much better for him to sing it as a soliloquy, or else directly to his mom.

Then there's the question of whose story this really is: Mary Ann's, Mouse's, or Mrs. Madrigal's? The musical starts off seeming like it will be Mary Ann's story (the "wide-eyed girl in the big city" opening number that I predicted back in 2008) but by Act II, the other characters' stories have become more compelling. The different storylines also present conflicting messages. Mouse and Mrs. Madrigal gain the courage to stop hiding who they really are; they tell the truth and are rewarded for it. Meanwhile, Mary Ann learns that she needs to hide who she is, to tone down her innate good cheer and stop being so trusting. In most of Tales of the City, San Francisco is portrayed as a hippie paradise of love and acceptance, but in Mary Ann's story, it's full of horrible people who try to take advantage of her. Does this make the musical intriguingly complex -- or thematically muddled?

A friend of mine says that she thinks the treatment of Mary Ann, vis-a-vis Mouse, is unfair. By the end of the musical, Mouse has acquired a handsome, successful, loving boyfriend, while Mary Ann has had relationships with two complete scumbags. I can see my friend's point -- as a straight woman, I too identify with Mary Ann and want her to be happy. However, I also appreciate seeing an ingenue heroine whose character arc is not "move to the big city and find Mr. Right." In San Francisco, Mary Ann learns to stand up for herself and acquires wonderful new friends, but she also becomes increasingly hardened and cynical. In her eleven-o-clock number, "Paper Faces," she laments how we all put on masks and personae in order to survive. "Paper Faces" also makes use of one of my favorite musical-theater tricks: the chorus joins in, the orchestra drops out, and everyone keeps singing in soaring harmonies. It gets me every time.

I talked about the characters' arcs, and while that's a good thing to have in a conventional play or musical, maybe that's wrong for Tales of the City -- which after all is based on a loose, rambling, episodic narrative, the first serialized story in a daily newspaper since the 19th century. Though Tales of the City sounded like a slam-bang idea for a musical, it really did take a lot of work to squeeze it into a conventional musical-comedy shape, with character arcs, a happy ending, and a 3-hour running time. To their credit, the creators have obviously worked hard, and not just coasted on the nostalgia that some San Franciscans feel for this era and these characters. (Even though Tales of the City is not a great musical, it could be far worse than it is and still make money in this town, due to the nostalgia factor.) But just as Mary Ann Singleton learns that a 5-day vacation in San Francisco cannot compare with actually living here, a 3-hour musical of Tales of the City, by definition, cannot really be Tales of the City.

Photos by Kevin Berne. Top: Judy Kaye as Anna Madrigal and Mary Birdsong as Mona Ramsey. Bottom: Patrick Lane as Brian Hawkins, Betsy Wolfe as Mary Ann Singleton, Wesley Taylor as Michael "Mouse" Tolliver and Josh Breckinridge as Jon Fielding.