Saturday, October 31, 2009

Miracle Play - by Joyce Carol Oates

This one is published by Black Sparrow Press. I love their publications. As a high school student I had a few of Bukowski's books that they published with their rough cardboard colored covers. I picked this one up in a used book store pretty much because it was published by them and because I'd never heard of it.

And it's not anything like what I expected. I guess I thought, literary, magical somehow, rooted in emotion and character. Probably. Maybe playing with the form as a writer not typically known for plays might do. I was ready for a surprise.

So, Miracle Play, first performed in 1974, is an urban crime drama. It opens with Titus Skinner (29) getting ready to beat up his sometimes girlfriend, Beattie Roscoe (16) for stealing $500 worth of his product, heroin. The next scene has Titus's brother's face being scalded with boiling sugar water by Beattie's brother and his friend in retaliation. Then Beattie's brother and his friend are burnt alive by Titus. The play is the attempt to make a court case against Titus by the Prosecutor, a white man who promises a conviction if Beattie will testify against Titus. Titus is defended by Kidd, a white man, who uses Titus as a symbol of all that is wrong for blacks in America and fights to have him set free. At one point he is given $100,000 for Titus's defense, he says from gentle white people who want to help. Titus's brother gapes in disbelief, partly that anyone would give that kind of money to help his brother - who he knows is guilty, is a drug dealer, and is a threat to everybody in the neighborhood - but mostly he gapes that anyone would have that kindof money just lying around.

Now I suppose this type of material is used to fuel Law & Order and many other hour long crime dramas. But here, 1974, written by a white woman, writing an urban, black story - I wonder how it was received. I wonder how the conversations were different then. Was it praised for it's unblinking portrayal of black urban america? For her ear for how people talk? It's not sentimental. It's not looking to make heros of any of the characters, there's a tragedy to some - an innocence that doesn't last. And the dealer, Titus, has the last word - about growing up and expecting to end up in the electric chair, but now that states are doing away with that things'll change. Then to win over the jury with an act so impressive they'll have to let him go he sticks a lightbulb on his forehead and lights it up.

It's a play that feels of a particular time, the 70s, New York City - I don't know that it fits now - not that the story it tells doesn't happen anymore - but its not what theatre does, its what TV does. Though I doubt that is for the better - seeing how TV mines those stories for the salaciousness of actions rather than the motivations of the characters bound by themselves and their society.

I was looking for a surprise and I received one, all preconceptions over turned and in that Black Sparrow Press and Ms. Oates did not disappoint.


  1. First, let me say that I really respect what you are doing on this blog. Plays are literature, too, and deserve to be read, not just staged.

    I have always struggled with the presentation of physical violence on the stage, and your summary of Oates' play, particularly the burning of a character's face with boiling sugar water and the burning alive of two other characters, has reminded me of this personal sticking point. For example, when I first saw KIng Lear staged, I worried beforehand about how the gouging out of Gloucester's eyes would be done and if seeing it would be as powerful, palpable, disturbing as reading it. While violence on the stage is obviously nothing new ( (but ever present from the classical period to the present moment), I think because most all people living today have never known anything but a mediatized existence that it is more difficult to get them/us/viewers to suspend disbelief during scenes of staged violence/murder. Filmed violence seems more real than staged violence. People today don't just want real/realism: they want hyper real, the realest. The theatre can compete in some ways with the "realness" film achieves, but not, at least in my opinion, when it comes to violence. Unless stage actors were to 'really' injure themselves, or unless we were to talk in terms of performance artists who purposely inflict pain on themselves to make a particular point, blood and gore on stage seems interminably difficult to do well, unless its parody.

    How exactly does someone stage burning another person alive? or scalding someone's face? and do it effectively? I agree with you that this isn't really what theatre does (anymore).

  2. thanks for the thoughts. I should have explained better I think. Oates builds up to the point of violence, sets up the horror to come and has the characters threatening, bargaining to spare themselves and making the choice to go ahead with it. But the violence itself does not happen on stage. We see and hear about the results of the violence afterwards, so these actions leave marks and are the cause of the subsequent actions of the play. But the act itself is not seen.

    In this case this is what Oates chose...but, for example, skillful productions of Martin McDonagh's work (and other plays) do put the violence right onstage in service of their productions. Adding to the sum total of the event.