Monday, November 30, 2009

A Loss of Roses - by William Inge

A flop on Broadway in 1959, Inge revised the script for publication. In his preface he describes this play as always feeling like a sure thing to him and when it was going up there was a horrible moment where he saw that the play on-stage was nothing like the play that was in his head - but that the revisions would correct this.

This past fall I got to stay at William Inge's house in Independence, KS as a writer in residence and read most of his plays there. There wasn't a copy of this play, but there was a poster for the Broadway production, starring a young Warren Beatty. I loved the title and as I got to know Inge's writing I wanted to find this one too...

And, reading it this afternoon, its fallen short of my high expectations. It's a two act play. In the first act we meet Helen and her son Kenny. They both work and contribute to the household expenses, lucky to have jobs during the depression. Kenny is attached to his mother and doesn't want to leave, recently having turned down a good job outside of Wichita. Helen doesn't want him to get too comfortable, wanting him to strike out on his own and get married someday - at the moment he's drinking and running around with the trashiest girls in town. Helen's getting ready for Lila, who used to help her around the house and with baby Kenny when she was a girl and who is now an actress with a travelling show. The show's gone under and the show people drop her off at Helen's while they look for work in Kansas City.

Later that night, Kenny puts some moves on Lila when he's drunk. The next morning, Lila tries hard to be good and impress Helen, and cover for Kenny. Somewhere in there we also learn that Lila was hospitalized after she tried to commit suicide after running away from her husband & his father - there's also a whisper of sexual abuse in her past - a past that Helen helped her to get away from. The Act ends with Lila resisting any flirtation with Kenny and him thinking he could get used to having her around.

In the second act, a month later, Kenny and Lila have some drinks and Kenny puts the moves on her. She likes him - maybe loves him but turns him down. Helen comes home and Kenny throws a fit and threatens to move out after his mother refuses to take an expensive present from him - a watch to replace the watch his father gave her. We also learn that Kenny's father died saving Kenny's life. Lila's show friend, who she's in love with, comes back with a promise of work - $100 a week. It comes out that the work is a for a sex show - and some blue movies possibly. Lila refuses and goes to Kenny for help and comfort. They spend the night together after he asserts his seriousness about her and his plan to marry her. The next morning Helen senses something's up and confronts Kenny, Lila's a wreck and tries to slash her wrists, Kenny decides its time for him to move out and he heads off to work. Lila sees a girl going to school carrying roses. She remembers her first day of school, giving roses to the teacher and getting whacked later for talking - and asking for her roses back. Her show friend pulls up and Lila goes off to her future with him.

The loss of innocence, the hushed tones when discussing girls with bad pasts, the committment in mental institutions, the longing for a man to come and save the girl - and the realization that he's not coming... these hallmarks of theatre in the late 50s/60s - or maybe just William Inge and Tennessee Williams - I'll need to read more to make an accurate generalization.

This one though - it's interesting to me that Inge would be more sure about this one than any other - perhaps because it is structurally pretty clean, the action/images/intentions dove-tail together and it is containable in the mind... and then its the ones that are messier - that make you afraid to share them - that are uncertain that have that thing that makes them bigger than themselves.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Look Back in Anger - by John Osbourne

Look Back in Anger
was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre, London in 1956. On the back of my copy it states, "The searing drama of the angry generation" and it fits into the British cinema of the time that was focused on these, angry young men.

The play is in three acts. Jimmy, an educated son of the working classes, is married to Alison, a beautiful flower of the posher set. They live in a flat with the bathroom down the hall and share their space with Cliff, who works with Jimmy running a sweet stall. At open Alison irons a pile of laundry for the men, she takes care of both of them without question or thanks, and Jimmy and Cliff read piles of Sunday papers. Jimmy berates Alison for her stupidity, for taking his insults and for settling for such a shit hole. He dumps his hatred of the upper classes onto his wife, who silently takes it. Cliff plays mediator and comforter of Alison. In the second scene of the first act, Alison's friend Helena arrives to stay. She's an actress and acts as a savior to Alison, who has told everyone except Jimmy that she is pregnant.

Helena encourages Alison to leave Jimmy, calling her father - a former officer who spent the last 3 decades before the war in India - to come get her. Alison goes with poppa and Helena moves in on Jimmy. So that the third act's opening mirrors the first except this time it is Helena doing the ironing. Alison loses the baby, returns one last time - Helena vamooses and Alison and Jimmy are back together.

This play holds a place in British theater as turning point of sorts, heralding the arrival of these new angry young men.
I suppose people of our generation aren't able to die for good causes any longer. We had all that done for us, in the thirties and the forties, when we were still kids. There aren't any good, brave causes left. If the big bang does come, and we all get killed off, it won't be in aid of the old-fashioned, grand design. It'll just be for the Brave New-nothing-very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus. No, there's nothing left for it, me boy, but to let yourself be butchered by the women. (Jimmy - Act 3)
This speech of Jimmy's, among many others that he has, is the prism through which the play can be seen. A mixture of the aimless, young men after the war, under-employed and in a society going through a major upheaval. And the other huge strand of the play which is a view of women as life-sucking harpies.

As a reader I got pretty sick of reading this character's constant bitching about women, about his wife, about how stupid she is, about how she doesn't know anything about life. And sick of her subservient, helpless affection for him. That by the end of the play she comes back to him and they find their way back too each other through a little affectionate game they play of bear and squirrel. (yes, she is the squirrel) did nothing to alleviate my feeling of exhaustion with the narrative and the characters.

Now, I've striven to take plays on their own terms and freed myself from feeling the need to comment on the merits of scripts. And here is a play that yes, technically I can see how it works, the scenes all end on a cliff-hanger, the characters and their story serve as a mirror to look at a particular time in a particular society. There is a commentary on class, on British post-war society, on moralities and romanticism, and through the character of Jimmy it's all presented very 'in your face' and uncomfortably. And yet, I couldn't get past the sense of the women as functionaries and punching bags to serve the writer's central character. Even the unseen mother is depicted as a vulture, un-caringly waiting for Jimmy's father to die, leaving the young boy as the only one his father had to care for him.

And that's where the play gets really tricky for me. I feel like the play wants to be about the anger of a young man towards a stifling, class-based, moralistic society - but ends up being about a man angry at his mother and every iteration of her in his life. Which takes the teeth out of the play's posturing for me.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Round and Round the Garden - by Alan Ayckbourn

Round and Round the Garden is the last of The Norman Conquests trilogy. Again, the same group, the same country house where the sibling's mother (who likes to be read racy novels and apparently carried on with all sorts right under their father's nose) is dying upstairs. The same weekend. This time they are in the garden, and appropriately, everything gets aired out - and there are a few rolls in the grass that shed new light on what was simmering under the surface in the living room and the dining room.

And it should also be said, the same structure in each play. Two acts. Two scenes per act. Each scene ends with the disaster or the cri de couer that propels the next scene - or at the end that sums up the entire play - from Norman's point of view - and really his is the one that matters since he's started all the problem that got the play moving, and ends the play by causing just one more catastrophe.

Earlier in this series I read an early Ayckbourn play, Relatively Speaking, a comedy of mistaken identities, marriages and infidelities - actual and suspected. The material here in this later play (1973) is similar, infidelities and marriages but this one has a much deeper tap root. There's a quiet pathos underneath the play as well as a delight in the ridiculousness of people navigating the confines of family and commitment. And maybe that's what makes the comedy successful, that we can laugh at these people condemned to each other's company, seeking to get away from one another by any means necessary and delight at the end when Norman, who's managed to get kisses from each of the women, as well as painted pictures of weekends away with them - and quite possibly the men as well - conspires to wreck the cars so that they'll all need to stay another day together.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Living Together - by Alan Ayckbourn

Living Together is the second play of The Norman Conquests trilogy. It takes place in the Living Room, over the same weekend, with the same characters.

This one begins on Saturday evening with Norman sulking because his trip has been canceled, Reg dealing with the bags - and the game he's invented that he's hoping to play - and Sarah marshaling everyone around. As the plays pile up the sense that anyone has control over anything really does deteriorate, because we see what's happening in the next room when character's aren't around we see how little effect individual's attempts to control the situation have.

Married relationships take the foreground in this play. Particularly Sarah and Reg's union - with her constantly running him down and bossing him - dismissing his attempts to get everyone to play his game with him - and his general acceptance of her command. This plays counter to Ruth and Norman's marriage which although Norman seems unable to stop himself from suggesting a roll on the carpet or a get-away to Bournemouth to every lady present has an honesty and bluntness that carries them - and by the end, carries them through. In a way.

And it's a comedy. And it's filled with lonely and somewhat sad people trying to make the best of things.

Tomorrow I'll find out what's been going on in the garden.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Table Manners - by Alan Ayckbourn

The next three entries will be The Norman Conquests. This trilogy (recently on Broadway) of plays each take place over the same weekend, with the same characters, in different areas of the house.

This first one begins with Annie and her Sister-in-Law Sarah. Sarah's just arrived with her husband Reg, to take over Annie's duties as caretaker of her & Reg's mother for the weekend. Annie is going somewhere... over the course of the conversation it comes out that she's planned a dirty weekend in East Grinstead with Norman, the husband of her older sister Ruth. Sarah is shocked! Shocked! she'd assumed it would be a getaway with Tom, the local vet and eligible bachelor who haplessly comes round often, but really has no game at all. Norman shows up on the lawn waving around his pyjamas.

By scene two Ruth, Norman's wife, turns up at Sarah's request - she's short-sighted and doesn't like to have been pulled away from her work. ...

There are endless miles of terrain between these individuals, and Norman - a seemingly happy guy who happens to be married to a woman with her own mind, that doesn't really include him very much - does and says the wrong things throughout and is weirdly successful at it. The two other women end up in his arms at different points in the play.

And, as this one is set in the dining room, much of the comedic engine is the attempt to Just Sit Down and Have a Nice Meal Together.

moments where off-stage business is alluded to - and where characters come in laughing or disoriented from something that happened in another room with another character imply that the next two plays will add more dimensions to this one. Though, this one does stand quite nicely on it's own.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Lesser Magoo - by Mac Wellman

The Lesser Magoo
completes Wellman's Crowtet series. It is available at for download as a pdf.

The Lesser Magoo opens in an office where Torque is being 'rogated' by Candle & Curran. A dressing down, an arbitrarily abusive interview? The nature of their work is alluded to, the Nature of Crowe's Dark Space, old feuds and traditions and the history of their people. In this invented history, which combines sheer invention with familiar locations and references all delivered as convention would dictate, there are objects and locations mentioned which will resurface elegantly later in the play. It becomes murkliy apparent that one wouldn't want to be identified as an unusualist. Something horrible happens to Torque off-stage. There are moments of stillness. Joegh Bullock is seen hanging in a closet, he held Torque's position previously but has, "suffered a fatal self-erasure." And an invitation to visit Moonhat is extended by Candle to Curran.

The next scene opens on Moonhat estate with many guests at a lawn party. They will drift in and out of the scene as necessary. There is occasional singing. Much attention paid to the young and beautiful Tessora. Aunt Sycorica is appropraitely witchy. A literary figure discusses his work loosely. There are discussions about 'unusualists' and much discussions about other guests. The ghost of Joegh Bullock wanders in asking to be noticed, only Tessora can see him. A crippled old philosopher, Foss, arises from his wheelchair and walks into the woods. A Corn Knife is discovered (like one described in the first scene) and hastily hidden away. The former Senator speaks at length - this monologue feels like a touchstone, in that it has a coherence and point of view from our world. He speaks of his exhaustion fighting off the Pentagon and the Department of Defense, the shame of all the money going to fight wars while schools and public resources diminish. He rails against the corporations suffocating the common man, while the voters vote for policies and politicians that help them do just that. Aunt Sycorica asserts that,

In my own country, in my own lifetime, people proceeded to be MAD... insane mind you, just in order to escape responsibility. (p. 60)
then the guests begin acting strangely...

The final scene takes place in the woods. Tessura has followed Foss and Curran has followed Tessura, there is talk of randomness and talk of death. From a distance, the literary figure (dressed as Bottom with an Ass's head) and the former senator watch the women. Tessura describes disturbing things she's witnessed her parents doing in the woods and her fears of becoming an unusualist when all she wants is a normal life. The Ghost returns and she sends him away. Foss, the now - not -paralyzed philosopher returns with a silver foot, Tessura glows, luminous and is ascended, screaming, into the night sky.

The play is language and tumbling stories/histories, rich, playful, nonsensical, rhythmic, allusive and elusive. Slippery nonsense and pained expression of futility of fighting the nonsense that passes for policy. Theatrical and resisting standards of traditional interpretation, The Lesser Magoo, feels tricky and at the same time explains many of its tricks in the text.. another play that begs another, closer read - and then another - and (one hopes) a chance to sit and watch in the theatre with a beer.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Delirium of Interpretations - by Fiona Templeton

Delirium of Interpretations
published in 2003 by Green Integer has the subtitle (of the predicament and the phenomenon of Camille Claudel). In Templeton's notes preceding the text she provides a short biography of Claudel, a sculptor who lived from 1864 - 1934. She began sculpting young, was a student and later mistress of Auguste Rodin. She separated from him, continued to make art and after the death of her father was committed to an asylum by her family, including her brother, the playwright Paul Claudel. She died 30 years later in the asylum, much of her work lost or destroyed.

The play is constructed from multiple texts. Actors speak in character, as historical voices, as actors performing actors, and as representatives of various forces in Claudel's life. The majority of the text is assembled from letters, descriptions of Claudel's and Rodin's sculpture, from biographies, from literature from the era, from the myths on which much of their sculpture was based, and Templeton's original writing. The script is presented with a side column where sources are attributed, often line by line.

The play is organized into a prologue, five scenes and an epilogue. Characters are indicated by letters rather than names - possibly to suggest their changing natures. For example, R is Rodin, male artist, and father (physically). Claudel's existence as a sculptor of great talent, the lack of definitive information about her life - sometimes she is portrayed as stalking Rodin - other times he is the one controlling and relentlessly seeking her. The judgment and ultimate imprisonment by her family due to the diagnoses "Delirium of Interpretations" which would now be referred to as paranoia - paranoia that may have been very justified according to some accounts collected here. The jealousy of her talent by the men in her life - Rodin and her brother - and how this led them to control her - as well as the resentment of women, particular Rodin's wife and her own mother. The position of women at that time, particularly women seeking to work, to create, to be valued for their art - at a time when art was an entirely masculine endeavor. All of this is reflected in Templeton's text through the multiple interpreters - a sense of the inability of one objective voice, an undermining of any singular narrative to explain the individual - results from the play's form and methods of construction.

The published version also includes photographs of the sculptures referred to in the play. This adds an additional layer to the experience of reading - as would seeing these in person. There are notes regarding the staging, direction, and the acting of the peice. Templeton explains her vision of the performance style, includes the audience placement and some moments of improvised experience in the forward and afterward. Her explanations ground the sometimes dense and difficult text into the larger aims of the piece as a theatrical experience.

Claudel is the only character granted a subjective voice throughout the piece. It is through her the audience experiences the narrative, which unfolds chronologically through her life. First the impulse to create, then the experience of being in Rodin's workshop, then the conflict with her lover, her work alone, then a scene of interpretations of Claudel's work, a final scene of interpretations of her - the doctor's notes and views of her in the asylum as well as her own accounting of her mental state and experience, and finally an epilogue "Death, Disappearance, and History."

Here's some text to end with - which will speak louder than my attempt at description -
Genius is PR, it's macho, meaning egotistic and exclusive, unable to differentiate from their own viewpoint. It's a reason for a lot of brutality, it's old-fashioned, it's the biography, not the work. It's not useful. Talk instead about foresight, both penetration and encompassment. The work. In the world. Excitement. The greatest talent is to make something of your talent. I expect craft from people I work with. Talk of genius avoids multiple respect for creativity. It suggests the inhuman. (Scene 4, Camille)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

'Night Mother - by Marsha Norman

Pulitzer prize winning play of 1983, 'Night Mother opens with a mother straining for some cupcakes on a high shelf and her daughter, Jessie looking for some towels that her mother doesn't want anymore and a big piece of plastic or garbage bags. Then Jessie is looking for her father's gun. We learn that Jessie has a wayward son and that they are getting ready for her mother's weekly manicure. And then, bottom of page 5, Jessie says, "I'm going to kill myself, Mama."

Through the rest of the play, which unfolds without a break, Mama tries to convince her not to and Jessie goes through a long checklist of things she wants to do before she goes. Getting the house in order for her mother, giving away some items, passing on information and asking some questions. We learn more about Jessie's life. That she's an epileptic, that she was married and had a son, her husband left her - and had been sortof selected for her by her mother.

Sometimes her mother goes to the phone to call - but stops herself. Jessie has said she'd shot herself immediately if her mom calls for help - still...

Jessie's thought through this and decided. She's been planning it. She's feeling good because she's decided to do this. Watching the mother you want her to stop her - to try harder to stop her - and you have the sense of helplessness, share the sense of helplessness to do anything.

And finally, Jessie does it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Convention of Cartography - by W. David Hancock

The Convention of Cartography
is a play for one person, with video and environmental elements. The first stage direction:

(Audience members stumble upon a very old Airstream trailer, sitting in the middle of an overgrown parking lot. A hand-painted sign above the door of the trailer reads: MUSEUM)
There are seats facing a video monitor, several objects with the label "SOME OF MIKE'S THINGS" and a woman selling concessions. She is the curator's wife, and takes part in the performance as well, helping with tours and taking over at set points.

The curator appears and begins his lecture about a man he knew. A poet and artist and drifter who left poems in random places for people find and made boxes - described like Joseph Cornell type objects - that he installed at various places - underpasses, in people's attic's, highway restrooms. A picture of the man emerges through the lecture - how he worked and his effect on the curator's life. Then we are told that when Mike was dying the curator traveled to be with him.

Video tapes of the curator and Mike's conversations from this time are shared. These are interrupted by the curator - occasionally adding context, or sharing Mike's art, describing his efforts to locate and retrieve some of the work scattered across the USA. There are moments that will be fast-forwarded unless the audience protests to see it. Other stories emerge, the story of Ida, the great-aunt of the curator - how he met Mike when he was living with her, UFOs, a man dying in the back of a greyhound bus. Mike does not often cooperate with the curator, setting his own terms for many of the sections. Objects are referred to in the stories and are then seen in the collections and available for the audience to handle.

Audience is invited inside the museum. Displays of work are described, as is the nature of interaction the curator and his wife will have with the visitors. A video plays, a close up of Mike talking about Ida. There are cards described that should be placed with the exhibits.

At finish, a box with a peephole and a penlight is available for the audience to look at one by one. It is "Ida's Wing" and they are told it was found in a retirement home in their town. The curator tells about the discovery and exits. Leaving his wife to share it and resume the tour.

The play has a distinct mood in it. A feeling of loss and the attempt to collect and locate the inexplicable. As a script for an installation/play it is so clear. I've often wondered when attending other similar-type events how do you record it? and this script feels like one answer to that question. Or just for reading and gleaning the potential experience that way.

I wish I could go visit this museum in an over-grown parking lot, outside of some mid-western town... and I highly recommend reading this.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

a note to readers (11/1 - 11/8)

I am traveling this week and not near the computer often. I am shifting to reading short plays for this week that is shorter on time. Longer plays will return next week.

Turn Four - by Crystal Skillman

Turn Four
, a short play published in Play A Journal of Plays is set during the last 20 laps of the Daytona 500. Three drivers in their cars, which are chairs able to shake and represent speed, are staggered facing the audience. They remain in the same position through the play. The driver's are Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Dale Earnhardt.

The script is presented horizontally. The drivers speak to themselves and during the race and to each other over headsets. By laying out the script in 3 vertical columns a sense of the stage picture is conveyed through the visual organization of the text.

The historical events of the race are that Waltrip won and Earnhardt, Jr. came in second. Earnhardt was positioned for 3rd. Waltrip was driving a car owned by Earnhardt and this would have resulted in a 1-2-3 finish for the family. Earnhardt crashed and was killed on turn four in the final lap of the race.

Skillman imagines these final laps and the conversation between father and son, the tension of the three men vying for position, moments of recollection of their connections to racing, visions of victory, all building towards the final moments when Earnhardt loses control of his vehicle.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Icing: A Hockey Wedding Event - Sawako Nakayasu

Icing: A Hockey Wedding Event
is published in PLAY A JOURNAL OF PLAYS, issue 1, Spring 2003. It is a script for an event. It describes the lay out of the space, the areas inside and outside the main event space. What information the audience should have before hand. How admission should be payed and in what circumstances it should be waived. How attendees should be greeted. Characters are described with some of their actions, some of which are continuous throughout the event. There is a section of notes touching on music, dance, general structure (borrowed from weddings & hockey games).

Outside of the main event space is a Carnival, with participatory booths - fortune teller, walk-through wedding chapel, things that might be found at a carnival all with a wedding and/or hockey spin.

Then the script describes the Events of the event. These are organized into 3 periods, guided by an Announcer and a final section of "Falling." Language and elements of weddings and hockey games are re-configured and played with. There's audience participation. There are surprising interruptions, dances, fights, the marriage of hockey bags, a fight, the heart of "Ex-girlfriend #2" is cooked and served to a lucky audience member and "probably gets eaten with a little bit of sadness," among other things.

These events all take place inside a giant wedding cake. It ends when a giant knife cuts through, followed by a giant hockey puck, and the curtains "fold in and fall down over the audience. Music. End."

Sawako Nakayasu is a poet. I don't know if this event was ever staged. I would like to be invited if it is.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Redwood Curtain - by Lanford Wilson

Redwood Curtain
was first performed at Seattle Rep in 1992. It’s a three person play with three scenes and no intermission. It begins in the redwood forest outside of Arcata, CA. A man is urging his dog to kill an animal. A young Asian-American girl appears, she’s been watching him. He knows it. She talks to him, they wrestle a bit, he takes her wallet, she can control the elements. She is looking for her father, a Vietnam vet with mismatched eyes and an eagle tattoo. This man is a Vet, living in the woods, mismatched eyes and at the end of the scene she sees, an eagle tattoo.

The second scene is in the girl’s aunt’s car. She’s picked her up, is concerned and we learn that this girl’s been doing this a long time. We learn what’s truth and what’s lies about the girl. She is a piano prodigy, she was adopted by a wealthy family from a young Vietnamese girl who was paid $25,000. Her adopted father taught her and was depressive and drank. We learn that the aunt used to own a timber company that harvested the woods under guidelines approved by the Sierra Club, but she’s been bought out and the purchasers will cut down these 2500 year old trees. The scene shifts to the aunt’s home. The girl leaves for town. The man from the woods turns up and returns the wallet, all the money there – every picture and card examined and replaced. He departs.

The final scene is back in the woods and the truth of the girl’s parentage is revealed.

It’s such an elegant structure. Minimal characters, minimal scenes. An entire history – of the Vietnam war, the men damaged by it, the children left without fathers – is evoked as the backdrop and it provides this depth – along with the theme of corporate buy-outs of irreplaceable trees – that buoys up the simplicity of what we see at the surface. The iceberg theory of a play, its only 1/3 that we see. The rest is deep below the surface, signaling its magnitude with this little glimpse at the top.

Also, the back of the published play tells me that when this play opens on Broadway it will mark the fortieth production of Lanford Wilson’s to be directed by Marshall Mason. With that type of collaboration, does it allow him to trust his 1/3 at the top? To trust that the depths will be revealed by the director?