Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Pulitzer Project by Michelle Hill (September 5-December 5, 2010)

Summary:  On September 5, I began reading plays that have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in random order.    The prize has been awarded since 1918; though in some years, no award was given.  Today at about 8 PM, I finished the 79th play and completed the project. 

Thoughts:  There is a post following a summary/thoughts format for every play that has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and some are unquestionably better than others.  I allowed myself only thirty minutes to write and submit each of these posts, knowing that I would otherwise leave them in my drafts folder forever in an attempt at editorial perfection.  These posts are unedited and (I'm sure) contain a number of syntactical and grammatical errors.  Because I have been trying to finish the project on time, I haven't actually reread any of these posts.  

I decided to blog about each play because a few years ago, I completed the American Film Institute 100 Greatest Films list, but failed to record the experience.  I now find myself saying, "Yeah....I have seen that but don't really remember what I liked or disliked about it" in many movie conversations.  I wanted some sort of catalog about my immediate reactions to the plays in this project.  Because these posts are about immediate reactions to text, they contain very little in the way of critical analysis or cultural context.  

At the bottom of each post, there are tags noting themes and subjects that reappeared throughout the project.  The tags have been very helpful, but they are one of my first editorial priorities.  
Problematic issues:
  • Because the vast majority of these plays are dramatic in nature, I sometimes forgot to note that a play was "Drama."  
  • Though there are tags for 'black playwright" and "gay playwright", I did very little in the way of biographical research so these tags should probably have a few more usages.  
  • The most problematic tag is "dysfunctional family."  It is also one of the most frequently used, but that is in large part due to the fact that I never created a "family" tag.  
  • Angels in America and August:  Osage County both exhausted the 200 character limit for tags.

When I realized I had to add a tag entitled "n-word", my thoughts about twentieth century American drama began to take a turn.  I started the project largely as a fan, attempting to supplement my knowledge of dramatic literature by reading "the best."  The bulk of these texts are remarkable, though they are not perfect.  The Pulitzer Prize Plays not only represent American drama, they represent American thinking including its very real, institutionalized flaws. 

This project was enabled by anyone who said, "that's cool" when I told them about it.  Thank you for thinking so.  Or convincing me that you thought so.  I am particularly grateful to all those who listened to my rambling stories about the most recent read, especially MH, BH, RH, NB, RD, HK and AM.  

This post demands edits, but I demand a movie. 

A Note About Editions

Dedication page in Coe's The Pulitzer Prize Plays 1918-1934.
I am extremely indebted to Dena Kinney, the Director of the Fine Arts and Design Library at The University of New Mexico, not only for helping me find some of the more obscure titles on the list, but also for checking up on me at various points in the project.  Her emails letting me know that she was following the blog kept me motivated when there was no end in sight (mid-October, to be specific). 

Additionally, this project could not have been completed without the resources of The University of New Mexico Library, particularly the unseen individuals in the Interlibrary Loan Office.  I don't know who you are, but I often wondered if my privileges would be revoked because I was requesting so many strange little volumes.  Instead, my requests always arrived within a week and were the correct, hard-to-find editions. Forever grateful.

In addition to all of my loan requests, the following three anthologies proved extremely useful:
50 Best Plays of the American TheatreSelected by Clive Barnes with Individual Play Introductions by John Gassner. 
Crown Publishers.  ASIN:  B002XRIL6S. 

The Teahouse of the August Moon, The Diary of Anne Frank, Look Homeward, Angel, The Green Pastures, You Can't Take It With You, Abe Lincoln in Illinois, The Time of Your Life, State of the Union, A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Street Scene, Men in White, Harvey.

The Norton Anthology of Drama, Volume 2.  Edited by J. Ellen Gainor, Stanton B. Garner Jr., Martin Puchner. 
W.W. Norton and Company.  ISBN:  978-0-393-93181-2.
A Streetcar Named Desire, Death of a Salesman, Long Day's Journey Into Night, Buried Child, Glengarry Glen Ross, Fences, Angels in America:  Millennium Approaches.

The Pulitzer Prize Plays 1918-1934.  Edited by Kathryn Coe and William Cordell.  
Random House.  ASIN:  B000855OB2.
Why Marry, Beyond the Horizon, Miss Lulu Bett, Anna Christie, Icebound, Hell-bent Fer Heaven, They Knew What They Wanted, Craig's Wife, In Abraham's Bosom, Strange Interlude, Street Scene, The Green Pastures, Alison's House, Of Thee I Sing, Both Your Houses, Men in White.

The Young Man from Atlanta by Horton Foote (1995)

Summary:  Following the apparent suicide of their adult son Bill, upper middle class Houstonians Will and Lily Dale build their expensive dream home.  Will is fired from a company where he has worked for 38 years shortly after they move in.  When he asks his wife for some of their savings, she sheepishly tells him that she has given much of it to their son's "friend" from Atlanta.  After Lily Dale reveals that she has been speaking to Will's friend and sending him thousands of dollars, Will is incensed.  When the friend unexpectedly shows up, Will refuses to see him on the grounds that, "There are things I'd have to ask him and I don't want the answers" (109).

Thoughts:  The word "gay" never appears in this play, but all talk of Bill's friend is fraught with tension.  In her final monologue on the last page of the play, Lily Dale says, "He said Bill insisted on giving him the money, for buying nice things.  He said he was like a father to him....He said, too, that he wished he could have gone down in the water that day with Bill.  That's how much he loved him and missed him" (110).  Her husband assures her that everything will be "all right" soon and the play ends.

This play is short and confined to familial interactions.  Family secrets surrounding money, suicide and homosexuality are omnipresent, but rarely verbalized.  Foote's characters suggest that these are the three topics that should, under no circumstances, be discussed outside of the stifling confines of family...and sometimes not even inside the confines.

Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet (1984)

Summary:  Four salesman, an office manager, a client and a policeman interact over the course of two days (and two acts).  Separating the two acts is an unseen robbery in which highly sought-after sales leads are stolen. 

Important characters:
Shelly Levene:  A once-great 50-something salesman who spends the first scene begging for leads and is ultimately responsible for the burglary.
Roma:  A highly competitive 40-something salesman who is at the top of his game and the lead in a sales contest that will give the winner a Cadillac.
Moss:  Plans the burglary.
Aaronow:  First approached by Moss to carry out the burglary, he refuses, Shelly is enlisted.
Williamson:  The office manager who handles the distribution of the leads and the keeping of sales figures on the important "board."  The salesmen in the office enjoy reminding Williamson that he is not one of them.

Thoughts:  This play (like the work of Albee, Kushner, Letts, Shepard and others) is highly verbal.  However, it is not verbal in the same way.  There are very few memorable or quotable lines in Mamet's text, and some of the most quoted ("Will you get out of here.  Will you get out of here.  Will you.  I'm trying to run an office here.  Will you go to lunch?  Go to lunch.  Will you go to lunch?" (Act 2, 1284)) are perhaps only quoted because of memorable utterances offered by actors in performances on stage and in the 1992 film (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3EvCIU7gb8).

Instead of creating highly literate verbal characters who are inclined to correct the grammar of those surrounding them (Albee), Mamet uses a lot of "ordinary" words and depends on actors to speak them quickly.  His language is characteristically masculine and often punctuated with curse words.  In the words of my professor David Jones, "[Mamet's work] is like a coming-out party for the word motherfucker."

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949)

Summary:  After working as a traveling salesman for more than twenty years, Willy Loman fights with his adult children and wonders if he was ever really good at his job or his life.
As Willy struggles to keep his job, his adult sons (Biff and Happy) attempt to figure out what they want for their own lives--as they are certainly not yet on a path to greatness.
Ultimately, after struggling to make payments on his house and life insurance, Willy commits suicide in a final attempt to provide for his family.

Thoughts:  I feel the same sort of pressure writing about this play as I felt months ago when I tried to come up with some critical reflection about A Streetcar Named Desire (which won the prize just one year before).  I have probably read this play more times than any other on the list, beginning in Mrs. Worley's twelfth grade English class.  Neal Dandade and I were cast as Willy and Linda and our classmates were forced to spend weeks listening to us likely massacre some of American drama's most famous words. 

Like several of the plays that have been awarded the Pulitzer, this play contains an element of magical realism and the physical structure of the house is central to any production.  Countless comparisons can be made between this play, Our Town and Fences.... each very different interpretations of "the American Dream."  Each play involves a physical home, children and the destruction of expectations.

Strange Interlude by Eugene O'Neill (1928)

Summary: The play follows the life of Nina Leeds over the course of about twenty-five years and is fundamentally about her relationships with men.

When the play opens, she is grieving the loss of her fiancee Gordon. Her father fears that she might be going crazy because she has recently informed him of her plan to become an army nurse. When Gordon entered the war, the two had not consummated their relationship and she is wracked with guilt because of it. Nina secretly wants to be an army nurse so that she can provide sexual comfort to the men returning from war.

After becoming an army nurse and engaging in sexual congress with lots of soldiers, Nina feels guilty. She returns home. Charles Marsden (a writer and friend of her now-dead father) advises that she should atone for her sexual sins by marrying sweet Sam Evans. Though she does not love Sam or feel sexually attracted to him, she does.

When she gets pregnant with Sam's baby, she is thrilled. However, her mother-in-law is horrified by the pregnancy and convinces Nina that she must abort the baby because the men in Sam's family have a history of insanity. When Nina tells Mrs. Evans that the only thing keeping her happy is the pregnancy, Mrs. Evan's suggests that Nina abort the baby and then have sex with a male friend: when a child inevitably arrives, Sam will assume that it is his.

Nina enters into an affair with Dr. Ned Darrell, informs him of her plans to have his child and he agrees. Though their afternoons of rapture do produce a child, they also fall in love along the way.

When the child (named Gordon!) arrives, Sam is thrilled and Ned leaves the country. When Ned returns years later, Sam's business has taken off, Nina is a shell of her former self and Gordon is a strapping young athlete. When Sam unexpectedly dies, Gordon tells his mother and Ned (his unknown father) that they should probably marry. Because too much has passed between them, they refuse. Instead, Nina remarries old Charlie Marsden--who has remained at the periphery, closely observing all of Nina's life choices.

Thoughts: Well. Quite a plot summary.

For the second time in the project, Eugene O'Neill uses the word "slut" to describe a woman (both instances in plays from the 1920s). In each of his four Pulitzer Prize winning plays, O'Neill creates women who are central to the story but who are often sexually promiscuous, always deeply flawed and frequently spiteful and mean. While his portrayal of women is certainly cringe-inducing, it is partially obscured in this play by the fact that none of the characters are very likable. They each have sinister ulterior motives, most surrounding sex or money.

Interestingly, the ulterior motives in this play are blatantly obvious because O'Neill has made the artistic choice to have each character speak almost all of their subtext.  Usually marked by a stage direction of "thinking", these lines are meant to be spoken. Finding a way to artistically and believably stage the play would be difficult because although the characters speak their emotions, but O'Neill offers no staging advice and each line of "thinking" reads like a soliloquy. Additionally, there are certain lines without "thinking", so this could quickly become confusing for an audience member. Adding to the challenge of staging is the fact that this play contains nine acts and is over 300 pages long.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts (2009)

Summary:  The three Weston sisters have returned to the home of their parents in Pawkuska, Oklahoma following the disappearance of their father.  They are joined by various relatives and a recently hired cook/maid/nurse named Johnna as they wait with their drug-addled mother for the phone to ring.  Eventually, Sheriff Heidebrecht visits the family to inform them that Bev's body has been found in the lake, an apparent suicide that will be filed as "drowning."  As the sisters attempt to figure out what to do with their mother (who has mouth cancer and is seriously addicted to painkillers), family secrets old and new are exposed. 

Thoughts:  For the second time in this project, a blurb on the back of the book compares the work to that of Eugene O'Neill.  Jeremy McCarter writes, "August:  Osage County is what O'Neill would be writing in 2007.  Letts has recaptured the nobility of American drama's mid-century heyday while still creating something entirely original."

When I read this play for the first time in May of 2010 after spending a few years lying about having read it, I was both moved and awed by the thirteen characters Letts had created.  Each of these characters is crucial to the transmission of the family narrative, and cases can be made for many of them being the "main" character.  Accordingly, both published critics and friends of mine have called this "the best play of the decade."  If the dysfunctional family is the most celebrated subject in the canon of American drama, this play certainly holds its own in the historical record.  

However, I have now read both this play and Sam Shepard's Buried Child twice and now take issue with McCarter's compliment "something entirely original."  Not only are there overlapping subjects in these plays (which happens all the time in dysfunctional family dramas), there are details and structural issues that contain uncomfortable instances of overlap (what happens in the backyard, the role of the outsider, ghostly ending...)

I still love August:  Osage County and think it is a majorly significant work that excels at doing what many American dramatists have attempted:   a realistic depiction what happens when the adult members of a family are forced back together under emotional circumstances.  However, before making proclamations about grandeur and originality, I think it is important to take a look at the play that won the Pulitzer Prize 29 years before.  

Craig's Wife by George Kelly (1926)

Summary:  Mrs. Craig is fiercely committed to keeping her house “in order.”  As a result, she treats her maids terribly, resents any guests that come to visit and makes strict rules for her husband and (live-in) aunt-in-law. 

Though this is play is fundamentally about Mrs. Craig’s relationship to her husband, there is also a strange murder mystery in the middle of the play which serves to highlight Mrs. Craig’s neuroses and extreme jealousy. 

Thoughts:  Like many of the awarded plays of the 20s, this play features a woman who is steadfast in her beliefs about the role of a woman in marriage.  Interestingly, Mrs. Craig and her husband have only been married for eighteen months.  She repeatedly states to different people that she married so that she would never be poor, and that all a woman has is her home.  True feelings about marriage and property are revealed when her husband counters this thesis with:

Mr. Craig:  Hasn’t she her husband?
Mrs. Craig:  She could lose her husband, couldn’t she?—As many another woman has.
Mr. Craig:  Couldn’t she lose her home too?
Mrs. Craig:  She couldn’t if she knew how to secure it  (Act 2, 362).

Enlightened by his aunt, Mr. Craig attempts to resume control over his household, which manifests in smashing some of his wife’s beloved ornaments on the mantel and smoking in the living room.  After he gets his wife to admit that she has been trying to keep his friends out of the house, Mr. Craig states that he plans to leave the marriage, but will ensure that Mrs. Craig keeps the house.  At the end of the play, the servants have all been fired or have quit, Aunt Austen has left to “travel” and Mrs. Craig’s visiting niece has returned home.  She is left alone in her pristine, but empty house.

At several points throughout the play, it seems that the dramatic action is going to take a different course.  There are hints of multiple other subjects throughout the play (murder mystery, the terminal illness of Mrs. Craig’s sister, a possible lesbian relationship between Aunt Austen and the neighbor with a knack for growing roses, Mr. Craig’s potential adultery) but none of these subjects are fully explored or come to neat conclusions.  Though there are a myriad of things going on around her, Mrs. Craig is most concerned with physically keeping up appearances.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fiorello! by Jerome Weidman, George Abbott, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (1960)

Summary:  The play follows the life and career of a New York City lawyer-turned-politician named Fiorello La Guardia over the course of ten years (beginning just before World War I).  The first scenes of the play depict Fiorello as a young mayor and savior to the common man, specifically immigrants and women who are striking at a dress factory for living wages.  Building on this popular appeal, Fiorello decides to run for United States Senate...and wins!  After signing a controversial draft bill, he enlists to fight in the first World War and eventually returns home with a war record and a large ego.

After returning home, he runs for mayor in 1929 and loses, largely due to his ego and refusal to listen to his advisers.  Shortly after hearing that he has lost this election and corrupt backers of his opponent were attempting to kill him, he receives word that his wife has died.  Relatively undaunted, Fiorello decides to marry his longtime secretary and begins campaigning for the next mayoral election immediately.  In 1933, he becomes the mayor of New York City once again.

Thoughts:  My New York City history perhaps isn't what it should be, because I had no idea that Fiorello La Guardia was an actual person who served three terms as mayor of New York City.  The name of the airport makes much more sense now.  Though the musical apparently takes some liberties with the details of his personal life, it is a somewhat exciting tribute to a very important person to the people of New York in the 20s and 30s.

Fiorello La Guardia.  Photo from Wikicommons.
There are few songs from this musical that are easily recognizable, though "Politics and Poker" and "Little Tin Box" are occasionally still played on Sirius XM Radio, especially because of the recent death of composer Jerry Bock. 

The lyrics assigned to women in the musical are a bit cringe-worthy, specifically Marie's "The Very Next Man" at the end of Act 2.  Desperate to be married, Marie sings, "No more daydreams for me/Find the finest of bridal suites/Chill the champagne and warm up the sheets/I'm gonna marry the very next man/And if he likes me/Who cares how frequently he strikes me/I'll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling/Just for the privilege of wearing his ring" (134).  Marie's wishes come true a few pages later when Fiorello decides he will need a wife during the next campaign and states, "I think you can learn to love me" (146).

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine (1985)

Summary:  In Act One, a fictionalized version of artist Georges Seurat is working on his famous "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" painting while navigating a failing relationship with his lover Dot and the critical voices of fellow artists and acquaintances.  In the second half of Act 2, the play fast forwards to 1984 and another artist named George is attempting to generate financial support for a new experimental project that celebrates Seurat's work with the use of lasers and extensive electronic technology.  Both Georges are played by the same actor and it is gradually revealed that 1984 George is a descendant of Georges Seurat.

Thoughts:  One of Stephen Sondheim's signatures is repetition, which makes this play enjoyable to listen to, but difficult to read.  The stage directions in this play are also highly technical and staging is dependent on large pieces of scenery and cutouts featuring different parts of the painting.  The use of repetition and arpeggio are especially effective at demonstrating one of the central themes of the play:  that art is often monotonous and isolating.

Again, it is interesting that this is Stephen Sondheim's only Pulitzer; as much of it involves a character who is decidedly not American, and the bulk of the play takes place in France.  Only in the second act is America mentioned (1984 George is from New Jersey).

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat.  Wikipedia, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Monday, November 29, 2010

South Pacific by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and Joshua Logan (1950)

Summary:  American military men are stationed on an island in the South Pacific during World War II.  While a war is going on around them, the primary stories in this play are the relationships.  Featured in the Rodgers/Hammerstein adaptation of James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific are:

Interactions between stationed (and bored) sailors
A budding, serious romance between young nurse Nellie Forbush (from Little Rock) and Emile DeBecque, a mysterious older Frenchman
A flirtation and possibly sexual relationship between young, attractive Lieutenant Cable and Liat, a seventeen year old Tonkinese native.  

An illegal picture taken from my seat at Lincoln Center in August.  Instead of a curtain, Michener's text appeared on the stage before the overture.

In Act 2, Nellie informs Emile that she cannot be with him because his two children (from a deceased wife) are half Polynesian.  She explains that her Little Rock upbringing has influenced her as Lieutenant Cable sings, "You've got to be taught to be afraid/Of people whose eyes are oddly made/And people whose skin is a different shade--/You've got to be carefully taught" (136).  Heartbroken by the news that Nellie will not be his wife, Emile agrees to help the American soldiers on a very dangerous mission...that is the ultimate end of Lieutenant Cable.  When Emile returns home, Nellie is mothering his children and the play ends in a "happily ever after" embrace.

Thoughts:  It seems strange to me that this is the only Pulitzer Prize for Rodgers and Hammerstein--and even more puzzling that their one Pulitzer is for this play.  This is not a disparaging statement about this South Pacific, but in keeping with the guidelines stating that plays should be about the American experience, I am surprised that Oklahoma! was not awarded. 

When I saw the revival of this play at Lincoln Center in August of 2010, I cringed at the "people whose eyes are oddly made" line and started thinking about the issue of race in the American musical.  Clearly, this is a subject I have been thinking about during the last three months of this project.  In this play, Nellie takes a risk by exposing her feelings about race, but this issue is never dealt with after her initial confession.  In his absence, she realizes that Emile is important to her; but her discomfort with the children is never further explored.

When I saw this play, I quickly noticed that the most memorable songs of the musical take place in the first act...and though the second act is shorter, it seems to drag, certainly in part because of Emile's song "This Nearly Was Mine" which seems to go on forever.  This issue of balance was not as evident while reading the play; because unlike some of the other musicals on the list, there is a great deal of spoken text in this play...rather than text serving as a bridge to get to the next song.

I knew this illegal picture would come in handy someday.  Personal photo, August 2010.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

There Shall Be No Night by Robert Sherwood (1941)

Summary:  The entire play takes place in the Helsinki living room of Dr. Valkonen (who has recently won the Nobel Prize) and his wife Miranda.  The play chronicles the interactions of the family and various friends from 1938-1940.  In the early scenes, Valkonen spends an extensive amount of time talking about his reasons for being a pacifist and abhorring the war (Finland's Winter War with the Soviets) before his son Erik enlists.  Eventually, Valkonen himself joins the medical corps.  In undramatized moments, both Valkonen men die.  American-born Miranda is left both a widow and a grieving mother who feels responsible for the care of Erik's unborn child and sends his fiancee to America to have the baby.

Thoughts:  In his lengthy preface, Sherwood explains that this play is the sequel to Idiot's Delight, in which Dr. Valkonen was a minor character stuck at the hotel with a zany crew of fellow cast mates (Pulitzer Prize, 1936). 

Once again, I feel like Sherwood had a lot to say, but perhaps a play was not the best possible platform for his thoughts.  When the characters of the play are interacting with plot-driven dialogue, the play moves quickly and believable characters and relationships are created.  However, the bulk of this play (like Abe Lincoln in Illinois and Idiot's Delight) is made up of lengthy monologues about the nature of humanity and war.  In his thirty page preface, Sherwood quotes extensively from his other works and seems to make many of the same arguments that he has made before--war is not the end of humanity, but instead a chance to reflect on our mistakes and learn from them, though he seems dubious about that actually happening.

"Patriotism as now practiced is one of the most virulent manifestations of evil" (79).  

The Kentucky Cycle by Robert Schenkkan (1992)

Summary:  Nine short plays are set on the same acreage in Kentucky, spanning from 1775-1975.  The plays chronicle the lives of three families, which are intertwined through rivalry, slavery and marriage.
  • Masters of the Trade-1775-Michael Rowen, a former indentured servant from Ireland, makes deals with the Cherokee exchanging ammunition (the Cherokee have recently acquired firearms, but no ammunition) for pelts and land.  This land is the setting for all nine plays in the Cycle.
  • The Courtship of Morning Star-1776-Rowen has captured a Cherokee girl named Morning Star to be his wife.  He cuts her Achilles tendon so that she can never run away.  She has a baby, Michael is pleased to have a son. 
  • The Homecoming-1792-Michael Rowen returns from a trip to the city with a slave named Sallie, who he plans to breed (with himself).  Enraged at the idea that he might also have a second family in the city, his son Patrick Rowen (16) shoots and kills him.  Hearing the gunshot, neighbor Joe Talbert comes over, reveals that he has been having an affair with Star (Patrick's mother).  Patrick kills him, sends his mother away and states his plans to marry Joe's daughter. 
  • Ties That Bind-1819-A judge comes to Patrick's land and informs him that he is deeply indebted to a man named Patrick, who now owns his bank loans.  As they attempt to reconcile this debt, Patrick ends up selling everything that he has ever owned--including slave Sally and her son Jessie (who is actually Patrick's brother).  In the final moments of the play, it is revealed that Jeremiah is Jeremiah Talbert-son of murdered Joe and brother of Rebecca, Patrick's wife.  As part of the deal, Patrick's sons are "employed" to work for Talbert...a vengeful man who is actually their uncle. 
  • God's Great Supper-1861-Richard Talbert (39), son of Jeremiah visits the rundown Rowen house and informs Jed Rowen (28) that they will be riding into Bowling Green the next day to join the Confederate Army.  Jed is needed because he knows the land better than anyone.  Jed wisely makes a deal with Jeremiah that his family's land will be taken care of while he is away (by slaves) and he will be paid for his time and allowed to work off some of his family's debt.  Richard agrees.  Jed has actually agreed to go on this trip because he has planned to kill Richard (and his entire family supports this idea).  After Richard is dead, they will only have to kill the remaining women and children of the Talbert house and then they will have their land back and no debts.  Lots of killing happens.
  • Tall Tales-1885-Jed Rowen, now 52, is visited by a "storyteller" who eventually asks him if he'd be willing to sell the mineral rights to his land for $1 an acre.  After being told that someone will remove the rocks from his soil, Jed enthusiastically agrees.  His daughter (Mary Anne) narrates the story as old and young versions of herself and eventually talks about the destruction caused when the coal companies came in. 
  • Fire in the Hole-1920-Mary Anne now has a ten year old son (Joshua Rowen) who is sick, probably with typhoid fever.  They have lost their house and are now living in the awful conditions of a coal camp.  A boarder named Abe (a secret union organizer) comes to stay at their home; gradually telling her about unions and Mother Jones.  Abe eventually persuades Mary Anne and her husband Tommy to start a coal union.  Abe and Tommy are eventually killed (for being an organizer and a snitch, respectively) but Mary Anne has started the first coal union. 
  • Which Side Are You On-1954-Things are not good for the Union.  Joshua (44) is now the president of United Mine Workers District 16 and has been skirting safety regulations for months.  His son is recently back from Korea and takes a job as a "yes man" to his father.  As Joshua struggles with the idea of telling the Union members that there will be more cutbacks, there is an accident in the mine (because he has been ignoring safety issues to save some money).  His son Scotty and 12 others are killed because of his negligence.
  • The War on Poverty-1975-Three sixty-five year old men (a Rowen, a Talbert and a Biggs--descendant of slave Sally) are walking around the land, attempting to figure out how much it is now worth.  "Mountaintop Removal Mining" has come into existence and the three men speak about it in tones mixed with awe and fear.  In casual conversation, a reference is made to grave-robbing that is now apparently popular in the mountains of Kentucky, involving the search for Native American artifacts.  As the men amble around the land, they see a partially exhumed grave and lift a buckskin pouch out of it--a pouch that contains the well-preserved remains of a baby.  This is actually the second child of Morning Star.  When Michael Rowen saw that this child was not a boy, he took it out into the woods and buried it alive. 

Thoughts:  I checked this book out of the library during the first two weeks of the project and have complained about reading it since.  9 plays?!  332 pages?!  I saved it for a long plane ride and then for the day after Thanksgiving and when both of those days came and went without me opening the cover, I knew I needed to commit to reading it in one sitting...which is what I did between the hours of 11 PM and 4 AM this morning.

To my surprise, reading this play was not difficult.  Because there are nine short plays, a sustained attention span is not necessary.  Though the same characters appear in multiple plays, Schenkkan's character description page preceding each play specifically states how old these characters are in the play to follow.  Schenkkan's decision to bind the plays chronologically is also very helpful.  Though names repeat (a number of the boys are named after their fathers/ancestors), this was never confusing for me because Schenkkan is brief and direct about who these people are.

The Cycle is obviously very broad, and certain plays are more enjoyable to read than others--perhaps because some of the main characters are quite one-dimensional and therefore are easy to categorize as "good guys" and "bad guys."  Schenkkan's portrayal of the women in these plays is very interesting.  Though they are never the main characters of his stories, they are almost unequivocally good people--trying to make the right choices even when their husbands are doing evil things based on greed.

Importantly, in the first play, when Michael asks the Cherokee for land, the Cherokee attempts to dissuade him from taking land on the mountain.  He repeatedly issues warnings to the effect of, "You will find this a dark and bloody land" and "you live here, it is not the Cherokee you need fear" (23).  Though he explains that the land is cursed (and the manifestations of this curse are seen in the eight plays that follow), the curse is never mentioned again.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams (1955)

Summary:  Adult brothers Brick and Gooper, accompanied by their wives and (in Gooper's case) children, are visiting their parents at the family plantation situated on 28,000 acres in Mississippi.  Big Daddy, their father, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and the brothers must find a way to relay the bad news to both of their parents, while each jockeying for a larger portion of the family inheritance (over ten million dollars in liquid assets alone).

While the circumstances create a tense situation; the primary tension of the play surrounds Brick's sexuality. Brick has been married to Maggie for years, though the two have never produced a child.  Maggie (the highly sexualized cat on a hot tin roof) and Big Daddy both accost Brick about his sexuality and the drinking problem that began when his best "friend" Skipper died.  

Early in the play, Maggie tells Brick, "Later tonight I'm going to tell you I love you an' maybe by that time you'll be drunk enough to believe me" (38).  In the final scene of the play, Maggie announces to the family that she is pregnant with Brick's child, thus making "Big Daddy's dream come true" and securing their larger portion of the family fortune (168).  In the final moments of the play, the family leaves the room and Maggie tells Brick that she has locked up the liquor and won't give it back until he has sex with her.  She states, "Tonight we're going to make the lie true, and when that's done, I'll bring the liquor back here and we'll get drunk together, here, tonight, in this place that death has come into" (173).  She adds that she loves him, and the play concludes with Brick's final statement, "Wouldn't it be funny if that was true?" (173).  


Thoughts:  For months, I've been thinking that I had read this play before and simply didn't remember it, but that is not the case.  This was definitely my first read of this play and I greatly enjoyed it.

Seven years after winning his first Pulitzer for A Streetcar Named Desire, this play involves many of the same subject areas (dysfunctional family, tension with in-laws, gay issues, alcohol, fighting).  Earlier in the project, I wrote about being in awe of Edward Albee's fight scenes...and this is an area where Tennessee Williams also excels, particularly within the confines of a very tense family situation.  While Maggie is constantly complaining about the children being vaguely annoying, they have little effect on the play with one exception.  When she is attempting to scold one of her nieces, the child (named Dixie) says to her, "You're jealous!  You're just jealous because you can't have babies!"  (62).  Williams' stage direction before Dixie's line reads, "With a precocious instinct for the cruelest thing."  Even the children at the periphery of this family know how to throw trump cards in a fight.

While Williams' plays are favorites of actors, he also uses stage directions to make the texts highly readable.  Instead of using stage directions simply for the most basic of blocking and emotional cues, he includes a great deal of information about his characters in these italicized pieces of text.  Moments after Big Daddy has suggested that Brick's relationship with Skipper was, "not, well, exactly normal", the stage directions note: 

"Brick's detachment is at last broken through.  His heart is accelerated; his forehead sweat-beaded, his breath becomes more rapid and his voice hoarse.  The thing they're discussing, timidly and painfully on the side of Big Daddy, fiercely, violently on Brick's side, is the inadmissible thing that Skipper died to disavow between them.  The fact that if it existed it had to be disavowed to "keep face" in the world they lived in, may be at the heart of the "mendacity" that Brick drinks to kill his disgust with.  It may be the root of his collapse.  Or maybe it is only a single manifestation of it, not even the most important.  The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man's psychological problem.  I'm trying to catch the true quality of existence in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent--fiercely charged!--interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.  Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one's own character to himself.  This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as clearly and deeply as he legitimately can:  but it should steer him away from "pat" conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience.  

[The following scene should be played with great concentration, with most of the power leashed but palpable in what is left unspoken.]" Act 2, 116-117). 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Buried Child by Sam Shepard (1979)

Summary:  Vince is driving across the country with his girlfriend Shelly and stops in Illinois to see his grandparents.  Immediately after arriving at their house, it becomes clear that something is not quite right:  his grandfather does not recognize him, his uncle is putting his fingers in Shelly's mouth and his grandmother is nowhere to be found (we later find out that she is probably having a sexual relationship with the local priest).  Vince informs Dodge (his 70 year-old grandfather) that they are on their way to see New Mexico to see his father.  Dodge replies that  Tilden is no longer in New Mexico, but has moved back to Illinois after "some trouble" and is, once again, living at the family farm home. 

As the play progresses, outsider Shelly unearths some of the family history and repeatedly states that she knows that there is a secret and she plans to find out what it is is.  The secret is finally revealed in the last few pages of the play when Dodge enters into a long monologue revealing that a baby that is buried in the backyard.  The baby is not his, but instead the child of his son Tilden and his wife Halie.  After revealing this familial incest and reading his makeshift will aloud, Dodge dies.  The final scene of the play involves Halie talking about the growth of new surprise crops while Tilden enters holding the corpse of a baby that he has presumably just exhumed from the backyard.

Thoughts:  Well, that just happened.   

I have now read this play twice, both times very quickly because I was compelled to reach the climax and learn the secrets of this family.  While the major secret of the play obviously involves incest and murder, each of Shepard's seven characters have both a secret and a personality quirk that creates a general feeling of unease throughout the entire play.  Usually, these quirks are not explained...they just happen.  For example, Bradley sticks his fingers in Shelly's mouth moments after meeting her and cuts his fathers hair while he sleeps--leaving a bloody scalp and, by all description, a terrible haircut.  Regardless, no one seems to question either of these choices--including Shelly, who has no familial obligation to put up with these bizarre antics.  

Shepard makes extensive use of monologues to reveal the exposition of the play--usually from Halie and Dodge, the oldest members of this family.  While I initially criticized this dramatic technique, I also think it is a deliberate choice to indicate that the family has stopped interacting with each other through meaningful dialogue, so monologues directed at strangers are the only effective way of revealing these family secrets. 

This play won the Pulitzer Prize twenty years before August:  Osage County was given the award, and the parallels between these scripts border on uncomfortable.  Clearly, they are both "about" dysfunctional families who have their share of secrets involving incest; but they also start the same way (the patriarch sits in darkness while the matriarch rambles upstairs).  Further, the dramatic action is dependent on the reactions of an outsider--Shelly here, Johnna in August:  Osage County.

In Abraham's Bosom by Paul Green (1927)

Summary:  In 1885, twenty years after the legal end of slavery in the United States, Abraham McCranie has stayed near the place where his family members were once owned in North Carolina.  Two references are made alluding to the fact that he is the mulatto son of Colonel McClain (who once owned slaves) and a now deceased former slave.  Therefore, Colonel McCranie feels some sort of responsibility to Abraham.  He ensures that Abraham has a place to live and later, a job teaching in a schoolhouse.  This does not, however, prevent McCranie from savagely beating his secret son when Abraham threatens to kill his other (non-secret) son Lonnie.  The seven scenes of the play follow Abraham's life from 1885-1906...an existence of considerable tumult and struggle. 

From the beginning of the play, Abraham attempts to educate himself and is often teased for spending all of his time with books.  Near the end of the play, he gives a speech about building a new school and is harassed by some white men.  Enraged, he proceeds to kill Lonnie (his half-brother) and knows that this will be his end.  Moments later, a mob of white men arrive at his cabin to kill him in front of his wife, son and mother-in-law. 

Thoughts:  Many of the plays I have encountered in this project have raised troubling questions in relation to performance today, often because of specific treatments of race and gender.  As I have probably mentioned before, adding the tag "n-word" to the blog was an unwelcome surprise of the project.  However, many of those plays (All the Way Home, The Green Pastures) have highly redeemable characteristics; either because of the strength of their story or, in the case of The Green Pastures, the fact that the production employed large casts of black actors and was the first all-black cast on Broadway (and even God was portrayed as a black man). 

This play, on the other hand, contains multiple usages of the n-word, a savage whipping and two brutal murders.  The troubling take-away message seemed to be that, no matter how hard the white man tries to help the black man by providing opportunities for him, the black man is trouble....even savage.  While outwardly racist statements come from the white characters in the play, they are perhaps more disturbingly uttered by the black characters themselves.  Abraham's mother-in-law says to him, "Time you's learning day white is white and black is black, and Gohd made de white to always be bedder'n de black.  It was so intended from the beginning" (Coe 416).  On the third page of the play, three characters have an equally troubling exchange about Abe's mulatto heritage:

Lije:  Abe is bad mixed up all down inside.

Bud:  White and black make bad mixtry.


Lije:  Do dat. 
(Thumping on his chest)  Nigger down heah.  (Thumping his head)  White mens up heah.  Heart say do one thing, head say 'nudder.  Bad, bad.

Puny:  De white blood in him coming up to the top.  Dat make him want-a climb up and be sump'n.  Nigger gwine hol' him down dough.  Part of him take adder de Colonel, part adder his muh, 'vision and misery inside 
(Coe 387).

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Anna Christie by Eugene O'Neill (1922)

Summary:  Christopher Christopherson is an aging sailor who receives a letter (care of the local tavern) from his estranged daughter.  Anna is writing to say that she will soon be arriving for an extended stay.  He is delighted and makes room for her aboard his barge.  When she arrives, it becomes clear that she is there because she needs a break from her career as a whore.  Oblivious to this and happy to see her, he persuades her to stay aboard the ship.

A few nights later, a stranded crew finds their way on-board Christopherson's barge.  Quickly, one of the refugee passengers (Mat Owen) falls in love with Anna.  In a dramatic scene of self-disclosure, Anna reveals to her father and Mat (who now wants to marry her) that she was previously making her living as a prostitute.  All hell beaks loose, Mat and Chris go ashore, leaving Anna in despair on the boat.  Eventually, both of the men come back and Mat agrees to marry Anna "in spite of it all" (188). 

Thoughts:  Eugene O'Neill's other Pulitzer Prizes are for Strange Interlude, Long Day's Journey Into Night and Beyond the Horizon.  While I can certainly see elements of all of those works in this play (family, men returning from the sea, alcohol), I was surprised to read the following outburst:  "God's curse on you!  You slut, you, I'll be killing you now!"  (Act 3, 180)  One scene before calling her a slut, Mat also attacked Chris (physically) after Chris explicitly stated that he did not want his daughter marrying a man of the sea. 

Perhaps most troubling is the scene of reconciliation that ends the play.  In that scene, Mat returns to Anna and berates her for her transgressions as a whore.  She protests saying things like, "Don't you seem I'm licked?  Why d'you want to keep on kicking me?"  He responds with, "And don't you deserve the worst I'd say, God forgive you?"  (186).  When she finally convinces him that she did not love any of her clients and instead loves him, Matt asks her to promise this by swearing with her hand on a crucifix.  After she has sworn, he asks if she is Catholic and is horrified to discover that she is a Lutheran.  Regardless, he agrees to marry her.  It is then revealed that Chris and Mat will soon be shipmates on a voyage to South Africa.  Although Mat threw a chair at Chris just days before, everyone guffaws and the play ends happily ever after (cringe).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rent by Jonathan Larson (1996)

Summary:  The lives of seven young Bohemian friends in New York intersect over the course of a year as they attempt to find (or keep) love in a world where many of their friends are dying of AIDS.  None of the friends seem to have stable jobs and all are just trying to find some way to pay the rent.  The quasi-narrator of the story is Mark, a documentary filmmaker who is rarely seen without his camera.  Accordingly, Mark concludes the play by showing footage that he has gathered over the course of a year. 

Thoughts:  Another play that is difficult to summarize because so much of it is dependent on Larson’s depiction of individual characters and their relationships to each other.  Again, my reading of this play was enhanced by the fact that I am familiar (by familiar I mean I know every word) with the score…but, unlike Next to Normal and A Chorus Line, some of the songs in this text are memorable without their accompanying music ("Seasons of Love," for example, reads like a list-poem). 

Victoria Hoffman’s Introduction to the text reveals some of the now well-known stories about Jonathan Larson, namely that he died after the final dress rehearsal of Rent from a brain aneurysm that two emergency room physicians failed to diagnose.  Interestingly, Hoffman (Larson’s best friend) also writes that he was directed towards a career in composition after Stephen Sondheim wrote to him, “I know a lot fewer starving composers than I do actors” (vii).  Indeed, Sondheim is lyrically thanked in the text and his influence is evident in Larson’s structure and heavily rhyming lyrics. 

Rent is certainly a different kind of musical…and one that paved the way for the critical and popular success of things like Next to Normal (Anthony Rapp, a lead in Rent wrote the introduction to Next to Normal).  While musicals like 42nd Street, My Fair Lady and South Pacific may have been an entry-point into the world of musical theatre for my parents' generation, Rent was my entry-point.  Though the thought of how many times I listened to the orange discs makes me cringe now, the subject matter and artistic choices were unlike anything else that my ninth grade self had experienced.

The Great White Hope by Howard Sackler (1969)


Summary:  Sackler’s dramatization of the life of boxer Jack Johnson (named Jack Jefferson in this play).   After winning the World Heavyweight Championship in the first few pages of the play, Jack spends the rest of his life dealing with fallout surrounding this event.  The central dramatic conflict of the play is the search for a “great white hope”—a white boxer who will fight Jack and win.  After he gets into some trouble with the law (for having sex with his white girlfriend), Jack flees the country and is repeatedly approached with offers trading his inevitable jail time in exchange for throwing a fight (losing on purpose).

Thoughts:  The play is a powerful statement about race in America, race in sports, race in families and race in sexual relationships.  Interestingly, the photo on the front of the play and the text on the back of it led me to believe that this would be a play about Jack’s rise to glory—when it is actually just the opposite.  Jack is triumphant in the first few pages of the play, but the bulk of the play’s 239 pages depict his descent into depression and desperation.  A particular low-point in Jack's departure from the glory days depicts him and his girlfriend Ellie in a performance reminiscent of a minstrel show. 

Additionally, the blurbs on the back of this play made me think about the tendency toward hyperbole when writing about culturally and literarily significant works. While I did enjoy this play and certainly do think it is important, I wonder if readers today would still draw comparisons between it and Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Both bad pictures courtesy of my phone and UNM's 95 cent Bantam edition of the play, April 1969.

A Chorus Line by Kirkwood/Dante/Kleban/Hamlisch (1976)

Summary:  Dancers in New York are auditioning for chorus roles in an unnamed Broadway musical.  The entire cast remains onstage for the majority of the musical while each separately delivers a monologue and interacts with Zach (the auditioner).  Ultimately, he chooses four males and four females for the production.

Thoughts:  Reading this play raised questions for me about the Pulitzer selection process.  I listened to a recording of the score the day before reading it, which unquestionably enhanced my reading experience.  None of the musicals I have encountered thus far in the project have included the music that accompanies the lyrics, so unless there is a separately obtained cast recording (in this case) or a reader has prior experience with the score (Next to Normal, Rent, others)….the reader is left to imagine what this play sounds like.  More than any other musical, the lyrics to A Chorus Line are largely rhythmic and must be accompanied by dance.  

The text of this play does not read like a stand-alone literary achievement.  Like several of the plays I have encountered, it is hugely dependent on a talented cast and, in this case, remarkable musical and dance performances.  My question is:  does the Pulitzer committee get to see all of the plays produced before giving the awards?  This certainly means that performance would have an impact on the production—especially in the cases of things like Next to Normal and A Chorus Line which are not stunning examples of literary architecture, but instead stylized musical performances.  Interestingly, I first wondered about the committee seeing performances before nominating when I read I Am My Own Wife—which is not a musical, but dependent on the work of one very talented male actor.

Though several of the monologues in A Chorus Line mention homosexuality, there is no mention of AIDS—because it was published in 1979 and is set in “the present.”  The actors each have their own set of given circumstances and emotional back-story; but are united by a common objective and have limited interactions with each other (a major departure from most of the plays that have been awarded the Pulitzer—which depend heavily on dialogue).  In fact, there are only two “relationships” in the play:  Al and Kristine are a married couple both hoping to get cast and Zach (the auditioner) was apparently once romantically connected to Cassie—who is too old to be auditioning for a chorus part.  The Zach/Cassie relationship feels a little forced, but certainly gives the play another dimension.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill (1957)

Summary:  The play takes place over the course of one day in the summer of 1912 at the Tyrone summer home.  Patriarch James Tyrone is a mediocre but working actor, his wife Mary is a not-so-recovering morphine addict and his living sons Edmund and James are grown boys who drink too much, enjoy the company of whores and can't seem to hold continuous jobs.  Younger brother Edmund (who once did hold a job as a sailor) has an ominous persistent cough that is eventually formally diagnosed as tuberculosis, though all members of the family are slow to accept this fact.  As the day progresses from 8:30 AM to midnight, the men of the family get drunker as Mary slips into morphine-induced hysteria.

Thoughts:  Though I have not yet checked the tag counts, I am fairly certain that the most used tags in this project have been "dysfunctional family", "drama" and "alcohol."  This play is perhaps the most distilled example of the combination of these subjects.  Many of the plays in the project have taken place in living rooms, with people sitting around:  first talking to each other, then fighting with each other.  This play is certainly no exception.  From the beginning, O'Neill makes it clear that the fights on this day are not new.  Instead, they are conflicts that have been familiar to the Tyrone family since the first child (Jamie) was born.

While the play depicts the ugliness of addiction and the specific sting of family arguments, the importance of the past is a major theme in the play (reminiscent of so many recipients of the Pulitzer Prize).  The theme of "the importance of the past" is unearthed by characters with contrasting opinions on the issue (reminding me of The Piano Lesson and Topdog/Underdog).  James is hard on his sons because he wants them to do something with their lives and create a future for themselves; while Mary is obsessive about remembering the past.  She states, "The past is the present, isn't it?  It's the future, too.  We all try to lie out of that but life won't let us"  (Act 2, Scene 2).  Later, she stresses, "Only the past when you were happy is real" (Act 3).  Though things have gone wrong in her life (death of an infant named Eugene, addiction to morphine, single alcoholic sons, etc.) she yearns for a time when things were better....even though this time may be a highly fictionalized creation of her drug-addled mind.

In the Norton Anthology of Drama Introduction to this text, Martin Puchner writes that this play is probably very close to autobiography for Eugene O'Neill.  O'Neill's father was an actor.  After having some success in a production of The Count of Monte Cristo, he stayed in that role until the end of his life and was never given the chance to blossom as an actor.  Though comfortable, he probably wasn't artistically fulfilled (much like James Tyrone).  Likewise, O'Neill's mother hated traveling and never felt that the family had a "home" since they accompanied their patriarch on his tours across the United States.  This play is one of the longest in the project, and there are very few moments of levity or hope in the text.  The dramatic structure of the play (and therefore any reading/watching of it) closely mirrors the title.

Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon (1991)

Summary:  When their father leaves in search of out-of-state work (1942), teenagers Jay and Arty are forced into a ten-month stay with their distant grandmother, who they have only met a few times.  Not eager to be around children again, she makes their lives miserable by forcing them to work in her candy store, charging them whenever candy goes missing and subjecting them to long diatribes about her difficult life.  During the course of their stay, Jay and Arty also forge a relationship with their aunt Bella (who is emotionally handicapped) and their visiting uncle Louie (who has connections to the mob).

Thoughts:  The first and second acts of this play are very, very different.  The first has a rather whimsical tone of, "How did we end up in this situation?"  In contrast, the second involves arguments between all of the major characters and pointed personal commentary about individual members of the family.  I definitely expected Neil Simon's Pulitzer Prize to be for a zany comedy.  While the play certainly has moments of humor and other comedic elements, the play is largely a realistic depiction of an American family--emotions, hurt feelings, eggshells, fights and secrets.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Teahouse of the August Moon by John Patrick (1954)


Summary:  American Captain Fisby is sent to Tobiki Village--an island of Okinawa with specific orders to establish democracy and build a school.  However, when he gets there, he soon finds himself far more interested in the Tobiki way of life.  Following the wishes of his Geisha Girl Lotus Blossom, Fisby uses governmental resources to build a teahouse rather than a school.  When a psychiatrist is dispatched to look after him, he too loves the Tobiki way of life.  However, the psychiatrist also understands that the “natives” need a source of income and starts selling the local sweet potato brandy to neighboring military bases.  

When the Colonel eventually visits Tobiki, he is outraged and orders the brandy stills and the teahouse demolished.  However they are quickly saved by another military officer who bursts into the final scene exclaiming that the village is being called a great “example of American ‘get-up-and-go’ in the recovery program.  The Pentagon is boasting.  Congress is crowing” (Gassner 214).  The natives may never get a school, but they have their teahouse and their liquor industry….thanks to the Americans.

Thoughts:  The narrator of the play is an Islander named Sakini, who often speaks in verse and is chided by American soldiers for being a lovable idiot.  He serves as a native informant to Captain Fisby, informing him of island customs and serving as an interpreter.  The play moves quickly and is often very funny but the issues of racism and salvation-by-American-soldier are troubling in terms of production today.   The Japanese people in the script rarely speak any sort of English, but instead speak John Patrick’s own version of Japanese…which seems to have no translation into the actual language.  Asian stereotypes and American aggrandizement run rampant throughout the play.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Shadow Box by Michael Cristofer (1977)

Summary:  Three individuals are separately living at a hospice for the terminally ill.  As each struggles with their impending death, their familial relationships are explored.  The dying individuals stay in their own cottages and never interact with other patients or families.  They are, however, questioned about their feelings by a nondescript "Interviewer."

In cottage one, Joe is joined by his wife Maggie and son Steve.
In cottage two, dying Brian and his partner Mark are joined by his ex-wife Beverly.
In cottage three, Felicity cares for her dying mother Agnes.

Thoughts:  Though the summary is straightforward, the play is actually quite ambiguous about it's given circumstances.  The stage directions do not reveal that it is a hospice, but rather a hospital that contains "cottages."  Early in the play, Joe reminds Maggie that he will not be coming home, and that they need to find a way to tell Steve.  He does not explicitly state that he will die at the hospice, but attempts to convey that he has come to terms with death and that Maggie should attempt to follow suit.  Death is talked about very indirectly; and typically, the relatives are more emotional than the patients in the cottages.

Though the play details the relationships of three individuals, each scene has a very intimate tone and clear objective.

Next to Normal by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey (2010)

Summary:  A middle-class suburban family deals with the challenges presented by living with a matriarch (Diana) who is a diagnosed manic depressive.  In addition to the "mountains and valleys" of the disease, Diana literally sees her dead son Gabe as an eighteen-year-old (though he died as an infant) and is treated with electroshock therapy before finally deciding that she needs to leave her husband and daughter in the hope that they will all have a more peaceful normal existence.

Thoughts:  New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley's quip, "It is something much more than a feel-good musical:  it is a feel-everything musical" appeared on promotional material across New York and is now the first blurb on the back of the printed edition of the play.  True, this is a far cry from other huge-grossing Broadway musicals, but not just because of it's subject matter.  When the play came out, comparisons to Rent were immediately drawn due to the pop-like musical score.  However, unlike Rent, Next to Normal is not a musical of memorable songs that will be used in advertising and hummed on the way out of the theatre.  I saw this musical in New York three months ago.  While reading the text of the songs in the recently published Pulitzer edition of the play, I was only faintly reminded of the tune of these songs (highly unusual for me).

Next to Normal is unquestionably a different kind of musical.  Much of the play is very dark, and even the moments of sung tenderness are underscored with the feeling that this is a family that can never be truly happy.  When I saw this play, I liked it.  I was moved.  I did not love it and I was not overwhelmed like countless people told me that I would be.  Having read two of the other three 2010 nominees (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and In the Next Room), I wonder if Next to Normal won the Pulitzer because it is, in fact, a "different kind of musical."

Personal Photo:
Next to Normal set, Broadway:  August 2010.  
Strange, great lottery seats obtained by Jessica Watkins.

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner (1993)

Summary:  After being diagnosed with AIDS, Prior Walter is visited by the voice of an angel who ominously announces that "Millennium Approaches."  As Walter deals with the angel and his own relationship to Louis, other individuals and relationships are explored.  These include:
Joe and Harper--a transplanted Mormon couple drawn to homosexuality and Valium, respectively.
The very real Roy Cohn--attempting to hide the fact that he has full-blown AIDS by saying that it is Liver Cancer.
Belize--a sometimes drag queen, sometimes nurse who is loyal in his friendship to Prior and therefore skeptical of Louis.
The lives of these characters intertwine throughout the full-length play (set in the mid-80s in New York City) until finally, The Angel (no longer just a voice) bursts through Prior's ceiling proclaiming, "Greetings, Prophet.  The Great Work begins:  The Messenger has arrived."  The play ends and audiences are left to anticipate and speculate about Part Two:  Perestroika.

Thoughts:  I dreaded writing the plot summary above for days because so much happens in the first installment of Kushner's epic two-part drama.  However, though the play is expansive, the exploration of character is generally more important than the advancement of a very broad plot.

Very recently, my friend Katelyn Wood attended a lecture given by Meryl Streep (who won an Emmy for her work in Mike Nichols' filmed adaptation of the play) in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin.  Katelyn asked Streep about Tony Kushner and the continued relevance of Angels in America in a world where the play is increasingly less controversial.  Streep referred to Kushner as "the playwright of our time" and remarked extensively about the characters he creates, all extremely flawed in their humanity. 

All of the central characters in Angels in America are important to the advancement of plot; but moreover, they have their own flaws and personal struggles that do not always depend on interactions with others.  Often in the dramatic literature of the 20th century, rich characters are unveiled primarily through depictions of their interactions with others.  Kushner instead makes use of extensive monologues about emotions rather than argument scenes (which are often used to propel dramatic action).  While these monologues could quickly become whiny, redundant or simply boring...Kushner's ability to create multidimensional human characters makes us wonder what these characters are going to say, feel and do next.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Both Your Houses by Maxwell Anderson (1933)

Summary:  New to the House of Representatives, Alan McLean meticulously researches an upcoming House Resolution and notes that it contains additions that will cost American taxpayers millions of dollars.  As his senior colleagues laugh at him, he manages to lobby around Washington and convince a number of important people that the resolution should fail.  Doubting his abilities, he eventually changes his tune, arguing that the bill should pass with even more add-ons (knowing that, if the Resolution is expensive and wasteful enough, the President will veto it).  However, in his quest to build a ludicrous Resolution, he includes the personal projects of nearly everybody.  The resolution passes with a 2/3 majority and cannot be vetoed by the President.  Though he tried to outsmart the politicians, he learns the difficulty of beating people at their own (dishonest) game.

Thoughts:  It was refreshing to read a play that did not contain a romantic relationship or a dysfunctional family.  In fact, the only familial relationship in this play was between Marjorie (a secretary) and her father Simeon Gray (a senior Representative).  Reminiscent of other 1930s workplace dramatizations, the only females in this play are secretaries--but they are also crucial to the operations of the House.  Nevertheless, Anderson uses their gender for comic effect:  

"All they know about having a secretary is what they've learned from the moving pictures.  They try holding you on their laps the first day and assault on the second.....Not that I hold it too much against them.  I'm not exactly at an age to choose my pleasures--and assault at first sight isn't always to be despised” (6). 

There are several allusions to the fact that ordinary Americans have no idea about what goes on in Washington—and the people working in Washington don’t really either.  Though McLean is an idealist with big “hopey changey” ideas, his seniors advise him that one person cannot fix the problems in government because the structure of government is the actual problem.  Though it often seems that McLean is going to get his way and that the play will end with a hopeful message, it does not.  After proclaiming that he is going to leave based on principle, the senior members of his committee persuade him to stay…mostly because he is now a part of the old boy’s club. 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Old Maid by Zoe Atkins (1935)

Summary:  After returning home from a perilous bout down South with a "lung disease", Charlotte Lovell opens a daycare to care for the children of the working class.  Her family treats this as folly that she will give up when she gets married.  However, when she becomes engaged and states that she will not give up her work, her engagement is broken.  Charlotte's ulterior motive for having the daycare is the ability to have daily interactions with a little girl named Clementina--an orphan who is now being raised by "negroes."

Charlotte eventually reveals to her sister Delia that the "lung disease" was actually a pregnancy that resulted in Clementina.  When the daycare is eventually closed, Delia agrees to adopt Tina so that she will have an easier life, witnessed by Charlotte.  As Tina grows, she views her "aunt" (who is actually her mother) as an Old Maid and is brutally rude to her at every opportunity.  On the eve of her wedding, Delia tells Tina that she needs to be nicer to her aunt because she has always loved her "like a mother."

Thoughts:  In a departure from playwright mantra "show-don't-tell", Charlotte's humanity and martyrdom is revealed in stories of the choices she has made, rather than realistic depictions of these conflicts.  Though Charlotte gives up "everything" for Clementina, the child's actions toddlerhood to adolescence that indicate that she feels more connected to Delia.  While Charlotte has made herself a martyr, she is never "rewarded" for the choices that she has made and becomes more depressed and bitter as the play progresses.  Because people are consistently rude to Charlotte, it sometimes seems that she spends the entirety of the play (and her life) karmically atoning for having premarital sex.

Look Homeward, Angel by Kitti Frings (1958)

Summary:  The Gant family owns the Dixieland boarding house in North Carolina.  While Mrs. Gant does most of the work, Mr. Gant spends his time drinking and tending to his dwindling headstone business.  The play follows the lives of two of the Gant boys--Ben (who ends up dying from pneumonia) and Eugene (who falls in love with one of the boarders and is torn between staying at home with his woman and moving to Chapel Hill for college).  Ultimately, Laura (Eugene's love) reveals that she is already engaged and encourages him to go to Chapel Hill.

Thoughts:  This story chronicles what it is like for parents to watch their children grow up, and what happens when children discover that their parents are human beings with very real flaws.  Though Mrs. Gant has always fought her husband's desire to send Eugene to Chapel Hill, she ultimately finances Eugene's education at the end of the play.

Perhaps in a move away from a traditional family drama that includes only relatives, the story is set in a boarding house--allowing outsiders to witness the very personal interactions of the Gant family.

Idiot's Delight by Robert Sherwood (1936)

Summary:  An assortment of travelers are stranded at the Hotel Monte Gabriele on the precipice of World War II.  The hotel essentially sits atop a military base at the border of Italy, Switzerland and Austria.  Antics ensue because the collection of travelers include a pair of honeymooners, a man named Harry who directs a traveling act featuring six blond dancers and a very oddly matched couple of unknown origin.  Lengthy drunken conversations reveal that the female half of this couple is one of Harry's former lovers with whom he spent one crazy night in a hotel in Nebraska and who is likely traveling on a forged passport.  At the end of the play, all of the characters are unsure about what the future holds both for their own relationships and the world-at-large.

Thoughts:  After the emotionally uncertain conclusion, there is a postscript written by Sherman about the then-current political situation.  Sherwood writes, "During the past two weeks (this is March 16, 1936) the Italians have made a great offensive in Ethiopia..."  He spends an entire paragraph discussing specific tensions around the world before adding:
"What will happen before this play reaches print or a New York audience, I do not know.  But let me express here the conviction that those who shrug and say, "'War is inevitable,' are false prophets.  I believe that the world is populated largely by decent people, and decent people don't want war.  Nor do they make war.  They fight and die, to be sure-but that is because that have been deluded by their exploiters, who are members of the indecent minority" (189).  

Though the play was written three years before the generally assumed start date of World War 2 (September 1939), the tension erupts from confusion about what is currently happening (to individual characters and the outside world) and uncertainty about what the future holds.  Adding to the surface-level confusion is the fact that the hotel staff speaks almost exclusively in Italian (and a good portion of Sherwood's dialogue is written in Italian with no translation).

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Proof by David Auburn (2001)

Summary:  After the death of her mathematician father, Catherine is left to negotiate a relationship with her sister Claire (who appears to completely have her life together) and Hal, a former doctoral student once advised by her father.  Allusions are made to her father's mental illness which 25 year-old Catherine believes she has inherited.  Ultimately, the Hal discovers a notebook containing a revelatory mathematics proof which would prove Robert's genius.  However, Catherine claims that she wrote the proof.  Claire and Hal are forced to question Catherine's potential genius and the lasting legacy of troubled Robert.

Thoughts:  One of the reasons that I find myself attracted to Edward Albee's plays is the way he writes fighting--sometimes ruthless and often nonsensical and emotional rather than logical.  Now on my third read of Proof, I find myself attracted to Auburn's dialogue for the same reason.

We know that Robert was a genius who went "crazy" and that Catherine feels the madness might have been passed down to her--but the type of mental illness or any sort of specific diagnosis is never mentioned.  Somewhat hauntingly, the play is dedicated "In memory of Benjamin Auburn (1972-2000)."

There are two major "wowza!" moments in this play.  One comes in the middle of Scene One after an eight-page conversation between Catherine and her father as he states mid-scene, "Because I'm also dead.  (Beat.)  Aren't I?"  She responds, "You died a week ago."  From this moment on , Auburn's structure does not follow linear chronology.  This deliberate stylistic choice allows him flexibility and new perspective in exploring yet another family drama (much like style is at the forefront of How I Learned to Drive).  Additionally, although Robert is dead, the non-chronological structure allows us to see him as "madness" begins to set in and then overtake.  The second wowza moment closes Act One as Catherine states, "I didn't find it.  I wrote it.  (Curtain.)"  While "wowza!" moments are highly theatrical and inspire whispers at intermission, Auburn also succeeds at making them shocking in print...certainly not an easy feat.

'Night Mother by Marsha Norman (1983)

Summary:  Jessie is planning to commit suicide and tells her mother just hours before she plans to do it.  The play chronicles their subsequent night in one continuous scene.  True character traits are revealed and words left unspoken for decades are finally uttered.

Thoughts:  No play in the Project thus far has made me as uncomfortable as this one.  Perhaps because I was familiar with the story before reading it, I knew that when Jessie promised suicide that this was a promise she would fulfill.

Adding to my discomfort was the fact that, for 18 years, I lived in a house with two women--my mother and grandmother.  They have interactions that mirror Marsha Norman's prologue note, "There is a shorthand to the talk and a sense of routine comfort to the way they relate to each other physically.  Naturally, there are also routine aggravations" (4). 

The play is a fifty-eight page scene with no intermission.  The New York Times blurb on the back of the Dramatists acting edition simply states, "...a shattering evening..."  I agree.  And know that it is not something I ever want to spend an evening witnessing.

The Piano Lesson by August Wilson (1990)

Summary:  Boy Willie returns to his sister's house to claim their heirloom family piano (they each own half of it).  With the profits from this piano, he hopes to buy some of the land that his ancestors worked on as slaves and start a new life for himself "down South."  His sister Berniece refuses, reminding him that the faces of their great-grandparents (slaves) are carved into the wood.  The piano was first owned by a white slave-owner named Mr. Sutter and then stolen by Berniece and Boy Willy's father.  Shortly after stealing the piano, he was killed...but the piano remained as inheritance for his children.  To Berniece, the object represents family history, pride, struggle and a connection to the past.

Thoughts:  As I began this project, I became more interested in various projects of great ambition by playwrights, notably Suzan Lori-Parks' 365 Days/365 Plays project (November 2002-2003) and The Pittsburgh Cycle, which contains two Pulitzer Prize winning plays.  Also called The Century Cycle, this set of Wilson's plays each represent a decade of the 1900s and were written from 1982 to 2005.

They are:
1900s:  Gem of the Ocean (2003)
1910s:  Joe Turner's Come and gone (1988)
1920s:  Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984)
1930s:  The Piano Lesson (PP) (1990)
1940s:  Seven Guitars (1995)
1950s:  Fences (PP) (1987)
1960s:  Two Trains Running (1991)
1970s:  Jitney (1982)
1980s:  King Hedley II (1999)
1990s:  Radio Golf (2005)

Having also read Wilson's Fences for this project, I naturally found myself drawing connections between these two works.  Both of the plays examine familial relationships and are aided by the perspective of an outsider (Bono in Fences, Lymon in The Piano Lesson).  These characters are able to offer more tempered advice and perspective as they are not relatives but have decades experience participating in the interpersonal relationships of the families.  Additionally, both of these plays contain elements of the supernatural.  In Fences, Troy's mentally handicapped brother Gabriel believes he is the angel Gabriel and has a divine vision in the final scene.  The supernatural is much more prevalent in The Piano Lesson as the ghost of Sutter (the white slave-owner whose piano was stolen by the Charles' family) appears multiple times to different members of the cast, making it very clear that he does not want the piano moved.

While critics certainly have their favorites, I am reminded of the words of my professor David Jones, who described following progress of The Pittsburgh Cycle as:  "It was like watching someone build a Gothic cathedral."

How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel (1998)

Summary:  Over the course of thirty years, Lil Bit's relationship with her uncle-by-marriage Peck is explored.  He teaches her to drive, takes her out drinking for the first time and eventually visits her at college.  He begins touching her inappropriately before she can reach the pedals of his car (presumably age 11), and their last meeting (when she is in college) ends in a vague sexual experience and a proposal.  She states that she will not marry him, nor will she be home for Christmas.  She never sees him again. 
 
Thoughts:  Though the summary reflects a relatively straightforward plot, Vogel uses a number of techniques to ensure that style takes center stage in this play.  Lil' Bit is played by one actress, age flexible but likely in her 30s (Mary-Louise Parker in the original Broadway cast).  However, she morphs in age back to eleven and the action of the narrative is aided by individual characters named Male Greek Chorus, Female Greek Chorus, Teenager Greek Chorus, each played by an individual actor.
 
While the incest is unquestionable, the play raises questions about degrees of guilt and innocence (Vogel describes "Peck--attractive man in his 40s.  Despite a few problems, he should be played by an actor one might cast in the role of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird.")  Further complicating the play, Lil' Bit sometimes directly invites Peck's touch.
 
Like Vogel's The Long Christmas Ride Home, the style of the play enables her to write a fairly straightforward dysfunctional family drama in a very unique and dynamic way.