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 (

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).