"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Shakespeare Miscellany

A good friend gave me a book entitled The Shakespeare Miscellany by David Crystal, a linguist and author about language; and his son, Ben, a Shakespearean actor.  Together they put together a collection of miscellaneous items about Shakespeare, everything from a comparison of the number of lines per character to a review of English history linked to the plays.  At first I thought it would be a book of cute factoids, but then after a few pages realized that I should have known better – the giver was from a Shakespearean family, and the authors were serious Shakespeare professionals.  There were most definitely USA Today-type entries (Some of the people who share the same birth and death dates as Shakespeare) The book was fascinating, especially the quotes from well-known Shakespearean actors, such as John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, who gave insights into the craft of playing Shakespeare, and I thought that I would excerpt some of the most interesting and offer some comments on them:

Orson Welles, in the book he wrote with Roger Hill, Everybody’s Shakespeare, wrote:

Shakespeare said everything.  Brain to belly; every mood and minute of a man’s season.  His language is starlight and fireflies and the sun and the moon.  He wrote it with tears and blood and beer, and his words march like heartbeats.  He speaks to everyone and we all claim him, but it’s wise to remember, if we would really appreciate him, that he doesn’t properly belong to us but to another world that smelled assertively of columbine and gun powder and printer’s ink and was vigorously dominated by Elizabeth.

Thornton Wilder said of this paragraph: “The greatest summation of Shakespeare’s genius ever written”.

I especially like the “tears, blood, and beer”, that mix of family tragedy, murders and battlefield massacres, and the taverns of Falstaff.  The reference to the other world of Elizabethan England reminded me of comments of the friend who gave me the book.  He insisted that in my readings of the poet I should not stop with a critical analysis of the plays themselves, but read the history of the time Shakespeare wrote, for it would illuminate the works.  Another friend, a former post-modernist, deconstructionist scholar went even farther – the works were not even reading unless they were interpreted only through the lenses of history, gender, sexual politics, and social structure and dynamics.  In his view, it was pointless to try to understand Othello unless one disaggregated the text and understood how, for example, the male and female worlds of Elizabethan England were configured, how the social oppression of women caused Desdemona’s downfall (and that of Ophelia), etc.

I, not surprisingly, am on the side of Harold Bloom, Allan Bloom, and others of the Canon who refuse to equate all texts, to strip them of their poetry and read them only as historical exegesis, and to study Shakespeare from this limited and narrowing perspective.  Of course the pulse of the time mattered.  The great revolutionary happenings of the late 16th Century were occurring as Shakespeare was writing – the Ptolemaic world was overturned, Machiavelli re-interpreted political life, Martin Luther’s own religious revolution had begun a few decades earlier, and discoveries of the New World had expanded English world view.  This situating of the plays within a dramatically new historical context – let alone within the internecine battles that were going on within Elizabeth’s England were of course important.  However this historical context only served to illuminate the drama being played out and the responses of the characters within it.

Kenneth Branagh commented on ‘Sacrifices” – how focusing on one element in a play is bound to detract from another, and therefore directorial decisions to place a play in another time may tie audiences closer to the play, but it may also distort meaning:

For me, working on Shakespeare is a search for meaning, and that can be expressed by being utterly real, using an accent, not using an accent, putting it in modern dress, not putting it in modern dress….It is very hard to get everything out of a Shakespeare play.  If you set Romeo and Juliet in war-torn Belfast, it puts a terrific focus on the feuding – but Shakespeare’s play is about a household feud, not a religious feud.

I have seen to Shakespeare productions recently – The Merchant of Venice which was set in early 20th Century New York City.  The Jews lived in the Lower East Side, the Italians in Little Italy, and Portia and her crowd on the North Shore of Long Island.  There was no point to the setting.  At least, had Romeo and Juliet been set in Northern Ireland, there would have been a point – family feuding against the backdrop of religious, sectarian feuding – and both might have been better exposed.  In this version of Merchant, the setting was incidental, a trifle, production trickery to gather an audience.  Richard III set in a 20th Century military dictatorship very much approximating Nazi Germany was powerful and haunting (this Ian McKellen version of Richard is by far my favorite).  The Much Ado About Nothing I recently saw at the Folger was set in Cuba instead of Italy, but the transposition was hardly noticed – two Latin cultures, don’tcha know.  Curiously, the Latino community in Washington complained about the names -.  Dogberry and Verges were changed to Jose Frijoles and Juan Tortilla (or something equally silly) to get veracity, but since have been changed back to English.

Jan Kott has had the last word on these modern transformations – by all means ‘modernize’ the plays, but only if it makes sense.

I recently attended a Shakespeare conference in Staunton, Virginia; and many of the papers were on the staging of productions – number of actors, length of play, use of props, etc.  In this passage by Anthony Sher on Richard III, he comments:

Terry [Hands]…believes it is the play in which Shakespeare made all his mistakes.  ‘For a start, he doesn’t give Richard a rest.  Macbeth has the whole England scene, Hamlet has all that Ophelia stuff, Lear’s got the whole Edmund sub-plot, but Richard is on throughout.  With all the terrible physical strain, of course, of sustaining a crippled position all evening…it’s a little known historical fact, but apparently after the original production Burbage said to Shakespeare ‘If you ever do that to me again, mate, I’ll kill you’

Oscar Wilde in The Critic as Artist, said:

People sometimes say that actors give us their own Hamlets, and not Shakespeare’s…In point of fact, there is no such thing as Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  If Hamlet has something of the definiteness of a work of art, he has also all the obscurity that belongs to life.  There are as many Hamlets as there are melancholies.

This is a particularly fascinating interpretation and gets to the very nature of Shakespeare’s genius – not only can the part be interpreted differently by each actor who plays him (witness, Olivier’s, Branagh’s, Burton’s for starters), each of us in the audience see Hamlet differently, interpret why he does what he does differently, and come away with a very different conclusion than that of our neighbors.

Antony Sher, commenting on Richard III said,

Unable to get back to sleep, I find my copy of the play and have a proper look at the the speech.  “Now is the winter of our discontent…”.  God.  It seems terribly unfair of Shakespeare to begin his play with such a famous speech.  You don’t like to put your mouth to it, so many other mouths have been there.  Or to be more honest, one particularly distinctive mouth.  His poised, staccato delivery is imprinted on those words like teeth marks.

I sit in shock, in the middle of the night, staring at the text.  ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’God.  It’s as hard as saying ‘I love you’ as if you had just coined the phrase for the first time.

Again Anthony Sher,

Reading Shakespeare is sometimes like looking through a window into a dark room.  You don’t see in.  You see nothing but a reflection of yourself, unable to see in.  An unflattering image of yourself blind.

Here is Julie Taymore, on why make a film of Titus Andronicus

In its day, it was the most popular Shakespeare, the absolute pot-boiler of this period.  I showed it to inner-city high school students early on.  They went crazy over it.  They said, ‘Move over, Schwarzenegger, here comes Titus

I loved Titus, although I couldn’t make any sense of it within the entire opus of Shakespeare’s work.  It was not a particularly good or eloquent play; the character of the evil Aaron was never central, and not as subtle as Iago or Edmund; there was no reason for the operatic baking of the Goth Queen’s sons in a pie or the terrible mutilation of her daughter; but it sure was fun.

This bit of history I already knew – Richard III was written in part to support the Tudor claim to the throne, and the earlier quote about understanding that Shakespeare wrote very aware of the political views of Elizabeth

The Richard III Society was formed in 1924 in England….and its aim was to promote the ‘real’ Richard, asserting that he was a good king and not the evil tyrant portrayed in the play. 

The biased account presented in Shakespeare, it is claimed, comes from Holinshed, whose source was Thomas More’s The History of Richard III.  More, who was still a child when Richard died, was writing under the Tudor dynasty, which wanted to support the claim to the throne of Richmond, the man who deposed Richard in 1485 and became the first Tudor king, Henry VII.

The Society argues that Tudor writers exaggerated Richard’s villainy and portrayed him in the worst possible light, such as making him a hunchback – something that writers in the 1480s never mentioned.

Does this historical insight dim our enjoyment of the play? Corrode our appreciation of Shakespeare’s Richard as his most ‘evil’ villain?  Not in the least.  This is fictionalized history, after all, with no necessary allegiance to actual facts; and there would have been no play at all if Richard had been portrayed as Mr. Nice Guy,.

Peter Brook has written about Hamlet

If we try to pull at a rich text to make sense of it too quickly we will simply end up with shreds.  We have to be aware that Hamlet is more intellectual than the greatest intellectual, more in love than the greatest lover before or since, more angry than the most violent man there has ever been, and the most important thing is that Hamlet gives expression to it all.

On that note, that elegy to the greatest of English playwrights, I will end.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Eugene O’Neill–Long Day’s Journey Into Night

I recently wrote a post on the plays of the early O’Neill – Desire Under The Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra – which I described as operatic and overly melodramatic.  They were both a combination of Aida and grand guignol – outrageous characters in hopelessly entangled family relationships complicated by incest, and dissolved by bloody murders. The operatic quality of Desire led Edward Thomas to write an opera (1989) based on it.  I wondered at the end of reading these four plays (Electra is a trilogy), why so much attention has been paid to O’Neill, considered America’s greatest playwright; and wondered whether in the ten ensuing years between Electra (1931) and Long Day’s Journey (1941), he could have evolved from soap opera to serious dramatist.  He did.

Following is an excerpt from a short biography of O’Neill:

But by the time he received the Nobel Prize in 1936--a feat which no other American playwright had been able to accomplish--his career had begun to fizzle. The new generation of critics--Francis Fergusson, Lionel Trilling, Eric Bentley--began to subject O'Neill to a closer scrutiny than their predecessors who had been satisfied simply to find an American playwright of international stature. Pushed about by this critical storm, obscurity began to settle in on the playwright, and it deepened more and more until his death in 1953. Ironically, it was during these dark years that O'Neill's real development began. Maturing in silence and motivated only by his obsessive urge to write, he developed a profound artistic honesty which would result in several genuine masterpieces of the modern theatre including A Touch of the Poet (1935-1942), More Stately Mansions (1935-1941), The Iceman Cometh (1939), A Long Day's Journey into Night (1939-41) and A Moon for the Misbegotten (1943). Most of these were not published or produced during O'Neill's lifetime.

Then, in 1956, three years after the playwright's death, a successful revival of The Iceman Cometh and the first Broadway production of A Long Day's Journey into Night, returned Eugene O'Neill once again to his rightful place at the forefront of American Drama. As George Jean Nathan noted, O'Neill "singlehandedly waded through the dismal swamplands of American drama, bleak, squashy, and oozing sticky goo, and alone and singlehanded bore out the water lily that no American had found there before him." Today, he is recognized not only as the first great American dramatist, but as one of the great dramatists of all time. (www.imagi-nation.com)

Journey is an autobiographical play, and the drug-addicted mother, itinerant actor father, corrupting elder brother, and consumptive younger brother were modeled after O’Neill’s own family.  The play is so confessional that O’Neill demanded that O’Neill left written instructions that it must not be made public until 25 years after his death.  However, negotiations with his estate allowed the production of it only three years after his death,

In 1940 O'Neill wrote the autobiographical play, Long Day's Journey Into Night. The action takes place during a single day in August 1912 at the summer home of the Tyrone family. The members of the family are the father, an actor, the drug-addicted mother, an alcoholic son and his younger brother suffering from tuberculosis (based on O'Neill himself). (Spartacus Educational).

The play, like Miller’s All My Sons,The Prize, and Death of a Salesman (all recently reviewed in my blog), is about fathers and sons; the demands and expectations set by fathers, and the impossibility of measuring up to them.  Whereas Miller’s characters have a rough, unfinished quality to them – they are prototypically post-Depression era characters pursuing the American dream at all costs – O’Neill’s are more refined, reflective, and introspective.  The father is a classical actor and the boys, schooled by him, are expressively literate.  The stage directions of Act One describe the authors in the family’s bookcases – Hugo, Dumas, Shakespeare, and Gibbon, among others.  Both Jamie and Edmund know a variety of literature so well that they quote Swinburne, Shakespeare, and other writers not only easily, but with accurate and appropriate references to their lives of the moment.  The tragedy of the Miller plays is that this idealistic, romantic, and ultimately flawed vision of America had to end badly. Miller was a Communist adherent in the 40s and his plays reflect a mistrust of American capitalism and its corrosive, destructive power.  The system was as much at fault for the tragedy of the Loman family as the family itself.

Literature provides the context of the drama of the Tyrone’s.  Both boys use it to comment, to wound, and to expose:

Jamie, hurt by his father’s drunken condemnation of him - “A waste! A wreck, a drunken hulk, done with and finished” – replies, quoting Shakespeare: “Clarence is come, false, fleeting, perjured Clarence/That stabbed me in the field by Tewksbury/Seize on him, Furies, take him into torment”; and then quoting from Rossetti: “Look into my face.  My name is Might-Have-Been; I am also called No More, Too Late, Farewell”.  Jamie’s most hurtful, damning, and unforgiveable literary reference is to Hamlet.  Mary, the boys’ mother, has become, finally, and irretrievable insane, and Jamie says “The Mad Scene.  Enter Ophelia!”

Edmund quotes Baudelaire to denigrate his brother who has become, in his eyes, a degenerate wastrel; but in the quote correctly characterizes the fatalistic view of his brother: “I love thee, infamous city! Harlots and/Hunted have pleasures of their own to give/The vulgar herd can never understand”.

This passage, quoted early in Act Four is again quoted, even more cynically when Jamie comes home, drunk from a whorehouse. 

Jamie is a cynical poet/intellectual – he is so obsessed by what he sees as the venality, greed, and indifference of his father, and the weakness of his mother, that he exaggerates the cynical worldviews of poets, using them to justify his refusal to accept the realities and needs of his father, mother, and brother. 

Edmund not only quotes poetry but writes it and thinks poetically, which is his professed way to a clearer vision of reality.  In his long soliloquy, Edmund says:

Yes, she [his mother] moves above and beyond us, a ghost haunting the past, and here we sit pretending to forget, but straining our ears listening for the slightest sound, hearing the fog drip from the eaves like the uneven tick of a rundown, crazy clock – or like the trollop spattering in a puddle of stale beer on a honky-tonk table top!

His father in reply says, “Yes, there’s the making of a poet in you all right”; and then Edmund, somewhat maudlin:

The makings of a poet.  No, I’m afraid I’m like the guy who is always panhandling for a smoke.  He hasn’t even got the makings  He’s got only the habit.  I couldn’t touch what I tried to tell you just now.  I just stammered.  That’s the best I’ll ever do, I mean, if I live. Well, it will be faithful realism at least.  Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.

The play is successful for many reasons, and this use of a literary context is one.  In this exchange, Edmund admits that he is not a poet; but still holds to a poetic convention – faithful realism, he calls it.  He believes in the wisdom of Swinburne or Dowson, and often uses them not to express his own vision, but his critical view of his brother.  Referring to his brother’s night with a prostitute, he quotes derisively but with deep feeling:

“All night upon my heart I felt her warm heart beat/Night long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;/Surely the kisses her bought red mouth were sweet/But I was desolate and sick of an old passion/When I awoke and found the dawn was gray: I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.”

Edmund goes on:

…And Jamie never loved any Cynara, and was never faithful to a woman in his life, even in his fashion!  But he lies there, kidding himself he is superior and enjoys pleasures “the vulgar herd can never understand”!

But Jamie in later retort quotes Oscar Wilde, praising the dissolute life without love:

Then, turning to my love, I said/’The dead are dancing with the dead/The dust is whirling with the dust’/But she – she heard the violin/And left my side and entered in:/Love passed into the house of lust…

This literary context frames the play – it is clearly the rarified world of ideas in which tragedy occurs, in which the Tyrone family comes apart; but they know what is happening to them, they face their demons ‘beautifully’.  In comparison Happy and Biff in Death of a Salesman have no real clue.  They are too circumscribed by their meager life, and have only had the dreams of one man – their father – to give them a view of the outside world, albeit a twisted one.   There is no metaphor in either Biff or Happy, but most definitely in Edmund and Jamie.  The real fog which persists throughout the play becomes the metaphor for the life of the whole family.  Poetry has enabled everyone to penetrate, if only for a while, the fog of illusion and distortion which surrounds them.  Edmund says:

Then the moment of ecstatic freedom came.  The peace, the end of the quest, the last harbor, the joy of belonging to a fulfillment beyond men’s lousy, pitiful, greedy fears and hopes and dreams….Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand.  For a second you see – and seeing the secret, are the secret.  For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!

Another reason why the play is successful is because the life behind the action is revealed slowly and progressively.  The reader knows – as in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – that something is very wrong between George and Martha, and only at the end do we understand why they are they way they are.  We know that something is wrong in the Tyrone family from the beginning of the play, but we are not sure what.  The father and brothers are tip-toeing around their mother, but only later, and after many veiled references do we understand that she is addicted to morphine; and only later do we begin to understand, from her point of view, why.  She has led a miserable life, become the wife of an itinerant actor, far from the genteel upbringings of her own family.  She recounts the endless trips, the cheap hotels, the endless nights of waiting alone for her drunken husband.  Only later, and progressively, do we realize that this conviction has become an obsession.  He will always be cheap, self-centered, and insensitive.  And only near the end of the play do we hear Tyrone’s own story, that of his poor childhood, how his own obsession with money came because of the precarious situation of his family.

At first we see the love-hate relationship between the two brothers.  Jamie does seem to solicitously care for his consumptive younger brother, but is often sharp and resentful.  The brothers compete, and as in the passages cited above, they are strongly critical of each other.  Only near the end of the play do we hear Jamie’s confession – that he always hated his brother, that he corrupted him deliberately so that by comparison he, Jamie, would look good; and along the way Edmund would be destroyed.

At the beginning of the play we feel that the mother is simply in a bad marriage, and that her complaints are well-founded.  Later, and persistently, her complaints become refrains, and she repeats over and over the same perception of her money-grubbing, insensitive husband.  Progressively, she slips into the past, a past of fond memories and happiness.  She is very reminiscent of Blanche, in Streetcar Named Desire, and in the final scenes has completely given herself over to the frail reminiscences of her past.  In a very Tennessee Williams-esque final scene, she emerges from her room:

“Her white hair is braided in two pigtails which hang over her breast.  Over one arm, carried neglectfully, trailing on the floor, as if she had forgotten she held it, is an old-fashioned white satin wedding gown, trimmed with duchesse lace…(from the stage directions at the end of Act Four).

Tyrone, when he sees his wife, says:

Here, let me take it, dear.  You’ll only step on it and tear it and get it dirty dragging it on the floor.  Then you’d be sorry afterwards.  She lets him take it, regarding him from somewhere far away within herself, without recognition, without recognition, without either affection or animosity.

MARY With the shy politeness of a well-bred young girl toward an elderly gentleman who relieves her of a bundle. Thank you.  You are very kind.

The ‘kindness of strangers’.

Finally, the play is successful because certain characters, despite their denials and evasions, finally accept reality.  Jamie confesses that he has hated and manipulated his brother; admits with no contrition his hatred for his father even with Edmund’s explanations.  Edmund admits his lovelorn relationship with his mother, his dependence on her as the baby, the pet.  Tyrone admits his stinginess, but explains why and sees no reason to express guilt.  Only the mother cannot accept reality and becomes totally mad, escaping into her world of fantasy and illusion.

In conclusion, this is a remarkable play, all the more so in comparison to O’Neill’s earlier work.  Long Day’s Journey is measured, balanced (introspection-outward expression; brothers vs. father, mother vs. father, etc.), disciplined, with only a trace of melodrama; eloquent in language and meaning.  Despite the alcohol, the passages between father and sons or between the sons is never maudlin, never sloppy, never outrageously in vino veritas.  It is simply the vehicle for the expressions of the characters.  There is a complexity in all relationships.  That between Jamie and Edmund is not all one-sided, characterized by Jamie’s manipulation.  He cares for Edmund.  He cares for his mother in a way, although he dismisses her.  Tyrone is a complex figure.  He is guilty of a miserliness – he wants to withhold the best treatment for his consumptive son – but we understand the power of his personal history.  He has been more than patient with his wife who should have known better when she married him or at least been strong enough to negotiate a more acceptable life.  The mother is a sympathetic figure, but she too has become a hectoring, pitiless character.

With great expectation, I will now move on to Moon for the Misbegotten and The Iceman Cometh.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Melodrama of Eugene O’Neill and Faulkner

I am not sure what I was expecting from Eugene O’Neill.  I have only the vaguest recollections of Jason Robards, Jr. and Colleen Dewhurst in Moon for the Misbegotten and Jason Robards again in Long Day’s Journey into Night; and I remember there was a lot of drinking and a very abusive, tormented family in both.  There was nothing in my reading or viewing that ever made me want to go back to O’Neill. There was something too dark and unremitting in these plays, and I avoided them.  However, I have been immersed in theatre for the past year, and felt I could not complete my review of American theatre without reading O’Neill. 

On my bookshelf was an old copy of Eugene O’Neill’s Greatest Plays which included Desire Under the Elms and Mourning Becomes Electra both among his first plays, done in the 30s, and ten years before the more famous and mature plays referred to above. After I had read them, I realized that I had been far to hard on Arthur Miller, whose View from the Bridge I have recently criticized for operatic melodrama and grand guignol.  These plays of O’Neill are far more baroque. 

At first, Desire under the Elms, perhaps because it is written in New England dialect and based on a family’s roots in land and history, reminded me of Faulkner. The Mannon family of Electra was much like the Sutpens of Absalom, Absalom with their intricate, complex, cross-generational love affairs, reappearing family outliers, a brooding, powerful patriarch, and intra-family gossip, speculation, and plotting.  Here is an excerpt from a plot summary of the Faulkner work and the similarity with Electra is clear:

Henry, possibly because of his own potentially (and mutually) incestuous feelings for his sister, as well as quasi-romantic feelings for Charles himself, is keen to see the two wed (allowing him to imagine himself as surrogate for both). When Sutpen tells Henry that Charles is his half-brother and that Judith must not be allowed to marry him, Henry refuses to believe, repudiates his birthright, and accompanies Charles to his home in New Orleans…During the war, Henry wrestles with his conscience until he presumably resolves to allow the marriage of half-brother and sister; this resolution changes, however, when Sutpen reveals to Henry that Charles is part black. At the conclusion of the war, Henry enacts his father's interdiction of marriage between Charles and Judith, killing Charles at the gates to the mansion and then fleeing into self-exile. (Wikipedia).

Mourning Becomes Electra is as improbable. Christine, Lavinia’s mother, is in love with Adam, who is actually the illegitimate son of her husband’s uncle, long exiled but reappearing in his romantic pursuit of Lavinia – an incestuous pursuit because Adam and Lavinia are first cousins.  Christine has incestuous longings for her son, Orin, psychologically damaged in the Civil War, and long under her influence. 

Lavinia has similarly incestuous longings for her brother, Orin, and she, too has dominated him since they were children. Lavinia’s feelings for her father, the family patriarch are even stronger and more incestuous.  He has been the buffer against what Lavinia sees is the evil predations and ambitions of her mother.

Christine hates her older husband to whom she has been married for many years, and decides with her lover, Adam, to kill him. Lavinia catches the mother in the act with the poison pills, and decides that she must kill her and her lover, Adam.  She enlists her easily manipulated brother, Orin.

Orin and Lavinia set a trap for Adam and murder him; but they don’t have to because she kills herself out of despair.  Orin, feeling so crazed with guilt kills himself.  Lavinia then turns her amorous attentions on Peter, the only sane one of the lot, and in her own increasingly crazed state, operatically cries out:

Listen, Peter! Why must we wait for marriage?  I want a moment of joy – of love – to make up for what’s coming.  I want it now! Can’t you be strong, Peter? Can’t you be simple and pure?  Can’t you forget sin and see that all of love is beautiful (She kisses him with desperate passion).  Kiss me!  Hold me close! Want me! Want me so much that you’d murder anyone to have me! I did that – for you! Take me into this house of the dead and love me.  Our love will drive the dead away! It will shame them back into death.

Peter, of course, runs as fast as he can the other way, and Lavinia in the last scene claims her inheritance and walks back into the ghost-ridden house alone.

This is from America’s most revered playwright?  And more to the point, why do I think that Absalom, Absalom is a great work and Electra a distinctly inferior one?  Most importantly, the tale of the Mannons is pure melodrama – it is plot without depth, action without context, with outrageously caricatured characters, and with only a stereotypical vision of the historical context – the Civil War.  Each of the characters of Absalom is complex, and the seemingly melodramatic evolution of the Sutpens, when framed against the cultural history of the South, its early settlement, the evolution of its traditions of social and racial purity, the violence of war fought on its territory, and the total disruption and destruction of its life, is not melodramatic at all.  In fact, the integration of the characters of Absalom within this social and historical context is perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the novel.  From the very first lines of the book Faulkner we are introduced to the characters, never alone, nor independent of their roots and history:

Her voice would not cease, it would just vanish. There would be the dim coffin-smelling gloom sweet and oversweet with the twice-bloomed wistaria against the outer wall by the savage quiet September sun impacted distilled and hyperdistilled, into which came now and then the loud cloudy flutter of the sparrows like a flat limber stick whipped by an idle boy, and the rank smell of female old flesh long embattled in virginity while the wan haggard face watched him above the faint triangle of lace at wrists and throat from the too tall chair in which she resembled a crucified child; and the voice not ceasing but vanishing into and then out of the long intervals like a stream, a trickle running from patch to patch of dried sand, and the ghost mused with shadowy docility as if it were the voice which he haunted where a more fortunate one would have had a house. Out of quiet thunderclap he would abrupt (man-horse-demon) upon a scene peaceful and decorous as a schoolprize water color, faint sulphur-reek still in hair clothes and beard, with grouped behind him his band of wild niggers like beasts half tamed to walk upright like men, in attitudes wild and reposed, and manacled among them the French architect with his air grim, haggard, and taller-ran. Immobile, bearded, and hand palm lifted the horseman sat; behind him the wild blacks and the captive architect huddled quietly, carrying in bloodless paradox the shovels and picks and axes of peaceful conquest.


And maybe it (the voice, the talking, the incredulous and unbearable amazement) had even been a cry aloud once, Quentin thought, long ago when she was a girl of young and indomitable unregret, of indictment of blind circumstance and savage event; but not now: now only the lonely thwarted old female flesh embattled for forty-three years in the old insult, the old unforgiving outraged and betrayed by the final and complete affront which was Sutpen's death: 'He wasn't a gentleman. He wasn't even a gentleman. He came here with a horse and two pistols and a name which nobody ever heard before, knew for certain was his own any more than the horse was his own or even the pistols, seeking some place to hide himself, and Yoknapatawpha County supplied him with it. He sought the guarantee of reputable men to barricade him from the other and later strangers who might come seeking him in turn, and Jefferson gave him that. Then he needed respectability, the shield of a virtuous woman, to make his position impregnable even against the men who had given him protection on that inevitable day and hour when even they must rise against him in scorn and horror and outrage; and it was mine and Ellen's father who gave him that.

The story is complex, the language intricate, evocative, and powerful.  There is no way not to be drawn into the story – who is Sutpen, where did he come from? – deciphering the story but admiring this man, like many, who came from outside Mississippi and cleared the land, driven by ambition and wealth.  Sutpen is a great man, a patriarch, a vital man, a conqueror and a survivor.

Mannon, by comparison, is a stick figure.  He represents New England gentry, but there is little we learn about him.  Only the stage directions suggest that what we see (the impressive white façade and portico of the house, hiding the grey realism of the interior) is not what we get, and there is something hidden and dark about the family’s past and present.  Faulkner, in a few lines, tell us all about Sutpen’s past and powerful present:

Because he was too young. He was just twenty-five and a man of twenty-five does not voluntarily undertake the hardship and privation of clearing virgin land and establishing a plantation in a new country just for money; not a young man without any past that he apparently cared to discuss, in Mississippi in 1833 with a river full of steamboats loaded with drunken fools covered with diamonds and bent on throwing away their cotton and slaves before the boat reached New Orleans—not with all this just one night's hard ride away and the only handicap or obstacle being the other blackguards or the risk of being put ashore on a sandbar, and at the remotest, a hemp rope. And he was no younger son sent out from some old quiet country like Virginia or Carolina with the surplus Negroes to take up new land, because anyone could look at those Negroes of his and tell that they may have come (and probably did) from a much older country than Virginia or Carolina but it wasn't a quiet one. And anyone could have looked once at his face and known that he would have chosen the river and even the certainty of the hemp rope, to undertaking what he undertook even if he had known that he would find gold buried and waiting for him in the very land which he had bought.

And finally, in a few spare lines, Faulkner introduces the ideas of what is to come:

And he lived out there for almost five years before he had speaking acquaintance with any white woman in the county, just as he had no furniture in his house and for the same reason: he had at the time nothing to exchange for them. Yes. He named Clytie as he named them all, the one before Clytie and Henry and Judith even, with that same robust and sardonic temerity, naming with his own mouth his own ironic fecundity of dragon's teeth. Only I have always liked to believe that he intended to name Clytie, Cassandra, prompted by some pure dramatic economy not only to beget but to designate the presiding augur of his own disaster, and that he just got the name wrong through a mistake natural in a man who must have almost taught himself to read.

I will read O’Neill’s later works, although I really don’t know what to expect.  The major themes of Tennessee Williams’s work were evident in his first plays as were his characterizations, setting, and plot.  Arthur Miller was obsessed by morality and ethics as defining elements of society and transforming elements of individual relationships.  Faulkner is Faulkner from Light in August to The Reivers.  People don’t change, and I suspect playwrights don’t either; but anything is possible.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Recipes: Penne a la Crème with Red Peppers

This is a recipe that I developed many years ago when I was beginning to write a cookbook to be entitled Pasta as a First Course – Simple but Elegant.  I didn’t get very far.  I got hung up on exact measurements, and since I create my own recipes (a little bit of this, a little bit of that), it was very hard to get precise, measured ingredients.  I found myself estimating the amount of spice, wine, cream, garlic, etc. in recipes, then cooking them, then having to try again…and again….until I got it right.  I feel liberated in writing my online cookbook (work in progress, one or two recipes posted at a time to be collected later), because it is intended for people who know something about cooking.  When I estimate 1 tbsp. of basil, I expect that most cooks who are interested in the recipe will have a feel for what it is supposed to taste like before they start cooking and will be able to taste and adjust.  The measures that I give in the recipes are very, very close, but tasting is always the key.

Penne a la Crème with Red Peppers was the recipe I remember most from those days, for I never could seem to get it right.  The problem was that the cream always seemed to separate, and the rich, smooth sauce that I sought was out of reach.  I made the recipe last night for the first time since those days, and since I have learned many cooking techniques and tricks in those twenty or more years, the recipe turned out just as it is supposed to – a delicate cream sauce infused with the sweet taste of red peppers and sherry, made just a bit sour with sour cream.  It is a delight, and here it is:

* 1 lg. red bell pepper, cut into 1” pieces (more or less)

* 1/2 medium onion, also cut into 1” pieces

* 2 Tbsp. unsalted European-style butter (regular unsalted butter is fine.  I prefer the European style because it is richer, and I loved my baguettes in Paris spread with it.  I liked it so much that I spread it on pain au chocolat, a no-no in France, but soooooo good).

* 2 Tbsp. Amontillado sherry (other medium dry sherries will do – NOT cooking sherry).

* 1/2 cup Half-and-Half

* 1 lg. tbsp. sour cream

* 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

- Melt the butter in a frying pan and add the red peppers and onions

- Cook covered over low heat until soft (about 15 minutes)

- Add the sherry and cook over medium heat until the sherry has evaporated.  Taste for flavor.  You can add more sherry if you like.

- Turn the heat off, and add the cream, stirring constantly until the sauce reddens a bit and all ingredients are mixed well.

- When the cream and the ingredients have been mixed well and you have a creamy sauce, turn the heat on but only to very low.  Add the sour cream a little bit at a time, stirring constantly.  (THIS IS IMPORTANT.  The sour cream because of its acidity can separate the cream, but it will not do so if you add slowly and cook over very low heat.  You can eliminate the sour cream entirely if you are concerned about separation, but if you follow these instructions you will do OK. )

- Let the sauce simmer, stirring constantly, for another five minutes or so.  By that time the sauce should have thickened slightly, and have an even color and texture.

- Cook the penne (the above recipe is for two or three people, 1/2 lb. pasta)

- Plate the pasta, place the sauce evenly on top.  Add grated parmesan to taste.

- Add a few grindings of fresh black pepper and serve. 


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Arthur Miller’s ‘A View from the Bridge’– Operatic Bathos

I have recently written about Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, and The Price – all of which are dark tragedies, fraught with moral and ethical dilemmas dealt with within the confines of family and the backdrop of The Depression and WWII.  In all three it is self-deception which causes or contributes to tragedy.  Frank (All My Sons) can never face the fact that it is because of his malingering and cowardice that 21 airmen have died.  Willy Loman is so self-centered that he cannot see his growing irrelevance; nor can he see how his behavior encourages just those qualities of deceit, distorted ethics, and impossible ambition that he has experienced.  Victor (The Price) deceives himself about his dependence on his aged father and cares for him to the detriment of his own life and that of his wife.

A View from the Bridge, while also centered around a moral failing – Eddie’s betrayal of Rodolpho, the illegal Sicilian he at first helps then rejects as an unfitting and calculating suitor for his adopted daughter.  Eddie not only betrays his adopted daughter, but his wife and as importantly the Sicilian community which has always welcomed and protected immigrants from their impoverished motherland.

There is where the similarity between Miller’s more mature tragedies and this play ends.  View is pure melodramatic opera and I think Miller’s idea of what a Sicilian family should act like.  Everyone is on an emotional hair-trigger, yelling and screaming at each other.  You can see the spaghetti and meatballs on the stove and Eddie and his longshoreman buddies hanging around in wife-beaters.  That’s bad enough, but when we see why Eddie is so reluctant to let his 18 year-old adopted daughter marry Rodolpho – he desires her sexually, and is jealous of the attractive young man who courts her, we have to chuckle.  Not only is Eddie the stereotypical Sicilian father patrolling his daughter’s bedroom with a shotgun, he is the one who wants to get into that bedroom and in bed with her.

It gets worse.  Eddie makes constant reference to Rodolpho’s ‘feminine’ behavior – he sings, can make women’s clothes, is blond (a Sicilian uber-fantasy), and is too fragile to heft the crates of Scotch that ‘fell off the truck’.  There is something wrong with him, Eddie confides to Alfieri, the lawyer who acts as the Chorus for the play.  Not only is Eddie the stereotypical Italian father locking his daughter away from the outside world in a bolted, dark chamber; not only does he want to sleep with her; and not only does he suspect Rodolopho of gold-digging (marry and American for citizenship), he hates him because he thinks he’s gay.

It gets even worse.  In one of the climactic scenes - a confrontation with Rodolpho after Eddie has turned in the illegals and La Migra has come to get all the ‘submarines’ – Eddie gives him a big French kiss.  He says he wants to show his daughter what Rodolpho really is – gay – but of course only displays his own desperate desire for the Sicilian.

Not over yet….there has to be bloodshed, vengeance, and a display of Sicilian honor.  Eddie rants and raves about respect and honor even though he is the dishonoring one, and vows to avenge the sullying of his good name when Rodolpho’s brother spits at him as he is being led away.  Rodolpho, who might evade prosecution if he marries the daughter who has loved him all along, refuses this easy way out and in a fight with Eddie, kills him. 

So, Eddie is dead and everyone is happy except his wife who depends on his weekly paycheck.  Other than that, she could care less, for he is a dumb brute who has also stopped sleeping with her.  The submarines who have been betrayed go to the slammer, so there is no Shakespearean comedy ending where no one is hurt, everyone is forgiven, and all live happily ever after.  Rodolpho is now free to marry Eddie’s daughter, but after this grand guignol probably has second thoughts.  Surely with his Adonis blond looks and talents he can seduce any number of gullible American girls with slightly less twisted fathers; and who knows what other crazed relative is in the armoires of Eddie’s family.

After having reread all of Miller’s plays, it is clear he has one masterpiece – Death of a Salesman.  It is intricate, insightful about the nature of family relationships, classically tragic (an overreaching hero brought down by a tragic flaw), and truly sad without being either melodramatic or operatic.  All My Sons is as powerful and compelling to read, but it is the act of treachery and deceit that is featured rather than the corrosive effect it has on the entire family.  The Price dramatically illuminates what must be a common occurrence – children taking care of aged parents for selfish reasons.  The Crucible is a nice parable about the McCarthy Era, but not a great play, often revived because of political interest rather than dramatic depth. 

Of all that I have read, View from the Bridge is the most inept, dealing with stereotypes, operatic excess, and ham-handed treatment of subjects which in other hands have been unforgettable.  Hamlet, after all, was driven by incestuous feelings for his mother expressed in his frustrated rage against his girlfriend, Ophelia.  Othello is Mr. Jealous and Leontes not far behind.  Is-he-gay-or-isn’t-he-and-let’s-find-out is handled beautifully by Tennessee Williams in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  And my favorite – Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) has incestuous feelings for her fictitious son!!.

I have started to read O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and in only one act, I have seen more eloquence, efficient language, irony and humor dealing with family oddities than in all of Miller.  I need to finish the play and continue on to the rest of O’Neill’s work which for some reason I have neglected in the past few years; but it will be a pleasure after View from the Bridge.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Arthur Miller–Is He Still Relevant?

Have Arthur Miller's great tragedies, especially Death of a Salesman, lost currency, relevance, and favor?  There is no doubt that Death and  other important tragedies such as All My Sons and The Price are performed regularly in repertory theaters throughout the country and abroad (there have been Hindi and Malayalam productions in India), but is it out of deference to a renowned playwright or are the starkly moral visions of Post-War and Post-Depression America still as distinctly relevant as they were 70 years ago?

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Miller was not alone in writing plays of a distinctly demanding moral character.  Many other dramatists and screenwriters uncompromisingly portray moral and ethical failings and/or the courageous stands of heroes who refuse to given in to an unprincipled society.  The films On the Waterfront, All About Eve, and The Hustler are but a few.

In fact Miller’s plays are the very best of this genre, especially because they are set within the confines of family.  Immoral actions or the deceptions and lies which are in the borders of immorality destroy families. The dramas all have the backdrop of a wider perspective – WWII and The Depression are never far from the central issues of Salesman and All My Sons – but the action is clearly domestic and obsessive. The Price, although set in a period twenty years later, is still characterized by the same narrow confines of poverty of the needs and demands of family.  Miller carried the memories of The Depression in which his family lost everything in The Crash, and of WWII.

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The central issue of Salesman, not revealed until late in the play, is that Willie Loman’s young son, Biff, discovers his father in a cheap hotel room with another woman.  Biff has rushed to Boston to have his heroic, godlike father, save him; and instead he finds tawdry deception and failure.  He can never get over this shocking and totally unexpected revelation.  For years he has believed his father’s fictions and fantasies, and when they are destroyed, so is he. 

Does this crucial scene play well with today’s audiences which have little experience with the tight nuclear families which depended on each other to survive the Depression, or who suffered through tremendous losses in the War? At the time of Miller’s early, classical plays everyone suffered from The Depression and WWII; but only 51 percent of Americans are married today, and many of those marriages are second or third unions.  They are extended families in a modern terms – not the extended family of cousins and other relatives in Miller’s View from the Bridge, but the family of his, hers, and ours.  Responsibility as well as allegiance and affiliation have become diluted. 

The theme of the play is deception and illusion – that of Willy, his son Biff, and his wife, all of whom refuse to accept the truth of the limitations of Willy, the dismal nature of their life, and the historic destiny that will keep them forever in it.  Miller is a good socialist, and his plays, while never screeds, always show the dark and destructive side of capitalism; but this bias may also be outdated and romantic by today’s standards.  It is not that capitalism is finally seen as the shining temple on the hill, but that its failings are corporate, financial, multinational – diffuse and difficult or impossible to dis-aggregate and to assess blame.  Can audiences today relate to this grand, dark scheme which is the nature of Death of a Salesman?

All My Sons paints the moral universe even more harshly.  Frank, the patriarch of the family has knowingly shipped defective airplane engine parts to the Air Force which installed them in planes which later crashed because of them.  He, however, blamed the error on his friend and partner who went to jail for it.  The entire family and those associated with it either know about or suspect the lie; but because of the need to keep the family together – especially since one of their sons has been reported MIA in the War – they maintain the fiction and the illusion that the father is without blame.

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The play deals with the gradual revelation of the truth and how each of the family deals with it.  The father must confront his lies and the horrible truth that he sent an innocent man to jail.  His son has conveniently pushed the likelihood of his father’s crime into the far outer reaches of his conscience.  His wife, who knows, transfers all her emotion to the MIA son who everyone but her knows is dead.
As above, today’s world is very different.  No one person ever – or very rarely – is or could be as responsible as Frank.  It is unthinkable that one person could now have total control over a critical,
life-or-death decision.  There are quality control measures, computerized magnetic imaging, three levels of checking and supervision, legal conditions and codicils to those conditions.  Blame and responsibility are spread so widely that pinpointing one person is difficult, if not responsible. 

In The Price, the play centers around the relationship between the two brothers, Victor and Walter Franz.  Victor has chosen to stay with his aged father and take care of him, and Walter has gone out into the world to become a successful surgeon.  The resentments that have built up during the course of the brothers’ lives come to the fore during the play.  Just as in All My Sons, where a veneer of illusion has covered the truth, so does it in this play.  Victor has been taking care of his father, and has been all-suffering, but not patient and frustrated with the poverty and the drudgery of his existence.  It was Victor who went off to medical school and had a successful career, not he. 

As the play develops, Walter, after a lapse of many years, shows up at the home of Victor and his mother and eventually confronts Victor with the revealing fact that their father has always had money – four thousand dollars - enough to live comfortably.  He contends that he had told his brother about this, although somewhat indirectly, but in any case, Victor knew or must have known.  Victor, according to Walter, wanted to stay with their father.  Victor needed his father far more than the father needed him.  Caring for the father in impoverished times, scrimping and saving, ‘eating garbage’, gave Victor self-respectability, purpose, and value; and most importantly, said Walter, avoiding taking the risks that would lead him to as successful a life as his brother.

This play has in my mind more relevance to today than All My Sons and Death of a Salesman.  I know families who have siblings as all-suffering as Victor, and who have harbored even more intense and corrosive resentments than he.  One or more siblings have moved on, gone on to successful careers and lives, while the resentful one stayed with the aged mother or father.  The siblings who left always assumed that there were good reasons why their brother or sister stayed behind.  Just like Victor, they must have needed the value and definition of caring, especially if they had no families of their own.  The resentment and hostility in all cases was never understood by the siblings who had left.  They thought that the arrangement was clear. 

This family drama will assuredly become less common in one more generation. Today’s modern society is all about geriatrics, enriched comfort care, and out-of-home competence.  Whether older Americans get the care that their children hope for is another issue.  The fact remains that the options for the children are many, impersonal, and extra-familial. 

There are not many eternal playwrights.  Shakespeare is certainly one, Aeschylus another.  Their themes are most definitely eternal, and until we remake human nature they will continue to be.  No one notices that Aeschylus wrote 2600 years ago and Shakespeare 500; but we do notice and are very much aware of the historical context of Miller.  It is not his relative modernity or enclosure by the walls of The Depression or WWII that sets this stage.  Sartre wrote No Exit in 1944, and while it does not deal with personal or family tragedy, it is about existential tragedy and is relevant and salient today.  Beckett wrote Waiting for Godot in 1948-49 and it, like No Exit is an incomparable philosophical work, dealing with Man’s place in a larger universe.

This said, not only is Miller a great dramatist, but a superb storyteller. None of the works of  Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Beckett, Sartre, or Tennessee Williams are page-turners.  In Miller’s plays the reader is never diverted from the central plot and action.  There is little symbolism or subtle, intricate language.  The stage directions for Salesman describe the Loman house, the lone single-family dwelling amidst apartment buildings, and the symbolism of the new age overshadowing and eventually destroying the old is clear; but there is none of the elaborate symbolism of Williams.

Miller’s story lines are clear from the beginning, and although you suspect that things will turn out badly, you want to keep reading to find out how.  Shakespeare’s plots, particularly of the Histories and the Comedies are intricate as well as his language, and the reader has to sort through lineages, puns, cross-dressing and disguises, and plays within plays to come to the conclusion.  The meaning of Beckett’s, Sartre’s, or Ionesco’s plays is never evident until the end, if that.

Deception and illusion, the main themes of the Miller works are also important themes in works of other authors.  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Williams) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Albee) - center around self-deception.  The Pollitt family in Cat all skate around the truth, ignore it, or pretend it doesn’t exist.  ‘Duplicity’, as Brick calls it, is the source of family discord and disintegration; and yet he cannot face the truth about his own relationship with Skipper.  Big Daddy refuses to accept his cancer.  Big Momma invents a happy life with Big Daddy.  George and Martha in Virginia Woolf have created a fictitious son to serve as the centerpiece of a marriage of cruel games.  Neither wants to admit that they need each other, that their life has been a fiction and that they will never be happy unless the face the truth.


Miller’s work is the equal of Williams and Albee in dealing with self-deception.  Frank in All My Sons chooses to forget a heinous and unforgivable act – his cowardice and greed caused the death of 21 airmen.  Willy Loman brought his sons up in a world of unrealistic aspiration and illusion.

Neither he, nor they, nor the world around them was as Willy painted it.  He sold the illusion to his sons who were destroyed by it.  Only he, going mad, realizes the damage his lies and deception have caused; and he takes his life in an act of atonement and restoration.   We never like either of his sons, Biff and Happy, because they should have known better and whose characters were ready to be distorted further.  We lose patience with Willy’s patient but inactive wife; but we somehow like Willy.  He can’t help himself.  He has to struggle against insurmountable odds – in Miller’s vision, the onslaught of modern capitalism; but really his own delusion and advancing age.  He of all family members, realizes what he has done and what he must do.

The works of Tennessee Williams are transcendent.  The Glass Menagerie and Eccentricities of a Nightingale are not bound by historical context.  They are about courage within frailty, hope, despair, strength, and longing. They are lyrical, poetic visions of every life.  Streetcar with its depiction of raw sexual power, male and female desire, sexual dominance and willing passivity is about every sexual relationship.  Shakespeare's plays have endured because they too have transcended the eras about which they were written. The Histories may well chronicle the lives of English kings from Henry II to Henry VIII, but they are less about the events of history than the common, ineluctable human nature that determines them.  Greed, venality, arrogation of power, deceit, and ambition are the desires of kings and commoners.

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Miller's almost Biblical view of morality - stark, absolute, and demanding - is important because it forces a fundamental interpretation of right and wrong on his audience - playgoers who live in a more morally permissive world, an impossibly complex one where right and wrong are not always clear, where actions are mitigated by factors never even imagined by Miller.  Actions are seen through the lens of psychology, family history; or race, gender, and ethnicity.  What made us do something has become as important as the act itself.   Works of fiction and drama which capture this moral ambiguity and social determinism may be more appropriate for today and make Miller's Mosaic vision obsolete.

Not so the plays of Williams or Shakespeare which were never tethered or moored.  They were about the human nature and the irrepressible human spirit which is derived from it.  They were about will, determination, canniness, and character - attributes which will never change.

Shakespeare in particular was a modern playwright because he understood the relativity of morality.  He was never concerned with right or wrong actions and only actions.  His nihilism is both modern and enduring.

The characters of Miller are memorable, but those of Williams are unforgettable.  There is a bit of Blanche, Alma, and Laura in all of us.  Willy Loman is not real but tragedian and iconic; and that is the difference.