Saturday, March 27, 2010

BETWEEN YOU AND ME




Edward Albee Me, Myself and I, The Berlind Theatre, McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton
University, January 11, 2008 [the performance I saw was a matinee on January 19, 2008]

Edward Albee’s new play, Me, Myself & I, is in some senses a return to his earliest work, more influenced by Beckett and what we used to call the absurdist theater than the several plays in the intervening years, which may have something to do with his recent return to his earliest work, The Zoo Story in writing its sequel Peter and Jerry of 2007.

The world premiere of the new play at the Berlind Theatre at Princeton University, a production directed by Emily Mann, confronts the audience during the first scene with an architectural perspective (the set is outlined with a rectangular of strings) of a bedroom, featuring only a double bed, inhabited by Mother (Tyne Daly) and her Dr. (the hilarious Brian Murray)—a man who for the past 28 years has replaced her missing husband (he has disappeared upon the announcement that he was the father of identical twins)—sleeping, dressed still in suit and shoes. With the sudden appearance of one of the twins, OTTO, we quickly discover the depths of her lunacy as her son and Dr. recount her reactions to the news of the twin births and her illogical logical actions of naming them both (they are, after all spitting images of each other) Otto—one whose name reads left to right, the other right to left, and one whose name is capitalized, the other all in lower case! The two dress alike, and although she perceives that one (the loud and evil OTTO) does not love her while the other otto (the softer spoken good otto) is a devoted son, even she cannot tell them apart! We later discover that she cannot remember which of her Ottos was born first; she has, she declares, lost the papers!.

So has Albee exaggerated the dilemmas of all identical twins, two beings so alike that, like many twins, they speak a kind of private language and—employing the lurid fascination of gay (and heterosexual) pornography—even share some in some sexual delights. These brothers, however, emphatically declare they are “straight”—or perhaps, to employ the malapropism of OTTO (“We’re straight as a gate”), “strait,” very narrow in their perspectives.

Both brothers dislike their mother’s Dr., and OTTO warns him that he should leave, since their father will soon be home accompanied by six panthers and a load of emeralds with which he had promised to “bathe” their mother (the Dr. sardonically suggests the husband may have said “pave”). OTTO also announces that he is going to become Chinese and that otto is no longer his brother, that he has a new brother.

Any family might be nonplussed by these strange pronouncements, but Mother and Dr. are not just any family. Mother is, as the Dr. suggests, utterly demented, insane as the Dr.—who can only be equally insane to remain in her bed—is there to help prove it to the audience! The results are some of Albee’s wittiest dialogue since The Zoo Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. As the dueling duo attempt to debate the implications of OTTO’s statements—does his statement that otto is no longer his brother mean that otto no longer exists?—an older patron in the row in front of me spoke out, “This is all very silly—and confusing!” Indeed it is both silly and confusing, but also gleefully intriguing as Albee pushes us to realize that the relation of twins—particularly this identical pair—is every bit as impossible as the relationships each of us have with our mirror images—with ourselves.

Indeed, the brother OTTO has discovered is his mirror image, is himself. Gradually, as he and otto describe their almost enchanted youth, the deep love they have between them, it becomes apparent that the bad-boy OTTO has been psychologically forced into his new relationship by his brother’s love for a woman, Maureen (the Mother’s conversations with the Irish, Chippewa-Indian, Scottish, French girl are some of the funniest of the play). Even though he does what any healthy identical twin might do, beds Maureen pretending to be his brother, OTTO clearly feels in this new relationship that he has lost himself to the intruder. He has found himself again, accordingly, as a new man, as a Chinese man whose brother is the man in the mirror, Otto (an italicized self).

Unfortunately, the second act is only a playing out of the situation of the first. However, if Daly in the first seemed uneasy with the shifting realities of the play, by the second act she had clearly discovered herself as a truly mad Mother, destroying nearly everything in her path. Like a kind of Beckettian Mamma Rose, in her bullying insanity, Mother sees herself as doing the very best by everyone. After an impossibly crazed conversation with Maureen, a woman worried about otto’s sanity since his brother has refused his existence, Mother declares to Dr., “Well that went well, I think.”

When all in this dysfunctional family seem doomed in their attempts to love, the father miraculously does return in a coach led by six blank panthers followed by a cart of glowing emeralds—brilliantly portrayed in emblematic form as “The Happy Ending”—Mother excoriates her husband for having abandoned her. To everyone’s amazement, without saying a word, the former Father returns to his coach and speeds off. The family is left again in complete abandonment to their “strait” self-loves and loathings. Yet as the two twins, OTTO and otto, hug goodbye—perceiving there is still something left of their intense former relationship—we realize that they are better off on their own than as beings entrapped in each other’s identity, that they will stumble along in the gap just as we all do, forward or backward, loudly or softly, for better or worse.

New York, January 20, 2008

Monday, March 22, 2010

THE GANG'S STILL HERE


Robert E. Lee/Jerome Lawrence

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee The Gang’s All Here / New York, the Ambassador Theater, October 1, 1959

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee The Gang’s All Here (Cleveland: The World Publishing
Company, 1960)

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s The Gang’s All Here (1959) is a play loosely based on the presidency of Warren G. Harding, remembered for the Teapot Dome scandal involving several of his friends and cabinet members.

Like Harding, Lawrence’s and Lee’s Ohio senator Griffith T. Hastings, name comes forth in the smoke-filled rooms of the Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel as an alternative to candidates (in 1920, General Leonard Wood and Illinois Governor Frank O. Lowden) who have Republican Party members deadlocked. Engineered by Walter Rafferty and other cronies in Lawrence and Lee’s play (in 1920 by Harry M. Daugherty) Hastings is elected and fills his major governmental posts with his “Ohio gang.”

In the play Hastings is presented as a man modest enough to admit to his limited capabilities and honest enough to claim that he is not up to the position; but through the intervention of his friends and strong-willed wife (who Hastings and others describe as “The Duchess,” Hastings, despite his misgivings, determines to run.

Once he is locked away within the presidential quarters, however, he hasn’t a clue how to begin governing, hiring on the spur of a moment a man employed to oversee his transition, and demanding the immediate presence of his cronies, who quickly fill his ears with speedy decisions concerning the issues with which he is now forced to grapple. In only a few weeks after becoming President, we see him sneaking away from the White House to play poker with his cronies—now all political advisors—and ready to sign on nearly any dotted line put before him.

Strangely, the only honest man surrounding him is Bruce Bellingham, the interim assistant he has hired. Bruce, along with Hastings’s wife, Frances, attempts to warn him away from his gang—his own Attorney General, Secretary of the Navy, Secretary of the Interior, and Head of the Veterans Bureau. By this time, however, Hastings has become so dependent upon their advice that he has no one else to whom he can turn and fires Bellingham, the only one willing to tell him the truth.

As the Hearn committee begins investigations, it becomes clear that Hastings must act; as he attempts to query the honesty of members of his own cabinet and staff, Rafferty reminds him that he has knowledge of Hastings’ sexual affairs which he’s willing to reveal. Rafferty’s moral jingoism, his long justification for his immorality, reminds one of Harry Lime’s argument with his friend Holly Martins in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man of ten years earlier:

He [Sam Cavendish] can afford morality. He’s rich enough. I’m not. Neither are you. The “land of plenty” for everybody except a politician, who sticks his head through the hole in the canvas and lets the
goddamned free press sling mud balls at him. He can’t run his business like a business, because it’s never his business. It belongs to the blessed American public that doesn’t give a hoot in hell until some poor bastard
gets his pinky caught in the cash register! Name me the job that demands more and pays less than serving the American taxpayer. The Customers’ Man can screw ‘em blind on the Big Board. That’s O.K. The Oil Boys
can simmer the fat out of the ground, the Real Estate Sharks can bank a six-month million—everybody gets rich except the poor ass of a “Public Servant.” (Straight at Hastings) And you’ve got the gall to scream because a few of your friends are smart enough to do exactly what everybody else in the country is doing.


In the context of Rafferty’s argument, the actual president Harding’s campaign slogan—“Return to Normalcy”—seems bizarrely appropriate.

With the news of Ax Maley’s suicide (head of Hastings’ Veterans Bureau), Hastings must face his own political and real death as well. In Harding’s administration it was an assistant to Daughtery who committed suicide, while Fall, Miller, and, Forbes were convicted of fraud and bribery. In the Lawrence and Lee play, all other consequences remain in the future.

Harding clearly knew his presidency had been destroyed by the scandal, and in 1923 set out across the country to boost his own ratings on what he described as a “Voyage of Understanding.” Understanding for whom, one might ask: the electorate or himself? In Lawrence and Lee’s version it is Hastings who comes to the “understanding,” ultimately seeking the resignation of Rafferty before drinking a deadly medicinal concoction left behind in his Surgeon General’s bag. Harding’s illness was simply attributed to food poisoning—and his death soon after to a heart attack. At least Hastings dies with some recognition, with some sense of dignity.
The published volume of The Gang’s All Here begins with a short piece by the playwrights published in the New York Herald Tribune of September 27, 1959, warning the public to take the lessons of their play to heart in the upcoming elections. That election between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy was even more fateful in several respects than the 1920 race between Harding and the Democratic nominee James A. Cox. One candidate of the 1960 race clearly was a man (particularly in his later administration) with a notorious gang—the other a man with a notorious family.

Lawrence and Lee’s work functions as a terribly old-fashioned drama, and creaks in its historical underpinnings. Given that the 1960 election, for the first time, depended heavily upon television news coverage as opposed to the simple workings of backroom politics, the play seems particularly old-fashioned. With a cast that included E. G. Marshall, Howard Smith, Melvyn Douglas, and Jean Dixon the stage theatrics must have been almost magical; but reading it in 2003, the dramatic action seems to be missing.

What struck me most, however, as I read this play was that in terms of politics little has changed. The gang is still with us. President Bush won the 2000 election, in fact, by machinations that Rafferty and company could not even have imagined. The three R’s with which Bush and Cheney now control our country—Rove, Rumsfield and Rice—far more than those basic areas of learning, Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic—serve the President as a gang whose personal agendas far surpass those of Harding/Hastings’s petty greed. Lawrence and Lee ask a na├»ve question, but one that should not be glibly answered by Americans today:

If the man we fondly X’d in a voting booth turns out to be a struggling incompetent, whose fault is it? The President’s? ….It’s too easy to blame the gang around him, because opportunists are always waiting to fill any governmental vacuum. Perhaps the real trouble lies in our own reluctance to think about history except on that November Tuesday.


Los Angeles, October 6, 2003

Saturday, March 13, 2010

INDEPENDENT DEPENDENTS


from the original stage production



Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire (New York: New Directions, 1947)
Tennessee Williams (screenplay), Oscar Saul (adaptation), Elia Kazan (director) A Streetcar Named Desire / 1951

The death on September 11th, 2002 of actress Kim Hunter sent me back to Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, in which Hunter played Stanley Kowalski's wife Stella in both the 1947 stage production and Elian Kazan's film of 1951.

Although I have seen the film numerous times, and watched it again last week, I have never seen a staging of the work. I was only six months and a few days old at the time of its original production, and, although I am sure the play is popular with some college and repertory theater groups, the intense acting required from its two major figures, Stanley and Blanche, make it a very difficult play to revive, although Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange were fairly well received in the 1992 Broadway production, which I also missed.

Accordingly, I have spent the past three nights rereading the play, which allowed me some new perceptions about this work.

Because of the stunning acting of both Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando in the film version, it has always appeared to me that their characters are at the center of this work, and the very acting styles they embody—Leigh's highly theatrical performance and Brando's influenced strongly by the Actor's Studio method acting—created a high tension that drove the work into its near manic expressions of cultural extremes, one of Williams' major subjects.

This time, however, after watching both the film and reading the text, I realized—much as I did for O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night in My Year 2004—that the actual fulcrum of the work was an apparently weaker figure, in this case Stella.

Although all of the characters in this play must function in an ensemble manner, their radical differences in acting styles, language, and personalities is what the work is about. Indeed, one might almost argue that each of the three major figures living in the Kowalski hovel have an act devoted to them: Stella is the dominant figure of Act 1, Blanche of Act 2, and Stanley of Act 3. In Act 1, Stella is the first figure we see in the play, and draws both Blanche and Stanley to her throughout.
Williams' stage directions make quite clear that Blanche is the center of Act 2:

Some weeks later. The scene is a point of balance between the plays two sections, BLANCHE'S coming and the events leading up to her violent departure. The important values are the ones that characterize BLANCHE: its function is to give her dimension as a character and to suggest the intense inner life which makes her a person of greater magnitude than she appears on the surface.

The rape and its aftermath ends in Blanche's fall and departure. In Act 3 Stella is simply compelled to accept Stanley's version of reality, and he and his poker-playing friends are quite clearly in charge, as he returns to being the rightful "king" of his "domain."

In short, Williams attempted to give equal weight to all three characters. Yet, Stanley and Blanche stand out, primarily because they are both such absurd figures. At times Blanche seems to be performing more in the manner of the mad scene in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermor than in an American-conceived stage drama, yet she is often quite capable at punching back at Stanley with realist-like quips. For example, she comments to Stanley upon meeting him:

You're simple, straightforward and honest, a bit on the primitive side, I should think.

And throughout the play she devastatingly puts Stanley in his place, as when she hands over the papers detailing the loss of her and her sister's home, Belle Reve:

There are thousands of papers stretching back over hundreds of years affecting Belle Reve, as piece by piece our improvident grandfathers and father and uncles and brothers exchanged the land for their epic fornications—to put it plainly. The four-letter word deprives us of our plantation, till finally all that was left, and Stella can verify that, (Moves to him, carrying papers) was the house itself and about twenty acres of
ground, including a graveyard to which now all but Stella and I have retreated. (Pulling papers out of envelope, dumping them into his hands on table. Holds empty envelope.) Here they all are, all papers! I hereby endow you with them! Take them, peruse them—commit them to memory, even! I think its wonderfully fitting that Belle Reve should finally be this bunch of old papers in your big, capable hands.

For the most part, however, Blanche is not as realistically combative or even insanely abstracted as she is simply witty. Like a campy gay man of the old school dressed in drag (is it any wonder that she demands the lights are left low?), Blanche is a ridiculously humorous figure, and I think we have to admit that ridiculousness, accepting the comic elements of the entire play, if we want to understand Williams' characters. Even simply addressing her sister, Blanche is a "hoot" who would be at home in any gay bar of an earlier generation:

Stella, oh Stella, Stella! Stella for Star! ...But don't you look at me,
Stella, no, no, no, not till later, not till I've bathed and rested! And
turn that over-light off! I won't be looked at in this merciless glare!

Along with dozens of such lines ("Never, never, never in my worst dreams could I picture—
Only Poe! Only Mr. Edgar Allan Poe—could do justice!," "The blind are leading the blind," and her renowned last line, "Whoever you are—I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers"), Blanche's dialogue belongs more to the world of melodrama and camp epics peopled with the likes of Lana Turner and Charles Ludlam than the world of a former beauty from the South. Williams points this up even more dramatically by portraying her husband—a nervous, soft, tender boy—as having been gay (which in the film is almost erased) and revealing that, although she poses as a virginal beauty, Blanche is well known back in her home community of Laurel, Mississippi for her sexual excesses, including bedding down with one of her own 17-year-old students. If Jessica Tandy or Vivien Leigh hadn't so brilliantly defined the role of Blanche, Ludlam might later have been an appropriate choice.

While Brando may seem, at times, to be performing a role from the realist school of Clifford Odets, Williams gives Stanley lines that catapult him into a kind of loony soap-opera or a vaudevillian production of Tobacco Road. Stanley's hilarious fascination with the idea of the Napoleonic Code, his famous deconstruction of Blanche's clothes trunk ("Look at these feathers and furs that she comes here to preen herself in! What's this here? A solid gold dress I believe! And this one. What is these here? Fox pieces! Genuine fox fur pieces half a mile long! Where are your fox-pieces Stella? Bushy snow white ones, no less! Where are your white fox-pieces?"), and his macho-laden outburst against his sister-in-law and wife ("That's how I'll clear the table [he has swept the plates and food to the floor] Don't ever talk that way to me. 'Pig—Polack—disgusting—vulgar—greasy!' Them kind of words have been on your tongue and your sister's too much around here. What do you think you two are? A pair of queens? Remember what Huey Long said—'Every man is a King!'—And I am king around here, so don't you forget it!") all point away from a realist construction. Like Blanche, no matter how Brando might believe he's portraying a kind of reality, Stanley is an absurd stereotype born in theatrical fantasy rather than New Orleans' Elysian Fields.

How then does Williams "get away with it," so to speak? Why do we truly care about and become moved by these larger-than-life figures. For unlike Rhett Butler of Leigh's Gone with the Wind, we are compelled in Williams' drama "to give a damn."

In part, of course, it is the remarkable acting. I never saw Tandy play the original Broadway role—although I've seen her in other roles, and I am certain she was splendid—but Leigh is quite simply a genius given the slightly confused mix of poetic fragility, wonderment, and sexual distractedness through which she realizes Blanche. Brando may talk, at times, like an illiterate beast, but his sexuality is evident in every smirk of his lips and swing of hips. And despite his masculinity, which can even be scented over the smell of lit-up celluloid, there is something almost feminine about everything below his waist.

Increasingly, however, I have come to see that Stella is most important in bringing the play and its characters any credibility. If A Streetcar Named Desire has any realist potential, it lies in her character, who, although constantly abused by both husband and sister, quietly loves while attempting to disabuse them of their fantasies. She is truly the star brought to earth, a figure fecund in her ability to love and nurture. And the power of Stella, who time after time refuses to enter into the gushing anger and self-hatred of Williams' comic types, keeps silent or leaves the room or house, demonstrating a strength that helps us to recognize that there is an underlying reality, a secret humanity to both Stanley and Blanche.

For the dueling couple, appearing as rivaling individuals of astounding independence, are one and the same thing, exaggerated portraits of the extremes of society. And in that sense they are also dependent on each other as types. Both Stanley and Blanche are naturally sexual beings who live in imaginary worlds where they drink, gamble, and incessantly bathe their bodies—he in sweat and beer, she in scalding water—requiring them to endlessly undress and dress. Both seem defined by but also estranged from their cultural and social identities. As Stanley remarks as he is about to sexually attack: "We've had this date with each other from the beginning."

Stella is a steady force of balance between these two, and her child, we can hope, will incorporate the imagination and animal sexuality that lie in both Stella's sister and husband.
Unlike Kazan's film, where, upon her horrific realization that Blanche is now insane, Stella turns on Stanley, rushing up the neighbor's staircase to escape her bestial lover (a second—and I have always felt a permanent—ascension of the star to its natural habitat), in the script, Stella stays in the arms of her husband below, while he, for one of the few times in the drama, attempts to comfort her:

Now, honey. Now, love. Now, now, love. Now, now love. Now, love....

In that gentle reiteration of the present, we realize that Stanley has perhaps changed ever so slightly. The past is over, a new world possible, a world determined by love.


Los Angeles, April 9, 2009
Revised, April 10, 2009

Thursday, March 4, 2010

LOVE, GUILT, AND CONSOLATION



Martha Graham (choreographer), Aaron Copland (composer), Isamu Noguchi (set design) Appalachian Spring / premiered October 30, 1944 at the Library of Congress Coolidge Auditorium / the version I saw was the 1958 film version, shot by Peter Glushanok, produced by Nathan Kroll

I have seen the film version of Martha Graham's and Aaron Copland's great collaboration several times, and in 2002 I watched it again, this time taking notes on the associations and feelings the music and dance brought to mind. The reader should understand my comments not as a literal description of the dance's events, but as my immediate interpretations of what I thought I saw. Another viewing might produce yet other such emotions.

In a sense, the work, which so brilliantly expresses the heartland and seemingly captures the sense of Appalachia, was itself a kind of accident. Commissioned by Graham and the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation to write a work for dance for Graham's company, Copland drew on Shaker songs and the kind of American idiom that he had already expressed so brilliantly in his ballet "Rodeo" of 1942.
Yet Copland had no idea what to title his piece, and even upon its delivery to Graham it was still titled, according the composer, "Ballet for Martha." It was only as the piece was readied to be performed that Graham titled it, after a few lines in The Bridge by Hart Crane, the "spring" Crane mentions referring to water instead of a season. Yet, Copland reportedly laughed, everyone applauds me for so aptly expressing the sensibility of Spring in Appalachia.

Moreover, the original outline of script, described as a kind of gender conflict between men's and women's work, featured not only a Pioneer mother, but an Indian Girl, a Fugitive, and a Citizen. In the end the story was winnowed down to the simple outline published in the preface to the Boosey & Hawkes score:

A pioneer celebration in spring around a newly-built farmhouse
in the Pennsylvania hills in the early part of the last century. The
bride-to-be and the young farmer-husband enact the emotions, joyful
and apprehensive, their new domestic partnership invites. An older
neighbor suggests sorrow and then the rocky confidence of experience.
A revivalist and his followers remind the new householders of the
strange and terrible aspects of human fate. At the end the couple are
left quiet and strong in their new house.


It seemed to me that instead of the more European concept of "Love, Death, and Transfiguration," the tenor of Graham and Copland's more innocent and emphatically American fable is "Love, Guilt, and Consolation."

Here are my notes:
Into the yard of a newly built home, wonderfully represented by Isamu Noguchi's open walls with a porch-like structure on which sits a kind of rocking chair shaped like a butter churn, come the figures of the dance, first The Preacher (played in the original by Merce Cunningham and in the film version I saw by Bertram Ross), then the Pioneer Woman (Matt Tumey in the film version), and the Wife (Martha Graham in both the original and, at the age of 62, in the film). Four women (Worshippers) follow, who clap and dance joyfully, frolic, and, at moments, gesture prayer.

A flute, oboe, and clarinet dominate this early passage, and when the flute reaches its highest note, The Husband (Graham's favorite, Erik Hawkins in the original and Stuart Hodes in the film version) enters, lovingly stroking the side of his new house, as he moves forward in pony-like and proud struts and leaps.

The couple walk to each and move backwards, seemingly to reveal the history of their love, which is, through their various posturings, made somewhat ambiguous at times, with moments of fear revealed among their steady pleasure in one another.

Now The Preacher kicks up a kind of ruckus, with the Worshippers following behind him as acolytes reveling in what one might describes as is a kind of spiritual square dance, in which he also leaps, bends, grovels, stands, and lifts.

The Pioneer Woman comes forward expressing her own sorrows and delights, while the Husband quietly ponders his new life. The Wife turns to win the attention of her Husband, simultaneously demonstrating her own new fears and worries, and yet flirting joyfully with a kind of awkward hesitation.

At one point she takes up the baby of the Pioneer Woman, kneeling, entreating her husband. Is it a desire for a family or her fear for the responsibilities it will mean, the commitments and sacrifice? Clearly, it is both.

Although the storyline does not describe it as such, there seems to be also a tension between the two women, almost as if the Husband has previously known the Pioneer Woman and they been somehow involved.

But now the Preacher comes forward into the center, as the couple join him, turning to stare in opposite directions before they enter the church for the plain but joyous ceremony, which ends in the couple stretching, spinning in joy, leaping in the wonderment of it all. The shaker hymn, "'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free," dominates the spirit of occasion.

Here the music changes, the Preacher suddenly becoming agitated, spinning forward almost in a kind of dervish, tearing at the air, renting his hair, damning, cursing, accusing, praying. What is their sin? What horror is he describing to them? Is it an actual or imagined transgression.

The Pioneer Woman comes forward as if to plead for the Preacher to cease, the Husband standing up, turned away in refusal of the sermon. So the Preacher gradually shifts from his violent gesturing, moving forward in a lighter tone and tune. The husband embraces the world, returning to his wife, while his wife dances a more agitated dance, focusing on her chair-rocker-milking stool as if she were reevaluating her situation. Again the Husband returns to her, as they repeat some of their earlier dances of joy, reiterating and repeating their testaments of love while Copland's score returns to "'Tis a gift to be simple," ending in a long bassoon chord.

The Wife turns from her former fears to a sense of relinquishment, resolution, consolation, as the couple kiss away their fears and embrace. The community moves off, the Preacher wishing them peace as he leaves. Husband and Wife now stand alone in their new domain.

Los Angeles, March 3, 2002