Friday, September 27, 2013

Recently (and currently) neglected

Sculpture by Mark Di Suvero. Crissey Field, San Francisco; September 23, 2013.

Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953–1966. De Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco; through September 29, 2013.

From the Camarge to the Alps: A Walk Across France in Hannibal's Footsteps. By Bernard Levin. Chichester: Summersdale Publishers, 2009.

Hannibal's March: Alps & Elephants. By Sir Gavin R. DeBeer. Yardley, Pennsylvania: Westholme Publishing Company, 2010.

Bonnie and Clyde. By Adam Peck, directed by Mark Jackson. Berkeley: Shotgun Players; September 25, 2013.

A Winter's Tale. By William Shakespeare, directed by Patricia McGregor. Orinda: California Shakespeare Theater; September 26, 2013.

Buried Child. By Sam Shepard, directed by Loretta Greco. San Francisco: The Magic Theater; September 27, 2013.

Eastside Road, September 27, 2013—
I've just been too busy doing things — reading, eating, seeing theater, conversing — to have had the time to think about those things very much, let alone write about them. I should be able to get back to work next week.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Tenth Muse; A Midsummer Night's Dream

Ashland, Oregon—

I WRITE THIS POST unhappily, without enthusiasm. No one likes to be forever complaining. But this trip up to Ashland saddens and even alarms me. This afternoon's new play has its promising moments, but its flaws should have beem addressed in rehearsal. And tonight's production of a Shakespeare classic, here at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, was unspeakably bad.

The new play, The Tenth Muse, by Tanya Saracho, is set on a fascinating plot: nuns and novices in an early 18th-century convent in Mexico discover a play written decades earlier, in more enlightened times, by a nun who ultimately was sent to the stake for her perceived godlessness. One aging sister, nearly blind, recalls the story; three young arrivals at the convent learn it, find the script, and play at playing it. 

Repression and artistic freedom, and gender politics to an extent, are the heart of the play, and are expressed through often incisive characterization. But the language is stilted, many details either implausible or perfunctory, and Laurie Woolery's direction encourages cartoonish amateurishness in the play-within-play at the center of the piece, which needs tightening and greater focus. 

A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of Shakespeare's early masterpieces and poses few problems. The structure is clear, the four levels of its large cast symmetrical and interesting, and the poetry remarkably beautiful. Nobles, young lovers, rustics, and the magical faerie element present a world view that ultimately resolves law and society, individual love, and Nature.

But the characteristic Shakespearian clownish humor lays a trap for many directors, who seem to feel it necessary to extend it to every corner of the play and its cast. That happens in Christopher Liam Moore's direction this year. The lines are rushed sing-song, often in broad Black American accents. (Why must black actors so often be asked here at OSF to speak like this? It seems disrespectful.) the magical element is swamped by lights, costume, sound. 

The Pyramus and Thisbe goes on and on, patodying itself. And Theseus and Hippolyta are transformed from Athenian nobles to a priest and nun who run a parochial high school, in a directorial concept quickly dropped after the opening scene, awkwardly returned at the close.

There seems to be no reason for such distortion unless to try to sell Shakespeare to audiences otherwise content with sitcoms and trash television. This of course patronizes audiences; it also is contemptuous of the plays. Many OSF productions are memorably good — this year's Streetcar Named Desire, for example. But the new plays given their premieres seem often to be given too much respect by their productions, the Shakespeare little or none, and the tendency seems to me to have been increasing in recent seasons. The audiences and the company deserve better.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Cymbeline; The Taming of the Shrew

Ashland, Oregon—

FOUR PLAYS this week, three by Shakespeare, and last night we saw the first of them, and I hope it's uphill from here. The play was Cymbeline, a late, difficult play, rarely produced — though, as it happens, we saw another production of it less than a year ago.

Ah, Cymbeline. As I wrote last November,
…O ye Muses, what a magnificent play!

Devices familiar from many other plays in the Canon — sleeping potions thought fatal, long-lost brothers, a disobedient daughter waking to love, the aging benevolent tyrant, woman disguised as boy, rustic horseplay, among others — are reworked here to what seems to me a completely new and finally completely total resolution. There seems no doubt Shakespeare wrote this, the characters and the lines are unmistakable; but the result doesn't feel like a Shakespeare play, its feet in the 16th century. This is modern, new, Baroque. … a sort of Pirandellian Modernism was going on three centuries avant la lettre.
Susannah Carson suggests reasons Cymbeline is so rarely produced:
Over the years, various terms have been used to take into account those of Shakespeare’s plays – Cymbeline, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, and sometimes The Merchant of Venice – that defy traditional classification. They are called “romances,” “dark comedies,” and, following F. S. Boas’s 1896 Shakespeare and His Predecessors, “problem plays.” Boas originally used the term to mean that these plays deal with moral problems, but the term also conveniently takes into account the fact that they are problematic to interpret and problematic to stage. Is the hero serious about killing the heroine? If so, then how can the heroine really forgive him at the end? Are we meant to laugh or cry?

Lingering behind such questions is the implication that the plays are no more than generic gallimaufries, that Shakespeare was simply overworked or bored, and that we must find it in us to forgive him since even the greatest of geniuses should be allowed to take a play off once in a while. There seem to be two ways of answering these intimations of mediocrity.

The first is to recognize that human psychology is complex, and that the course of human life is a mixture of good fortune and bad. Life, according to this reading, is a problem play. As a result, the interpretations of this first category delight in moral ambiguities, emphasize textual difficulties, and leave plots teasingly unresolved – all in the name of realism. The best of these readings illuminate the subtleties of the texts; the worst result in absurdist productions, agenda-based criticism, and textual deconstruction.

This first take on the problem plays is currently in fashion, and it has been in fashion for so long that it is easy to forget that there is another way of doing things – a way, moreoever, that seems to have been closer to Shakespeare’s way of doing things. This second take involves going back to a time before realism became the norm: before T.V. and film in the twentieth century, before the long, descriptive novels of the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. When Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline, the theatrical experience had very little to do with flat description and presentation: It actively involved the audience in the imagination of another world. This communal conjuring has very little to do with realism; indeed, too much realism can impede the imagination.
I know comparisons are odorous, but find it impossible to respond to Bill Rauch's direction of Cymbeline this year, here in Ashland, without contrasting it to Bart DeLorenzo's take on it last year at A Noise Within, in Pasadena. DeLorenzo might have read Carson, or she have seen his production: the play was presented simply, matter-of-factly, following thee script, Shakespeare's text spoken — well, without winks or nudges — by players effectively yet moderately made up and costumed.

Rauch's actors, on the other hand, mug and mouth, overstate and interpret their lines, often encumbered by grotesque makeup and exaggerated costume. Rather than simply enact the play, he continually comments on it, mixing and confusing comic and dramatic styles to underscore Shakespeare's own ambiguities and complexities.

I'm sure this is well-intentioned, an attempt to engage audiences unfamiliar with the play, unsure about approaching any theater other than realistic narrative, musical comedy, or slapstick. But the audience has enough to do presented simply with Shakespeare; having to deal with the director's comments and readings and concepts into the bargain makes too many demands, and the result is hectoring, distracting, confusing — an often tedious mess, I'm afraid, finally relying on production values rather than the script for any audience favor.
THIS AFTERNOON things picked up with a cluttered but workable production of an easier play, The Taming of the Shrew. The action was set in a vaguely 1970s Jersey Boardwalk of a Padua, and featured a live onstage three-man rockabilly ensemble.

This is okay with me. After all, The Taming of the Shrew, unlike Cymbeline, owes a lot to commedia dell'arte. American television entertainment, from Jackie Gleason to South Park, is our equivalent to commedia dell'arte: if Bianca turns into a ditzy Barbie, and Petruchio has Elvis yearnings, and all this is fairly consistent throughout the show, well, why not, nothing damaged.

(You could write an interesting disquisition on the difference between Shakespeare plays acknowledging commedia dellarte, and those innocent of its influence. You'd probably wind up tracing the boundary between the "Romances" or Problem Plays and the Comedies. But I'm not getting started on anything that serious; not here.)

These days, of course, even The Taming of the Shrew presents a problem, and it was brought up at the after-the-performance conversation with one of the actors. "There's something troubling, for our time," a questioner noted, "about the treatment of women in the play." Well, of course, that's in large measure what the plays about.

We were told there are even theater companies who refuse to perform the play on this account — as if there's some reason "troubling" matters should be avoided; or as if in our time the exploitation and marginalization of women has been stopped, when women make half men's wages even in the enlightened First World, or are prevented from full participation in most of the Muslim world, or are raped by a quarter of the men in the Asian world.

I've seen perfectly persuasive and perfectly entertaining productions of this play have given us likable and credible Kates and Petruchios while yet confronting these issues. I'm not sure this production was among them. But it was a more successful attempt than Cymbeline had been, andwent a long way to setting things in balance. We'll see how A MidsummerNight's Dream goes, tomorrow.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Rothko on stage

• Red, a play by John Logan, directed by caryn desai at International City Theatre, Long Beach, through September 15. 

IN LOS ANGELES for other reasons, we were able to see a friend, Tony Abatemarco, play the painter Mark Rothko in the demanding lead role of this serious, often intense two-man one-act play. In five scenes, running ninety minutes without an intermission, but so tense it felt like forty, Logan portrays the obsession, genius, and romanticism of the aging Abstract Expressionist confronting youth and a very different younger generation in the person of a young painter he has hired as a studio assistant.

I don't know enough about Rothko to know how faithful the action and dialogue are to any real events, but it all sounds credible. Ken, the young assistant, is hired to help Rothko with the celebrated canvases he painted for installation in the then-new Seagram Building, in the dining room of the equally celebrated  restaurant The Four Seasons. Rothko has begun his slide into an almost delusional, almost messianic belief in his own superhuman visionary myth, fueled by Nietzsche  and contempt.

Gradually, Ken realizes and formulates the central irony of the play: Rothko's infatuation with self and sublimity, which he thinks expresses the universal human condition, has in fact turned its back on community. Furthermore, in accepting his commission from Philip Johnson, who supervised the interiors for Mies van der Rohe's building, he was playing into the hands of an Establishment he preferred to reject, and his paintings would be rejected — or, worse, ignored — by the very bourgeoisie he wanted to browbeat with their transcendence. 

Finally, the play centers on the inevitable cycle of generations, the inescapable decline of any generation's individuality and greatness, its fated yielding to its successors. That, and mortality, symbolized — for symbolism is another thing this play is about — by Rothko's fear that the Black, latent though avoided in his paintings, will ultimately triumph over the Red.

All this sounds literary and abstract, but the lines and the architecture of the play are immediate and pressing, the pace and the interplay propulsive. I was glad, since he is a friend, to be utterly captivated by Abatemarco's portrayal, sardonic, brittle, pompous, angry, cruel, yet completely sympathetic. Patrick Stafford grew in the role of the assistant, as the role requires, ultimately to rise to near Abatemarco's level. The emotional and dramatic arc couldn't have been more effectively calibrated, I think; caryn desai's direction was skilful to the point of invisibility; the play and its performers were the thing. 

JR Bruce's scenic design was credible; the paints and canvases were redolent, you'd have thought you were in a New York loft. All we needed, in the audience, was Scotch and cigarettes of our own to become Irascibles ourselves. It was memorable theater.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013


HALF A CENTURY ago or more I attended Santa Rosa Junior College for a couple of semesters, where my favorite teacher was undoubtedly Sidney Meller, a mainstay of the English department. I took at least two courses from him, one on The Modern Novel, the other on The American Novel. He was a patient, gentle man, widely read, quietly enthusiastic; the kind of teacher who inspired a young man to read, to contemplate, perhaps to teach in his turn.

He was also a novelist, though he never referred to his own work in class — neither to the novels themselves, nor to his experience as a novelist, whether as writer, grant-winner, negotiator with agents, editors, or publishers. In teaching the novel he dealt with the primary sources — Joyce, James, Conrad, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Dos Passos, Fitzgerald — and with E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, which I haven't read since and had utterly forgotten, but which I now realize, having read a summary of the work online, has influenced me more than I ever knew:
Most importantly, Forster makes clear that this discussion will not be concerned with historical matters, such as chronology, periodization, or development of the novel. He makes clear that "time, all the way through, is to be our enemy." Rather, he wishes to imagine the world's great novelists from throughout history sitting side by side in a circle, in "a sort of British Museum reading room - all writing their novels simultaneously."
Years after studying with Meller, and after his lamented early death (1960, heart attack), I read his second novel, Home is Here, and I recalled it a few months ago while browsing the San Francisco bookshop The Green Arcade, whose owner mentioned an interest in republishing out-of-print books relating to that city.

I recall Home is Here as a tender and lyrical account of an Italian immigrant family on Telegraph Hill. I could be entirely wrong: I haven't read it since the late 1950s, I'm pretty sure, decades before forming the habit of entering the date read on the last page of a book. (I just took my copy down from the shelf, and found in it two letters from Meller, dated 1956.) I intend to re-read it soon, but that's not what I'm at today: today I want to report on his earlier novel, Roots in the Sky (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1938).

An ambitious novel, Roots in the Sky follows the fortune of an orthodox Jewish family in an unnamed west coast city, obviously San Francisco. It was written in the late 1930s, I think, and traces the family of Elchanan and Chana Drobnen from about 1900 — dates are I think deliberately unspecified in the novel — well into the Depression years.

Elchanan and Chana Drobnen, I write; but throughout the book they are Rabbi Drobnen and the Rebitzen — another way of distancing the reader, of presenting these two otherwise strongly delineated characters as Type as well as individual. There's no mistaking this intent in a novel whose opening paragraph reads
Now these are the children born to Elchanan Drobnen, the scholar, and Chana, his wife.
— virtually the last time their given names are mentioned.

The children are Miriam, David, Laib, Esther, Aba, and Irving. Miriam is born in the family Polish-Russian inn, but David, the result of "an unpleasant incident," was born after that incident forced a hasty emigration to America. There the tension begins, between a traditional orthodox culture and the distractions and temptations of the new country. Miriam quickly substitutes "Leo" for "Laib," and directs the midwife to record Esther's name as "Estelle," and finally finds "Irving" a suitable substitute for Yitzchak.

Through all this the Rebitzen protests, complains, then submits, and the Rabbi studies and prays: this will is their pattern. The children go to school and to shul; the Rebitzen maintains her household, her double kitchen artillery (meat and milk), and her traditions; the Rabbi prays and studies.

The six children are remarkably different from their parents and from one another, drifting under influences of friends and exploiters. Politics, boxing, retail sales, investments, even fruit-picking evolve as various employments. World War I, the Jazz Age, Prohibition, the Crash and the Great Depression all intrude on the family. Running subplots involve various members of the Rabbi's shul: the baker, the butcher, a real estate salesman; hyper-Orthodox, backsliders, do-nothings and schemers.

I know nothing about Jewish cultural traditions; there were no Jewish kids in my (country) grammar-school or, as far as I knew, at high school; I went away to a Christian college, and I don't think I knew a Jew personally until I was studying with Meller at Junior College in my early twenties. I find now, nearly sixty years later, that my slowly evolved interest in the tension between closed cultures and the greater world they inescapably confront, these days, extends even to this arcane and unfamiliar context, and I must say reading Roots in the Sky has suggested explanations for motivations and responses that have eluded me, sometimes even mystified me, over the years.

The book has a great deal of technical interest, too. It shows its author's reading, from Gertrude Stein's Three Lives to Wolfe, Faulkner, and Joyce; and it demonstrates his fascination with narrative rhythm, point of view, pattern, and — above — character.

Much about Roots in the Sky will strike a contemporary reader as dated. It's long, cool, occasionally remote; its vernacular is old hat; detailed political references — the NEA, for example — are ancient history. But I think the book is relevant now, when greed trumps community, subcultural purity is threatened, and many aspects of what we've come to think of as "American values" are showing their dark sides.

I find virtually nothing about Sidney Meller on the Internet, and of his two novels only the Kirkus reviews. I can't argue with the flaws Kirkus finds in Roots in the Sky; it's too good a book, in both senses of the word "good," to have been a commercial success. But I'm glad I read it, and I think it may have made me a better person, a little more like its author, though far short of his patience and, probably, tolerance.

Strong Women

JEANETTE HAIEN: The All of It, a novel.
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.

A friend gave me this a couple of weeks ago, knowing I'd fall under its enchantment. The author was in her middle sixties when it was published to good reviews but few sales by David Godine. Harper's Perennial Library republished it in 1988; again it went out of print. Perhaps it's to the credit our country's advance in literacy that it was picked up again for this Harper Perennial paperback, two years ago, with a warm foreword by Ann Patchett, who likens its urgent, disciplined, fascinating package, running fewer than 150 pages, to that of The Great Gatsby; Miss Lonelyhearts; So Long, See You Tomorrow — "each… a world in miniature. I haven't read that third title; let me substitute Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Café.

To describe the plot is to "spoil it," but the author does that anyhow after the first sixth of the novel. It concerns Thomas and Enda Dunn, who have lived together as man and wife in Dennery, County Mayo, as hidebound Catholic a setting as imaginable for nearly fifty years, well respected for their simplicity and hard work, and sympathized with for their lack of progeny.

Tom dies having revealed the immediate reason for this but before getting to the proximate cause, persuading Father Declan, warm but strict, to file a customary death notice by promising his widow will provide it. When she does, on page twenty-seven, she has concluded an extraordinarily tense yet seductive short story, a psychological inspection of Father Declan and Enda as they draw the triple revelation into the light of day.

But that's not The All of It. That develops through the rest of the book, which you can hardly help continuing to read without once putting it down. It's a conventional story of abusive father, deprived children, utter poverty; then freedom, fear, flight; ultimately haven. Beyond these rather Brontëesque qualities lie late 20th-century views of the peasant life, the transcendence of Nature, and the virtues of work and frugality — written without sentimentality or nostalgia.

All couched in a literary style that's elegant, compelling, and — well, here's an example from a description of Father Declans trout-fishing through a downpour:
Trekking the lengthy distance back to the glide, he looked up once from the slippery shoreline and saw a kestrel sitting in the drench of the sky and thought of Kevin — or his tame, envying fondness for the wild, unlimited creature. The bird lingered above him, watching, interested: Ariel observing Caliban… The notion bestowed on him for the first time that day a sense of relationship to the immutable in nature, and, in the soothe of the perspective, he felt himself growing calm.
In the end you may be thinking of the form of this marvelous book, whose first sixth is the rest of the book in microcosm; or you may be reflecting on the two principal characters, fully three-dimensional and engaged in a relationship whose nature is never really revealed or resolved. Or you may, as I do at this moment, be reflecting on the inevitability of death in the opening chapters, and of Life through the rest. As Patchett says, it's "a tale of morality in which we are asked to examine our own judgment," yet also a tale of fidelity and acceptance that urges us to examine ours. "It's a marvel that anywone could accomplish so much in such a short space," but a reassuring marvel and a reminder of other examples in other genres.
ÉMILIE CARLES: A Life of Her Own: a countrywoman in twentieth-century France. Translated, with an introduction and afterword, by Avriel H. Goldberger.
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991; ISBN 0813516412

This book, for example, with its even more curious publishing history. Written in a series of short chapters, apparently throughout the 1970s, it was completed through dictation to Robert Destanque, who provided the introduction to the original small edition, Une Soupe aux herbes sauvages (A Soup of Wild Herbs), in 1978.

Une Soupe aux herbes sauvages immediately became a best-seller in France, according to the Introduction to this edition, and in the original French and translations into Italian and German in much of the rest of Europe. It was repubished in a "definitive edition" in Paris in 1988 (Éditions Robert Laffont). Yet this English translation didn't appear until 1991, and then in a university press listing, not under a commercial imprint.

Not hard to guess why. The author's tone careens from the colloquial to the philosophical; you can't be sure whether you're reading fiction or history; the structure; much of the content is in the context of French peasantry, local politics, and the curious French elementary educational system which has for nearly two centuries had the overriding motives of impressing centrist and secular values along with a modicum of literacy on children too often prepared with nothing but prejudice and localism by their parents.

Carles was born in 1900, and lived her nearly eighty years in the Alpine valley village where she was born: Val-des-Prés, on the scintillating Clarée river, a good day's walk north of Briançon. She spent short periods in Paris in school, and was assigned briefly to other villages in the Maurienne near Briançon, but much of the time was allowed to teach in the school where she herself had learned to read, the only one of her five surviving siblings to take it up with pleasure and continue it after the short école maternelle (elementary school) curriculum — basically, as few years as you could possibly contrive. It was, after all, a peasant life. One doesn't know if her mother read — she could hardly have had time to, with the children, the fields, the cooking, the household, and the early death, struck by lightning while haying, when Carles was four years old. Her father learned to read in his old age.

A marvelous preface opens the book, a lyrical, thoughtful page or two describing the setting:
The Clarée, that river blessed by the gods, runs by at my feet. Through the branches of the trees, I can make out the clear undulating waters, constantly shifting in color and intensity: tumultuous, calm, roaring, or monotonously quiet. All around me, birds are singing. I speak to them and they answer, and I arrogantly take this concert in as if it were meant for me alone. They are singing a hymn to the sun, the one Rostand speaks of in these words: "Oh sun, though without whom things would not be what they are." … Right before my eyes is the most beautiful place on earth.
I quote this at length, because it exactly matches my experience an hour or two's walk downstream, at Plampinet, hardly more than a month ago. It is still a remarkable paradise, at least if no thunderbolts threaten; and that it has remained so is in fact to a great extent Carles's own work.

Her book is arranged chronologically but artfully spun, leaving clarifications and fuller contextualizations of events seen in childhood, for example, to later in the book, when a richer accumulation of experience reveals relationships and motivations a child would not suspect. In the same way, the patient reader discovers the complex ramifications of the deceptively simple life of a paysan.

Private moments, intimate family moments, and public life are similarly juxtaposed. We see her improbable yet utterly credible meeting, in a railway coach, with her future husband, eleven years her senior — a freethinking bachelor exactly suited to her independent intelligence.

The narrative comprises both World Wars and the Depression between them, poignantly describing their effects on both her valley and the national temperament. Throughout those years Carles continued to teach, almost exclusively in small one-room schools, and to participate in the community, often negotiating villagers's resistance to her commonsense charity and political skepticism, generally prevailing through her obvious goodness of heart — about which she is modest! — and her dedication to work.

The life she describes will strike most readers today as incredibly restricted, devoid of comfort and entertainment, and hard. But between the lines of her book lies a persuasive hymn to frugality, generosity, tolerance, and dedication to the pleasures and the obligations of daily life. A Life of Her Own goes on my bookshelves next to Gillian Tindall's Célestine and Pierre-Jakez Helias's The Horse of Pride, Laurence Wylie's Village in the Vaucluse and John Berger's Pig Earth. These are books about terroir, but also about humanity. It seems to me they are particularly apposite at the present moment.