theatre

No Refuge but Writing | Exhibition

IMG_20180218_122302For the long weekend, I took a brief trip to NYC and explored several bookstores and the exhibition at the Morgan Library: Tennessee Williams No Refuge but Writing, hosted in the Engelhard Gallery. Only a quick glimpse demonstrated what a huge collaboration this exhibition was. Manuscripts were brought from the Harry Ransom Center, Columbia University, New York Public Library, Harvard, and many others, with the collaboration of many librarians and curators. The exhibition was made possible by generous donors, and it is exemplary work by the librarians and curators at the Morgan Library. Walking through the exhibition I felt absolutely inspired! Inspired to write, to learn, to read, to live! The way the exhibit was set up, the information provided, the research done, all was put together so well that—in my mind at least— it brought Tennessee Williams back to life.

The way my high school English courses were set up, and coincided with my theater classes, I accidentally had to read A Streetcar Named Desire about five times—not only read it, but study it, memorize it, and write several essays on it, as well as performing parts of it on stage. In undergrad I studied The Glass Menagerie, and this put me on a bit of a Williams crusade. His tragic female characters who cannot let go of an idealized past, his confrontational men who are mere bullies incapable of understanding the delicate nature of their sexuality, in addition to the intensity of the plot—are absolutely unforgettable.

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Battle of Angels Playbill

The way the exhibition is set up we get glimpses into Williams’s life in chronological order. Artefacts include one of his many typewriters, keys he collected from hotels, manuscripts and first drafts of his plays, elaborate plans for some of his character development, as well some of his well-deserved awards. Because Williams wrote on the cusp of the Golden Age of Hollywood, there are many playbills from Broadway, images of Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, and Marlon Brando, and posters/still images of these great actors playing a role in one of his many plays.

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Self-Portrait, Oil Painting

Tennessee Williams’s inner life, however, was most intriguing to me. On display was a letter Williams sent to his grandfather explaining how anxious he was for receiving a grant from the Rockefeller fellowship, the ways in which he based Belle Reve (the location from which Blanche arrives—the idealized past) on a poem he wrote many years prior, the way he dissects Blanche’s character and psyche before writing her into dialogue, and his many oil paintings. This was new information to me—I had no idea Williams painted—in a style I very much admire. His painting style resembles a cross between Cezanne and Van Gogh—a form of expressionism/impressionism but with a flat brush. I remember a moment from Streetcar where he went through a lot of trouble to outline the setting by means of a painting:

“There is a picture of Van Gogh’s of a billiard-parlor at night. The kitchen now suggests that sort of lurid nocturnal brilliance, the raw colors of childhood’s spectrum. Over the yellow linoleum of the kitchen table hangs and electric bulb with a vivid green glass shade. The poker players—Stanley, Steve, Mitch and Pablo—wear colored shirts, solid blues, a purple, a red-and-white check, a light green, and they are men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and direct and powerful as the primary colors.” (Streetcar Named Desire)

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Typewritten draft for Streetcar

According to one of the information panels next to his drafts of Streetcar, Williams got the idea for the play when living in New Orleans with his new lover Pancho Rodriguez where he famously wrote:

“’I was and still am Blanche…[although] God knows I have a Stanley in me, too,’” drew on their tumultuous relationship for the play. This he wove together with elements from earlier poems, shorter plays, and character studies to draft and redraft The Poker Night, the immediate precursor to A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Clearly, he drew a lot from Van Gogh’s art and allowed it to guide the poker night scene which became the heart and beginning of his most famous play.

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His typewriter (one of them)

Lastly, and what I found most interesting, was the way Tennessee Williams regarded writing as a kind of madness. In a diary where he noted anxieties about his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he feared was a failure, he wrote:

“I love writing too much, and to love anything too much is to feel a terror of loss: it’s a kind of madness”

Then, below the typewriter on display The Morgan Library wrote:

“Two of Williams’s most important possessions were his copy of Hart Crane’s Poems (also on view) and his typewriter. As a young man, he would write through the night, seeming to subsist on strong black coffee and creative expression alone. Even at his poorest, when his typewriter was seized by his landlady, he borrowed one. When he pawned the borrowed typewriter, he found another and promptly spent 15 cents of his last $2.00 on paper. ‘I must be mad,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘It’s all a little too much, too much.’”

It was so interesting to see it all laid out and to get so close to his handwriting, and most prized possessions. The exhibition will be on at the Morgan Library until May 13, 2018, so if at any point you find yourself in New York, try to see it if you can. If not, the exhibition has been put together in a library catalog titled Tennessee Williams No Refuge but Writing, which is available for purchase online.

 

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Note: all pictures above were taken by me (no flash) at the Morgan Library, and are the property of the sources listed in the opening paragraph. According to their website: “Images may be printed out for study, or downloaded for presentations, dissertations, or non-commercial websites or blogs.”

Shakespeare Saved My Life | Review

14296907Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates is a re-read for me. This book made me take down lots of notes and had me wondering if I should start marking these passages and keep them safe on an online forum/reading journal. Laura Bates is a Shakespeare professor who teaches at Indiana State University. She entered a correctional facility and started a Shakespeare reading club with inmates. According to her introduction, what led her to this activity, was reading an academic paper from a famous literary scholar, who asserted that Shakespeare’s play Macbeth represented “the ipso facto valorization of transgression.” She set out to prove that “real-life transgressors would disagree.”

Bates starts off by offering inmates the soliloquy of Richard II in prison. She then asks for a written analysis. Depending on what people write, she either continues to work with them, or steps aside.  Some would participate, others would not. Over the years Shakespeare had an influence on some inmates, but none struck so hard a cord as Larry Newton. At first I thought this book focused too much on this one person but then I realized that the book is a memoir written about a person who couldn’t write it himself. I was very intrigued by what choices Bates made regarding the material she started with, and what she focused on, but I was even more interested in what Newton did with the contents of Shakespeare’s works. I got so immersed in his words that many times I forgot that he is someone who would be labelled as extremely dangerous in our society. This book made me think a lot about rehabilitation, and what it means to have committed a crime in the past, incapable to prove that you have grown as a person. I find that readers can often analyze characters on paper in all their complexity but label real humans in society so fast without giving them a chance.

I’ll give an example of something that came out of the reading group from Laura Bates and the inmates. The topic was Macbeth. I studied Macbeth many times in school and it’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. In class discussions, we always talk about Macbeth “becoming” a murderer and changing drastically, doing things he was never okay with before encountering the witches. But the inmates say:

“Macbeth was a killer before, they [Duncan and the society] made him into one. He was a soldier.” Before Macbeth was still killing but it was this ‘othered’ enemy, not his best friends. That was the only difference. They also paid close attention to how he killed Duncan:

 “…if Macbeth wanted to kill Duncan in the most efficient, most merciful manner, he would stab him once, through the heart…but he uses two daggers…that’s butchering”

Newton notes that in his moment of guilt Macbeth sees the dagger and the act, not the person. He relates to Macbeth and relates his crimes, explaining how he too sees the act rather than the victim, every time he thinks of it. Then there was an insight on Hamlet, which Newton calls the “prison of expectation”

“Hamlet is chasing honor for his family’s name because that is what was expected of him…His father has returned from the dead not to tell Hamlet how much he loved him, not to apologize for all the times that he worked late. He returned to make Hamlet revenge his death.”

These are just two examples of literary analysis that completely escaped me and my fellow busy students in university. Newton had only Shakespeare to work with. He had time, silence, and could focus on this one thing, while contemplating that he is never getting out, and might never discuss this with anyone else other than Ms. Bates. Many of Shakespeare’s characters are in a form of prison, whether literal or metaphorical, and most are murderers. Newton can understand all those thoughts much better than any one student in first year undergrad can even imagine. I wonder if Newton had had a richer education prior to the crime, how much would his thoughts have differed? If instead of Larry Newton it had been Dostoevsky post-solitary confinement with a larger literary corpus to compare, and philosophers to allude to, how would that differ to my reading experience of this book or to Laura Bates’s discussions?

I enjoyed the ways in which Newton almost looks down on Othello for being unable to see his faults. Newton says:

“no one can make you be anything that is not already you…accepting responsibility for one’s actions is an essential first step toward rehabilitation.”

This book covers the history of Larry Newton, the context upon which Ms. Bates arrives, some problems with the prison system, and discussions on several Shakespeare plays. There are moments when Bates compares what students at the university produce from the same play to what Newton would write behind bars. I found myself almost annoyed, as if I could see the hungover student who wasn’t reflecting, or thinking hard enough on these topics, and remembered that I too was one of them.

There are too many lines in this book that are absolutely breathtaking and notes I’d like to keep, so I created a PDF with some of my favourite quotations. Don’t worry, it’s only one page. I recommend this book if you love Shakespeare and want to learn more about one person, namely Larry Newton, and his reading experience behind bars after spending ten years in solitary confinement. I will leave you with this line from Newton if you don’t get a chance to look at the PDF:

“It is an absolute magic, and the magic has little with what Shakespeare has to say. You can memorize every cool quote and be as clueless as you were before reading. So it is not Shakespeare’s offering that invokes this evolution. The secret, the magic, is YOU! Shakespeare has created an environment that allows for genuine development…Shakespeare is simply an environment that allows us to evolve without the influence of everyone else telling us what we should evolve into. Shakespeare offers a freedom from those prisons! Your mind will begin shaking the residue of other people’s ideas and begin developing understandings that are genuinely yours!…you have nothing to lose but the parts of you that do not belong anyhow”

Rabbit Hole | Reading Reflection

“Rabbit Hole is not a tidy play. Resist smoothing out its edges” – David Lindsay-Abaire

38700I’m not really sure where to begin with Rabbit Hole. I loved it so much. This play was written by David Lindsay-Abaire, published in 2007, and yes, that makes it 10 years old right now. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007 and in 2010 was turned into a film featuring Nicole Kidman in the leading role. I really want to discuss the details of this play, and figure out what it is that I love about it—in doing so, I will most likely spoil the play for you, so if you want to read it without spoilers, I suggest you don’t read ahead on this blog post. Consider yourself warned.

Rabbit Hole is told simply, but contains a complex narrative with complicated relationship dynamics. Beeca and Howie are two young parents who have just lost their 4 year old son Danny. Danny chased the dog into the road and got hit by a teenage driver. This play is a glimpse into their daily life several months after the tragedy and the ways in which they cope with it. Howie likes to constantly celebrate Danny’s life and look at home-made videos of him, and he needs to talk about it so he goes to support groups. Becca on the other hand can’t stand the constant reminders of Danny in the house. She wants his fingerprints gone from the windows, his drawings off the fridge, the dog away from the house, and eventually to move out. Howie on the other hand loves all those things in the house. Above all, Becca refuses to talk about it with anyone. The subtle ways these things come up are shown in the little interactions Becca and Howie have with extended family, neighbours, and friends. While others tiptoe around them and either avoid them completely or try to be extra sensitive and offer advice, Howie and Becca feel awkward around them. Advice is transparent, and ‘relatability’ goes right through them because no one grieves the same way. The worst is when people try to draw comparisons between what happened to them personally when they encountered death, and what is happening to Becca and Howie now. On the other hand, Becca gets irritated by little things, like seeing a mother ignore her child at the grocery store when he asked for candy (a fruit roll-up). The lady’s parenting style got to Becca. She wanted to grab her and tell her to appreciate her child while he is there, not take him for granted, and explain why he can’t have the candy, rather than ignoring him. Becca sees Danny everywhere in the details of her home and wishes she could just ignore the details and the memories, but this woman is purposely ignoring her living, breathing child.

The play takes a turn when the character of Jason is introduced. Jason is seventeen years old and was the driver who ran over Danny. He wants to talk to Becca and Howie. He tries to reach out several times. The first time is by means of a letter and in it he encloses a science fiction story he wrote about parallel universes, which he dedicates to Danny. The story is called Rabbit Hole. The first time we see Becca truly discuss her grief and have a good cry about it is in the presence of Jason. Jason is intriguing to her, because he seems equally broken. There are a few parallels between Jason and Danny, and (in my opinion) Becca looks at Jason as what Danny might have become if he was given the chance to grow up. For one, Jason draws a few parallels between him and Danny in the letter by referencing robots and how he too liked them as a child. Danny’s favourite book was The Runaway Rabbit, whereas Jason writes Rabbit Hole. It was so strange to me the first time I read this, and even when watching the movie, that Becca loses her temper with everyone else except the person who actually killed her son. We get only glimpses into Jason’s life but we know that he is broken by what happened, that he’s trying to be normal and can’t and has a desperate desire to have a different life. He contemplates parallel universes, because he likes to think that there is a world where he didn’t kill Danny. One can also look at Rabbit Hole as a direct reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as it being a portal into madness for everyone involved.

There are two other characters constantly present. The first is Izzy, Becca’s irresponsible sister who gets to be pregnant and one can sense that Becca feels like Izzy doesn’t deserve to be a mother—Izzy feels that judgement herself. The second character is Nat, Becca’s mother. She too had lost a son, Becca’s brother, who killed himself at the age of 39. He was a cocaine addict. Whenever she tries to compare the loss of her son, with the loss of Danny, Becca shuts her up right way. She can’t stand comparison. Most importantly, she can’t stand the thought that a 39 year old man who self-harmed and lived a “sinful life” can be compared to, or be the same as an innocent four-year-old.

Lastly, I was taken aback by the author’s note at the end of the play. He is very direct about his instructions to future actors, but in it he reveals just a little more about Jason’s character. He writes:

“It’s a sad play. Don’t make it any sadder than it needs to be…if the stage directions don’t mention tears, please resist adding them…I KNOW Jason shouldn’t cry, ever. (Yes, he’s haunted by the death of Danny, but his emotions aren’t especially accessible to him…please, no choked-up kids openly racked with guilt. That’s not who he is. Restraint, please.)”

I am completely astounded at how David Lindsay-Abaire managed to pack so much depth, detail, and complexity while using such simple dialogue. No one talks too much—the longest being maybe two sentences at a time. The interactions are brief and subtle, but carry with them a back story. It’s rivaling Hemingway’s style (particularly in his short stories), and dare-I-say, I think I enjoy Rabbit Hole more. There is so much to discuss. I wish I could go into the details of parallel universes and their significance, the backstory we can piece together for Jason, the potential affair Howie had, the differences in the ways all these characters grieve, attempts at healing, and the ending of the play slipping into normality. There is so much to discuss, and I think this play is so important. If they ever stop teaching A Streetcar Named Desire in schools, they should replace it with this one. This was a perfect 5-star play for me.