Booby traps

I win the Battle for Ninjago City.

I win the Battle for Ninjago City.

Oh, I’m a good daddy, all right, a very good daddy. I spent about six straight hours yesterday assembling something called “The Battle for Ninjago City,” a Lego kit consisting of over 1,000 pieces, for two very expectant little girls. They watched me curse, sweat, and grumble until bedtime — with short breaks to watch daddy whip up a quick supper for them — then, after bedtime, for two additional hours, I cursed, sweated, and grumbled on my own. But there it now stands — the Ninjas’ dojo, and here I now sit, my hands still cramped and cramping even more as I further abuse whatever carpal-tunnel dexterity I may still retain over a computer keyboard at five in the morning.

When I was Goldie’s and Billie’s age, Legos didn’t come in specialized sets of dojos, cities, Star Wars death stars, Barbie shopping malls, or Hadron Particle Accelerators. The tiny, colorful little choking hazards were just pieces of plastic you snapped together to build whatever your little heart desired, usually leftovers from M.C. Escher’s nightmares. A more curmudgeonly me was tempted to complain that what’s been lost in this shift towards the assembly of pre-designed Lego structures is the child’s imagination, the construction of things put together organically rather than by a predetermined plan. But then I stopped; if the kinds of things I put together with Legos as a kid could be called “creative,” it was only by a very very liberal stretch of the dictionary definition. They were mostly just blocky, varicolored walls and boxes. Indeed, as I struggled to put the thing together yesterday, I began to admire more and more and marvel at the very craft and ambition not of kids but of the Lego engineers. The goddamn things are in the end pretty astonishingly clever. The Lego dojo is not only a little Lego sculpture, but contains many movable parts, booby traps for invaders and sliding walls and concealed hiding places. By the end I was actually enjoying myself and rather proud of it (following what must have been a hundred pages of wordless, graphical instructions to a tee is no walk in the park). Six hours of my life, spent among tiny pieces of plastic and risking bloodied fingertips, that I’ll never get back, but then I remembered there are worse ways to spend one’s time. Like starving in India, for example. So when the girls wake in an hour or so, they should get a good twenty minutes out of it before it’s forgotten forever, though I’ll be on their good side for a while because of it. I’ve heard you go to heaven for making little children happy. Given what I went through, I’d better be sitting at the fucking right hand of God.

So not much writing yesterday, and maybe not much today as my brain de-addles from my Lego adventure, though I’m not worried — I’ve got the next few pages lined up in my head so won’t lack a start next time I sit down to the play. Today the babysitter picks the girls up from school and brings them home; and I may take the opportunity to briefly pop into Cafe Katja on the way home myself so daddy can have a nice big drink. No assembly required, not for the drink; for daddy, I’m not so sure.

Catching up

Over the past five weeks since I’ve written anything substantive in this journal, I’ve been reading quite a bit. Chekhov’s Ivanov, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, especially Eliot’s Four Quartets (for a few weeks now, over and over) and Helen Gardner’s fine 1950 book about Eliot’s poetry — certainly more than usual. All this as I work the day job and try to raise two little girls who are … well, “spirited” is the best way to put it. And now, with my wife away for a few days and the girls just down to bed, I sit here quietly with a glass of Paul D. and write this — and not writing my new play, which is nearly finished, just a few pages from the second act curtain. But mornings are my true working hours, and evenings I’m usually so tired I can barely see straight. The Paul D. doesn’t help — not with that, anyway. While the wife’s away, though, I’ve commandeered the TV and last night very much enjoyed watching all five episodes of Better Call Saul (is that the binge-watching I’ve been hearing so much about?) end to end, not neglecting last night’s glass of Paul D. either. It went well with the show, too; I’ve been watching Bob Odenkirk and Michael McKean for thirty years now, and it’s a pleasure to watch them spread their wings a bit.

Oh, yes, that play. It’s my first in seven years, and some may be surprised to learn that it’s deliberately, radically anachronistic: two acts, one set, six characters, a contemporary comedy. So far as I can tell (and it’s in the first draft stage so this may change through what will no doubt be a half-dozen rewrites), Snow’s Day is about a middle-aged playwright who also teaches at a New York university; in the course of the plot (taking place over about six hours of a Friday in May) Alex Snow manages to lose his job, his wife, and an off-Broadway production of his latest, and likely last, play. If anything, it’s far more Terence Rattigan than Howard Barker, more Simon Gray than Richard Foreman — but however much I admire both Barker and Foreman, I could never claim them as influences. If it’s about the waning and collapse of Alex’s personal and professional life, it’s also (quite consciously and metatheatrically) about the waning and collapse of that kind of Rattigan and Gray play so popular from about 1945 to 1985 — the domestic comedy/drama of the lives of the middle classes. There is still some of this about — Richard Nelson’s Apple plays, for example — but the plays of that forty-year period assiduously avoided explicit dialogue about current events and political or cultural issues, preferring instead to course Eliotically (there’s perhaps no other word for it) through a landscape of the metaphysically personal. (Mind you, among those six characters are a young student of mixed race and a thirtyish woman from South Korea who is directing Alex’s play — it’s not an entirely monochromatic cast.)

Along with all that other reading my greatest pleasure has been working through my way through Gray’s diaries — which, along with Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy, constitute the most truthful and honest confessions, difficulties, and anxieties about working in the theatre, and much else besides, that I’ve ever come across. So far I’ve devoured An Unnatural Pursuit and How’s That for Telling ‘Em, Fat Lady?, both of them recently in print again from Faber & Faber. They’re also laugh-out-loud funny (at least, I laughed out loud). Because it was plays by writers like Gray, Harold Pinter, and Rattigan who first drew me to the thought of writing for the theatre in the first place, it’s a bit of a homecoming. I won’t say that the writing hasn’t been hard — I’m trying to get two pages written a day and often meet this target, only occasionally falling short, each and every day until the first draft is finished — but I’ve also been experiencing the uncanny enjoyment of the pen taking off on its own as it courses its way across and down the page, a very rare pleasure for me the past few years, experiencing the delight of discovery as I slowly piece together Alex, his wife, his colleagues, and his director, making his downfall as gleeful, I hope, as I can make it.

There’s one other reason for what I fear will be taken as a treasonous recidivism. By far, most of my friends are not in the theatre at all, or any of the other arts for that matter — in fact, most of them never go to the theatre, and that’s largely because there’s really nothing there for them. They’re familiar with the theatre landscape — they read the reviews and stories about new plays and musicals in the New York Times — but they never go, and I suspect it’s because they know all too well what they’re likely to find there. My father was the same way, my brother is too. Maybe perversely and far too optimistically, I’m hoping to write plays that these people might want to see. I’m far more concerned about that than about writing plays for people who’ve already dismissed this kind of play as old-fashioned or even reactionary. Maybe some would characterize this as theatre and drama for that aging audience who notoriously resist more experimental or outlandish kinds of work. But it’s silly to regard an aesthetic or dramatic form as being more primarily for the old, more primarily for the young. That’s not how it works.

I take up this journal again somewhat reluctantly at this point, with those few pages of the first draft still left to write, but I’m confident now that I’ll finish it (I’ve also been keeping another journal, a more personal journal, which I’ll instruct my daughters shall remain sealed until fifty years after my death). And oh yes, Eliot — I suppose the play is about a third thing too, a comedy about the possibility of redemption for those without traditional religious faith. Along with Four Quartets, I’ve been doing a little reading in the gospels besides (the excellent E.V. Rieu translation for Penguin Classics really deserves to be returned to print), with much pleasure and interest. Among the themes of Four Quartets is what role words themselves might have in redeeming experience — from Eliot’s Christian perspective of course, but they haunt nonetheless, and it might be because, as at the age of 53 I hope to become America’s oldest young emerging playwright, these concerns become more and more urgent the more and more the days pass, with fewer years ahead of me than behind me. Writing plays is all about words, about how they’re spoken (and the Four Quartets themselves were written during the years of Eliot’s greatest theatrical activity). It is something Alex Snow knows; it is something I know too, in one of the very few autobiographical parallels in the play. So forward, ceaselessly, into the past.

Upcoming: Richard Foreman Filmmaker

From Richard Foreman's film "Once Every Day."

From Richard Foreman’s film “Once Every Day.”

The Spring 2015 program offerings of the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center have just been announced, and as always they’ll feature some of the best presentations and conversations about theater and drama to be found in New York City. But most interesting to me will be Richard Foreman Filmmaker, an all-day event scheduled for Monday, May 18, which will collect just about all of Foreman’s work for video and film from 1975’s Out of the Body Travel to 2012’s Once Every Day — and, we’re promised, excerpts of an untitled new film. Says the Web page for the event, rather invitingly:

Join us for the very first retrospective of Richard Foreman’s work for film, including films about Richard Foreman, and an evening panel. The legendary New York auteur-du-theatre stopped working for the theatre and now considers himself a filmmaker. In 2012, Foreman returned, thirty years after Strong Medicine, with a full-length film, Once Every Day. Shot in just six days, Foreman uses his performance work as a matrix for fascinating collage of images, sounds, and ideas for a film with a well-hidden plot — edited over a period of one and a half years.

The full day of screenings will be followed by a panel discussion at 6.30pm, participants to be announced — and, like all of the Segal Center’s events, it’s free. Foreman himself curated the retrospective in collaboration with Graduate Center CUNY Ph.D. Student in Theatre Eylul Fidan Akinci (Turkey), and Frank Hentschker. I’ll just be getting popcorn; save me the aisle seat.

Now available: The Theatre and Films of Jez Butterworth

butterworth_rabey_bookcoverI interrupt my hiatus to congratulate my friend David Ian Rabey on the publication of The Theatre and Films of Jez Butterworth, just out from Bloomsbury. The first book-length study of the British dramatist, the volume covers Butterworth’s career from his arrival on the scene with Mojo all the way to his most recent play The River, which closed on Broadway earlier this month. Per the publisher:

This book reveals how Butterworth unearths the strange forms of wildness and defiance lurking in the depths and at the edges of England: where unpredictable outbursts of humour highlight the intensity of life, and characters discover links between their haunting past and the uncertainties of the present, to create a meaningful future. Supplemented by essays from James D. Balestrieri and Elisabeth Angel-Perez, this is a clear and detailed source of reference for a new generation of theatre audiences, practitioners and directors who wish to explore the work of this seminal dramatist.

More information on the book at the Bloomsbury Web site; it is scheduled to be published here in April and is available for pre-order from here.

I’m nearing completion of the first draft of a new two-act play and so return to my hiatus; more anon, I hope.

Writing about theater

How to write about theater and drama in the 21st century — that is, in a way that reflects a deeper consideration of the form, as the form itself seems to become more superficial in its contemporary manifestations? If this is an admission of discouragement, then I confess to it. I’m finding it important these days to reconsider my own approach to the art, and how I might engage with it more substantively through my work. It could just be that I’m tired, but a brief breather is in order as I sort out the future of my writing.

So a short caesura here. I can still be contacted via email, and will respond. Perhaps spring will bring a new flowering and rebirth; it usually does.