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.

My Vienna


Uneasy obsessions with sensuality, elegance, and manners; a growing sense of its own decay, mortality, and irrelevance; a recognition of the power of irrationality — all of these characterize fin-de-siecle Vienna. Vienna in 1900 was both symptom and landmark of modernity. The self-conscious and ironic grace of Viennese culture both obscured the role of the irrational and made it possible for that same irrationality to spring forth in the novels and plays of Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, the psychiatric work of Freud on dreams and neurosis, the paintings and drawings of Klimt and Schiele, the atonal music of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. All of these figures were reviled to some greater or lesser extent by the traditionalists among the Viennese, but from nowhere else, and at no other time, could these figures have emerged. By 1918, the Habsburg monarchy and this same Vienna were dead, though its phosphorescent decay would glow in both Austria and in Germany until 1933.

Freud recognized Schnitzler (also a medical doctor) as a colleague and observer, and along with Schiele and Klimt perceived eroticism within this Old World elegance as inescapable but, unlike our own time, fully cognizant of the body’s own mortality. Klimt’s serpent-women rendered eroticism a part of sensualized nature; Schiele’s crabbed but vulnerable and provocative bodies stared out at the viewer, daring that viewer to look away rather than enter the perspective of the subject. That the suppression of this eroticism would give rise to hypocrisy was obvious; but there was a special appeal, erotic itself, to bearing in mind constantly and simultaneously the activities that went on in the ballroom and behind the closed doors of the bedroom. Social elegance suggested sexual and erotic elegance — but this was the culture of the shared secret, not the exploitation of the erotic and sexual for public titillation. Perhaps there was greater sensual freedom as a result. And, unlike the arrogance of our contemporary cult of youth, the more an individual matured, the greater his or her ability to appreciate the possibilities of sensuality, which could be said to mature as well.

Design and style were central obsessions to the Viennese of the turn of the century; the care taken with simple household objects by the Wiener Werkstätte paralleled the design and style of the human bodies that inhabited those households: the body (both male and female) as aestheticized display object, adorned and unadorned. Few of Klimt’s and Schiele’s figures are wholly nude; they are draped in gold, or wear stockings, though the unadorned figures are easily imagined, even suggested by their apparel. No wonder either then that theatre was, of all the arts, of the greatest importance to the Viennese — it was there that styles were set, that self-presentation achieved its greatest mystery.

The Ringstrasse itself, Vienna’s great architectual feature, is a masterpiece of duplicity — the Baroque to Classical to Gothic to Jugenstil buildings were all constructed in the mid-nineteenth century. Vienna was, simultaneously, dream and nightmare. Perhaps that is its dangerous attraction.

Fin-de-siecle Vienna, c’est moi? No, that’s foolish. It is of both greater and lesser comfort, though, to recognize something of oneself in a dead historical era. It explains affinities, intellectual and emotional, even if ultimately there are no final conclusions.

Howard Barker’s Found in the Ground

Five years ago I made a special trip to London for the Wrestling School’s production of Found in the Ground by Howard Barker; it remains one of the most memorable evenings that I’ve ever spent in the theatre. That 2009 review is below (I was apparently a rather dab hand at reviews back in the day).

Found in the Ground by Howard Barker. Directed by the author. Set design: Tomas Leipzig. Costume design: Billie Kaiser. Lighting design: Helen Morley. Sound design: Paula Sezno. Dog automata maker: Keith Newstead. With Vanessa Faye-Stanley (Macedonia), Gerrard McArthur (Toonelhuis), Suzy Cooper (Burgteata), Kyle Soller (Denmark), Nigel Hastings (Workman), Julia Tarnoky (Knox), Michael Vaughan (Lobe), Alan Cox (Hitler), and Georgie Alexander, Megan Hall, Charlotte More and Leah Whitaker (the Nurses). Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission. A Wrestling School production. At Riverside Studios, Crisp Road, Hammersmith, London. Reviewed at the 3 October performance.

Irony, that facile and usually unhelpful trickster, had me reading Edward Bond’s The Hidden Plot the afternoon before I saw Howard Barker’s Found at the Ground, the Wrestling School’s 21st production, this past weekend. In “Language,” one of the early essays in the book, Bond takes up the idea of justice. “Theatre has only one subject,” Bond writes: “justice. Our minds are the site of imagination because we listen as well as speak. Imagination creates our world. It is as if each of us were a sculptor who created an image out of the raw stone of the world. The image is either just or corrupt. Theatres are the site of public imagination where the distinction between speaking and listening is dissolved. Neither love nor religion can do that. Yet it is essential to our shared humanity, for how else shall we learn to live justly? But now our alchemy corrupts our imagination, and if it succeeds in this we will lose our human language. No previous culture has achieved that extreme of nihilism.”

Ironic because the idea of justice in the post-Auschwitz post-Hiroshima world is precisely the subject of Found in the Ground, a play which whispers, in contradistinction to Bond, that “the image is neither just nor corrupt,” renouncing such moral definitions in a considered musical meditation of imagination and justice. And it is a multidimensional image of considerable depth, one of Barker’s “more ‘musical’ plays in which elements of expressionism and surrealism contribute to linguistically and pictorially poetic forms,” as David Ian Rabey defined one stream of Barker’s work in his recent book on the dramatist.

A landscape-with-figures play like Found in the Ground doesn’t offer a plot or narrative as such, but a situation to be excavated. In this case, the situation is centered on Toonelhuis (Gerrard McArthur), a judge at Nuremburg now retired to some distant retreat and cared for (if these are the words for such ambivalent casual dismissal) by his intensely loyal and ancient servant Lobe (the caustically disdainful Michael Vaughan) and four bitterly uncaring nurses. He also retains a naive young librarian, Denmark (Kyle Soller), to oversee the burning of his large library, a burning that the idealist librarian despises. Toonelhuis’ expansively sexual daughter Burgteata (Suzy Cooper) teases Denmark, who nonetheless remains impotent and is prone to sexual degradation. Meanwhile, in his memory, Toonelhuis is haunted by the spirits of the Nazi leaders whom he sentenced to death at Nuremburg, spirits personified by Knox (“the spirit of a war criminal,” according to the text), who here is lithely and darkly performed by Julia Tarnoky in a bizarre black-and-white outfit and makeup: a nightmare Harlequin. Knox is finally able to summon Hitler (Alan Cox), a melancholic now given to disquisitions on art, continually fascinated by the spectacle of death.

Toonelhuis spends his last days on earth ingesting the remains of his, and of justice’s, victims – mud and ashes now, as much mud and ashes as the remains of the Nazis’ victims at Auschwitz or the atomic bomb’s victims at Hiroshima, his fingers playing in the flesh of the corpses. He is as much a victim of the conflicting claims of justice as the three dogs that he keeps, vicious mechanical creatures that once served as fearsome guards (in the camps) and now as fearsome protectors (surrounding the judges) – and in this production they are marvellous mechanical creations by Keith Newstead. Their ominous barking constitutes one of the motifs of the play’s soundscape; at the end of the play, as Lobe gently cuts their throats, they are released from the bizarre uses to which humankind has put them, as death releases Toonelhuis also from his tortured physical self-awareness.

But this is a 21st century play – “new writing,” as Aleks Sierz might put it – and in the contemporary scenes the relationship of idealism to tragic history, and especially idealism that leads to such tragic history, forms much of the foreground to this landscape. Denmark may well be a Toonelhuis-in-training, which may explain his employment by the judge: an idealist who finds more significance in books than in body, as human justice finds more significance in law than in landscape; it was, after all, justice in the name of idealism that led the Nuremburg court to pass sentences of death on the Nazi war criminals. This idealism leads Denmark to toss himself on top of the pyre of burning books, sacrificing his body to his ideals; but again, irony, our facile and unhelpful trickster, makes this a failed suicide. It is his denial of desire, Hamletesque trepidation in the face of a proferred ecstasy, that leads to his pain: his sexual prostration between the legs of his female lovers, his degredation, is of his own making. In his naivete, Denmark stands in for 21st century culture, unwilling to absorb and accept its responsibility in tragic history and therefore quite ready to repeat its horrors once again, and willing to deny the fulfillment of the body’s significance, condemning it to ashes and mud rather than life. (For it must be remembered that the Nazis, those promulgators of racial purity and a utopian Thousand Year Reich, were idealists too.)

This was the first time I’ve seen one of Barker’s own productions. It was not surprising to find the extraordinary precision of his texts reflected in the precision of his scenography: this is a production with sharp, piercing edges that wound, from the metal teeth of the mechanical dogs to the clarity of the costume and set design (and long-time Wrestling School designers Billie Kaiser and Tomas Leipzig are joined for the first time by sound designer Paula Sezno, a graduate of the Sopron Academy of Theatre Arts; her “favourite sound sources are industrial processes, a taste she describes as ‘pure nostalgia,'” her program biography says; her sounds, too, like Kaiser’s exquisitely sensual dresses and Leipzig’s uncompromisingly hard and cold sets and props, pierce the invisible scrim between performer and auditor. Needless to add, Helen Morley’s light design sculpts the dark beautifully). It was surprising, however, to see just how … well, the comic, for want of a better word, abuts the tragic in the stage production, for much of this is light and fast; the bitter dogs appeal in their toy-like qualities; Gerrard McArthur’s Toonelhuis is particularly wry; and there’s Alan Cox’s Hitler, who seems uncomfortable in being called back from the dead in a nuanced and quiet performance; if anything, he is slightly embarrassed, and those who surround him treat him with a casual and amusing contempt (one of the Nurses thrusts an unneeded tray into his arms as she hurries out to catch a bus, leaving poor Hitler slightly bereft and comically burdened). He is only transfixed by projected images of the concentration camps – as transfixed like many others before repeated images of the events of 9/11 and other contemporary disasters.

If the audience is held complicit through holding onto its last shreds of idealism, so is the artist. “Critical moments in the history of a culture,” Hitler prosaically muses (and in the text Hitler is the only character to speak in prose; the others speak almost exclusively in verse), “frequently require swift and violent actions the elimination of old values the fall of monasteries the tidal rush of some purifying river naturally this wounds us in some obscure place some spiritual cul-de-sac but all the same this gnawing pain should not be interpreted as a reason for inaction on the contrary we take pride in conquering this pain in rendering it the melancholy music which accompanies all.” Denmark interrupts him with, “I like melancholia.” Responds Hitler (now in verse):

Do you?
Me too
It is the temperament of artists
And the nameless students who deface his works
[he looks around him, the tray still in his arms]
I’ll put it down shall I

Not the same as pessimism, this melancholia, and for its humor Found in the Ground, the play and production, is melancholic, and a challenge to the audience to seek a perhaps impossible redemption in their own bodies, and in love and imaginative desire: to avoid the prostration and sexual self-degradation of idealists like Hitler and Denmark, to consider even the justice of a Toonelhuis as provisional, as the judge himself finds it at the end of his life. It is the melancholia of complicity in a bizarre human justice, a parody of the justice found, perhaps, only in the dead – in the “ground” of the title of the play.