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This bus has free wifi. Nifty. Review of the book I read Saturday, July 16th.

I read both parts: Part I is called Millennium Approaches and Part II Perestroika. Kushner insists that they are separate plays and that one is a sequel to the other and they have different tonalities and so on, but I'm sorry, the first does not have sufficient arc by itself; I really feel these have to be considered as a unit.

So this is a serious attempt to engage with AIDS, and a serious attempt to engage with the turn of the century, and a mystery play, and a meditation on America, and all that jazz. Surprisingly enough, it basically lives up to its ambitions.

I consider the protagonist to be Prior Walter, the man who is starting to die: KS, pneumonia, all the rest of it. An angel appears to him, literally, and tells him that he is to be a prophet. Very sensibly, he declines, with force.

And there's his lover, who is still healthy, who can't take the prospect of watching him die, and leaves, unforgivably; and the man his lover takes up with, a conflicted Mormon lawyer; and a friend who is a medical orderly and drag queen and basically made of pure awesome. There's a Mormon mother-in-law, there's the dying and raging Roy Cohn, still convinced the best thing he ever did was getting Ethel Rosenberg executed, there are the angelic principalities of each continent. It's a complex knot of theology, politics, and absurdism, and it is very funny, as Kushner intended and acknowledges in the foreword. (I think the funniest single moment is when Prior, in the hospital, is asked by his nurse who the lady with him is, and he says "That's my ex-lover's new boyfriend's Mormon mother." The nurse blinks and says "Even for the eighties in New York, that's weird." Which it is. But also touching, and deriving from a completely logical set of circumstances, if you were there.)

There's a dimension of this that does not lend itself well to being read, in that there's a whole lot of double and triple-casting; the nurse, for example, is the same actress as the Angel of America. There is so much doubling that it is not possible for me to keep track of all of it, not having seen a performance. Each of the angels is someone else from the cast, for instance.

But the overall impression, even knowing I wasn't tracking some of what was intended, is still one of great brilliance, complexity, and emotional depth. Belize, for instance, Prior's medical friend, keeps having people say nasty racist things to him because they are in pain in other ways, and there's a moment where he mutters to himself "My problem is that I'm trapped in a world of white people." And the thing is, that literally is his problem, because he's in this play, which is trying to be a reflection among other things of the way America sees itself at the time of writing, which means a Token Black Guy who doesn't get any depth. Which Belize isn't, but what we are seeing is the world of this play, which is except for him white people, and in which he is stuck. And the play acknowledges that, in lines that seem throw-away.

Or the scene in which Prior Walter's ancestors, also named Prior Walter, come to him to prepare the way for the angel-- the angel thoughtfully dug up the ones who died of plague, so that they would have something in common-- and it's not the same plague, it's not the same issues, she got it wrong, he and his ancestors have nothing to say to one another. (In fact the angel's problem with understanding humanity can be summarized by the fact that she presents as aggressively and sexually female to her prophet, who is a gay man, despite the fact that it is textual that she is hermaphroditic: but the way she impresses herself on his mind is as female, and you can't prove she even knows about his sexual orientation. Angels. Frickin' ineffable annoyances sometimes.)

And the way the play handles Mormonism is fascinating; it's clearly here as a contrasting American angelic revelation, and the politics of the religion are damaging to the people who interact with it, but the one who really believes and has faith uses her faith to be astonishingly competent and kind. Nuanced, is what I'm saying, in a play with a lot of extremely valid anger.

So yeah. I'm sure I'm late to this work; it's one of the great landmarks of AIDS literature and won all kinds of prizes and there is a well-regarded HBO miniseries and you don't need me to tell you how good this is. But it really is.
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A play by a novelist is often a curious proposition. They tend to be readable plays-- if I am reading a play by a writer who works only in the theatre, I often have to mentally visualize a stage, and mentally cast actors, and choose costumes, and try to figure out how people would move, and so on, in order to get the point of the thing, and even then a good production will teach me things I have never imagined. Whereas a novelist, being a novelist, is more likely to have written the script in a novelistic fashion. On the other hand, I am not as convinced that these novelist's plays are as performable as they are readable, because the writers are not as accustomed to, well, actually having to stage the thing and bear in mind the things that work on the stage that do not and cannot work out in a novel.

Which is to say that this is a fun play to read, but I don't think it would come off as much if seen, though it was performed after its writing, in 1913.

The setup is that a Duke is being visited by his nephew and his niece. His nephew has gone to America, worked as a mine manager, and become a hard-bitten skeptic. His niece has gone off and lived in Ireland and become, as far as I can tell, something along the lines of Elfine from Cold Comfort Farm. ("She calls it Celtic twilight," one of the characters says about her, "but I think it is bad for the lungs.") You know, the sort of young lady who is liable to see fairies, and does.

One of the fairies turns out to be in fact the conjurer that the Duke hired to entertain his family. She is distressed to find this out. ("Why, then, were you wearing that long cloak and hood with a point?" "I think you may have failed to notice it was raining.") But there is more to the conjurer than he is letting on; he is layers within layers within layers.

This is attempting to be a meditation on truth and falsehood and theology, and sets up a nice alternating rhythm of revelation/counter-revelation of the conjurer's motives, and progression and retreat of his romance with the girl, which means that he comes across as charismatic and interesting ([personal profile] sovay thinks Bergman may have borrowed some of him for his film The Magician) and both the romance and the character are rounded and work. But it is also trying to be a Chestertonian social satire, in which the Duke always gives the same amount of money to opposing silly causes at the same time, and the local Doctor is forever falling back on his friendships with famous men, and the local curate is strangled by his inability neither to believe nor to disbelieve. And this does not work, because none of the side characters have more depth than the pixels they are printed on (I read this at Project Gutenberg), and more importantly neither does the brother, who ought to be the counterweight against the romance proceeding without incident and the exhibition to the audience of the conjurer's heart.

Which is to say, a novelist's play, perhaps better as a short story, where the characters could get away with being less real by virtue of not requiring one to comprehend them as having actual physical bodies. It would be a fun thing for a community theatre to do, perhaps, but it is not essential reading, nor remotely close to the best of Chesterton.
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This was yesterday's book, so tomorrow I'll do today's and tomorrow's and then I'll be caught up.

This is a pretty straightforward theatrical adaptation of Dahl's classic children's novel, with most of the text taken directly from the book and many of the more lyrical passages of the book given as soliloquies to the narrator. There are really two things which make it interesting. The first is Dahl's introduction, which describes the rather harrowing circumstances under which he wrote the novel (his infant son had been in a terrible accident, and the child's survival was still in doubt for the entire time of writing; he did live). Dahl describes the book as an act of total escapism which probably saved his sanity, and this does make me understand the novel better.

The other interesting thing is the suggestions for staging, blocking and costuming. George's adaptation is meant to be performed by children, if possible, and is assumed to have a budget of slightly under nothing; given the sheer number of effects that seem to be required, how does one do it?

Well, it's amazing what you can do with cardboard. The suggested costumes for the insect characters are entirely cardboard-based, and I have to say I think they would look pretty good. But the thing that impressed me the most is the giant peach itself: it is incredibly simple and I would never have thought of it.

It's a spotlight. You train the light on the appropriate spot on the peach-tree and make it larger and larger for the growing peach, and then of course when everyone is having scenes inside the peach you have them all standing in it with the other lights down, and when they're having scenes on top of it you bring the other lights up, slap an orange filter on the thing and have them stand just upstage of the light circle. I could see this being very effective indeed and it eliminates ninety percent of the effects from the production in one easy stroke.

In short, then, though this didn't have much new content, it was as I had hoped it would be useful for getting me to think about what goes into making a successful theatrical adaptation.
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A Jacobean comedy.

I had not previously read any Jacobean comedy, and if this is anything to go by, that is because they are not very good at it. I mean, it's not a bad play; its main plot and subplot intertwine nicely. The protagonist, Welborne, is down on his luck and has been cheated of his lands by his uncle, the evil Giles Overreach. Welborne plots to make Overreach treat him well and flatter him by pretending that he is going to marry a wealthy and noble widow. In the meantime, Overreach's daughter is in love with a page, and the page's master assists her in marrying the page by trickery. Eventually, of course, the page's master marries the wealthy widow (since they are the only two people of aristocratic origins present and consequently have to pair off), Welborne pays off all his debts and gets his land back, and Overreach's plots are so thoroughly foiled that he ends up in a madhouse.

The thing is, it isn't funny. I can't quite see how it was then. It's got the same sweep of melodrama and the same darkness and ranting villainy as the Jacobean tragedies, and I could not read it without expecting mayhem and bloodshed every minute. Overreach is so unrepentantly nasty that his snapping feels contrived-- he barely even draws a sword on anyone. The most obvious comic relief is provided by various one-note and one-joke characters such as the food-obsessed magistrate who is unable to talk about anything else, and that sort of thing is about as funny as it always is, i.e. not very.

And the language is not terribly memorable. I mean, it's not bad either, but it doesn't stick with you, it isn't quotable.

Therefore, I mostly found this interesting because it is such an obvious transitional piece between the Elizabethan comedies and later things such as Sheridan-- the names-as-characterization and some of the choreography of people hiding and reappearing and whispering in ears prefigure School for Scandal very plainly. A scholarly note, rather than a living piece of theatre.
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A witty pointed play, as Stoppard usually is, intercutting between the eighteenth century and the twentieth in the same room of the same English aristocratic house. In the eighteenth century, a young girl and her tutor bicker and work at mathematics, while the tutor carries on an affair with the wife of a minor poet; in the twentieth, academics pawing through the remnants develop entirely the wrong ideas about what happened in the eighteenth (a beautiful demonstration of the principle that, when in doubt, people tend to blame everything on Lord Byron).

The intercutting reminds me of Byatt's Possession, somewhat, in the way that it's both funny and sad to watch the academics fumbling about when we've seen what actually happened and know they're never going to get it right, ever; but the emotional dimension here is added in a way that Byatt did not do it, which is that the academics have some pointedly accurate information also. Thomasina, the young girl, is lively and snarky, sarcastic at thirteen and a mathematical genius at sixteen-- and we know from quite early when she dies and how, though not why, and it colors every time she steps on the stage. Most of the suspense comes out of this sort of thing, knowing the date of a death, or thinking we know, knowing the date of a marriage when that marriage does not seem very likely from what we have seen of the past. Eventually, of course, the whole thing ties itself in a neat knot, because this is Stoppard, whose precision is the greater part of his irony.

Thomasina and her tutor, Septimus, are the heart of the thing and the best of it. I particularly like a moment when he tells her that as Fermat's last theorem has been bothering the best minds in Europe for a hundred and fifty years, he had rather hoped it would keep her occupied until lunchtime. The early scenes with them are unmitigatedly delightful, and the two of them know it. Et in arcadia ego-- the phrase recurs, used by several of the principal characters, appearing as a Latin quiz, a sexual reference and a description of the state of living in an English country house: all very well, until you remember who it was said the phrase in the original. But Thomasina and Septimus are in a kind of Arcadia, one where he can talk the husband of his lover into liking him again whenever he wants to, one where she can revolutionize calculus before going out to play in the garden.

And yet I rather think that, touching and witty and brave as they are, they are overwhelmed eventually by the structure of the play, which does not allow anything gold to stay. I would like the whole thing better if it weren't so crystalline perfect in the way every single detail echoes back and forth through time, and Stoppard knows I'd like it better and doesn't want me to, which makes the play more admirable than enjoyable in the final analysis.

The fact that the playwright can make us care about things that are inevitable, predictable, in fact tragically foregone conclusions is what makes the play at least a minor masterpiece. He builds a thing so beautifully, icily, magnificently bitter that I am at a loss to try to describe it, and his point is that his characters-- and every human being-- deserve much better, and probably won't get it. But I can't stop wishing his characters could have a life outside their structure, because he is a genius, damn him.
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A sparkling Augustan set-piece, the most famous English play of the eighteenth century. It is, of course, a romantic comedy, which has, of course, the original scene in which both a husband and a wife are for different reasons concealed behind different screens in the same room spying on the same people. It is clearly the parent not only of Georgette Heyer (who evidently developed her slang by running amok with Sheridan's) but also of the Hollywood screwball comedy, and I kept expecting people to go off with one another's bags as well as spouses, or the sudden appearance of a leopard, or an actress, or someone's identical twin; it was strange when nothing of the sort happened. It also reminds me somewhat of Les Liaisons Dangereuses-- a benevolent polite version in which everything works out for the best.

I am not sure this is a play one ought to read, as opposed to seeing, because I enjoyed it, but I could tell that it would come to life amazingly in good hands, with good blocking and the correct chemistry in the correct directions. I'm rather surprised I've never heard of a film of it, although of course I might simply not have heard, but things like the scene in which the young wastrel auctions his entire ancestral portrait gallery to a man who is actually the wastrel's uncle in disguise are tailor-made for cinema. (I devoutly hope that in every version ever done the portraits are terrible. You can't have this sort of thing with good pictures. It wouldn't be right, somehow.)

I am also very glad that it isn't a verse play, because Sheridan's prose dialogue is bouncy and snappy and deliciously bitchy, but his verse prologue dedication to his patroness reads as though someone has surgically removed all the wit and fire from something by Alexander Pope. It is not even a noteworthy bad poem, because the man can scan and the grammar is grammatical and the images are not outlandish; it's just incredibly lackluster. Fortunately the actual play is not so afflicted, and I have added it to my brief list of things I would like to see if a theatre happens to be showing them. (Having managed to see within the last several years live stage productions of both The Duchess of Malfi and Machiavelli's The Mandrake, I feel I have used up any right to devoutly pray for the revival of any particular play, as it was so obviously impossible I should get the two I most wanted and got-- Malfi's not unheard of, but I only had to take a bus two hundred miles for the Machiavelli, and it was in English, so the whole thing was wildly unlikely. That said, I'd like a general run of Jacobeans, and also The Cenci and Prometheus Unbound, and for someone to find Zamyatin's unpublished play in a basement in Russia while they're at it.)

IMDB says there is a movie, 1930, starring, of all people, Ian Fleming. I should find out whether that exists in any accessible format.
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This play is much earlier than I'd thought-- on account of the title, I had it mentally down as Jacobean, but no, it is sometime between 1582-92 and hence pre-Shakespearean, and therefore the introduction is full of people arguing about How Important It Is To The Development Of The Modern Tragedy and saying nasty things about Marlowe, which is an unfortunate side-effect of having a Thing about someone other than Marlowe having written The First English Modern Tragedy No Really We Insist. (There is still, after all this time, nothing wrong with liking Tamburlaine, people, no matter what Kyd may have said about Marlowe in prison.)

Anyway. I am still going to have trouble thinking of this as anything other than a Jacobean; it acts like one. Almost bloody enough for Webster, and Revenge is not only actually a character, he is officially and textually the chorus. Whenever anything goes right for anybody, there's Revenge coming on again, with attendant ghost, assuring the audience that in half a moment we will have blood and rhetoric all round, just wait for it. And then after the first murder he falls asleep and has to be prodded to wake up again and remember what he's doing here, a nice touch.

And no echo scene (sigh-- I do like a good echo scene), but a play-within-a-play in which all the stabbings are real; also various letters written in blood, respectable persons run lunatic, someone biting out his own tongue, etc. And it has a sense of humor I enjoyed. In the play-within-a-play, for instance, the director of it (who is also arranging the stabbings) tells the cast that he wants them to give an impression of the events as taking place at a great distance, since the story happened in Turkey, and so each of them is to speak in the language they know that is most foreign. We don't get their actual dialogue, but we're told one is speaking French, one ancient Greek, one Latin, one dog-Latin, and one maintaining a sensible and dignified Spanish. I am sure it had the distancing effect the director wanted, and I really hope that whatever company first played this went for the gusto.

The thing that's odd about The Spanish Tragedy is how very, very much it both quotes and cribs from Latin literature generally. There are entire paragraphs of Seneca just thrown untranslated at the stage and a fair amount of Statius and even some odd things like a few tags of Lucretius. And the ghost who follows Revenge around is very, very clearly living in the cosmos of the Aeneid: it's not a Christian underworld he went to, and no one else seems to expect one either. There is very little by way of appealing to God or to church symbols in the play; all the soliloquies are in the classical mode and cry out to Fates and Furies. This is sufficiently odd for me to be unsurprised that Kyd found himself in prison at least partly because some of the papers in his room were considered irreligious and blasphemous. Usually there is at least some allusion to Christian burial, but the ghost here had trouble getting across Acheron because he didn't have coins on his eyes. I don't think Kyd is suggesting the Spanish are all heathens, though I admit I may be missing something.

Oh, and the poetry is good. Some of it is really good. I would love to see this acted, though it's not one I've ever noticed being revived or I'd have gone to it. The internet suggests there is no movie, but I may have to poke around some and see if I can find any filmed stage versions.

I mean, I don't love it as much as The Duchess of Malfi, but then, what lives up to that? Very good play, is what I am saying here.
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When the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Milan Kundera was blacklisted from publishing and lost the ability to make a living. A theatre director friend of his suggested that he write a theatrical adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which would come out under the director's name, and then Kundera would live off some of the profits. Kundera did not want to adapt The Idiot. Instead, he wrote a version of Denis Diderot's Jacques the Fatalist and His Master.

I say a version and not an adaptation because Kundera is adamant that it's simply homage, not to be taken as a complete and total presentation of the novel. His preface waxes lyrical about the reasons he thinks Jacques the Fatalist is intrinsically unadaptable, and honestly, he's probably right. The confusion of voices in the novel, the way that the author and the characters talk over, through, and around one another in ways that strain the limits of intelligibility-- not exactly possible in a theatrical setting, where an actor, who has a body and is standing there physically present, must say the words. (For that matter, there is the question of whether to have someone personating the narrator, the authorial voice, Diderot. Kundera chooses not to.) The way the book repeats itself almost interminably and delays the conclusion of stories almost interminably is kind of Beckettian, but not attainable in a play in which you wish anything else to happen, and the short length of the play in comparison to the novel robs the delays of some of their punch.

So Kundera has chosen to shift the metafictional focus of the action into the interplay between Jacques and his master and the playwright and the audience. When he concentrates on that, the play is absolutely brilliant.

Excerpt. )

However, when Kundera stops the meta tricks (which is his problem, as Diderot never stops them: they are not trick, but the book itself) he attempts to build interest through the mingling and paralleling of the actual stories that Jacques and the other characters tell and the movement of the characters back and forth in time, which is much more problematic because it means that all the characters manage to tell their stories in a fairly linear fashion (though somewhat intermingled). They have to so we can see the parallels. This still reads like Diderot, but like the Diderot of the short stories, the comedies and dramas of manners, the Diderot who is prefiguring Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It may be good theatre but it is far less this novel.

Still, he did say he wasn't trying for an adaptation. I think it's a pretty good play and would enjoy seeing it, if it is ever revived. I also find the preface very interesting, in which Kundera talks about the circumstances of writing the play, of why in the face of an invasion he turned to the intellectual tools of the French Enlightenment. (He saw the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia as a sign of the decline of the influence of the Enlightenment and of the end of humane civilization; he chose to side with what he believed doomed.) And he makes a good point that Jacques and his master in some ways belong on a stage, that there is an entire tradition culminating in Beckett that makes much more sense with them there: so there they are.


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