|My great aunt was a nun, so
I fancy myself an authority.
I’ve been attending the Aberystwyth Arts Centre productions ever since I arrived in this town after fifteen years of life in Manhattan. I had a bad attitude in my suitcase and thought that nothing could match Broadway, that this was just the sticks. Well, shows like Chicago and Hairspray proved me wrong. Actually, the very first show I saw here, Oliver!, did that. And it was great to see Mr. Bumble again, right there in that convent. Gary Davis, I mean, who plays Monsignor O’Hara. Indeed, there were a number of familiar faces in the cast, among them David Barrett and Robert O’Malley.
I walked out of the Lyceum Theatre thinking that I had just spent what amounts to a buck a minute on a rotten piece of ephemera – like that dead squirrel Tracy Letts picks up and throws into a trash bag, or the spoilt food Michael C. Hall takes out of the refrigerator – with little else but these few words of mine to show for it. If only that food had been served hot. If only the squirrel had lived. If only. Or maybe not.
That’s just the problem with the second half of James Lapine’s reworking of Hart’s book. It tells – rather than compellingly dramatizes – the story of how Hart and Kaufman collaborated on Once in a Lifetime (1930). Watching two guys sitting around drafting a play isn’t nearly as riveting as experiencing that play or the evolution of it. And, to me, at least, it didn’t help matters that, several years ago, I saw a lifeless National Theatre production of Once in a Lifetime, starring David Suchet. What should have been sheer madcap felt drowsily close to one nightcap too many.
If the play, in this production, at least, isn’t quite a cure for drama dependency, that may be because it isn’t sufficiently catching to be an antidote to theater madness. It has a cuteness about it that is merely subcutaneous. It doesn’t prick you, or hook you, or infuse you with the passion of which it can only speak in borrowed words.
“I don’t think he’s written a line that’s unnecessary,” Adrian Scarborough remarked about Henrik Ibsen during rehearsals for the latest production of Hedda Gabler at London’s Old Vic, in which Scarborough plays the part of Hedda’s husband. The endorsement is peculiarly out of place, considering that the Old Vic’s Hedda hardly distinguishes itself by—or even strives for—a line-by-line fidelity to Ibsen’s original. Rather than a rewording of previous translations, Brian Friel’s “new version” puts a few new words into the mouths of the old, familiar characters created by his fellow playwright, adding a line here and there that left me questioning their necessity.
Now, few theatergoers around the world are in a position to compare Ibsen’s Norwegian to the translation in which they hear those lines performed; and whether a character (in this case Hedda) says “But of course one has to grow accustomed to anything new” or “New surroundings take a little getting used to” seems to make little difference. Are such substitutions worth the bother? What’s more, are they worthy of a playwright like Friel?
“But of course one has to grow accustomed to anything new.” That line can be found in the American-English translation by Rolf Fjelde, who, in an effort of doing “the very best [a translator] can do,” kept “a conscience-file of revision” in hopes of getting the opportunity “Finally [to] Get It Right.” Fjelde got that chance—and the result seems not particularly in need of further emendation. Playwright Friel, though, is not about to offer his services as a mute transcriber whose job is to interpret without drawing attention to the interpreter and the challenges or impossibilities of arriving at any one definitive text in a given or taken language. Friel does not claim his English version to be the last word—and, rather than having us take his word for it being faithful, wants to have a word with us about it.
To do so, Friel inserts hints of himself into the action, which, aside from Hedda’s quest to destroy, quite literally, the text of patriarchy, involves the contest between two published writers, both western and male. Most overtly, he does this by taking liberties with the lines spoken by the middle-aged Judge Brack who, in Friel’s version, confounds his listeners with Americanisms like “making whoopee” and provides a running commentary on the currency and lifespan of written and spoken language. “Philadelphia, there you go!” Friel seems to say to Fjelde, suggesting that Broadway and the West End may well require or at least warrant alternate versions of Ibsen and arguing that neither variant of English can or should be considered transcontinental, let alone universal.
Unlike Fjelde, Friel reminds us that we are in Norway, having characters drop names of places or remarking on the quality of “Norwegian air.” Yet, also unlike Fjelde, Friel reminds us, by foregrounding the novelty or datedness of words and debating their suitability, that we are not in any particular, definitive place at all but that we are instead in the contested, dangerous territory of language. It is a territory that Hedda seems to control for a while with her probing questions and scathing remarks but that nonetheless delimits and ultimately overmasters her.
As scholar Anthony Roche puts it, Friel demonstrates himself to be “concerned with updating the constantly changing English language that will always require new adaptations of Ibsen, while making subtle additions that perhaps deepen our understanding of the rich emotional lives of the characters.” Friel’s Hedda is almost as much about Ibsen’s characters as it is about the act of reading them … and of interpreting Ibsen. It is a self-conscious take on the act of taking on a classic that, in its reflexivity borders on the by now rather tiresomely postmodern. Give it your best shot, translator, I felt like responding, and let Hedda get her gun and do the rest.
That Hedda couldn’t quite do her job—and that Friel hadn’t quite done his—became apparent from the laughter in the audience even as Hedda was about to do away with herself in the ingenious glass coffin the Old Vic production had prepared for that purpose. “This is my first Ibsen,” commented actress Fenella Woolgar (who took on the part of Thea Elvsted), “and I’m discovering that he is a lot funnier than I anticipated.” Perhaps, that’s because this ain’t quite Ibsen and because Friel isn’t quite the Ibsen-minded processor anyone expecting a traditional Hedda interpretation is likely to expect.
“Translation,” as I said elsewhere (in an essay on the subject) is too mild a word to capture the violent process whereby a text written in one language and time is taken apart and rebuilt in another. Hedda is a violent play; but given that I find myself preoccupied with the making of this Hedda rather than with the unmaking of its nominally central character, I wonder whether Friel has not inflicted some harm, necessary or otherwise, on Hedda and Hedda alike …
Once, as I recalled here before, I had the audacity to tell a well-known biographer, whose student I was, that I had no respect for writers of other people’s life stories. Unless content to be mere chroniclers, recording activities and recounting events, they are fabricators of interiorities that, I was—and am— convinced, are unknowable to anyone other than the single occupant of that interior. For all our confidences and intimations, we are ultimately unreadable to one another.
In order to turn life into story, biographers must impose a logic beyond chronology, a pattern to make unreason rhyme. They connect the dots on a timeline to create causal relationships designed to account for people’s behaviors and actions: because she couldn’t face her past, she couldn’t live with herself; because she lost her brother, she lost her trust in family; because he was in truth insecure, he became a make-believe gunslinger. Without being supplied with at least a hint of what we call “motivation,” we reject stories as lacking in psychological depth and moral complexity.
Back when I gave my professor a piece of my mind—proffered, mind you, with a smile—I thought of the biographer’s determination to make sense of other people’s existences as sheer hubris. Now, I am more inclined to look at biography as an act of desperation. Nothing is more disconcerting, more silencing and disabling, than the blank we have to call potentiality in order to face or overwrite and deface it. We cannot—will not—settle for zilch.
Secrets and duplicities, intimacy and detachment. Like all family dramas worth relating to, Jon Robin Baitz’s stage play Other Desert Cities measures the distance between folks who are biologically—and often physically—closest to each other: the flesh, the blood and the closeted skeletons of kinfolk.
|Approaching Palm Springs (and Other Desert Cities)|
Baitz’s American stage family, the Wyeths, could hardly be more traditional: a mother and father, married to one another, a daughter and son, offspring of that union. Then there is the dramatically expedient extension of that nucleus; in this case an alcoholic, don’t-give-a-damn aunt whom the audience looks at as a go-between, not only between characters but between those characters and ourselves. It is a well calculated constellation, this, as Other Desert Cities does not just explore relationships but the act of relating, of putting that relationship and all those relations into words, and of questioning the words and the unspoken.
Though most of us couldn’t live with Aunt Silda (Judith Light, in the Booth Theatreproduction), we love her for what we are encouraged to read as her forthrightness and free spirit. She, we assume, would be the person most likely to tell the true story of that family, as compromised as her memory and judgment might be after years of swilling the kind of spirits from which she is unable to free herself.
|Hello Silda—The way I remember Palm Springs|
After all, we cannot expect to get the inside dirt from her sister Polly (Stockard Channing), a staunch yet tarnished Republican who is terrified that her daughter Brooke (Elizabeth Marvel) has written a tell-all autobiography threatening to tear the façade right off the family’s sunny Californian home.
Honey. News-flash: you’re not a Texan, you’re a Jew! We’re Jewish girls who lost their accents along the way, but for you that wasn’t enough, you had to become a goy, too. Talk about the real thing? Talk about ‘faking it.’ Honey, this Pucci is a lot more real than your Pat Buckley schtick.
As it turns out, neither Silda nor Polly are what we are led to believe them to be; and this is Brooke’s lesson, too, as she tries to piece together the life story of her lost brother, a left-wing radical whose act of terrorism forced Nancy Reagan pal Polly and her ex-Hollywood star husband Lyman (Stacey Keach) into retirement in the desert.
Desperate to figure out who or what made her brother Henry what the facts don’t quite tell her he was, Brooke turns from writing fiction to biography. Yet, in her attempt to expose the truth, she ends up with yet another version of the story rather than a definitive one. “She presents us as ghouls who drove [Henry] to become sort of a murderer,” her anguished, disconsolate father protests to his son (Thomas Sadoski), the “ADD riddled, junk-food-addicted porn surfing Trip Wyeth,” as Brooke calls him to his face.
“Christ, there’s something so vicious about what you’re doing here, Brooke, don’t you know that?” Lyman exclaims. Vicious and necessary, Other Desert Cities argues. And futile? As suggested by the closing scene, which may strike some as perfunctory or incongruously sentimental, Brooke’s ordeal—and the ordeal to which she put her family—has served a purpose.
What may seem like a coda or anticlimax I took as the point of the Baitz’s drama. As a biographer, Brooke has failed. She has been taken in, taken story for life and secrecy for guilt only to become complicit in her family’s cover-up. As an autobiographer, though, Brooke is to be envied. She has learned something about herself that she didn’t know before she came to investigate the lives of those around her. We may be unknowable to each other—but we can learn to know ourselves.
Like any wit, Vidal’s central character, William Russell, takes language seriously. He is not beyond lecturing and flinging the grammar at anyone who doesn’t play by the rules of that book, a volume that the upright man carries in his head.
Life is not a popularity contest; neither is politics. The important thing for any government is educating the people about issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion.
Few, no doubt, even bother, as they are more likely to have come to sample the wares on display in the latest Broadway production at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. The cast is headed by two sentimental favorites—Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones—whose presence, however lively, takes some of the bite out of the 1960 play, which now provokes nothing more effectively than nostalgia: a longing for politics that never were. Like politics, the business of staging a show is too much of a “popularity contest” to rely on a playwright’s words to win us over. Reading the script now without seeing the assembled personalities—Candice Bergen, John Larroquette, Eric McCormack—before me on that evening in May, I can better appreciate Vidal’s best lines—but, as a play, The Best Man remains ultimately unconvincing.
A few weeks ago, my better half and I were up in Manchester, England, to do research for an upcoming exhibition. While there, we had the good fortune of catching a production of Leonard Bernstein’s Wonderful Town starring Welsh girl gone West End Connie Fisher as Ruth. Though not quite the real thing, this revival of a Broadway musical version of a play (turned movie, turned sitcom) based on a series of magazine stories inspired by the personal recollections of an Ohioan in Gotham did manage to evoke some of the magic and the madness of life in the titular burg. And now that I’m back, the residential misadventures of Eileen and her sister come to mind each time I walk down Second Avenue in my old Upper East Side neighborhood. Like the McKenney siblings, whose Greenwich Village basement flat was shaken by blasts heralding a subway line then under construction, folks up here in Yorkville have been dealing for years with the pre-math of just such a subterranean project: the noise, the dirt, the traffic jams, the shut down stores, the narrowed sidewalks, the fenced in pedestrian passageways that make you feel like a laboratory rat . . . and the rats themselves.