On July 4th I was fortunate to be able to collaborate with London theatre-company “The Undisposables” for a “Digital Scratch Night” of new writing. It was an absolute pleasure and their production of my short play “The First Poet in Space” was dreamy and great.
My wife Natasha wrote about it the entire bill of plays for Forbes, where I once used to work, rushing from late night fact checking assignments to rehearsals in midtown and lower Manhattan as I tried and tried to establish myself as a playwright.
It’s funny how the world goes. For plays, I very much hope to concentrate on London going forward. Theatre has survived all manner of pandemic and it always comes back.
Fascinating article today about Milman Parry, the Harvard scholar who worked out how pre-literate societies like the ancient Greeks were able to compose, memorize and perform epic poems like The Iliad and The Odyssey. Parry found examples of this type of storytelling in other cultures, including the Bosnia of the 1930s. As with so much else, the capacity for Homeric storytelling seems to be a universal human trait.
What we’ll never know, but is fun to imagine from my perspective, is how these stories changed when told by different bards. I’d imagine each bard had their own style, based on their politics, religion, philosophy or homeland. I’d bet some were quirky and some serious. Some were angry and some were in awe.
How many ways can you tell the story of Odysseus’ voyage home? How many ways can you explain the motivations behind the invasion of Troy? What about all of the other Homeric hymns and the lost stories? Was their an epic Homeric universe?
Of course, we’re still retelling these stories. Over the last two years, I’ve read a bunch of these new takes on old tales and I recommend them all:
The Siege of Troy by Theodor Kallidatides (translated by Marlaine Delargy, Other Press, 2019)
The Odyssey (translated by Emily Wilson, W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.)
Circe by Madeline Miller (Little, Brown and Company, 2018)
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Ecco, 2012)
Wake Siren, Ovid Resungby Nina MacLaughlin (Macmillan, 2019)
Barnes & Noble pulled a “hold my beer” after the American Dirt fiasco and announced the Black History Month publications of some classic texts with the main characters featured as people of color on the cover. What I find most interesting about the story is at the end of this Slate wrap up, where it is revealed that: “The head diversity officer of TBWA\Chiat\Day [the agency behind the initiative] took inspiration from J.K. Rowling’s response to a black actress being cast as Hermione in the London staging of The Cursed Child.”‘
The inspiration made sense. In theatrical productions, especially small ones, casting actors from different races or genders than the source characters is common, sometimes to controversial effect and sometimes to no discernible effect.
One reason for this, particularly at the community theater level is that parts are cast based on who’s available. But even in big commercial productions, a decision might be made because a director wants to bring a specific talent into the show. Also, at all levels, directors and producers might make these decisions to make a statement. It should go without saying (but it doesn’t) that casting a role for a character described as white with an actor from another background, is generally okay but the reverse is not, given the art form’s history (and present) of exclusion, not to mention blackface.
This is extremely common with classic texts, like Shakespeare. Often, the director, producer or dramaturg will have to make adjustments around the casting, though. This just can’t be done with books, hence the very reasonable objection, highlighted in Slate, that “The project assumes that stories written by and about white people are somehow racially neutral and that you can just slap a black or brown face on them and declare them diverse. But just because a character isn’t described as having pale skin or golden hair doesn’t mean that their whiteness isn’t a part of their narrative.”
Unless you’re going to rewrite the books, making diverse covers just isn’t going to cut it. Seems like one of the reasons that the Barnes & Noble project was appealing is that, as with recasting and rewriting Shakespeare, you are operating in the lower-cost and rules-free realm of the public domain. Maybe a better alternative would have been to have published and highlighted a set of public domain classics from diverse authors. One would have to start planning now to execute this next February.
Classic Stage Company has a fantastic and advanced Frankenstein on stage right now, playing in repertory with a fresh adaptation of Dracula. The new telling if Frankenstein by writer Tristan Bernays presents the story of Frankenstein and his abandoned creature with just two actors one playing mostly the Creature (and sometimes Frankenstein) and the other a musician who represents a chorus of the books other characters, including the Blind Man, the child, and Frankenstein’s bride, Elizabeth.
The Bernay’s adapation really captures the origin the Mary Shelley’s story — it’s like being told a macabre tale in a darkened room on a winter night. The adaptation is a triumph.
In a two person show, the cast obviously has to be strong and versatile. CSC has access to the best talent so it’s no surprise that Stephanie Berry impresses with her range and stamina in the lead roles and Rob Morrison keeps the rhythm and atmosphere of the show as the chorus. Director Timothy Douglas ably leads a cast tasked with inspiring our imaginations.
I grew up with and have long practiced a kind of first amendment absolutism that seems now to be out of step with our times. It’s not that people don’t believe in the first amendment — polls show that most do and pretty much everyone I know would say they do — it’s more that people will no longer rank it as the highest value as issues of safety and social equality have taken new precedence in our discourse.
I first encountered this impulse directly in the 1990s, as part of an Albuquerque-based theatre company producing Ntzozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf with a multiracial cast, a decision that ran afoul the sensibilities of a local bookstore and led to protests. It didn’t even matter to those offended that Shange had explicitly blessed the production and casting.
We tend to view new attitudes about speech and whats constitutes offensive speech as a highly contemporary development, but this has been with us since the social awakenings of the 60s and was huge in the 90s. Along the way, the right of anybody to say whatever they want has eroded and the simple dismissal “you’re just complaining about the social consequences of speech,” doesn’t really suffice as an answer. Not if those social consequences are shutting people out of global conversations.
In an online literary forum where the topic of American Dirt was raised, I wrote: “We all have an absolute right to tell any story we want.”
The first response: “Hard disagree.”
This isn’t exactly an attack on the Constitution is how the argument tends to proceed. The Constitution only guarantees that the government will not stop something like American Dirt from being written and published. It makes no promises about people buying the book, agreeing to sell the book or not protesting the book’s existence. That’s all true. The right to write a book is equal to the right for somebody to protest the book’s existence. That’s the deal.
But I sill believe that the conviction that certain people shouldn’t even attempt to tell certain stories represents the beginning of an erosion of free speech. “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt,” is just not an argument I can get behind even as “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt badly,” is one I’m fine with.
We should argue about the quality of speech, not the existence of speech. The Freedom Forum Institute, which conducts an annual poll about first amendment attitudes shows that absolute support for free speech is slipping. In 2018, 23% of the poll respondents said that first amendment protections “go too far.” That number climbed to 29% in 2019. Can nearly a third of Americans really believe such nonsense?
35% of respondents believe that student journalists in public schools should need school administrator approval to write about controversial topics in student run publications. 27% believe that teachers should be allowed to punish students for the contents of their social media posts.
We allow and accept, by the way, that employers can fire people for what they post on social media or for having political bumper stickers on their cars. We also allow and accept that the massive corporate gatekeepers of the internet and the wider culture, like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Twitter can promote or ban whatever speech they want and we say that this is proper because they are private even though corporate censorship may be a bigger threat than government censorship in contemporary America.
I remember reading The Seagull in college, around the time when I’d delved head first into Sartre, Camus and Nietzsche and began nibbling around the edges of Dostoevsky. This is also when I’d begun studying playwriting and new professors exposed me to unfamiliar ideas. I entered the dramatic writing program at the University of New Mexico with Stephen Sondheim in my head as the master experimental writer. Soon, I was surrounded by Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, David Mamet and Tom Stoppard and then Bertolt Brecht and Max Frisch and Heiner Müller — just giving you a sense of where my head was at when I first cracked The Seagull. This was a huge period of awakening for a guy who really loved his Neil Simon and A.R. Gurney (and I still do!)
I was so enamored of Konstantin’s passionate attempts to create new forms of theatre and storytelling and very much identified with his disappointment and despair at being ignored by the literary establishment, personified Boris Trigorin, who doesn’t even bother to cut the pages of the journals that publish Konstantin’s work. Also, I found Masha’s lovesick nihilism to be… quite profound.
So then I called a friend of mine, who was performing in a production of The Seagull at a college in the pacific northwest and talked about my take on the play and she had been cast as Masha in a production that, as was fashionable in the 90s, presented Konstantin as a sort of Kurt Cobain figure and she said to me, after listening patiently to my explication — “Don’t you think all of that is meant to be funny?”
Of course, she was right and I had to reread and reconsider The Seagull in that light and I also had to reread and reconsider everything that had led me to read so much earnest intent into the script in the first place.
It was a valuable lesson about how where I am in life so greatly affects my reading.
“Looking Through the Glass” is a short play I wrote, based on Alice in Wonderland, originally for a 24-hour play festival for the Grex Group at the Player’s Theatre in Greenwich Village. It was later performed, with one member of the original cast, at a library reading series in Harlem and was also staged as part of the show Curious Conversations by the Eclectic Theatre Company of Los Angeles.
Download a copy of this easy-to-stage, ten minute play below: