Aria Da Capo

Norma Millay and Henderson Forseyth rehearsing Aria da Capo in the 1919 Provincetown Players production.

I've never read this small piece of theatre history, and somehow never had never even heard of it. I suppose it's not surprising that it launched during those heady days of the Provincetown Playhouse when Eugene O'Neill was struggling mightily against naturalism with plays like Emperor Jones and The Hairy Ape.

We start in the midst of a surreal Harlequinade, then a drama unexpectedly takes over the stage which relates the story of two shepherds that erect a wall and proceed to become increasingly greedy and violent until they kill each other. The Harlequinade returns, and the bodies of the shepherds are covered up.

Pierrot:...We can't
Sit down and eat with two dead bodies lying
Under the table! ... The audience wouldn't stand for it!

Cothurnus:What makes you think so? --
Pull down the tablecloth
On the other side, and hide them from the house,
And play the farce. The audience will forget.

Pierrot:That's so.

I love the concept, that blend of comedy and tragedy that Brecht would use so successfully a couple of decades later in plays like Mother Courage and Caucasian Chalk Circle. A jarring juxtaposition of comedy and violence is one of the truly great theatrical effects, as the audience starts to realize they are an audience and are reacting in public. It can raise the awareness of the theater as a uniquely live artform, and this moment in Aria Da Capo should send chills down my spine.

But it doesn't.

Why? It's a strawman argument, this implication of the audience in a glib acceptance of death. I get where Millay's going, but a highly stylized and simplistic parable just isn't playing fair. I can't "forget" the shepherds, because they never reach beyond allegory into anything that I should actually care about in the first place. I can scratch my chin and appreciate the demonstration of "man's inhumanity to man", but it's hard to get beyond that into a relationship that would make me feel bad about covering up the bodies. If the whole play is archly surreal, what's one more oddity and why should I be reacting emotionally to it?

It's another play - and it seems I keep saying this - that must have been shocking at the time, but that dealt its damage and then we moved on. They are no longer what they were, so do you stage them any more? And if so, how: by honoring them, or utterly reinterpreting them?

May Plays

I'd like to spend a month reading plays I will enjoy. Frankly, reading and writing bon-mots about Christopher Durang isn't the life of champagne wishes and caviar dreams that it first appears. It's a lot harder and more interesting to write about something that thrills you.

So, in honor of my natal month I am going to have a party. It's a party where plays I'm interested in but haven't met yet come by, have a piece of cake, and let me read them.

(That metaphor fell apart right quick, didn't it?)

May 4: Three Days of Rain by Richard Greenberg
A friend is directing this. A friend with whom I would dearly love to work, so let's see what is in there.

May 11: The Changeling by Middleton and Rowley
My oldest girl asked what a changeling was a while ago, just around when my wife and I went to our youngest's first grade class to talk about Ireland ... where girl asked about changelings. The good folk at Impact did an adaptation of the play just months before a Chicago friend was involved in a production. Universe ... I get the message.

May 18: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis
What you don't know about me? One real interest of mine is Early Christian History: the Historical Jesus, the writing of the Gospels, the early Church, etc. It's endlessly fascinating stuff, and no figure more fascinates me than Judas ... both historically and theologically. So this promises to be a treat.

May 25: The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Because I want to read Tarell Alvin McCraney. 'Nuff said. (And because I bought this last year, and found a copy for nowhere near the obscene price Amazon is asking now.)

Actor's Nightmare

Ahhh ... Christopher Durang. He's like the theatre's own Woody Allen.

Excepting, of course, that the theatre already has its own Woody Allen.

... I suppose he's like the theatre's own Catholic Woody Allen.

So, then: The Actor’s Nightmare, that darling of community theatres and one-act festivals everywhere. A script I saw again and again and again throughout speech competitions in high school, placing it firmly alongside Extremities, Lone Star, and 'Night Mother. (I wonder what kids do these days? What are those endless Dramatic Interps that define this generation? Proof? Wit? Doubt? I should go judge just to see.)

Actually, this reading was .... refreshing. Given some distance I was able to see the play differently, with clearer eyes. Too often the play (and a lot of Durang) strikes me as a tiresome exercise in theatre in-jokes combined with intellectual snobbery and more than a soupçon of New-York-Is-The-Center-Of-Reality that relies on us all patting ourselves on the back about how educated and cultured we are. (Need I mention the Catholic guilt and therapy for aforesaid Catholic guilt? .... I needn't.)

But this time through ... boy, if you stripped away the low-budget community theatre trappings and really threw some design at the piece, you could have something, couldn't you? A surreal phantasmagoria that could be a fun head trip for the audience ... a comic Strindberg. Imagine playing more to the Nightmare than the Actor, looking at the mindscape of a guilt-ridden theater aficionado.

... Of course you'd still be left with a slight one-act that doesn't have a story arc or a point other than Catholic guilt and theater references. But it'd be pretty to look at!

Stage Directions

Israel Horovitz is one of the seminal American playwrights of the 70's, but I've never known much of his work. To me, he's most notable for producing Indian Wants The Bronx and 1/3 of the Beastie Boys. It's probably a gap in my reading I need to address at some point, that generation that grew up around Caffe Cino and La Mama. I'm often surprised by the playwrights of that generation, like Horovitz and Lanford Wilson and John Guare. Coming of theatrical age in the nineties, they were the Old Guard and it's a shock when I'm reminded how experimental they were, how groundbreaking. For Christ's sake ... Line's been running continuously since 1974 and has an introduction here by no less than Eugene Ionesco.

Stage Directions is one of those experiments, a formal exercise where the characters speak only in stage directions. It's interesting as an experiment, waiting to see if Horovitz can execute and stick the landing. And it's largely a successful highwire act: he cheats a bit in a long section of exposition, but otherwise tells a simple silent scene of grief in an incredible amount of detail that would otherwise never work on stage. I think that incredible detail is fascinating, as it emphasizes small gesture over big words and points out what we so often give short shrift to on stage.

But is the underlying content a scene worth seeing, and a story that needs to be told beyond that formal exercise? Three siblings come into a room after a funeral consumed with grief and lust and leave in about the same state. There's not a lot of journey, and quite a bit of creepy. I suppose the question I ask is whether I would be as interested in the script if it were not for the exercise of speaking only in stage directions ... and the answer's not "yes".

Exception And The Rule

The characters in Exception and the Ruleare named for their professions: Merchant, Guide, Judge, Inkeeper ... and Coolie.


Blame Eric Bentley, I suppose. I don't know the original German. But any way you slice it, "Coolie" is a tough bit to swallow. Especially in a play baldly written to be in defense of the underclass, like a Theatre Of The Oppressed written by the oppressor.

One of Brecht's Lehrstücke, this is a simple play, where politics and the Alienation Effect take center stage. How can I tell the Verfremdungseffekt is at work? Because a chorus of actors open and close the play telling us to "find it estranging even if not very strange." I suppose "subtlety" is not one of the charges often leveled against Brecht.

The Lehrstücke were never intended to be for a theater audience, never intended to be anything other than basic. I think there's an argument to be made that as much as Brecht loved "The Worker", he acted as so many socially active intelligentsia do and talked down to them as if they were children. As piece of mature theater, The Exception And The Rule is lacking in almost anything beyond historical significance.

I understand Brecht's place in the development of the modern theater: his influence is everywhere. So much of what we take for granted now is his legacy that we can barely recognize the theatrical conventions he was railing against. But even the theatre's greatest enfant terrible grows up eventually. How do you reconceptualize Brechtianism for today? Like Waiting For Lefty, what was once incendiary now seems dated, and the steadfast adherence to staging techniques that were once revolutionary only serves to ossify him more. I don't know that his classic alienation techniques work for any experienced theater audience anymore - they are old hat, and I imagine Brecht would shudder at the thought that his techniques have become theatrical Scared Writ, honored but no longer expanded upon.

We've reinvented Shakespeare again and again, and even Chekhov now is becoming fertile ground for reinterpretation. When do we free Brecht the dramatist from Brecht from the theorist, and allow him to expand beyond his time and place? Part of that will be the ability to realize what plays were written by which Brecht, and this is a case where the content is purely driven by theorist, except for a wrinkle in the resolution that points to the complexities the playwright will later grow into.