Brighton Beach Memoirs (1984)


I have been wanting to go to a real-life play for a while, but not being able to find one that I was interested in locally, saw this in a thrift store (hooray for thrift!) and snapped it up. Reading a play would be almost as good as attending a play and this was on the old TBR, so win-win and perfect timing.

This is a well-known U.S. play written by Neil Simon and set in the Depression year of 1937 in New York. This small Jewish family is in the middle of a poor immigrant neighborhood right at the start of WWII and with family over in continental Europe, there was a lot to worry about from almost every angle, both on the home front and abroad.

Extended family are living together in tight quarters so with money short and not much space, tempers can flare. Seen through the POV of 15 year old Eugene (these are his memoirs, after all), the audience travels through his adolescence when he is on the cusp of growing up, vacillating between being a kid (he’s a huge NY Yankees fan), and being an adult (puberty is hitting hard with regards to interest in the opposite sex).

I think I got a lot more from the play this time around for some reason. I saw the Matthew Broderick film when it first came out in 1986, but reading the actual script was a different experience. And, after having been a dedicated Seinfeld fan for decades, there were obvious echoes between the characters of Frank and Estelle Costanza and the family in this play. I wonder if there is any clear connections between Neil Simon and either Seinfeld or Larry David (who directed the series).

So – good read for a nice Spring day.


The Clothesline Muse

clotheslineWe were culture vultures the other day when Texas Tech brought “The Clothesline Muse” to a local stage and it was really a great experience. I’m not really a huge fan of modern dance having got nightmares from my early teenaged years of doing it at school during PE. (“Look – Be a leaf in the wind!!”) But this performance was not at all what I was expecting and I loved it.

It’s a multidisciplinary performance piece (and I say “performance piece” to sound arty, but another way to describe it could be a musical/dance/play/poetry mix which would still be accurate) – anyway, it’s an extremely polished well produced play (of sorts) which focuses on the relationship between a grandmother who is moving into an assisted living place and is being helped with the packing by her young granddaughter. As the boxes are packed, the granddaughter is struggling to meet her work deadlines at the same time (via phone/email), but as they eventually slow down the pace of packing, the elder woman starts to tell the younger stories of her long-ago youth. These stories cover the personal but also the political: emerging labor movement rights, African-American history, civil rights issues, women’s rights… All seen through the lens of the grandmother who was a washerwoman, a laundress, and as the play continues, it shows that there can be pride in the most menial of jobs.

This was a fantastic mélange of music and memory, of lithe young dancers doing impossible moves with their bodies and of the slow stiff body of the aged, of songs giving voice to those who had none… I think I may sound a bit gushy here, but this play is good enough to be gushy about. The singers were fantastic – jazzy (without being annoyingly improvisational) and extremely good. Nnenna Freelong plays the lead role and she is an award-winning Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist and wrote the play. What was a great extra touch was that once the performance was over, the cast came out to the front of the stage and took questions and answers from the audience (who included high school as well as univ students). For such a great cast to take the time to add this educational component that was very well received by the younger audience members.

The Clothesline Muse is touring the US right now, so you might want to check the listings to see if it’s coming close to where you are. I highly recommend it if you like music, plays, dance, issues-focused culture, or extremely good anything.

Loved it!

(Just made it at the end of February as part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition.)


Pygmalion – George Bernard Shaw (1912)


“What is life but a series of inspired follies? The difficulty is to find them to do. Never lose a chance: it doesn’t come every day.”

Although having been vaguely familiar with this story, I’d never actually sat down and read the actual play or researched its background, so decided to do that this week. I’m quite new to reading plays and it’s rather a different experience than reading a novel, but it’s enjoyable all the same. This one, based on Greek myth, is a familiar story structure based on taking someone (sort of Noble Savage/Frankenstein idea) and then transforming them into a higher class of creature (a la Cinderella tale). And as a sign of the times and the national culture, this play’s characters are extremely class-ridden. (There’s also a trace of the ongoing Science versus Art debate as well.)

In this case, the characters of Dr. Higgins and Colonel Pickering, two self-taught scholars in linguistics, pull flower seller Eliza Doolittle off the streets and teach her how to act like a Duchess. There are, of course, unforeseen events that occur and the play is actually much more serious than the adaptation “My Fair Lady” would have you believe along with a PoMo ending of sorts. There’s definitely an element of Higgins/Pickering (both men) being Superior Gods of a type, and Eliza (the female character) being molded/taught and in the position of a child or less being.

(Some say that Pinocchio is an adaptation of this Greek myth as well, and the narrative was well known before this play was published and now afterwards. Magnum PI and Star Trek: Voyager, for instance, both have versions, and then there are numerous Hollywood versions including Pretty Woman and with an interesting twist backwards, the Stepford Wives.)

prettywoman_pygmalionAccording to Greek myth (and Ovid, although I haven’t read Ovid), Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with a statue he carved. (The statue’s name was Galatea, FYI, and quite frequently the two names are paired together. (Doesn’t come up too often in my social circles though.) The story finishes with a happy ending in most versions (as there was a popular demand for that at the time), but Shaw plainly didn’t want that to happen (even though it did in some of the more commercial stage productions – which he hated.) In 1916, four years after the play had first been staged, Shaw was cross enough to add an afternote to the play in which he explains why he thought the ending had to be the way he wrote it. (It’s not a predictable ending, for the most part. The narrative is also quite feminist for the times, which is supported by Shaw’s background and philosophy.)

“I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now you’ve made a lady of me, I’m not fit to sell anything else.”

Shaw was an Irish playwright and worked to establish the London School of Economics (although it’s not clear to me what the connection would be between these two areas.) His mum was a professional singer, one of his sisters was a professional singer, so there was stage in his bones and childhood experiences. He was an ardent socialist (clear in this play) and, curiously enough, is the only person who has ever been awarded both the Nobel Prize in Literature (1925) and an Oscar (1935) for his work on Pygmalion. Having no want for public honor, Shaw wanted to refuse the Nobel but accepted it at his wife’s bequest. The financial prize was personally rejected and he asked that it be used to finance translation of a Swedish playwright’s work.

Interesting note: Shaw joined the British Interplanetary Society, a group focused on space travel and exploration, when he was 91. I love that he was always learning something new throughout his life.

A Doll’s House – Henrik Ibsen (1879)

A Doll's House - IbsenSince we went to see some local community theater the other day, I thought it might be fun to read another play (especially since my last reading of a play on-line was rather strange). So – I dug up “The Doll’s House” by Norwegian Henrik Ibsen and published in the later nineteenth century.

I hadn’t really realized (or perhaps noticed), but reading a play forces the reader to add most of the details of what is happening in your head. There is solid dialogue to go on, naturally, but the background details – the rooms, the house, the characteristics of each person in the narrative – are vague so it’s rather like reading a blank slate. When I think about it, I suppose that same argument would hold for reading a novel, but it still seems that reading a play is a different and more imaginative experience.

And I don’t say this in a judging way at all – there are great plays as well as great books – but just a different experience to go through. Perhaps I hadn’t really paid attention to this as I don’t have a great deal of reading of plays as background. It was just interesting to note.


Henrik Ibsen

Back to the play itself: It’s the story of a middle class family and the wife who has a large unwieldy secret that she needs to keep secret from her controlling husband. (He was one of the more annoying characters that I have come across in a long time. Sorry, Torvald husband guy. You were.) As the play progresses and the audience/reader learns more about the reasons and motivation behind this big secret, Ibsen keeps you guessing what will happen until the third Act when the beans are spilled. It’s a well written critique of women’s roles in the Victorian time in Norway and elsewhere, and this is really what the play is famous for, I believe. Ibsen’s lead female character, Nora, realizes that the only way that she will ever blossom and become who she wishes to be is to leave. Her awful husband, Torvald, is so controlling (and will always be) that she can not see an end – an epiphany that only arrives at the same time as the secret is revealed. (Trying not to give the game away here.)

I think this would be one of the earliest feminist plays, although Ibsen himself argued that he was not really writing about women’s suffrage (on various levels) when he penned this work, but more that he was writing a “description of humanity” and the importance of learning about the world and yourself freely. It’s obvious that this is a message that strikes with many people as this is of most performed plays in history. It’s a quiet play – no loud drama etc. – but it packs a punch in its understated way. I’d love to see this performed somewhere live.

After the slight disaster of my reading of Chekhov’s play (see here), this was a really good read and it was a surprise to me to read about women’s rights in this context. The wife compares her marriage as the husband treating her like a very silly doll, only concerned with looking pretty and raising her children (also ”silly” people in the eyes of moron husband). So she feels that she lives in a “Doll’s House” and thus the title of the work. Her only hope is to leave and to learn things for herself.

This was much better than I had thought it was going to be so I recommend it. (And definitely go to see the play if it’s available as I think would be really good to see.)

The Cherry Orchard – Anton Chekhov (1904)

The Cherry Orchard - Chekhov

The Cherry Orchard – Chekhov

Having absolutely no familiarity with Chekhov (except for his namesake Chekov in Star Trek), I was curious to read some of his work. I am not that familiar with reading plays – I love to attend good ones locally, but I have found that reading a play and watching a play can be two very different experiences.

So – trawled around the ‘net for a while and decided on The Cherry Orchard as my first foray into his work.  Having finished it, I am not quite sure what has made this work so famous. It seemed pretty ordinary to me (although I do expect to get harpooned by avid fans when I say this).  What is the big deal about this?

The play is set in Russia (naturally, as Chekhov was Russian), and focuses on a family of the aristocracy and the return of the matriarch after having lived overseas for quite some time. Essentially, the family estate (which includes a large and famous cherry orchard) is faced with foreclosure due to unpaid debts and they have to decide what to do with this: do they sell the orchard and their grounds to another family? Do they sell it to a real estate developer (equivalent) and see it sectioned off into holiday cottages and the orchard dug up?

So, as a reader, it would seem appropriate to expect some kind of settlement by the end of the play, but this is not to be. I am very open to Po-Mo endings, Po-Mo anything really, but this particular version just struck me as pointless – absolutely nothing happens.  There are endless conversations about what various people think should happen, but after all that build-up, there is nada. As mentioned before, I am not a reader who necessarily needs a story to have the ending all wrapped up and in a pretty bow, but at least make it have a point in some way. (Unless I am missing something?)

There are some obvious themes throughout the story — the changing roles of class in Russian society, the theme of identity (and changing identity) — which were interesting when you link them back to what was happening to Chekhov personally: his family ended up in poverty and having to sell their own house to cover costs, Chekhov himself refurbished a house later in his life (complete with orchard and pond) upon which he lavished care and in the words of his brother, “look[ed] after… as though they were his children,” , the play has a physician and Chekhov was a physician etc…

Chekhov died of TB just after this play came out, and one apocryphal anecdote has it that his body was transported to Moscow in a refrigerated railway care for fresh oysters which caused a bit of a hoopla for those involved…

In further researching this, it was noted in numerous sources that most producers are not sure how to show the play – is it a tragedy? Is it a comedy? And I think that here is the crux of the whole problem – because the play does not commit itself to one or the other, I wonder that it becomes less than either.

As mentioned in the introduction, I am not a Chekhov expert by any means, nor am I an experienced dramatist or reader of plays, so it might well be that I am missing something vital here in my interpretation of The Cherry Orchard. Can anyone enlighten me?

Chekhov Star Trek

The Clothes They Stood Up In (1996) / The Lady in the Van (1994) – Alan Bennett

Two novellas written by playwright and author Alan Bennett which both showcase his sense of humor and his gentle handling of people’s odd foibles and habits. I had read Bennett’s autobiographical work of letters and essays last year or so, and had enjoyed it although the name-dropping was wasted on me as I was not familiar with most of them. It was in that book (Writing Home) that there was the first mention of The Lady in the Van.

Bennett must have had a heart of pure gold to allow curmudgeonly Miss Shepherd (the namesake of the van story) to live in her rickety old van permanently for years in his own driveway in London. I think that the original agreement for her and her van/home to stay there must have been somewhat impulsive and occasionally regrettable as she was filthy and rudely eccentric. His neighborly heart must be bigger than mine. I wonder how his neighbors felt about this act of generosity?

This novella, The Lady in the Van, is an entertaining collection of Bennett’s diary entries over the fifteen years she lived on his property and she was quite the character. Bennett does a great job of describing the ongoing mix of charitable intentions and unutterable frustration this neighbor caused in his life, but regardless of what obstacles she raises, he continues in a vein of kindness. Not a God-like level of kindness, but just an ongoing sweetness of spirit that I can’t imagine having myself for this woman. (She was a very cantankerous woman who had unexplainable and unchanging filthy habits not helped by the fact that she elected to live in a space that was without plumbing or electricity.) When she eventually died, it was received by a perfectly understandable mixture of relief and grief for Bennett.

The other novella, The Clothes They Stood Up In, concerns the fictional story of a middle class middle-aged couple who, after having lived in their flat for 35 years, come home after an evening at the opera to find that every single thing they had previously owned had been stolen — everything from the silver tableware to the box of matches and the casserole that was cooking in the oven.

Bennett is very skilled at describing characters and writing their thought processes so that I, as the reader, really felt as though I would know these people in real life – the husband, a staid solicitor with conservative views and a quiet subdued wife who takes everything at her husband’s word. Their differing reactions to the burglary and how it changes these two individuals was well described and although the explanation about the robbery was somewhat contrived, the ending rang very true for me.

Bennett is a master writer and it is not surprising that he has been recognized with numerous awards. He seems to have an affinity for damaged characters, but perhaps it’s more of a fondness for the human race as aren’t we all damaged in some way really?

A funny and poignant read.