by Isaac Butler
Marshall Mason on Hot L:
Norman Lear discussing his failed TV series adaptation:
A promo for that adaptation that shows, fairly clearly, that the network had no idea what to do with the show:
by Isaac Butler
Marshall Mason on Hot L:
Norman Lear discussing his failed TV series adaptation:
A promo for that adaptation that shows, fairly clearly, that the network had no idea what to do with the show:
Editor's Note: One of the ways that people of my generation were first exposed to Lanford Wilson was through high school and summer camp theater programs. Certainly, that's how I encountered Rimers and Burn This as a Junior Counselor at Buck's Rock Summer Camp. Wilson's early plays in particular make for good high school theatrical fodder as there are lots of parts, but the plays rarely rely overtly on any one person to make them work. But that ignores the content of them to some extent. Rimers, The Hot L Baltimore, Balm In Gilead and the larger cast experimental one acts like The Family Continues are hardly what people think of when they think of high school drama. In this essay, Sergei Burbank tracks down some of his classmates to recall their experience doing Rimers, a play they fully admit they didn't understand at the time, but which has haunted them ever since.
Lanford Wilson’s dark, fractured play The Rimers of Eldritch is a glimpse of hell with gingham. The work shows the lengths to which we go to conceal the evil that we can do. It’s a short work -- just over 60 pages -- but when you perform it, Rimers can feel like forever. I know: I played the dual role of Judge/Preacher in my high school’s production of the play fourteen years ago. For my classmates and I, that hour onstage seemed an eternity -- and the experience left a profound impression that persists a decade and a half later. As I sought out my former classmates for an hour of their time to reminisce about a play we performed for three nights half a lifetime ago, I discovered the piece had been on their minds as much as it was on mine in the intervening years. Something about the play continues to speak to all of us, even though only a couple of us went on to professional (or, in my case, semi-professional) careers in theater.
I wonder what our teacher was thinking at the time. Rimers, set in Wilson’s native state of Missouri, is the fragmented tale of a once-prosperous, decaying Bible Belt coal town, focusing on the murder of aging hermit and town outcast Skelly by a townswoman, Nelly, who believes he is committing rape; in fact, when she arrives on the scene, she interrupts his attempt to prevent the same. There’s a teen pregnancy, moments of shocking vulgarity, a two-page monologue about a woman’s “fantastic tits” and characters who range in age from teenagers to senior citizens. The Music Man this ain’t.
Adding to the difficulty, the impressionistic script jumps vertiginously in time, place, and focus. Multiple scenes often co-exist:
MARY. All the buildings bowing and nodding.
PATSY. Movie house been closed down eight years.
TRUCKER. Can't avoid it. I guess.
NELLY. You fall down, you bruise, you run into things, you're old.
WILMA. The wages of sin lead to death.
PATSY. Tumbleweed blowing down the deserted streets.
MARY. And the flowers dry up and die.
SKELLY. You didn't go to the race to see him kill himself.
PECK. You watch yourself.
EVA. And it covers everything and that's rime.
Wilson’s stage directions demand a bare set; the effect in performance is an unblinking, unsettling portrayal of a society with few, if any, heroes. The audience is given no respite, no way to look away; only the ugliness the characters themselves refuse to see is on display. It’s a lot for a student -- or their parents in the audience -- to grapple with.
It’s an experience that stuck with my classmates. Daniel Isquith teaches high school students on the Upper West Side; he played Robert Conklin -- a troubled young man who embodies everything that seems to have gone wrong about the place: his older brother, known as “Driver,” raced cars at the now-defunct racetrack, and while he’s remembered by Eldritch’s upstanding citizens as the shining light of days gone by, it becomes increasingly clear throughout the play that he was a sexually sadistic bully. Robert, called “Driver Junior,” ambiguous about his brother’s legacy, simultaneously defends and questions it before until succumbing to his darker impulses for reasons that aren’t made entirely clear. It was on Isquith to answer some of those questions for himself:
“Rimers was so stark and brutal. There was no set, just a couple platforms; everything was pantomimed. The starkness of it made the brutality more raw.”
Over the course of the script, as with the unseen character Driver, slices of life in Eldritch reveal an increasingly unflattering picture.
PATSY. It's a trash heap is what it is. I don't know what keeps us here; I swear I don't. Maybe it was all right when you were young. The only people who ever come into town is people to drive around looking around, poking around to see what a ghost town looks like. ... Tumbleweed blowing through town, it's so creepy I don't know how anyone can stand it.
In 1997 Boomtime New York City, the decaying town of Eldritch could not have been more foreign if it was set on another planet. By the end of the 1990s the Dow Jones Industrial Average had doubled, welfare rolls decreased by 18 percent, and eleven million jobs had been created. The unemployment rate almost halved -- from 7.5 percent the year Bill Clinton took office to 4 percent when he left. Our school was in one of the most prosperous neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
“For me, the idea that it was in a small town in the sixties put it so far away from anything -- my stereotypes about people in New Jersey are bad enough,” says Laura Rubin, who played the promiscuous teenager Patsy and now teaches in Manhattan. She found it hard to connect with “people in a small town in Ohio. Yeah, their town is decaying; it’s so sad they’re living in Ohio! There wasn’t a big effort on my part to see the good in this town being portrayed in the play. It’s a weird small town of white people -- they’re crazy. They’re not sophisticated. They’re not us.”
Increasing the rhetorical distance between the characters and ourselves was the element of publicly professed faith. Our school community was the just-invented Fox News Channel’s picture-perfect children of the godless liberal elite. Wearing one’s faith on one’s sleeve was considered poor form; any effort to use the bible as a tool for public shaming would have met with derisive laughter.
Jessica Hochman, who today works some twenty feet from my desk at a consulting firm in an industry that could not be further from theater, struggled to inhabit the hyper-religious Evelyn Jackson.
EVELYN. My daughter is a virgin! She's pure! She's a Christian, from a Christian home; a daughter of God and you'd put your word against the word of a virgin. A beer swilling harlot. Everyone knows. A drunken whore of Babylon!
CORA. I talked to her because I knew Skelly would never. Never harm anyone.
EVELYN. Harlot! Daughter of Babylon! Go back to your beer parlor; your house of sin. You couldn't keep your husband and you couldn't keep your whore boy friend. In the name of God.
“There was no part of my family life that resonated with the character,” recalls Hochman. “My grandparents came from a small town, but that didn’t enter into my secular household.”
While in 1997 it was a mere historical curio, Rimers sounds unfortunate echoes with our country now. Today, we understand life in the war-weary and fractious society of 1967. The concept of our slumping into a terminal decline doesn’t merely resonate -- it has become our dominant narrative.
Most seventeen-year-olds, however, are not occupied with the cycles of history, nor are they worried about decline and decay. Daniel Isquith: “At seventeen years old you think you have a decent handle on things; you know you don’t know everything, but you feel you know a hell of a lot more than you actually do.”
Laura Rubin: “I didn’t get it all. There was one scene, two lines in I was supposed to cry, and I wondered ‘why?’ but the structure was exciting. I didn’t understand the layers of unintentional deceit that the character was doing.”
PATSY. I imagine we'll live in Centerville. You know, till we have enough money to get a place or maybe move somewhere. Probably right in town; there's a wonderful place over the barbershop, the Reganson one on the corner with windows on both sides that's been empty for weeks. I only hope someone doesn't beat us to it. I want to tell Chuck to put some money down on it. I don't want to live with his folks. I just can't stand them and I don't think they think too much of me either. They're so square and old-fashioned. They really are. They don't even smoke or believe in make-up or anything.
LENA. Chuck is wonderful, he really is. I'm just so surprised.
PATSY. (Beginning to cry gently.) He was so cute; he said would I mind not being in school next year, junior year and I said of course I'll miss my friends, but would I mind?
With their duplicity and desires, these children were us, even if we couldn’t fully realize them on stage. The late Marlene Clary, our educator and director, had to find performers from her high school corps. The teenaged characters presented a challenge distinct from the older ones. Sometimes, my cast-mates had to portray a sexual awakening that had not yet begun in their offstage lives.
According to Isquith, “sex was a hard thing to wrap my head around; forget rape, sex itself was beyond me ... something I was really comfortable with being beyond me. It wasn’t merely hard, it was impossible for me to access as a seventeen year old. There’s two or three lines before Robert becomes a rapist, I think? Maybe it’s a way of showing how amazingly repressed -- everything is under the rug in this town, and is on the verge of exploding, so it’s on he verge of exploding. As a kid, I wondered ‘how do you play that?’”
“I liked being cast as a sexual being; I had an orgasm right in front of my parents!” Rubin recalls. “It was bad-ass, but not reflective of reality. These were things I thought I should be doing in real life, but instead the show was in contrast to real life. Rimers was an introduction to sex. Whatever struggles I was having as an adolescent ... rehearsal was a respite from that. I learned about sexuality in a safe way, in a safe space. What’s even more remarkable was how this group of teenagers all needed to learn something different about sex, and all got it in different ways from the same text.”
“The biggest thing that stuck out in my mind was how amazingly traumatic it was,” says Isquith, “because Marlene really did push what high schools did. And having a rape scene on stage right in the front of the audience was pretty nuts. One of the nights we did it my grandmother was sitting right in front of the portion of the stage where the rape happens.”
Laura Rubin: “I’m really impressed with Marlene the more I understand the world and what was going on... She held us to real artistic expectations, and we met them. As a teacher now, and having known a lot of teenagers now; I appreciate more and more her high expectations of us. It takes a real leap of faith. What we do on stage she has no control over. The more and more I understand all of that the more impressed and grateful and impressed I am.”
SKELLY. Your brother you know what he did? You know what he did? He had to help himself. Had to help himself out. Out in his car parked on the road and in his room. He had to do it for himself.
ROBERT. Shut up!
SKELLY. That's what I know.
ROBERT. You're disgusting. You should be killed or jailed; my brother was a good person; he was a wonderful person.
SKELLY. He beat Betty Atkins and did it by hand. Jacking all on her. I've seen him. I've seen him.
Daniel Isquith: “Marlene cut a decent amount of stuff; she had to, really. Driver jacking off on the girl, we definitely didn’t do that.”
No matter how safe a space, you would be hard-pressed as a school administrator to sell parents on the idea that Rimers was a useful sex education tool.
Marlene’s cuts to our performance script reflected canny calculations on her part, and a lesson applicable far from the stage: to do the project you want, you pick the battles you can win. If turning a 17-year-old boy into a rapist mere feet from his parents is within acceptable limits of artistic expression, but describing ejaculation is not, you don’t question the underlying logic: you do what you can and move on.
Of course, the very idea that certain topics are appropriate for public consumption while others are not is the thought that metastasizes into the nightmare that is Wilson’s town of Eldritch. (Perhaps, even for well-meaning arts educators, there is only so much frankness one school can take.)
Laura Rubin: “I thought Patsy was a brat and a slut, but she’s also still human, so she’s not happy. That was my basic analysis. And the extent of my analysis of the town was: everyone’s fucked up.”
We acted in the play, but we didn’t necessarily understand it. Ours was the generation coming of age of Natural Born Killers and Chris Farley; subtlety was not the order of the day. With overlapping scenes and chaotic dialogue, it was natural for us to reduce the play into a straightforward whodunit. After all, at its basic points, there is a crime, a trial, various assignations, and a church service -- more than enough fodder to render the script’s subtler points invisible if you lack the sophistication to look for them.
Wilson keeps the overarching message of the play obscure. There is no surrogate for the audience, no cause to champion. Daniel Isquith: “I remember looking and trying to find people who were really good. I could read this play fifty different times and have a different idea what it was about. Which is maybe the sign of it being a good play.”
Laura Rubin: “I thought the play was about race because of Skelly. Marlene cast black students as Skelly, the Judge/Priest, and Lena. So re-reading it this year, I realized it doesn’t say anything about the race of Skelly in the script.”
Daniel Isquith: “Skelly is not necessarily black in the [script]. In my head when we were seventeen I thought ‘well, he has to be black.’ Which is a whole other issue. But in 1997 making him black made a whole lot more sense.”
(Naturally, had Wilson intended Skelly to be black, the denizens of Eldritch wouldn’t have tried Nelly Windrod for killing him to prevent him raping a white teenager: they would have given her a parade.)
Rimers was completely lost on me as well -- in a haze of adolescent self-absorbedness. My high school did two shows a year; going into the fall of my senior year, Skelly was supposed to be “my” part. Over the years, Marlene and I became quite close. In addition to acting in the shows and attending her classes, I worked as her assistant during her summer programs -- an arrangement that kept us working together for 11 months of the year. We remained close after I graduated. In college, I continued working in the summer programs and even stayed in a spare room in Marlene’s house. Marlene’s final directing job was for my now-defunct theatre company, helming a play about the afterlife as she struggled with a terminal illness.
In the summer before my senior year of high school, Marlene winked over her desk and said “have I got a part for you next year.” This line gelled with my own monstrous self-regard; not only was I getting my ticket punched, but I was watching it happen. At auditions, another kid came in, nailed it, got it, and I became a little less special.
Throughout high school, my bi-racial composition had never been a factor in my roles. Race itself was never a theme in our shows, partly because there were so few brown students dedicated to theater, and partly because examining race would have challenged our school’s post-racial utopia in uncomfortable, and perhaps counter-productive ways. Without becoming too much of an apologist for the departed, at the very moment where, across the East River, a public battle waged between Robert Brustein and another theatrical giant named Wilson about the practice of color-blind casting, that same practice was the unifying principle of theatrical life. But in my final year -- after playing Petruchio, Valentine, a policeman, and a mythical Greek captain, among others -- Marlene was choosing a role that acknowledged my otherness.
In retrospect, it was intended perhaps as a kind of final benediction from my mentor: the safe space of rehearsal was going to become a little more honest. After years of hearing tales of my treatment at the hands of the police, the elderly neighbors in my Brighton Beach neighborhood, the former neighborhood friends who I betrayed by going to a better school, she was going to guide me in a role that didn’t reflect our best hopes, but reflected how the world, in fact, was.
But in addition to being a teacher and a friend, she was a director; and that meant awarding the role to the best auditioning actor (eventually, I would be grateful for this early lesson).
At the time, none of the political ramifications registered: as an adolescent, it was all about me. The only thing I knew was that instead of a three-page monologue, I had a paragraph. I understood nothing of what the play had to teach me about loss or self-deception, because I was too busy deceiving myself. Only years later, as America’s seemingly inexhaustible self-regard was exhausted, did Rimers finally hit home. I did not despair then, because part of me thought: “I’ve heard something like this before...”
In the moment, however, a lot of the larger lessons of Rimers were lost on me. I was bitter for having lost out on ‘my’ role. I was obsessed with going to college without any idea that such a thing cost money. It was inconceivable that I would join the armed forces, let alone be drafted into them. When the most important argument swirling around the year 2001 was whether or not it was the true beginning of the next millennium, it was inconceivable that my heart could be broken by a place and not a person.
We did not understand it until much later, but that didn’t stop us. A gaggle of seventeen-year-olds got on stage during the country’s apogee and performed a eulogy for America. Marlene didn’t know it at the time, but in Wilson’s text she had provided us a tool for psychic survival that would be essential in the decades to come.
 These figures are pulled from Branch, Taylor, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009. p. 553.
Editor's Note: Rob Weinert-Kendt, who is an absolute badass when it comes to theatre and music, has brought his keen eye and keener pen to Lanford Wilson's The Hot L Baltimore, discussing how musicality works within a play where there is no actualy music.
No one sings a note in Lanford Wilson’s sprawling yet nimble 1973 ensemble piece The Hot L Baltimore. So why does the play’s character list suggest vocal ranges for nearly half of the dozen characters, from night clerk Bill Lewis (“Baritone”) to prostitute April Green (in possession of a “mellow alto laugh”), and at least make a point of mentioning the vocal quality of all the rest (“thin-voiced” Mrs. Bellotti, Mr. Morse’s “high, cracking voice”)? It’s a clear sign upfront that Hot L Baltimore was constructed as a piece of music as much as a play—that Wilson heard it chorally. And indeed, the overlapping dialogue that was a signature of Wilson’s first major full-length, Balm in Gilead, is in evidence here, but is here more assuredly orchestrated, less jagged and cacophonous, with clear leading lines and supporting accompaniment.
But the musical quality of Hot L is more than a simple effect or device; it’s not only a matter of sound. It’s embedded into the structure of the play; its three acts follow, with uncanny, almost impersonal discipline, a classical three-part sonata form, which is the bones of all the great classical symphonies: theme, development, capitulation. The first act introduces the characters and their concerns in turn, as Bill, the hotel’s night clerk, places a rhythmic series of 7 a.m. wakeup calls, while Girl—a 19-year-old call girl who’s tried on the names Billy Jean, Lilac Lavender, and Martha without letting any of them stick—lingers behind the desk as a not entirely unwelcome annoyance. We quickly learn not only that this shabby, faded hotel is something of a losers’ last resort but that it’s destined for demolition. Apart from the residents—a trio of prostitutes, two retirees, an antsy young hustler and her slow little brother—the place sees only business visitors (johns, a cab driver, a pizza delivery man) and a sad pair of family relations interceding on behalf of former tenants.
It’s the usual outsiders’ gallery, in other words, the sort Wilson was famous for humanizing right up to the edge of romanticizing them. He gives Girl and Millie, a kindly but distracted retired waitress, a kind of yin/yang dialogue about the passing of time (Millie’s resigned to it, the Girl can’t abide it), and this constitutes much of the thematic development in Act Two, which otherwise involves the efforts of a young college refugee, Paul, to find his grandfather’s last known address, and the posturings of Jamie and Jackie, more-pathetic-than-scary hustlers trying to subsist on natural foods and the occasional larceny. Along the way, Wilson’s characters draw the obvious links between the decay of the hotel and of its residents desperation with the crumbling state of the American polity. “If my clientele represents a cross-section of American manhood, the country’s in trouble,” says the wisecracking whore April, in a typical one-liner.
But what’s striking about these, and a number of other tart social observations, is that they’re mostly delivered offhand, effectively absorbed into the naturalistic ebb and flow of hotel lobby traffic—into the forward motion of the larger piece. And while Girl is the sort of heart-on-her-sleeve naif given to passionately youthful, painfully sincere pronouncements (“I want to see a major miracle in my lifetime!”), she gets no bravura, time-bending soliloquy, of the sort Darlene gets in Balm in Gilead.
In fact, nobody in Hot L gets speeches like that. Not only is there no big having-it-all-out, here’s-where-I-draw-the-line monologue; there’s no big showdown, either. The closest the play has to a climax is the champagne toast offered by Suzy, the svelte whore who constitutes zaftig April’s nemesis, as she departs in a cab for greener pastures and she and April spar to the point of mild tears one last time.
Throughout, the longest speeches are given to Girl, whose commentary provides something of a tissue for the play; she has a curiously moving—and yes, musical—moment in which she rattles off the names of a series of American cities, from Amarillo to Utica. And Millie has a series of reveries about her family in Act Two—slightly harrowing recollections of her family’s vanishing wealth that crack the play’s patina of nostalgia. Obviously decay and dissolution weren’t invented by the 1970s, any more than peace and love were by the ’60s.
And though all of the residents appear in all three acts, which span 17 hours of this mostly uneventful Memorial Day, Bill—the laconic night clerk who is in many ways the audience’s stand-in, the relatively sane lens through which we’re meant to view the action, and who seems in his own passive way to be quietly smitten with Girl—is entirely absent for the long second act. This isn’t just true to his situation—he’s the night clerk, after all, and the second act is set in the afternoon—it’s also a key signal that Wilson has made the individual voices in his play subordinate to the larger form and themes. This will not be primarily the story of Bill pining for Girl, or of the two having some kind of centrally meaningful exchange, at least not any more than anyone else has a meaningful exchange in this not-quite-a-home, not-quite-an-impersonal-business limbo (indeed, in the geography of Lanford Wilson’s America, Hot L sits uneasily, purgatorially between the cruel, low-life diner of Balm in Gilead and the fractured household of Fifth of July). Throughout the second act, collegiate Paul effectively stands in for Bill as a male object for Girl’s enthusiasm. But then Paul, too, recedes in Act Three, even as Girl takes on his grandfather search as her personal crusade; he’s not really all that interested anymore, either in Girl or in his grandfather.
Bill is there for this final act, though, as the long day ends, and themes that have been sounded before repeat themselves, only differently, as the Act Two development that has come between again—again, not story “development” per se, as plot strands will be left tangled in a heap like so many extension cords in a hotel closet, but thematic development—has shaded and recast them. Bill’s inchoate longing is one that resurfaces: There’s a devastating stage direction, seemingly out of nowhere, as Girl traipses upstairs after Suzy’s champagne farewell. It reads simply, “Bill looks off after her, aching.” It’s a note that Bill can’t play with his baritone, but it’s that note of sweet, unarticulated pain that sounds most strongly throughout this beautiful, haunted play.
by 99 Seats
"Do it. Straight. Get it down, let it get down and let it tell itself..." - Lanford Wilson
(I'm jumping in here on the Lanford Wilson issue to discuss Lemon Sky, which is currently being revived by Keen Company.)
I've had the quote above as the signature for my e-mail for some time. I'd always loved it, but somewhere along the way, I forgot where it came from. I knew it was Lanford Wilson, but I thought it was from one of the interviews or essays I'd read. Then I thought it was hidden somewhere in Burn This, but after a recent re-read, I realized that it wasn't. I was a bit flummoxed, but figured it would pop up somewhere. Watching the Keen Company's production of Lemon Sky, there it was and it hit me like a punch. Such a great sentiment, such a powerful statement for a playwright, such a challenge. Lemon Sky is a highwire act of play, a true tour-de-force and it starts off with that promise. Do it. Straight. Get it down.
Lemme back up. As I think I've mentioned before, Lanford Wilson and I go way back. In college, my then-best friend and first director directed Rimers of Eldritch and I served as unofficial dramaturg. I'd read Burn This and Talley's Folly and Fifth of July and figured I had the Wilson catalog down pat. When my director friend and I were talking about starting a theatre company, I was insistent that Burn This be a part of our first season (thankfully, none of that happened).
Then, in grad school, one of my professors was a big Wilson aficionado and introduced me to Lemon Sky. And my world was duly rocked. It basically blew the back of my skull off. Even on the page, the power of the play rings out. In many ways, it's a simple thing, barely a plot or story to speak of: it's a memory play about Wilson coming to live with his father and his father's new family in San Diego. He lasts about six months before the tensions and secrets of the family boil over and tear the whole thing down. It's not the plot that stand out. It's the bravery.
Despite changing the names, it's unabashedly Wilson's story, Wilson's voice brought to life. In the essay that accompanies it in the first volume of collected plays, Wilson says that the play was with him for years, that he spent years trying to get it straight, get it done and failing. When it finally came, it came in a rush, all the way through to the end. It's an irresistable flow, a torrent of words, jokes, poetry, anger and forgiveness. It's also nearly unbearably honest, personal and touching in ways that surprise.
It should be said that it's a memory play, constantly breaking the fourth wall, bending time, space and reality. Alan, the Wilson analogue, speaks almost the entire time, but the other characters all get their say and then some. Characters speak from beyond the grave, from parts unknown, from the depths of Lanford Wilson's memory. One of the amazing things about this play is how fair it is. Wilson isn't interested in settling scores or making himself into the hero of his life. He gives us himself and everyone else, both good and bad.
The kind of honesty on display here is bracing and exhausting. It's couched in some of the most lovely language you can imagine. Wilson draws a picture of Southern California on the cusp of the sexual revolution, but still mired in the post-war world of the '50s. He tells us about brushfires, oranges, photographing bikini babes, the deaths of children, the throes of lust in lush, beautiful speeches and short, sharp scenes. Then almost unexpectedly, it explodes in front of us, a firestorm of recriminations and accusations, as one accusation of sexual impropriety leads to another accusation, one that ultimately tears the family apart completely. Still, Wilson finds some sense of closure and peace with it all and leaves us with a note of grace.
When I heard that Keen Company was reviving Lemon Sky this season, I was, of course, ecstatic. I'd seen the American Playhouse version starring Kevin Bacon, Lindsay Crouse, Kyra Sedgwick and a protozoan Casey Affleck and it's gorgeous, truly lovely. But to see it live? Hell yeah. I saw all of the plays during the Signature's Lanford Wilson season and jump at basically any chance to see more of his work.
It was worth it. Jonathan Silverman's production is just plain awesome, anchored by an incredible performance from Keith Nobbs as Alan. Nearly everything about it is pitch perfect and affecting. The ensemble (Nobbs, Kellie Overbey, Kevin Kilner, Alyssa May Gold and Amie Tedesco in the main roles) is all crackerjack and dives headfirst into the poetry and beauty of the play. I'll be honest, I'm not the most objective person on this play or this writer. I found the production completely transporting and the final moments just shattering.
One of the things I've always admired about the Keen Company is their mission: they do sincere plays. Sincerity in theatre is something we find in short supply. It's great that there's a theatre company dedicated to keeping it alive. It's a necessary thing. And Lemon Sky is about as sincere and earnest a work as you can imagine. It's a great fit and I hope it bring Lemon Sky back into the canon to the place it deserves.
See it. We don't often get to spend that long with that kind of honesty. Don't miss it.
Editor's Note: You are all likely familiar with 99Seats, my co-blogger here at Parabasis. In this essay, he gives us an overview of the Talley Trilogy, how it works, and how it tracks with Wilson's development as a writer and "chameleon."
The most famous trilogy in dramatic history isn’t really a trilogy. Oedipus The King, Oedipus at Colonnus and Antigone, while charting one family’s rise, fall, rise and fall and clearly related aren’t a traditional trilogy. The stories were written out of order, with the last part coming first. The themes of fate, family, honor and obligation run throughout the plays; the question of the individual’s desire against the public good (or need) drives a lot of the action. You need space to wrestle with family.
Lanford Wilson is rarely, if ever, compared to Sophocles, but Wilson’s most famous “trilogy” is similarly not really a trilogy. I don’t know that there is really a word for what it is and how it came to be. Three plays, two taking place on the same night, a third taking place 33 years later. There’s only one character that appears in all three plays, Sally Friedman (former the unfortunately named Sally Talley), but in one play, it’s more of a cameo and in another she’s distinctly a supporting character (though pivotal). It’s kind of an odd thing, this trilogy. But Wilson makes it work. These plays tell us a great deal about both Wilson as a writer the development of theatre in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. They’re lovely, touching plays, but they also give us a glimpse into lost worlds.
The most well-known of these plays came first: Fifth of July. While the Sophocles comparison is rare, Wilson is often compared to Chekhov. Fifth of July is Exhibit #1 for that comparison: it’s a Big House play, with lots of characters rattling around a large Victorian home over the course of two days, wrestling with the big generational issues. How did the promise of the ‘60s come to such ruin, so quickly? What can be salvaged?
The play revolves around a group of old friends, friends the tumult of the ‘60s has pulled apart and altered irrevocably. Ken, a gay teacher, lost his legs in Vietnam and is falling into cynicism and depression. His former best friend, John, has turned into a slick, duplicitous mini-mogul, married to the Janis Joplin-esque Gwen. Ken’s sister June is trying to manage her relationship with her daughter, Shirley, a daughter she left with her aunt to pursue her politics. They could be “archetypes,” but instead are full, living characters, bouncing off of each other over the course of two days in Lebanon, Missouri. They’re ostensibly there to bid a fond farewell to Ken and June’s Uncle Matt, but other tensions bubble up and boil over.
The play has the languid, meandering quality of The Cherry Orchard, the same aura of sadness and loss suffusing everything. It’s funny and entertaining, wandering along on a barely submerged ocean of tensions and secrets. The conversations overlap, multiple voices talking about different topics, weaving in and out, taking their time. We get Eskimo legends, Lebanon gossip, the stars from Missouri, mysterious phone calls from the coast. It’s hard to follow any one thread on the page. Then, in the final moments, we’re in the middle of a bidding war and those secrets are being flung out in the open. It’s a bucket of cold water to the face, yanking out of the warm bath you’ve been in. It’s an electric moment, one of my favorite in the play.
There’s such an air of…well, not finality, but closure to the play. It’s about the end of one time, one era, one way of being and the beginning of another. One thing that Wilson doesn’t get enough credit for is the chronicling of the end of the ‘60s and everything that came in its wake. High hopes for a new society had devolved into drugs, money and cynicism, cutting the legs out from under a generation, the way the war took Ken’s legs. It’s only when he’s hit bottom, though, that he can hear the truth and start to climb out. It’s almost as if Wilson was trying to knock his generation flat on its back and drop a little knowledge in its face. It’s lovely work, Wilson at his best. And the best of where he was as a writer; it’s an ensemble play, a “topical” play that feels timeless, it’s ruthlessly honest and personal.
It’s also fairly straightforward, gimmick-free, pure realism. Wilson wrote in many, many styles and modes, but always seems to be his strongest when writing big plays about communities in a realist vein. Realism, and its kissing cousin naturalism, seem to be fairly maligned these days, tarred as “TV-esque,” but when you read Wilson, you see how theatrical it can be, how thrillingly alive and present people talking to each other, talking over and past each other on stage can be, the power of putting real life in front of our eyes. Wilson’s realism isn’t sentimental or manipulative. It’s fearless, honest and, at the same time, suffused with love and compassion. He’s not opting for realism to make his audience comfortable or make the story more palatable or “accessible” (another hateful word these days, along with “entertaining”). He’s opting for realism to tell this story vividly and passionately. You feel that you are there, on the porch of the Talley home with all of them. It puts the play in your lap and demands that you listen closely. There are few writers who could use the palette of realism as well as Wilson.
And yet, somehow, that opens the door to a far less straightforward play: Talley’s Folly. The opening monologue of the play is a wacky, fourth-wall-shattering, comic near-masterpiece as Matt Friedman lays out the set-up of the play, puts the stars in the sky, frogs in the rivers, tell you everything you should expect from the play…twice. It’s full of puns and old-man jokes that all work and then it opens up into a graceful, heartfelt two-hander. There are still weighty issues to contend with: religion, class, race and the shadow of the war over all of them. But it’s the beginning of a love story and, as Matt tells us at the beginning, it is “a no-holds-barred romantic story.” There’s imaginary skating, frogs, the mention of a UFO, an off-stage eccentric family. But mostly, there’s Matt and Sally, bouncing off of each other, dancing their way through painful secrets to a love story. In the background, looming over all, is World War II and the horrors of the world, constantly questioning whether a simple love can thrive or even exist in a world like this.
Any writer who writes for actors knows that when a great actor gets a hold of a role, they can turn it into something special. A great actor can truly bring a character to life. After Helen Stenborg played Ken and June’s aunt, Sally Friedman, in her mid-sixties, Wilson had to work out who she was in her thirties. A great actor makes the character a person, a person you want to know more about. Wilson wrote for actors better than maybe any writer ever, writing for the Circle Rep company of actors, a company he knew so well and challenged over and over to create more and more complicated people on stage. A great actor can make a character a person, but a great writer gives the actor the chance to be great. It takes a certain kind of theatrical imagination to think like that. Sally Friedman, and the whole Talley clan, springs from that imagination, striding into the world, fully born.
Once we meet her, we want to know about the large and odd Talley family and how they all came to be that way. And Wilson jumps again, moving the 1930s romantic mode of Talley’s Folly to the more 1940s melodrama Talley and Son. It’s like we’re moving from The Shop Around The Corner to Little Foxes with barely a pause. That’s another gift of Wilson’s that often goes unheralded: he was a chameleon, but the good kind. Whatever style the story needed, he could find and supply. Naturalism? Sure. Realism? No problem? Magic realism? We got some of that. Lyricism? Oodles and oodles. If you took the playwright’s name off of a half-dozen of Lanford Wilson’s scripts and gave them to a reader blind and asked who wrote them, you’d get a different name for each play. The play has its own style and so, from the earnest realism of Fifth, though the romanticism of Folly, we arrive at Talley and Son, with the ghost of the also unfortunately named Timmy Talley narrating his family’s fall, even as Sally and Matt find each other at the boathouse. It’s a ghost story, a haunting. The family is haunted by its success and the failure of its success to save them. Again, the cataclysm of war haunts them, as well, literally, as we wait for them to get word that Timmy was lost in the war. Like a gypsy curse, the events of this night, the loss of Timmy, the rise of the rapacious, vulgar Eldon, hangs over them for another 30 years until it’s finally exorcised by a legless gay Vietnam Vet and his former radical sister. And a new garden.
Talley and Son also represents a different kind of play, a play of the early ‘80s. There’s a touch of early Guare and McNally in it: in the ghost, the wackiness of the family, even the 1940s setting. The earnestness of the ‘70s is gone and in its place, not a rumination on the aftermath of revolution, but the effects of wealth. Wilson was so skilled at charting the way the spirit of a time infects everyone, even in subtle, surprising ways. He gives us, over and over, large, ensemble plays dealing with the ends of eras (Hot L Baltimore) or the power of outside forces (Angels Fall) or snapshots of a generation, a time and place (Fifth of July, Balm in Gilead). He’s interested in the animating spirits of a time, in the way lives are changed and pushed and pulled by larger forces. He’s not an overtly “political” writer, but writes instead about the effects of politics on our lives. It’s a compelling way of making great theatre.
From closure to collapse through love. That’s how the Talley “trilogy” unfolds. From the end of all the troubles to the root. Lanford Wilson’s great strength was digging in, going deep inside of characters and their lives to find the truth of our own lives. Not many other writers did it as well. In the Talley trilogy, he did it best. So it doesn’t really matter that it’s not exactly a trilogy, does it? If it works for Sophocles, it’s okay for Lanford Wilson.
Editor's Note: In "Maturing With Wilson," playwright Alessandro King documents his journey from hammy high school character actor to adult playwright, a journey guided all along by the work of Lanford Wilson. In the process, he touches on some of the craft-level concerns that made Wilson so valuable to him.
Lanford Wilson changed my life the first time I heard his name.
Up until that point, my little sixteen-year-old self had inhabited a very narrow theatrical milieu. From my first high school performance—as a dictatorial German director in Once in a Lifetime—I had limited myself to zany character roles. Wacky accents, explosive mugging and comic timing were my specialties, and I was good at them: a dutiful craftsman, I pored over my scripts, mapping out each and every gag.
But I was slowly beginning to become aware of a nagging suspicion that my gifts were limited; that these types of roles were the only things I could do, and that my talent was a shallow one. To a high schooler, Drama is “deep.” An inability to embody it—especially for someone whose self-image was so inextricably linked to his stage life—indicated shallowness of both skill and character.
So when my theatre teacher told me that I’d be a good fit for the role of Timmy—the actual phrase he used was “you’d be a good dead guy”--the ghost of a dead soldier who narrates Wilson’s Talley and Son, my little mind was momentarily blown. How could he see me in this part? Only several months earlier, he had to drop a poignant bit from Cinderella Waltz because I couldn’t shed my John Cleese accent, not even for a single line. Timmy was young (25), which was unusual for a character actor. And he was dark, his character description more tragically ironic than most whole plays I had read.
Without reading the script, I found myself doodling foreboding, uniformed self-portraits in the margins of my notebooks. Somehow, this play had helped Mr. Gilbert see through the gangly character actor and find the aching, brooding young man underneath. There was something about Lanford Wilson that tapped into my complexity, my multifaceted nature as an artist and man, and—even though I had yet to actually read his plays— I was validated by this.
It would not be the last time.
We didn’t end up doing Talley and Son the following year, and I never got ahold of the full script. But the brush with Wilson had galvanized my need for artistic depth, and my Junior year curriculum – Oedipus, Streetcar, and Hamlet in English class, American scene study in Theatre – inspired a whole new set of conversations. What kind of creative person was I? What kind of plays did I respond to?
I had this vague yet compelling sense that there was a perfect playwright out there. My playwright. And there was a sense, compounded by encounters with plays like Priestley’s Time and the Conways, that this playwright was character-centric. This hypothetical writer wrote people who sounded like themselves, not the author. He or she crafted roles as multifaceted as the actors who inhabited them, roles that hinted at complex inner lives with their first lines. This playwright was out there, somewhere.
It was with this in mind that I flew to Northwestern University the following summer to take part in their summer intensive. During the day, we took core classes while in the evenings, the one hundred and sixty students would be split into groups of sixteen to rehearse ten hour-long pieces in anticipation of the final, production-centered week.
The first day there, the ten directors got up in front of the student body and presented summaries of their individual projects. As they went down the line, my stomach began to churn. This was a different type of theatre from the breed I had grown to love. Words like “movement,” “music,” “dance” and “non-linear” were dropped as visions of avant-garde performance art began to fill my head. Was I in the wrong program? Was there a flight back to New York?
Finally, a tall, bespectacled man named Michael Fosberg got up and described his piece. “It takes place in a greasy spoon diner in New York in the nineteen-sixties,” he began, “and it’s about all the seedy characters that come in and out – junkies, pimps, hookers….There’s a speech, that the character Dopey gives early on, about cockroaches, and how, century after century, civilization after civilization, these things persevere, that there is something indestructible about them.” He paused. “That’s sort of what the whole play’s about; that these people, this strata of society, will always be present.”
I was sold. This play had it all. Could it be the work of my mysterious shadow playwright?
I didn’t get cast. My plan to perform the most New Yorky audition possible (my grandfather as Joe Keller) backfired and I ended up playing an Italian butcher in another piece. But I did whatever I could to get involved in my preferred production, and ended up sound-teching it. And by watching this fantastic hour-long version of Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead over and over and over again, I found that my suspicions were correct: this is my writer. This is my guy.
Balm in Gilead is a sprawling New York epic, a haunting parade of twisted, needy souls pouring out of a decrepit seventy-second street diner. It deals with character in a fashion only hinted at by everything I read in high school. It doesn’t just feature its people as pawns; they aren’t just means towards the ends of plot and story and theme. They are ends in and of themselves, with all the other theatrical elements emerging organically from their richness. What else could the play be, when gangly young Lanford Wilson trailed a junkie in the rain though New York’s hellish Needle Park, jotting down every word, every tic? What else could it be when Wilson and Marshall Mason tossed chunks of dialogue back and forth, verbatim, their photographic memories working in overdrive? The play is an “immersive experience” in the purest sense of the word, a fact that was apparently proved by its 1965 LaMama premiere and its triumphant 1984 return, with Laurie Metcalf’s famously hypnotic monologue (I’m too young, by a lot.) It is immersed in character.
This isn’t to say that it’s lacking on other dramatic fronts. Balm in Gilead has an innate sense of dramatic structure, zeroing in on the doomed Darlene and Joe (Wilson’s stage directions specify that the whirlwind of outcasts not distract from the central relationship.) Its language is famously, filthily lyrical, with dialogue clashing and intertwining, utilizing everything from multiple overlapping to extended monologue. And it is thematically rich, exploring decay of the urban, spiritual and, of course, insect varieties. But it would be nothing without its deep commitment to the truth of its people. All thirty-eight of them.
The Northwestern program made me a better actor, and I put my newfound skills to good use upon my return, but the new exposure to Lanford Wilson had given my interest in dramatic literature a new maturity. I found myself bristling at my schoolmates’ assertions around graduation time. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about what you want to do,” they said, already swimming in existential neurosis. “You’re an actor.”
Was I? I hated so many plays, disrespected so many directors. How could I express myself fully by simply speaking someone else’s words?
It took the still of summer for clarity to emerge. A friend invited me to his family’s home in Perugia, Italy, for two weeks. My room looked out over gorgeous Umbrian scenery, and it was there, after a red wine and pasta dinner, that I awoke to the same realization that Lanford Wilson had over forty years earlier: I was a playwright.
>As Wilson put it, “If someone would have asked me that afternoon, I would have said, ‘I am a playwright. I write plays.’ Doors just opened all down the hall, just flew open. The possibilities were endless.”
The book on my bedside table? Fifth of July.
My course was now clear. After one semester at a theatre-weak institution, I transferred to Sarah Lawrence and wrote plays for three and a half years with Stuart Spencer. They were heavily influenced by Wilson from the start, his presence staying strong as my own voice slowly emerged. Throughout those years, I discovered new writers who spoke to me just as strongly – Terence Rattigan, Kenneth Lonergan, Chekhov – but Wilson was the original. He was the first playwright that I felt looked at the world as I did.
It didn’t take long to realize that Balm in Gilead was far from my favorite, either. With each Wilson play I read, a half-dozen new characters began to haunt my writing sessions: an archaeologist’s novelist sister, oozing self-doubt and foreboding from her couch-perch; a hilariously senile old man in a run-down hotel who instantly crumbles at the prospect of losing his mother’s last earthly possessions; and a pair of fractured Evanston couples, whiffenpoofing their way to their inevitable destruction.
Wilson’s titanic empathy spurred me on to new artistic heights. I knew the other playwrights I was reading were tackling multifaceted characters, but I often found their approaches stale and mathematical: complexity is indicated by a character pursuing one action in one scene followed by a conflicting pursuit in a second. Wilson understood what Chekhov understood, which is that real people are contradicting themselves every second of their lives, and that this paradox is, in fact, viable dramatic material. The trick is to have a three-dimensional voice in your head for each character you write; this could mean writing for acting ensembles as Wilson and Chekhov (and Moliere and Shakespeare) did, but if you are lacking this resource, personalities from any corner of your life will also do the trick. Now, I don’t write a word until I have every part cast in my brain, and my plays are all the richer for these oddball mosaics of distant family members, close college friends and ancient political figures.
His body of work also showed me that a playwright could be a sociological travel agent, taking an audience on an extensive tour of the American condition. Practically all of his plays take place in a different corner of the U.S., and he treats his subjects in Illinois with the same love as those in New Mexico. The Talley Trilogy, which is inspired by Wilson’s own family, is frequently referenced as his defining work, but Lebanon, Missouri only occupies a small sliver in his dramatic output. Wilson showed me that autobiography is only one switch in the cockpit; you don’t have to have a milieu to be a writer. I now try to read as much history and nonfiction as I possibly can, knowing that it can only strengthen my characters’ worlds. I have to be a smart writer; the men and women of The Mound Builders would be nothing without Wilson’s archaeological inclinations, the Talley family charmless without Asian wars.
Every step of my theatrical education was marked by Wilson’s presence. My college audition monologue was taken from The Mound Builders, and the only published play I truly got excited about going out for was The Hot L Baltimore (the production never happened.) An oral history interview with a major downtown figure was instantly soured by the interviewee’s foaming at the mouth over Wilson’s “sentimentality” One of my major reasons for applying to the Southampton Writers’ Conference was the chance to see Wilson speak (he was unfortunately too ill to attend.) And I actually turned down an MFA program because a theater in their city made such a mess of Hot L.
This past August, I was lucky enough to experience my first professional production. My play Swing ’39, about Benny Goodman and his fans, premiered at South Carolina’s Trustus Theatre. As the co-founder finished his introductory speech and the curtain rose on the period-perfect set, I was overcome with a sense of maturity and power. The next two hours were going to be irrefutably mine.
And yet there was another personality in the air. Overlapping dialogue. Two eighteen-year-old girls, one a dreamer, one an irrepressible chatterbox. One-liners melded with quotidian prose combined with heightened speeches. Music.
Lanford Wilson and his world aren’t leaving me anytime soon. Thank God for that.
By Isaac Butler
Editor's Note: This week, Keen Company in New York will open a new production of Wilson's early, autobiographical play "Lemon Sky". Keen's mission, to produce "sincere plays" finds an interesting realization within Wilson's work. Below, Keen Artistic Director Carl Forsman and "Lemon Sky" director Jonathan Silverstein talk about the play, Wilson and their work as theatre artists:
Jonathan Silverstein: What was your first encounter with Wilson's work?
Carl Forsman: When I was eleven or so, my parents took me to my first Broadway play. My cousin Carrie was visiting from California (she was in college at this point, I think), and my folks wanted to take her and her friends to a show, and for some reason, I got to come along. It was Lanford Wilson’s Fifth of July. I remember it so vividly. It had been running a while, so I saw Richard Thomas in the lead role (he came in, replacing Christopher Reeve). I remember him listening to the cassette at the opening. I remember Swoozie Kurtz on that staircase, and I remember wondering if she was really naked under that sheet. I remember Danton Stone sitting on the steps at the end of the first act, gazing up at the stars. And I especially remember the conversation I had with my mom at the intermission:
MOM: How do you like it?
ME: I like it!
MOM: Now, those two main characters, they are gay, did you catch that? They are a couple, like your Crazy Uncle Bob. Did you understand that?
ME: No! I definitely missed that part.
And that very funny story Danton told about the Eskimo farting on the meat. And I remember how much I cared about all of them. It all seemed smart and real and funny.
So seven years later, it was time for my high school girlfriend and I to go our separate ways to college. She was off to Muhlenberg, me to Middlebury. For our last date, we did something we had never done before: we went to a Broadway play. I thought, oh Lanford Wilson has a play running! I know him! It was Burn This.
I must have had something for second casts. It was Eric Roberts, not Malkovich, by this point, with Lisa Emery. I remember laughing my head off. Larry talking about Christmas cards for Chrysler. Pale talking about how the cocaine didn’t effect him (that stopped the show, he seemed like he was going to pull his arms off he was so wired). And that beautiful, incredible set from John Lee Beatty that you wanted to live in so much. It made for a very romantic night, and feeling very grown up, holding hands in the last row of the orchestra.
So you can imagine my delight when Burn This was assigned in my first drama class at Middlebury. And eighteen months later when I was cast in Fifth of July there. In Danton Stone’s role, as Wes Hurley. “Grow your hair and learn to play guitar” director Cheryl Faraone said. I did, and I did. I still take flack about the hair, and I am still awful at guitar. But Ana Reeder (she was just on Broadway in Top Girls) was a killer Gwen, Matt Yeoman was a very sympathetic Ken, and doing it during Gulf War I (we’d watch CNN on breaks) was kind of trippy. And I killed that Eskimo speech.
My brother and I started a theater company the summer after my freshman year in college, and our second summer I directed Lanford’s monologue A Poster Of The Cosmos. It’s an intense and deeply anguished little play, and I did it with a very committed actor twice my age who treated me and our project with a lot of respect. It was a thrill to do.
Fast forward to Keen Company – I directed a play starring Lisa Emery a couple years ago. And Jonathan Hogan, who was in both Fifth Of July and Burn This, has done four plays with Keen Company. I’ve directed a scene from just about every Lanford Wilson play in classes I’ve taught over the years. And Lemon Sky was on a list of “plays to think about” here at Keen Company for the last four years, until I finally worked up the nerve to let you direct it for us.
What about you?
JS: I first read The Hot L Baltimore while working on a play in New Haven while, coincidentally, living at an old hotel very reminiscent of the one in the play. I was immediately struck by the masterful way Wilson created such a rich ensemble of characters, the rhythm of it's complex orchestration, the empathy he had for every single character, and Wilson's sense of humor. After reading the play I had a deeper appreciation for the people who populated the hotel I was staying at -- the one legged veteran who spent his mornings in the lobby, the toupee-wearing elevator operator, and the ancient desk clerk who was oddly unwelcoming to guests. It was as if the play was reaching out to me to be kinder to the people around me and asking me to see the outsiders I saw in everyday life in a new light. It is rare a writer can do that and it left a lasting impression on me.
What makes Wilson a Keen Company writer?
CF: It's a good question, and one I think I might get more often as the run goes on. Keen Company is devoted to plays that believe in the possibility of forgiveness, sympathy, empathy, and compassion. We produce really two kinds of plays - plays that show those gestures, and plays that talk about how hard that can be. (I secretly call them our "head" and "heart" plays, respectively.) This is VERY much a "head" play for us, which is to say, it talks so forcefully about the great challenges to acceptance and forgiveness. I think all of Lanford's work really speaks forcefully to the difficulty that people have with forgiveness - especially men.
For example Pale in Burn This is working hard to forgive his brother for being different, for being absent, and himself for his lack of connection. I have the sense that in many respects Lemon Sky is all about Lanford trying to forgive both himself and his father for the failure of their relationship. But it is that will to forgive, the attempt, the bravery of wanting to forgive, that makes it a Keen play.
For all the cynicism of expression he employs (and the main character in Lemon Sky is wildly ironic and often cynical), it's the heart of the play I care about, and I believe Lemon Sky has a center which is striving to believe that the best is still possible.
JS: Why did you give me this particular play several years ago?
CF: One of the strange parts of being an artistic director is that programming has so many factors involved, that it is an art form of its own. So describing the idea for a particular piece of programming would require almost an understanding of everything that has happened to Keen over its eleven years, and my understanding and reaction to both the theater, off-Broadway, and the cultural and political moment of the city and country! In fact, I imagine the reason I gave it to you a few years ago and wanted to produce it this year are also different. For example, three years ago, it represented a couple things I was interested in: first, it was by Lanford, a writer I always wanted us to produce, and had always loved. And it was a Lanford Wilson play I thought we could get rights to! I love Talley's Folly, but there has been a Broadway revival in the works for years, so that wasn't possible (likewise, Hot L Baltimore). Second, I am giving you plays I think you'll be good at! This play, I thought, might speak to you - in fact, you've done a few things since that line this play up thematically in the dead center of your repertoire!! Tempermentals is a history of gay culture, and I Never Sang For My Father is about father-son stuff. I think three years ago, it just seemed so ambitious and hard. I am less scared of the challenges now, especially since we had so much success with an equally demanding play (Michael Frayn's Benefactors) last spring. The theater audience is so smart! They'll get it!
Why, what did you think when you first read it?
JF: Reading Lemon Sky for the first time was a powerful experience. I was immediately struck by the complex father-son relationship, the interesting way the issue of homosexuality was treated, the play's unique and complex theatricality, and, as usual, Wilson's sympathy for the outsiders in the play, most notably Alan, the stand-in for Wilson himself. I was emotionally moved by the play in a way that surprised me. I am not usually attracted to plays with direct address, but there was something emotionally complex in the way the narration of the play operated.
Working on the play has made me appreciate Wilson's complex use of language and theatricality even further. When reading the play on the page, I was often stumped by a line's meaning or the way to stage a certain scene. Yet in the hands of live actors, lines that were once obscure seemed to jump off the page and scenes that seemed impossible to stage made sense once they were once on their feet. Without employing complex stage directions, his dialogue did the work for us if we trusted it. Yet at the same time, we realized there were several different options for line readings and stagings that could work, as if Wilson had an innate sense of clarity that could work for different collaborators. I have also been struck by Wilson’s forbears and contemporaries in this play. Chekhov, Williams, and Shepard all make their presence known in this play, while at the same time WIlson mixes them all up in a new way that can only be uniquely his.
CF: Say Lanford were trying to write the play now, that he was 30 and the play was set in the 80s, how would it be different?
JS: Lemon Sky is a very impressionistic memory play. Images and moments are repeated, jumbled and re-assembled in ways that truly resemble our brain's way of processing an important event. The play's complex theatrical form seems to mirror the fact that there is very little resolution in the way Wilson felt about the actual event in his life. I wonder if Wilson wrote the play as an older man if he would have had more resolution or distance to in the event, which might make the theatrical form more organized. I also wonder what the theatrical history (and history, in general) of the 70's would have done to shape his writing of the play in 1980. Lastly, the issues raised in the play - The American Dream, homosexuality, and relationships between men, women and children - all changed during the 70’s. I wonder how that decade would have shaped the way he showed the 50’s in this play.
CF: Yeah, it’s interesting. Lemon Sky is a kind of play that has become almost archetypal: young gay man confronts middle-class American values, and is marginalized. It's entering the pantheon of classic American stories, and the emergence of a gay identity and the prominence of gay politics in American life are rapidly transforming the history of gay literature. My belief is that we are producing Lemon Sky at the first moment where it might be examined as a piece of literature whose "gay identity" might not be its most salient political characteristic, if that makes sense. I mean that because the gay political movement has made this story an archetype, it is able to be seen for a wide range of narratives, regarding outsiders and otherness. It certainly has great relevance as a gay story, but I think it's wider import as a piece of literature will be able to be seen more easily now. More time will have to pass before it can be evaluated properly within the context of Lanford's entire body of work. The fact that it's been revived twice already in New York in its 40 year life is relevant, and I think pushes it into the higher echelons of his work, alongside his acknowledged classics, although of course as something of a theatrical obscurist, I am equally interested in some of his lesser-known works, like Mound Builders, Angels Fall, Serenading Louie and Gingham Dog. And that, by any measure, is a long list!
By Isaac Butler
When I first started writing plays, I said, “Theatre should be a three-ring circus.” I wanted a lot of people, all talking at once, creating life on the stage. After we formed the Circle Company, I became more responsible to the actor. I wanted to write deep, fully rounded people, beautiful language, roles an actor could sink his teeth into. The craft became less flamboyant, more subtle. The trick now is to get some of the old panache back into a beautifully constructed work.
-- As quoted in The Playwright's Art, Jackson R. Bryer, Editor
I was about 20, and I was just starting to write. I read a description of a play by Tennessee Williams that said he “takes common American speech and turns it into music.” I thought, “What a cool thing to do.” Dialogue should be logical, but it doesn't have to be banal.
-- From an interview with the Inquirer.
I think I might have been disappointed that I wasn't gayer, but you know, after `Lady Bright,' it just didn't come up...Larry Kramer is very angry with me for not writing gay plays. I like [playwright] Robert Patrick's definition of a gay play: a play that is sexually attracted to another play of the same sex.''
By Isaac Butler
-- Earlier this year, a group of artists banded together to do Wilson's Balm In Gilead in Brooklyn. Playwright Stephanie Fleischmann was there to document it. You can check out her coverage, a wonderful oral history of the project, in The Brooklyn Rail.
-- Charles McNulty wrote what I think is the best "apprecation" of Wilson after his death. It's published in the Los Angeles Times:
My first impulse was to try to write plays like Wilson's. (There was a time in this country when anyone with a theatrical inclination was trying to write like Wilson.) But of more lasting meaning, "Burn This" was a call to wake up and do something with whatever abilities nature had been kind enough to bestow. Like the characters in this tense, brooding drama, I knew how easy it would be to sulk and squander time, to replay the past and void out the future.
Chekhov is prized for never judging his characters. He does, however, gently admonish them that they can live better. Wilson proceeded similarly with his tribe. His protagonists are typically stalled figures, and the plays they're in conspire to jolt them out of their torpor — or at the very least get them to register what's in front of them before it's gone for good.
You can RTWT here.
By Jannie Wolff
Editor’s Note: What better way to kick off our week than with a memoir piece by someone who knew Lanford Wilson. Here, Jannie Wolff—who interned with Circle Rep in the mid 1980s—chronicles her experience with the company and with Wilson and the ways it changed her. In so doing, she shines a light on Wilson’s empathy as a man and as an artist.
In 1984, I saw “5th of July” for the first time. I was a sophomore at Chatham College in Pittsburgh, as a theater and literature major, and I fell in love. I thought I was falling in love with the boyfriend I had at the time who was in the play, but over the years of getting to know Lanford Wilson and his work, I came to understand that it was the language and the stories, the poignant and earthy insight into the human condition, that were awakening my heart.
The following year I transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in New York and saw “Talley’s Folly,” presented by students from another class. Once again I was spellbound. Afterward, one of the professors critiqued the play, beginning by noting that the casting was "ridiculous" because the characters had been written to be much older, with more life experience. Because of the power of the writing, the casting did not bother me. The actors—young though they were—had been transformed by the music and pathos of that wonderful, lyrical play.
When I was a senior, I was working on a project with a graduate student who carried a canvas bag with a large circle encompassing the word REP. I was still fairly new to New York and didn’t know anything about the Circle Repertory Company, but something about the image intrigued me. I asked the graduate student what the logo stood for. She told me that her boyfriend had been an intern with the Circle Repertory Company and that she had visited him there and bought the bag. This was in the days before the internet, before cell phones. Somehow I found the contact information for the company and called them from a payphone. I learned that they were in the final process of accepting applications for interns for the next season.
I went in for my audition the next week, and had my first glimpse of what exactly Circle Rep was. The audition and interview process was more professional and rigorous than any I had yet experienced. Interns worked with the Production Department, learning every aspect of producing and running the shows, and they also were cast as understudies for the main stage productions. My audition took place before a panel that consisted of the Artistic Director, The Casting Director, the Company Manager, the Production Manager, the Literary Manager, and the Director of the LAB, which was their black box, off-the-main stage play development and production space. Waiting my turn, I sat in the Green Room whose walls were lined with photographs of people and plays I had long admired; I didn’t dare hope that I could work with them. For my audition I was asked to present two monologues, one contemporary and one classical. I had chosen Rosalind from “As You Like It” and a monologue from Tennessee Williams’ “Two Character Play” which I had just performed at Sarah Lawrence that semester. The panel could not have been more gracious, but I thought my chance of being chosen were non-existent. I chalked it up to an exciting experience, and graduating a few weeks later, went home to Massachusetts to a summer teaching job.
The letter came a month later. I had been accepted as an intern and was to start on August 24.
* * *
Early in my first weeks at Circle Rep, as I returned to the office on a very warm and beautiful September afternoon, a man rode up in the elevator with me. When I pressed the floor for Circle Rep, he said, “I knew you were going there. I watched you stopping traffic all down Sixth Avenue.” I smiled and nodded, keeping it as cold and uninviting as I could, looking at his outfit of well worn jeans and denim jacket and wondering who he was, thinking perhaps he was one of the set builders. When we entered the office I breezed past him, while the receptionist gave him a warm, “Hello Lanford!” I couldn’t believe what an idiot I was.
That one moment was a life lesson I will never forget. I now understand that true brilliance is humble and does not need to announce itself, and truly beautiful and gentle spirits often feel the need to hide their beauty under rough exteriors. Lanford’s plays and characters are like that for me, and they reflect the intricacies of their creator. Lanford’s plays have been a comfort and a joy to me, helping me to understand myself more clearly while giving me an insight into humanity as a whole. Having the opportunity to see his plays in different settings, to hear their music and his voice in a variety of different actors and at different times in my own life has helped me to learn and grow and deepen my perceptions of myself and others. People are complex. We yearn and we long and we love and rejoice. We mourn, we desire, we feel like castoffs and outsiders. We belong, we try to belong, we cut off parts of ourselves to try to fit in.
“Burn This” premiered on Broadway during the year that I was an intern at Circle Rep. There was so much excitement around this play because it had already been in production for some time, and everyone involved with the company knew that Lanford had created another masterpiece. The cast was incredible, Joan Allen, Jonathan Hogan, Lou Liberatore and John Malkovich, and I had the opportunity to buy a House Seat ticket for $12.50. I sat transfixed as I watched some of the most amazing actors I had ever seen take over the stage and fill the entire theater with the power of a play. Trying to describe the experience later, I could only lapse into general descriptions of awe. “I’ve never seen anything like it!” “It was amazing!” “What language!”
Like all of Lanford’s plays, these characters were just everyday people, but somehow with his deft touch, they became iconic, representing archetypes that reached past the proscenium to hit the nerve endings in every audience member’s heart in a unique way. I longed to be on that stage and in that play; I longed to live the life that those characters were living. Theirs was a life of excitement and wonder, creativity and living art, full of deep feeling and passion. Watching their story as written through Lanford’s eyes made me see my own existence as something special, and helped me to appreciate that within every life is a myriad of emotions and experiences that are mythical in scope for the person living them.
His words made the ordinary become extraordinary, transforming both character and actor through the beauty contained within his vision. Several years later, after I had begun writing my own plays and setting up readings with actor and writer friends in a variety of settings in Manhattan, I held an informal reading of “Burn This” and cast it with my favorite actor friends from Circle Rep. I played the part of Anna, and enjoyed for that one evening the experience of working with great actors on that remarkable play. My boyfriend at the time was in the audience, and I saw him falling in love as I had done so many years ago with “5th of July.” I’d like to think that it was because I was so brilliant, but I knew from my own experience that it was Lanford’s words that lit up in his eyes.
* * *
One night at a Circle Rep party, a seat opened up next to Lanford and I sat down next to him. I was always very shy around people I admired and considered great, and I never wanted to invade their space or impose myself on them in any way, but sitting with him was easy that night, and he welcomed the conversation, asking me what I thought of a recent play that had opened, and discussing some of the company’s current projects. It was late in the evening and he was offered a ride home by a close friend. As he got up to go he said to me, “You are so beautiful, not just outside, but what’s in here.” He pointed at my heart and continued, “They’ll try to take that away from you. Don’t let them.” He turned to his friend and went out into the night.
I sat there stunned. I had been with the company for a number of years, but I had never had any big roles. I did not think that he had even really known who I was. But here came a recognition of something that he had seen in me that I didn’t see in myself, something that spoke to my deepest longing to fit in and be seen as extraordinary.
His words have come back to me again and again over the years, sustaining me through times of hardship and struggle. In 2005 I was Born Again, and I began another kind of transformation. Through my new spiritual eyes I am more open to seeing the beauty of God that lives within each person. Lanford saw that beauty and brought it to life in play after play after beautiful play. In the words of the Spirit, he would be called a prophet, for a prophet’s role is to enlighten, encourage and bring forth that which is holy in each one of us into the light. If I told Lanford that, I think he might laugh, because there are people in the world who profess Christ, but don’t really understand what Jesus really stands for. They would have rejected Lanford as a gay man who often wrote about people who lived on the fringes of society. By showing us the beauty in the ordinary and giving a place of welcome to the outsider, Lanford saw through the eyes of a love, which is what we are all really called to do. The Spirit of God brings transformation, and there is a Balm in Gilead to help heal those places in us that are lost and longing and searching. Lanford’s ability to see so deeply into the souls of so many, to reach in and bring their beauty to the light, transforms them and those of us fortunate enough to encounter his work.
A month ago, I started kicking around the idea of doing regular "Issues" on Parabasis, a week every now and then where we dedicate the site to some sort of theme and solicit contributions from the world at large. As soon as I hit on this idea, I tore out a sheet of notebook paper and wrote down ever theme I could think of.
I knew I wanted to alternate between focusing on a specific artist and focusing on a specific topic. And the first two words I wrote down were "Lanford Wilson." A long list and two pens later and he still seemed the right starting point. Perhaps this week is my attempt to answer the question of why, why he seemed like exactly the right place to start, why when I e-mailed 99Seats to tell him that I wanted to do Lanford Wilson first he thought it was a great idea.
I will find this answer through other people's words more than through my own, as this week will largely feature new contributors. Reading and editing their work has helped me realize how important Wilson was to my own development. From his early experimental one-acts like The Family Continues to the Checkovian mid-career grace of Fifth of July, from large scale extravaganzas like Rimers of Eldritch and Balm In Gilead to small cast wonders like Burn This, Wilson has always been close to my heart. I first encountered his plays when I was in High School, and they've lingered in my theatrical consciousness ever since.
It's easy to enumerate all the wonders of Wilson's writing. The theatrical imagination. The specificity of his texts. The felicity with which he delivers exposition. The ways his plays function as literature and theatre. The ways (both overt and co-) that Wilson explored gay themes in his work. The way he wrote for actors. His unending compassion for his characters, the way he could create conflict and drama amongst decent people. His darker side, clearest in his angry, early work. The company he helped build. The generosity of his vision. The way he combined lyricism and naturalism, marrying the florid excesses of Tennessee Williams with the 19th century masters he came to admire and adapt. His passion for rewriting, for never believing the thing was finished, for always looking for the better way to do his job. The way he wrote about the country. The way he wrote about the city. The way he wrote about America.
Lanford Wilson was an American master. He is often overlooked on syllabi, for his gifts were immense, but they were mostly the gifts of a master craftsman and humanist. If you're teaching a survey of movements, his work doesn't really fit. By the time you've gotten to the 60s and 70s you want to talk about Sam Sheperd and Harold Pinter and hyper-realism, you don't have time for the dance of Anna and Pale or the misunderstood Skelly or for the ghostly narrator of Talley & Son. How, after all, is Redwood Curtain going to built you a bridge to Angels In America?
It's a pity. Wilson's work is not only important because it is thematically rich, beautifully written, expertly crafted, but also because of his model of working, the way he wrote his parts for specific people, shaped them based on the actors he came to know and love and through his lifelong collaboration with Marshall Mason. Wilson worked in a modern day version of a very old-fashioned tradition, hearing specific actors' voices in his head, imagining them on stage, honing the roles to their particular talents. The result is work that vibrates with a kind of depth of characterization that many playwrights often struggle to achieve today.
The demise of Circle Rep--the theater Wilson helped found--coincided with the triumph of the industrial assembly line model for making plays. Perhaps now in the year after Wilson's death, as the Americna Theater comes to reexamine and celebrate his work and legacy, we can also celebrate the model and ethos that gave us that work.
This week, we investigate Lanford Wilson and, yes, we celebrate him as well. Beginning and ending the week are two memoir pieces about interning at Circle Rep. One takes us into the triumphant success of Burn This, the other through the shuttering of its doors. In between, we have pieces on specific plays of Wilson's. I will also be dropping in from time to time with a quote here or a link there. There's a lot of Wilsonia on the web, I hope to post a few sign posts for you along the way.
By Isaac Butler
We must continue exectuing innocent people because... uh... reforming the criminal justice system demands it! Yeah, that's it!
By Isaac Butler
As I was profoundly uncool, it started with Stand and never went further back than Document until I was in my twenties. As I was profoundly uncool, I loved Radio Song and hated most of Automatic For The People, still secretly kinda do. As I was profoundly uncool, my love of them comes from my love of singing them, not my love of listening to them.
This is the story of why, a day after hearing that REM had broken up, I woke up grief stricken. It’s the story of two boys with few friends other than each other. It’s recess time and there’s a red piano in a green music room in the basement of a private school in Washington, D.C. in 1991 and Dave and I are breaking into this room because we’re supposed to be outside but fuck that because touch football sucks and music is awesome, real music, not that playing recorder and xylophone bullshit we do during music class.
Music is Dave pounding on the piano and the two of us singing REM, a medly of songs off of Out Of Time and Green. Turn You Inside Out and You Are The Everything and Pop Song 89 and Me In Honey and, yes, Radio Song. With—oh God help me the things we have to admit if we are to be honest—yes, with me performing the KRS One part. Huh! Baby baby baby that stuff is driving me crazy DJs communicate, to the masses, sex and violence classes, now our children grow up prisoners all their life radio listeneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeers!
It’s a terrible song. Let’s get that straight. I know that now. I am not an idiot. I am not without taste. Radio Song is a piece of junk. But it’s weirdness—Michael Stipe’s college rock anti-cool ultimately dragging one of the inventors of hip hop into near-novelty-song territory—is precisely what made it good to us. Because it was weird, because we were weird, and that’s why we loved this band that sang these strange songs about falling asleep in back seats and cultured pearls and paste and train conductors telling people to take a break.
REM’s unconventional lyrical content and Stipe’s nasal drawly voice whispered a word (belong) and gave us what we needed. It’s a strange contradiction then that at this time they were also becoming massively successful. Losing My Religion was so popular that the album shot to the top of the charts even though the band refused to tour to support it. It went gold five times over. It was the only album that there were two copies of in our house. My older sister—jock, Garth Brooks fan—also had a copy of Out Of Time by the fall of 1991, because she and her summer camp boyfriend’s song was Half a World Away. Perhaps REM's true genius was to speak to the outsidery parts in all of us. Even popular kids must feel like world leaders pretend every now and then.
Out of Sight is not an album that has aged particularly well. As on much of Document and Green, Scott Litt’s production work feels dated, too bright, too heavy on the treble and on the reverb on the snare, too tied to late eighties ideas of what pop songs should sound like. Out of Time is ultimately shackled to its time, just as that year is shackled to it. 1991 is the year of Losing my Religion and Shiny Happy People, too songs that haven’t aged nearly as well as the deeper, simpler cuts on the album. Ultimately, the album belongs to its final four songs, Half A World Away, Texarkana, Me In Honey and the brilliant Country Feedback, supposedly Michael Stipe’s favorite song REM ever recorded:
From there, REM reinvented themselves three times over, turning out three releases (Automatic for the People, Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi) that sounded very little like each other but were all clearly the project of one band. And during those years Dave and I both gained a whole circle of friends with like interests as we progressed through high school. One thing we all had in common was a love of REM. Some were more fervent than others, some had copies of Chronic Town and early concert bootlegs and the whole shebang. Others like me were more casual fans who found Automatic and Monster crushingly boring. I still dislike Automatic, but feel that Monster has improved with age.
The album from that period that’s stuck with me the most is the last. Recorded largely on tour and then fixed up in the studio later, New Adventures in Hi-Fi synthesizes the different modes of the previous three albums and contains some of the best songs they’d write in the 1990s. Little on either Monster or Automatic compares to How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us, Leave, Undertow, New Test Leper or Electrolite, and even goofier songs like Wake Up Bomb have a kind of charm to them. The album’s release was ultimately overshadowed by Bill Berry leaving the band, and it’s one of the few albums that both has four stars from Rolling Stone and can reasonably called underrated.
It’s hard to make much of an excuse for the band sticking together for the decade and a half or so after that. Their drummer Bill Berry quit, and the post-Berry output has not so much fallen off a cliff as it has swerved into the median and flipped over into oncoming traffic. REM released album after album of fussy irrelevant adult contemporary music only to try a last ditch reinvention as an aggressive rock band that didn’t work before finally calling it quits. Given the chance to go out after a moment of brilliance, they chose instead to hobble along until finally giving up the ghost.
And meanwhile, I fell in love with and married a woman whose favorite group is REM, who put Fall On Me on the first mix CD she made me and once again, after stopping listening to them, they resurfaced in my life. REM was never my favorite band, but they’ve always popped up here and there, delivering little moments of pleasure. The Bap!Bap!Bap! of the drums on Pilgrimage. The reversal of tone between This must be the saddest dusk I’ve ever seen and Turn to a miracle in Half a World Away. The use of sus-4 chords all over their work. The long sentences of You Are The Everything. The siren on Leave. Any moment Mike Mills takes over lead vocals. The strange found-sound intros all over Murmur. Michael Stipe wailing that he’s sorry on So. Central Rain. Inaugurating their stupid pop song phase with a stupid pop song called Pop Song 89. Theclusterfuck of awfulness that is their videos. When Everybody Hurts lifts up underneath Stipe cooing that we need to Hold on. The two different versions of Drive. The effects driven guitar work on Crushed With Eye-Liner.
The list goes on and on, as does the list of moments in my life for which they’ve been the soundtrack. I’ll spare that list, save one more:
It’s the fall of 2010 and I am in far-suburban Virginia, away from Minneapolis for a weekend. I’ve brought my ukulele with me because tomorrow, Dave is getting married and tonight at the rehearsal dinner he and I will perform Smokey Robinson’s You Really Got A Hold On Me for his fiancée, whom I have known since the first grade and Dave has known since the sixth.
We have some time to kill, so we start playing music together again, Dave on the guitar, me on the ukulele. Raising an unholy ruckus outside a B&B in Virginia. The number of songs he knows by heart is astounding. Sometimes, he just shouts chords and I follow along. Sometimes I have chord sheets or look up the arrangements on my phone. As per usual, I'm just keeping up with his brilliance, grateful for the opportunity to sing these songs we love.
And then I ask what should we play next?
And Dave says Do you know any REM?
And it turns out I do.
By Isaac Butler
Yesterday, when I heard the news of REM's breakup, I felt less than nothing. I felt a kind of relief, actually. Their output has been so dissapointing for so long-- their last good album coming out while I was in High School-- that I barely ever listened to them anymore. They missed their chance to break up with grace, I thought, back when Bill Berry quit the band. Hell, didn't their last song as a foursome end with the lyric "I'm not scared/I'm out of here"?
Today I woke up and I felt like a friend died. I hope to write more about why this is the case later, in the meantime:
By Isaac Butler
Contra-Michael Billington, the reason why it's bad that Judith Miller is going to be a theater critic for Tablet Magazine is not that she has no arts background. It's that she's a disgraced former journalist who even as late as May 2004, when it was public knowledge that most of her articles making the case for war with Iraq were incorrect, claimed that she was "fucking right."
The issue is that she has a job working in newsmedia period, not the specifics of the job.
By Isaac Butler
I’ve always been willing to give Steven Soderbergh the benefit of the doubt. This is largely due to 1998’s Out Of Sight and 1999’s The Limey, both of which are essentially perfect and both of which are in a whole separate league from Traffic and Eric Brockovich, the films that established him in the public eye as a master who finally made good on his promise and won him the Best Director Oscar.
Since that win, Soderberg’s track record has been, well, strange, to say the least. It seems that making an expertly crafted film has never been much of a challenge for him, and so his restless muse has taken him in other directions, pursuing other, more private fascinations. His fascination with non-actors, improvisation and the border between fiction and non has given birth to unrewarding projects like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience and his two television shows for HBO. It also appears to have lead him to cast a mixed martial arts star rather than an actor in the lead role in Haywire. At times, his interests are at such an angle to the material that they cross over into perversion. The Good German is as much an assault on the cannon of 1940s films—and the audience that loves it without thinking through politics and context—as it is a spy thriller. Oceans 12, with it’s often improvised, famous-people-fucking-around feel is one of those movies you either find intolerably smug or hilariously loopy.
While it’s tempting to use the Oscar win—Soderbergh on the Academy stage, dedicating his award to anyone who takes time out of their day to make art—as some kind of dividing line in his career, the truth is his body of work has always been choppy. Of course, given that Steven Soderbergh essentially ignighted the latter day independent film movement, he was probably destined to have an odd career journey. The fantastic, improbable success of 1989’s Sex, Lies & Videotape made him the youngest man to win the Palm D’or at Cannes and an instant directorial superstar. Sex Lies & Videotape is less important to the history of film because it’s good (although it is, even Andie McDowell can’t ruin it, try though she might) but because it was successful critically and commercially. Combined with My Left Foot later that year, it put Miramax on the map and helped set the stage for the explosion in independent (or, I suppose, quasi-independent) filmmaking afterwards.
But let’s not forget, between Sex, Lies & Videotape and Out of Sight there were Kafka, The Underneath, King Of The Hill, Schizopolis and the Spalding Grey film Grey’s Anatomy, all of which contain elements that prefigure the post-Traffic half of Soderbergh’s career. And the second half of that career is actually better than most people think. Ocean’s Eleven is perfect pop entertainment, a slick (but not anonymous) heist comedy with a great David Holmes score and surprising moments of beauty. The Informant! is a spectacular example of how rewarding irony can be. The Good German and Ocean’s 12 have few defenders, but I’m amongst them, although that is a post for a different day.
It seems to me that Steven Soderbergh has spent his career doing exactly what we say we want artists to do. He’s constantly challenged himself, remained experimental even when working on mainstream projects, and has never been afraid of critical or commercial failure or making films that are divisive. Most of the projects of his that don’t work aren’t so much spectacular failures as they are either too slight to care about or, well, boring.
Now he’s announced his retirement, a retirement no one believes will last very long, particularly given the unsatisfying roster of final projects he has on his plate, which include Haywire, a female double-crossed-agent-seeks-revenge actioner and a biopic of Liberace.
Which brings us to Contagion, an old-fashioned star-studded disaster movie that, for all its considerable cold-hearted craft, fails to ever really connect. Part of the reason for this is not the film’s fault. Many—but not all— of the most impactful and chilling moments in the film are in its ubiquitous trailer. But two other key decisions mar the film irreparably.
The first is the decision to shift the film’s genre from disaster thriller to a combination of procedural and public health PSA about a third of the way in. Indeed, the first thirty minutes of the film (which include the death of a child and a way-more-graphic than you might expect autopsy) let you believe that you’re in for something more hardcore, tonally complex and troubling than the film delivers. The second mistake is to fill it chock-a-block with diverging plot lines, any one of which would’ve made a better single subject for the film. As a result of both of these, every other scene is crammed so full of exposition that no dramatic tension can ever establish itself. The movie has so many pretty-good ideas that it never settles on any one of them long enough to take pretty-good to good, let alone great and thus ends up feeling at times like a two hour paean to washing one’s hands.
Still, while the whole might not cohere, the individual parts are for the most part, well executed. The acting is across the board excellent. One thing that often gets lost in the discussion of Soderbergh-as-cerebral-auteur is how consistently good the acting in his movies is. This is the man who made Jennifer Lopez seem believable on screen and turned George Clooney into an actor, who realized that lurking within Matt Damon is a genius-level deadpan comedic character actor and that Julia Roberts is the Keith Moon of shouting at people. Everyone in Contagion is tasked with taking the bare outlines of a character and turning them into something more and they basically all succeed. A special shoutout has to go to Winter’s Bone’s John Hawkes who has three lines in the film and manages to create an entire human being out of them and veteran stage actress Jennifer Ehle, who manages to make large swaths of exposition seem natural and in-character.
It’s also a pleasure to watch Soderbergh wield a camera and an editing suite with the virtuoso precision that he’s known for. Color palette gets a real workout in this movie without ever seeming as heavy handed as Traffic, and—with the exception of a scene so cheesy it needs U2 to score it—the film consistently nails a kind of deadpan dread. Soderbergh is able to move through large swaths of time at will without losing the plot, and pretty much every shot is a master class in how to make fastidious craft and staging look natural and effortless.
Ultimately, however, these pleasures are not enough to sustain the movie. By trying to cram in a BBC Miniseries worth of material to roughly two hours traffic on the screen, Contagion can’t ever achieve liftoff and as a result, it ends up wearing its politics on its sleeve. While they’re largely politics I agree with—pro-Federal Government, pro-Rationalism, pro-Western Medicine, anti-Homeopathy, hilariously anti-Blogger— they’re telegraphed so overtly, and with such little nuance that they weigh the project down. There are glimpses of what might have been throughout, but ultimately Contagion left me, yes, perhaps a bit bored, if still in awe of what Soderbergh can do.
By Isaac Butler
by 99 Seats
Gawker today reported on a sort of political tidbit that I wish had come up before or during last week's debate: Ron Paul's campaign manager and friend died of pneumonia because he didn't have health insurance. In 2008, a 49-year-old man, in apparent, relative good health at the time (though, there was apparently some kind of prior condition), unable to get health insurance died of pneumonia, an easily treatable disease. And when he died, he left behind $400,000 in associate hospital bills. This man was not just Ron Paul's friend, but a former employee and, as far as the Gawker report goes, Paul did nothing to help his friend receive medical attention or health insurance or did anything to help his mother pay his debts. Kent Snyder was left to his own devices and died.
I posted this on Facebook earlier today and a few of my well-meaning friends noted that it was "ironic." I wanted to correct them. Maybe, if Kent Snyder was a true libertarian believer, it would be ironic. But it's not ironic that Ron Paul let a friend die. It's not ironic that Ron Paul's radical, monstrous philosophy says that Kent Snyder deserved his fate and no one should have lifted a finger to help him. It's not ironic that, even after this, Ron Paul hasn't discovered an iota of compassion for the less fortunate, those without a nice, comfy government health care package and personal fortunes. That's not ironic at all. It's sad and disgusting and dangerous that he has a national platform and profile. It's upsetting that he is so blinded by ideology that he can't see the obvious outcomes of his philosophy. It's frightening to think, even worse, this isn't a bug in the system for Ron Paul, it's a feature. One worthy of applause.
I wish Wolf Blitzer was an actual journalist and knew about this and could have asked Ron if his friend deserved to die. Could have asked Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann the same question. I'd like to know the answer.
But whatever it is...it's not ironic. Neither is rain on your wedding day. It just sucks.
By Isaac Butler
Earlier in the year, I discussed how video games are currently in a sweet spot vis-a-vis the questions we ask of art:
Right now, video games are in a sweet spot. Games like Heavy Rain and Mass Effect 2 can come out and gain a certain amount of cachet and sales because of their sophisticated deployment of game mechanics to complexly explore genre. At the same time, when people question the racial politics ofResident Evil 5 or look at the truly execrable pro-torture narrative of Black Ops, gamers (and game critics) can retreat behind “Hey, it’s only a game!”
One of the issues that representational art confronts, of course, is how it depicts what it represents. No where is this more obvious than with issues of race. In gaming, however, these issues form an increasingly complicated knot.
I am currently playing through Infamous 2, in which unwillinging (or powerhungry, depending on how you play him) superhero Cole McGrath and his id-fueled sidekick Zeke high tail it to New Marais (a not-even-veiled stand-in for New Orleans) to try to track down some new powers so Cole can save the world. Along the way, he is assisted by an Asian American NSA agent named Kuo.
In some ways, this connects to a long, unfortunate tradition of Yellowface in American Cinema that affects even classics like Breakfast at Tiffany's. But in other ways it doesn't. There's nothing particualrly stereotypical about Kuo (at least thus far) and she ends up becoming a major character and a bad ass as the game goes on. We believe pretty firmly that Asian roles should be played by Asian actors. Does this extend to roles where the voice and body are two separate entities?
Does the answer change if we're talking about black characters? After all, brilliant British geneticist Dr. Sebastian Wolfe is black and voiced by journeyman white character actor Michael Ensign. As with Kuo, there's nothing offensive about the portrayal it just... isn't by the race of the person playing it.
The most interesting approaches to race within video games can be found in BioWare's RPG franchises Mass Effect and Dragon Age, both of which use their genres tropes (Space Opera and High Fantasy respectively) to explore issues of race with made-up humanoid species while also allowing the player to choose the color and facial features and gender of their character.
This approach has its limits, but they're the limits of genre, no video games. Having distinct humanoid species (Hobbits and Elves and Dwarves, for example) generally means that each species gets its own set of stereotypes and acts within them. Klingons are warlike. Elves are noble. Salarians talk fast are good at science. Narratives about these kinds of interspecies world rely on the short hand of stereotypes. As Samuel Delaney's Stars In My Pockets Like Grains Of Sand shows pretty clearly, if you do otherwise and try to treat each alien character as a fully fledged individual with all the possibilities for behavior and outlook that humans have, the world becomes incomprehensible.
In this way, genre entertainment actually mirrors how our brains function. Stereotyping at its root is simply our brain categorizing information so that it can be dealt with swiftly enough. As cave men, after all, we needed to know that one kind of cat was a pet and the other was a sabertoothed tiger. The problems with this come from when we operate unconsciously and unquestioningly of this process. And here is where issues of racial representation in art and entertainment become so important, as there is some evidence that one of the ways we form stereotypes is through consumption of images and that one of the ways stereotyping can be disrupted is through encountering a more diverse set of depictions.
I could make an argument then-- one, I want to be clear, that I don't believe-- that decoupling the race of a video game character from the race of the actor delivering the lines is one way to accomplish the above. Having Dr. Sebastian Wolfe talk like a white British guy (and note the problematics there, what does it even mean to talk like a white British guy instead of a black British guy?) disrupts our stereotypes.
After all, Dr. Sebastian Wolfe-- voiced by a white guy-- conforms to no racist stereotypes of black people, while Letitia the Trash Lady in Deus Ex: Human Revolution (voiced by an African American actress) most certainly does:
This video doesn't even show the sequence where you get her drunk on four beers to get an important password (if you want to find that one, search for Letitia Deus Ex Beer).
I just want to point here towards how complicated the issues of character and representation are getting as video games get more sophisticated. And this isn't even getting into the world of race in MMORPGs, where issues of race and gender become almost bewildering.