Tuesday, March 07, 2017

We are suffering machines

There's a scene in the immortal Canadian TV series, "Slings and Arrows" where Richard Smith Jones and Holly Day are plotting to make the Burbage Theater Festival more commercial and they both admit they hate Shakespeare and want to minimize the use of his plays in the Festival.

Unfortunately this is true for a lot of people. But it's not because of Shakespeare's plots - people love his plots which is why they keep endlessly repurposing them, especially ROMEO AND JULIET. It's odd, how often I forget R&J when I'm thinking about Shakespeare's plays and it's because the plot of the play so freaking ubiquitous that the play seems like its own thing, not part of the Shakespearean canon.

In any case the reason people don't like Shakespeare is because they don't understand the meaning of many of his passages and also, it must be said, Shakespeare does go on and on at unnecessary length  as often as possible. Now if you love the language - and understand it - this is a plus, but if you don't then watching a production even of a crowd-pleaser like R&J or MIDSUMMER is all thou blah blah blah odds bodkin blah blah blah it is the east and Juliet is the sun blah blah.

For the most part contemporary American playwrights avoid gratuitous speechifying and heightened poetic language in favor of plain-speaking and getting to the point. When they do indulge in heightened language it stands out. Tony Kushner only does it a few times in ANGELS IN AMERICA, most especially when Prior Walter is in heaven and an angel is suggesting to him that he stay dead instead of asking for more life. In the HBO special version it's delivered by Emma Thompson who has done lots of Shakespearean work and she delivers it in, to my ears, a very Shakespearean way:
Life is a habit with you, you have not seen what is to come, we have. What will the grim unfolding of these latter days bring that you or any being should wish to endure them? Death, more plenteous than all heaven has tears to mourn it: the slow dissolving of the great design;
The spiraling apart of the work of eternity; the world and its beautiful particle logic all collapsed, all dead, forever. We are failing, failing, the earth and the angels.
Oh who asks of the order's blessing with apocalypse descending, who demands more life? When death like a protector blinds our eyes shielding from tender nerve more horror than can be borne? Let any being on whom fortune smiles creep away to death before that last dreadful daybreak when all your ravaging returns to you, when morning blisters crimson and bears all life away, a tidal wave of protean fire that curls around the planet and bears the earth clean as bone.

I like this speech but in truth it isn't entirely necessary - Prior has already given back the Book and declared he wants to live. Kushner was enjoying himself, getting a chance to play with phrases like "beautiful particle logic" and "protean fire" which most of the play with its standard American dialect does not permit him to employ.

For the same reason I used fancy language sparingly in my play NORMA JEANE AT THE PAYNE WHITNEY PSYCHIATRIC CLINIC. For the most part the play uses standard American mid-20th century phrasing.  But in the ninth scene - the entirety of scene 9 consists of a monologue slightly longer than two pages. There are three parts to the monologue - in the second part Norma Jeane talks about being molested as a child, in the third part she talks about what happened when her Aunt Ana died. Those are pretty much straight-up exposition. But the first part is me getting a chance to play with protean fire. I should mention that the very first sentence of this passage is a direct quote from Monroe herself, describing the screaming inmates of the ward she was in at the Payne Whitney.
They cry out when life becomes unbearable. And when life is not, it is always a stone's throw away from unbearable. We are suffering machines. When we become overloaded we self-destruct. But usually it doesn't come to that. Usually the machine chugs along for decades. Sometimes early on, a small glitch appears after the machine goes onto the factory floor. It doesn't cause a problem right away. But then things start to happen. Little breakdowns, they have to call in the maintenance crew. They go to work with their wrenches and their duct tape and put the little machine back on line. It does the work it was designed for at a good steady pace. But then one day the duct tape wears out and it reaches critical mass. It begins to emit smoke and buzzes and shakes and rattles and the maintenance crew comes running, they fixed it before they can fix it again, but no, not this time. The alarm bells clang clang clang. And finally the suffering machine breaks down completely and forever. The question isn't "why is anybody so sad," the question is why is anybody ever happy, with the odds stacked against it, when happiness is uncertain and suffering is what we have been created for. 
It's not a coincidence that the topic of both Kushner's and my passages here is LIFE ITSELF. My language isn't heightened as in Kushner's passage, I get my literary jollies through an extended metaphor, which harkens back to a previous monologue in the play in which Norma Jeane talks about the time she worked in a factory.

I don't think the reviewer in HuffPo noticed this passage was different from the rest of the play, much less anybody else in the audience. But I sure knew it. I told the actor playing Norma Jeane that while I preferred she spoke my lines as written throughout the entire performance, the only part of the play I insisted she say exactly as written was this one. As in poetry, it really matters which words appear in which order. And so during one of the performances when she said "...the question is why is anybody so happy" instead of "the question is why is anybody ever happy" it was like a kick in the head. It's only one word, but it changes the meaning of the sentence entirely and makes it stupid - nobody would say "why is anybody so happy." I guess I should consider myself lucky that an American audience sat in attentive silence during a speech that was more philosophy than exposition.

Also instead of "a good steady pace" she kept saying "a good and steady pace" but although not as elegant with the gratuitous and thrown in there, at least it has the same meaning. 

I'm not one to subscribe to the suffering artist theory. I don't think depression and anguish are necessarily the midwives of art. But it so happens that I was really suffering when I wrote this particular passage. And most of the time I believe everything in that passage, especially the last sentence. It is the truest thing I ever wrote.

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