26 September 2015


Back in 1986, the Acting Company commissioned seven diverse playwrights to compose adaptations of short stories by Anton Chekhov.  Produced at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in April and May that year, some of the seven plays in Orchards hoved closely to their sources, others took a more liberal perspective, and one or two ignored their Chekhovian origin entirely.  (In 1997/98, the Acting Company used the same strategy—commissioning a diverse team of eminent playwrightsto create an evening of plays and music inspired by Shakespeare’s sonnets entitled Love’s Fire.)  Well, now the same company has turned to Tennessee Williams (1911-83), another great playwright and short story-writer, in the same vein.  Presented as the second entry in the 2015-16 5A Season at the 59E59 Theaters, Desire comprises six short plays adapted by six very different authors from Williams stories published between 1939 and 1980.

59E59’s 5A Season, its mainstage presentation, encompasses five full productions in Theater A (hence the name) on the first floor of the East 59th Street home.  Desire, which runs from 2 September to 10 October and opened to the press on 10 September, is considered a world première even though it was workshopped over four days in July at Vassar College’s Powerhouse Theater in Poughkeepsie, New York, home of New York Stage and Film.  Diana, my frequent theater companion—this show was actually her idea, and it turned out to be a mighty good one—saw the 8 p.m. performance on Friday, 18 September.  (My report on “Summer Shorts 2015, Series A,” posted on 12 August, includes a brief background on the 59E59 Theaters.)

Founded in 1972 by producer/director/actor John Houseman, who was the first director of Juilliard’s Drama Division (founded in 1968), and Margot Harley with members of the program’s first graduating class, the Acting Company promotes theater by touring across the U.S. with a repertory of classics and new works performed by young actors and teaching artists.  It concentrates on communities where live performance and theater arts education are limited.  The company has now expanded beyond Juilliard graduates, auditioning actors from all over the country.  Each year, the Acting Company performs in over 40 cities to 70,000 theatergoers and provides arts education to more than 30,000 students.  According to its own website, the company has presented 141 productions of classic, contemporary, and new plays to over three million spectators in 48 states and ten foreign countries. 

The Acting Company has received critical acclaim nationally.  In 2003, it was awarded a TONY for Excellence in Theater and the company has won many other awards such as Obies, AUDELCOS (to honor excellence in New York African American Theatre) and the Los Angeles Critics Circle Award.  The company has a record of fostering new works for the stage based on classic literature long before Desire, including Love’s FireThe Robber Bridegroom by Alfred Uhry (1975, based on a 1942 novel by Eurdora Welty); Orchards; and Rebecca Gilman’s 2005 adaptation of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) by Carson McCullers (coincidentally, a close friend of Tennessee Williams).  Some of the illustrious alumni of  the Acting Company include Dennis Boutsikaris, Frances Conroy, Keith David, Dann Florek, Harriet Harris, Kevin Kline, Hamish Linklater, Patti LuPone, Jesse L. Martin, Randle Mell, Andrew Prosky, David Schramm, David Ogden Stiers, Lorraine Toussaint, Rainn Wilson, and Jeffrey Wright. 

(Acting Company alums Megan Bartle, Liv Rooth, John Skelley, Derek Smith, and Yaegel T. Welch appear in Desire.  A side note about Smith: his was the only cast name I recognized before reading the program; I’d seen Juliet Brett and Yaegel T. Welch  as Bonnie in A. R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer and Jonathan in Athol Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, respectively—see my reports on 28 June and 3 July—but I didn’t know that until I read their bios.  As it happens, I saw Smith, who’s now 55, as Romeo at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre in 1986, former Acting Company director Michael Kahn’s first production as artistic director of STC.)

Subtitled An Evening of Plays Based on Six Stories by Tennessee Williams, Desire has a repertory cast of nine directed by Michael Wilson (Horton Foote’s The Orphans Home Cycle at the Signature Theatre Company, 2009-10—see my report on 25 and 28 February 2010; Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful on Broadway with Cecily Tyson, 2013) on a unit set.  The scenic and projection design is by Jeff Cowie, the costume design by David C. Woolard, the lighting design by Russell H. Champa, and the original music and sound design by John Gromada.  The show runs two-and-a-half hours with one intermission between the third and fourth plays.  Many of Williams’s stories eventually became the bases of several of his full-length plays, including some of his best-known works: “The Yellow Bird” (published in 1967) became Summer and Smoke (1948) and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (1964); “One Arm” (1967), Camino Real (1953);Three Players of a Summer Game” (1960), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955);The Night of the Iguana” (1967), the play of the same title (1961); and “Man Bring This Up Road” (1994), The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (1963).  In Desire, John Guare’s You Lied To Me About Centralia was adapted from “Portrait of a Girl in Glass” (1948), which Williams used as the foundation of The Glass Menagerie (1944), his first commercial success.  (Short story publication dates are often later than Williams’s composition of the piece.  Some stories had been unpublished, others appeared in magazines before being collected into book anthologies.)

The Resemblance Between a Violin Case and a Coffin (short story published in 1951) by Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, 1978, Pulitzer Prize; The Miss Firecracker Contest, 1979) is the evening’s most clearly autobiographical tale and Henley kept to the original storyline and setting.  (Williams was well-known for recycling his biography in his writing.  When this story appeared in print, Williams’s father told his son’s agent, “Tell Tom to keep my family out of his stories.”)  It takes place in the 1920s in a small Mississippi town, (probably the Delta town of Clarksdale, where Williams; his older sister, Rose; and their mother, Miss Edwina, lived in that era with Williams’s grandfather, the Rev. Walter Dakin, and grandmother, Rosina (Rose) Otte Dakin, who was called Grand).  I’d bet the incidents recounted in Resemblance were actual events in the Williams family when the nascent writer was a child.  (In fact, Lyle Leverich describes similar incidents in his 1995 biography, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams.)  Tom (Mickey Theis), obviously named for Thomas Lanier Williams III, the writer’s birth name, and his older sister and only real friend, Roe (Juliet Brett), recalling Williams’s own beloved sister, are also playmates, making up all kinds of esoteric games like the Stations of the Cross.  But Roe is preoccupied with her piano lessons with Miss Alley (Kristen Adele) and the recital her teacher has organized for her and this irks Tom.  (Piano and additional music for Resemblance are by Jana Mainelli.)  Miss Alley has also arranged for young, handsome Richard Miles (Brian Cross), her prize pupil who’s come back for a visit, to partner with Roe on the violin.  This annoys Tom, but it also unnerves Roe, for the young girl is growing up and Tom feels she’s leaving him behind.  During one of their games, Roe screams and Tom sees that there’s blood running down her leg—though he doesn’t understand what it means—and Roe runs off in fright, ordering her little brother not to follow her.  At the same time, Roe is beginning to act erratically and finds she’s no longer able to play her music, developments that confound her mother (Megan Bartle) and grandmother (Liv Rooth).  (The play doesn’t specify, but theatergoers familiar with Williams’s history will know that Rose suffered from schizophrenia starting in her teens, ultimately being institutionalized for the rest of her life after a lobotomy in 1943—eight years before Williams published the story.)  The title comes from Tom’s perception of Richard’s ubiquitous violin case, which Roe always asks to carry to rehearsal for him.  Tom says that the case looks like a coffin . . . for a baby or a doll.  It’s an eerie note to an already bittersweet story.

Tent Worms (1980) by Elizabeth Egloff (The Swan, 1990; and Peter Pan and Wendy, 1997; Ether Dome, 2011) is set in the present (updated from Williams’s original, written in 1945) on the deck of a house on Cape Cod, Massachusetts (where Williams spent a lot of time over the years, including the summer of 1946 when he shared a cottage on Nantucket Island, south of the Cape in Nantucket Sound, with Carson McCullers while she dramatized her novel The Member of the Wedding and he worked on Summer and Smoke).  Billy (Derek Smith) and his wife, Clara (Rooth), are spending the summer away from the turmoil of the city at their vacation cottage.  Billy is a writer and he usually uses the freedom to work out on the deck while Clara relaxes.  (They’ve never made friends of any of their neighbors.)  The marriage now seems strained and Billy has become preoccupied with ridding the property of the tent worms that have been building their webs in the cottage’s trees.  When the play starts, Billy’s up in one of the trees with a leaf-blower, making a racket while trying to wipe out the parasites.   He’s nearly—well, not really “nearly”—obsessed with this, and Clara has taken up drinking as a defense.  Clearly, there’s something more going on, and a phone call from Billy’s doctor provides some answers.  We only hear Clara’s frantic side of the conversation (in the story, Williams lets us in on both sides), but it indicates that Billy’s sick and probably dying—though we don’t learn from what.  Clara doesn’t think her husband knows, but it’s evident he does, which may account for all his behavioral aberrations.  The couple, however, don’t ever talk about this—or much of anything else.  Things are obviously getting direr and in a last act of desperation, Billy decides to burn the creatures out, torching the tree and the deck, terrifying Clara until the firefighters arrive and put the smoky blaze out.  This act leaves Clara distraught, but Billy is unperturbed.  (Egloff has moved the action up to 2015, and Clara’s phone call is on a cell—but Billy apparently writes on an old-fashioned manual typewriter, not a laptop or even an electric machine.  A reference to Tennessee Williams sitting on a similar deck back in the ‘40s?  It’s a curiosity.)

You Lied To Me About Centralia by John Guare (The House of Blue Leaves, 1971 and 1986, 1986 Tony nominee; Landscape of the Body; and Six Degrees of Separation, 1990, 1991 Tony and Pulitzer nominee, Atlantic City, screenplay 1982, Oscar nominee) is the story of Jim, Laura’s gentleman caller from Glass Menagerie, after leaving the Wingfield apartment after dinner that night.  Guare doesn’t say anything about this (though the original story gives much the same account as Menagerie), so you have to know Menagerie to recognize the narrative Jim (Theis) tells his fiancée, Betty (Bartle), when they meet in the waiting room of St. Louis’s Union Station.  Set in 1937, You Lied recounts Jim’s meeting with Betty after her return from a train trip to her rich uncle.  She’d told him she was going to Centralia, Missouri, so Jim wouldn’t know that she was going to ask her uncle for money to make a down payment on a house she wants.  Jim had even waited for Betty at the wrong platform because of her fib.  She says she’s hungry, but he tells her he’s already eaten, and related his evening at the home of Tom, his co-worker at the shoe factory where they both work.  Betty’s instantly alarmed.  Tom’s something of an outcast and Jim and the other workers call him “Nancy-Boy” for his effeminate ways after they discovered he writes poetry on the tops of the shoe boxes.  (Both of these details are facts of Williams’s time as a young man when he took a job in the shoe factory where his father was a travelling salesman.  The aspiring poet did write poems on the box tops and C. C. Williams called his son “Miss Nancy.”)  But Jim regrets his cruelty once he’s gotten to know Tom, and he enjoyed the evening at Tom’s home, even dancing with his slightly peculiar sister, Laura.  Betty’s immediately jealous.  What does this mean?  Is Jim in love with this Laura?  Of course, Jim had told his hosts that he was engaged to be married in a few weeks, and they said goodbye to him in disappointment, but Jim seems to have picked up on something he doesn’t quite understand yet, and I wondered if a marriage to conventional and self-centered Betty would really work out.  (She hadn’t gotten the money from her rich uncle.  He’d already gotten them a wedding gift.)
Desire Quenched by Touch (“Desire and the Black Masseur,” 1948) by Marcus Gardley (PEN/Laura Pels Award-winner; . . . And Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi, 2010; Every Tongue Confess, 2010; and The Box: A Black Comedy, 2014), set in the massage room of a public bathhouse and the office of police Detective Bacon in New Orleans in 1952, is disturbing in a different way from Resemblance and it has an especially gruesome ending.  (I won’t reveal the ending, but I will note that Leverich reports in Tom that the young Williams was fascinated with Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.)  Yaegel T. Welch is Grand, an African-American masseur at a public bathhouse in New Orleans who’s being questioned by Smith’s Bacon, an NOPD detective, over the mysterious disappearance of Grand’s most frequent—and eccentric—client, John Skelley’s Burns.  As Bacon interviews Grand—it’s not hostile at first, although the detective believes the masseur is involved in Burns’s vanishing—we see flashbacks of Grand’s increasingly sadomasochistic massages as Burns begs for ever more punishing treatment until the masseur performs an act so shocking it doesn’t seem to suit the play Gardley wrote.  (In Williams’s original story, which he saw as a tale of atonement, Grand is more in tune with the violence and the story is more forthcoming about the pleasure a black man takes in abusing a white man in the era of Jim Crow.) 

Oriflamme (1974; retitled from “The Red Part of a Flag,” 1944) by David Grimm (Measure for Pleasure, 2006; The Miracle at Naples, 2009;  and Tales from Red Vienna, 2014) takes place on a hill in a park in St. Louis on a summer afternoon in 1939 where Anna (Rooth) has fled to escape her stultifying life and encounters Rodney (Smith in an entirely different performance from his others here).  (Hilton Als, in his New Yorker profile of Williams, asserts that Anna is a homage to Grand, the playwright’s maternal grandmother, who died in 1944, for her “anarchic spirit.”   I said Williams reused his bio for his writing.)  Anna, who could be a reflection of Blanche Du Bois from Streetcar or Alma Winemiller from Summer and Smoke and Eccentricities, has been feeling confined by her life, especially her job at the local department store, so one afternoon she decides to buy herself a scarlet silk evening dress—and then, to the shock of the store’s staff, insists on wearing it out even though it’s “a dress for the evening.”  The dress gives her not only a sense of freedom and sensuous delight, but frees her inner naughty girl, a trait she has repressed since childhood.  Anna finds herself in the park, at the top of a hill, where she finds Rodney, known as Hooch because of the flask he always carries in his pocket.  (The character of Rodney was invented by Grimm.)  He’s sitting on the top of the back of a wooden bench, his feet on the seat, reading a racing form.  Rodney, as Anna prefers to call him at first, is a vulgar, rough working man (a portrait, not so much of a prototype of Stanley Kowalski, but Cornelius Coffin Williams, the writer’s abusive father) and he spots confused and conflicted Anna in her slinky, provocative red dress, as a potential conquest.  He plies her with booze and insidiously chats her up.  She recounts many incidents from her past and her regrets and wishes, until Rodney moves in for the clinch.  She reacts with instant fear and anger at Rodney’s presumption of intimacy and Rodney leaves in a frustrated huff.  As he departs, Anna gives a little cough into her hand, revealing a large spot of blood, and we see that she’s probably quite sick.  (In the story, Williams reveals Anna’s fatal condition early, but in the play it’s not foreshadowed.  In fact, the story makes clear that Anna will die before the day’s out, but Grimm leaves her fate uncertain.) 

The Field of Blue Children (1939; originally written in 1928, when Williams was still a teenager) by Rebecca Gilman (Pulitzer and Olivier Awards nominee; Spinning into Butter, 2000; Boy Gets Girl, 2000; and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 2005) updates the writer’s story to today and makes it a comedy of sexual awakening and suppressed desires from Williams original contemplative tale of a conformist college sorority sister who secretly yearns for more.  Set on and around the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Layley (Bartle) is taking a poetry class to learn how to say things she thinks in better, more expressive ways.  She’s inarticulate (though not actually stupid, as hinted by her own joke about her sorority, “Tri Delt”:  “They’re so stupid that they only knew one Greek letter.  So they repeated it three times: Delta Delta Delta”) so all she can say to the class’s best poet, Dylan (Skelley), is that she likes his poems.  But she’s attracted to more than Dylan’s poetry and she meets him at a coffee house for a poetry reading, foregoing the popular kids’ big after-game party for the homecoming football game with Ole Miss, ’Bama’s traditional rival.  Walking though the park after the reading, she and Dylan have a sexual encounter, invited by Layley, which is played hilariously for all its serious implications.  (Okay.  After removing Layley’s panties at her suggestion, Dylan puts his head up under her dress and Layley goes off increasingly loudly, like Meg Ryan’s Sally in the famous delicatessen scene in When Harry Met Sally . . . .)  But both Dylan and Layley have significant others, his a somewhat militant and aggressively intellectual black student named Meaghan (Adele) and hers the conventional “perfect” upper-crust frat boy, Grant (Cross), but neither Dylan nor Layley are happy with their partners.  (Grant is as emptyheaded as the sorority girls, the kind of guy, if this weren’t set in 2015, you’d expect to come bounding into the house, asking, “Tennis, anyone?”  And Meaghan is as narrow-minded and dismissive in her way as the puffballs of fraternity and sorority row are assumed to be.)  Layley’s sorority sisters, Cee Cee (Brett) and Curry (Rooth), are as bubbleheaded, vacuous, and judgmental as their stereotypes are expected to be—but in ways silly enough to be funny more than mean.  Both Dylan and, especially, Layley ultimately feel compelled to stay within their social and self-defined bounds and after Layley delivers an unintended surprise, the two students who might have made a great pair if they broke their self-constructed bonds walk away from one another into the predictable future that Layley, in particular, has already laid out for us.  

I liked the physical production very much.  The basic set for Desire, designed by Jeff Cowie, is the same through the whole evening, with a few set pieces added to set the scenes for each play (or each location for the few multi-scene plays).  The main piece of scenery is an abstract tree on stage right, really an assemblage of yellow-ish painted boards forming a trunk and branches at the top, disappearing into the fly space.  Tom and Roe in Resemblance sit in it and pose in the branches and Billy is hidden among its branches with his leaf-blower when Tent Worms opens.  Up stage, across the back of the set, is a wooden wall made of weathered gray boards (very reminiscent of traditional structures on Cape Cod and the islands), but the boards are put together in varying patterns rather than parallel straight across the wall: there are patches that look like boarded-up windows and vertical strips as well as horizontal ones.  It’s not representative, except that it’s a wooden wall.  Is it the side of a barn?  A garage?  A neighboring house?  A shack?  We don’t really know. 

The wall, however, also serves as a projection screen, when Cowie’s slides and videos sometimes obliterate the wood texture, sometimes superimpose another image over the wood texture.  One of the most marvelous projections comes in Resemblance when Richard Miles rides in on his bicycle.  First of all, director Michael Wilson eschews an actual bike, using two actors to carry in bicycle wheels, one in front of Brian Cross and one behind, while Miles paces along in a meandering course across the stage.  (Sara Swanberg designed the show’s props.)  It’s an extremely delightful and expressive image, made more dramatic by the multiple projections of bike wheels on the back wall, floating around like giant ping pong balls in slow motion.  It’s a joyful and dreamlike picture and makes clear why Roe, in her world of circumscribed behavior, is so intrigued with the handsome Richard.  Other projections were less dynamic than the bicycle but no less expressive and revealing.  The black-and-white photographic representation of the railroad station interior in You Lied, for instance, reminiscent of old Penn Station in New York City, was better than most CGI effects I’ve seen in movies—more evocative and pointed, it’s both old (because it’s black and white and a period image) and real (because it’s a photo, not a drawing or painting) at the same time.

Davis C. Woolard’s costumes not only vividly set the time for each play, but the mood and personality of each character.  That scarlet silk gown Anna wears in Oriflamme is a perfect example—it tells Anna’s whole story in a visual.  (It doesn’t hurt that Liv Rooth uses it as a prop much the way a Restoration character might use a fan or a handkerchief.  It speaks its own dialogue.)  All the visual aspects of the production were brought to life and energized by the lighting of Russel H. Champa (with an assist from the cast, of course).  In fact, I have to add here that one of the greatest pleasures of this production was that it was a true and pervasive ensemble, stretching not only to all the members of the cast, which is usually what defines an ensemble production, and, of course, to the director, but to each of the designers who created elements of the show.  (I don’t know if the writers continued to participate in the creation of this production once rehearsals started, but if they did, they had to be part of this collaboration.)  Everything fit too well for it to have been accidental or good luck, even if Wilson were a theatrical genius.  Desire is an example of what can happen when artists of every field work together with one another to create a performance.  (If I’m wrong on this, if the Acting Company’s Desire was merely the result of a happy accident, I’d just as soon not hear about it.  Leave me in my benighted ignorance.  I’m happy here.)

Michael Wilson’s direction is both solid and sure-handed, as well as appropriate for the circumstances of each playlet.  (He’s had some experience with Tennessee Williams material: The Red Devil Battery Sign, world première in 1996, and the 2011 revival of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore.  In 1999, as artistic director of Connecticut’s Hartford Stage, Wilson launched a 10-year marathon of Williams’s works, including the premières in 2003 of Now the Cats with Jeweled ClawsThe Palooka, and The One Exception.)  First, his choice of cast, all nine members of the ensemble, and of the design concept (with Cowie, Woolard, Champa, and Gromada) are both excellent, well-tailored to each of the stories and their varied circumstances.  (I don’t know if Wilson had a say in the selection of the six playwrights who made the adaptations, but if he did, obviously along with Acting Company producer Margot Harley and artistic director Ian Belknap, he deserves kudos for that as well.)  All of that, however, would have come to naught if Wilson also hadn’t wielded a master director’s hand at working with the actors, no matter how talented they are individually.  He guided them all into characterizations that perfectly fit the roles each actor plays in each adaptation, helping (or allowing) each performer to create characters often so different from one another that I wasn’t always able to detect immediately that they were the same actors I’d just seen in another part.  If nothing else, Wilson made Desire a showcase for excellent acting—not that I’d have expected anything less from the Acting Company. 

But the director did do more.  I covered some of the design and production elements with which I was impressed when I wrote about the physical production earlier so you know that there are some immensely clever aspects to the staging that lend the perfect touch to several of the plays.  (The bicycling sequences in Remembrance are one elegant example.)  Some are subtle and some blatant, depending on need and appropriateness.  Either Wilson is familiar with Williams’s concept of plastic theater (on which I’ve blogged: see “‘The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theater,” 9 May 2012) or he succumbed to the pull of the idea because it’s embedded in Williams’s writing, even his prose.  His work with the actors, though, is just admirable.  Wilson’s not a show-off, but he’s decidedly more than a traffic director.  (I’ve seen his work in Tina Howe’s Chasing Manet, and Horton Foote’s The Orphans’ Home Cycle and Old Friends—blog reports dated 30 April 2009, 25 and 28 February 2010, and 10 October 2013.)  I could see his hand in each play, determining the performance style while still remaining true to the Williams dynamic that underlies each adaptation.  Of course, in this Wilson had to collaborate with the actors and the writers, but the director’s the final ringmaster.  I must, however, make a special mention of the acting in Resemblance, especially the work of Juliet Brett as Roe and Mickey Theis as Tom.  Both 20-something actors play children—Roe’s a ’tween or young teen on the verge of puberty and Tom’s still a little boy two years younger—without resorting to cliché or mugging; the portrayals are mostly predicated on how well the characters understand what’s happening to and around them, and that informs the rest of their behavior.  (The moment Roe has her first period, Brett’s Roe is terrified and Theis’s Tom is totally confused.  She runs off in horror; he dithers in bewilderment.)  As much as the success of that work depends on the actors, it also has to rely on the sensitivity of the director—especially to get the actors to work in tandem with one another.

It’s almost too hard to single out any performance as exemplary.  Not one portrayal was lacking, even the incidental ones.  If there were caricatures, such as Layley’s sorority sisters in Blue Children, they were called for; if there were emotional excesses, such as Anna’s in Oriflamme and Billy’s in Tent Worms, they came from Williams’s stories—and they were all handled with just the right touch to keep them within the world of Williams’s narrative.  I must single out one of Derek Smith’s depictions: Rodney (AKA “Hooch”) in Oriflamme.  I said he’s the only actor on the bill who’s name I recognized immediately, and even though he’s aged a bit since I saw him at 26, I knew him as soon as he appeared on stage in Tent Worms.  (The quality of his work hadn’t changed, I must add.)  He was still recognizable, though displaying a different persona, as Detective Bacon in Desire Quenched by Touch.  But when the lights came up on Oriflamme and this guy was sitting up on the back of the park bench, I had to check the program when the house light came up again to find that this was the same actor I thought I knew.  He not only looked different—that may have been partly due to the costume since he didn’t wear heavy character makeup or anything—but he was such a different person, even sounding different, I thought it was one of the other cast members.  That’s all acting, not directing or writing, and it was very exciting for an ex-actor to witness. 

I’ve already written about Liv Rooth’s work in Oriflamme and Juliett Brett’s and Mickey Theis’s in Resemblance.  Another stand-out performance is given by Yaegel T. Welch as Grand in Desire Quenched, who appears stalwart and straightforward until we get to see him in the flashbacks where we watch him mask a sadistic bent, fueled by a need for payback, with an almost clinical detachment as Grand bends and manhandles Burns in torturous ways as John Skelley’s Burns keeps begging for more.  As an acting job, it’s an exercise in control and objectification.  If the grisly ending doesn’t quite reconcile with the rest of the story or Welch’s character, that’s more on Williams (and probably Marcus Gardley) than Welch.

The rest of the company, which, as I said, made up a thoroughgoing ensemble, was first class and singling out a few doesn’t detract from the overall high standards the actors set.  These guys were just plain terrific.

In the press, the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood wrote that the Desire playlets “often breathe with the same fervent romanticism that marks [Williams’s] plays,” even as he acknowledged, “Some are more successful than others.”  Isherwood, however, was negative on the question of “whether second-guessing [Williams] himself . . . is a fruitful pastime.” the Timesman’s answer: “Over all, on the evidence of this production, I’d have to say no.”  In Long Island’s Newsday, Linda Winer called the collection “consistently engrossing and often ingenious” because she felt that “the playwrights . . . manage to evoke vivid themes and shadows of Williams without a hint of overheated parody or the loss of each individual voice.”  “Expertly directed,” asserted Winer, Desire “made me yearn to read the stories.” 

Jesse Green characterized Desire as “another in a series of theatrical misadventures that makes you question the management of the Tennessee Williams estate,” dubbing the stage adaptations “experiments in exploitation.“  Green stated, “I suppose I wouldn’t be complaining about this if any of the experiments were ever any good, but they’re not, and this latest one . . . is particularly annoying, like shaking up a soda can full of tired Tennessee-isms, then popping the top and letting it spray.”  The New York reviewer went on to disparage the directing of Michael Wilson, “who does not make a glorious showing here,” and the choice of stories, which “feels fairly random.”  Green acknowledged that “the performances . . . are the only generally successful elements of the endeavor.”  In the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town column, the reviewer noted that “you can hear Tennessee Williams’s dramatis personae echoing through this evening of one-acts based on his short stories . . . .  Sometimes these echoes are the best bits, as several of the adaptations are merely workmanlike.” 

In Time Out New York, David Cote felt that “each playlet is both equal homage to a master and playful riff on a source” and that Desire “is satisfying in small, intense doses.”  Cote observed that “these stories are not subtle in their literary devices or symbolic gestures, and the plays are most interesting when the authors mitigate such flamboyant, combustible material with their own voice and vision.”  The man from TONY added that Wilson “directs an appealing, uniformly good ensemble” and concluded, “Most American playwrights working today owe some debt to Williams; it’s a pleasure, even inspiring, to see six give back.

The Huffington Post’s David Finkle thought that adapting the Williams stories was a “wonderful idea” which Wilson directed “capably.”  He ended by acknowledging, “An added attraction of Desire . . . is that it makes reading or re-reading the short stories from which the six plays are derived a temptation too strong to resist.”  On CurtainUp, Simon Saltzman stated that the playlets “have been given mainly fine, often better than that, dramatic shape and form” by the adapters and are “all intentionally intoxicating” and have been “rhapsodically and on occasion rambunctiously staged .”  Saltzman concluded, “Though this collection will be most fulfilling for Williams devotees it will also entertain” others.  Talkin’ Broadway’s Howard Miller asserted that the adaptations in Desire range “from seamless translation from short story to play, to intriguing joining of Williams with the adaptor, to some of that unfortunate veering into caricature.”  Miller also praised the “very solid cast” and the “excellent scenic and projection design.” 

Marina Kennedy proclaimed on Broadway World that the stories in Desire have been “brilliantly adapted for the stage” and display “extraordinary direction” which area “audiences will not want to miss.”  “Each and every scene in Desire is entrancing,” Kennedy said, and the cast is “multi-talented.”  On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart declared of Desire, “As with most evenings of one-acts, the results are hit-and-miss.”  John Gromada’s music is “dreamy,” said Stewart, “Russell H. Champa's lighting is similarly otherworldly,” while “Director Wilson exhibits a remarkable range.”  The one-act plays in Desire “offer a fascinating lesson in the art of adaptation,” wrote Jonathan Mandell of New York Theater.


21 September 2015

'A Casual Gathering'

Back on 30 July, my friend Helen Eleasari e-mailed me that her friend Daniel Schwartzman had a musical play scheduled in the Dream Up Festival 2015 at Theater for the New City in September.  Helen not only writes on theater and culture for the Jerusalem Post, but she directs plays in English in and around Tel Aviv, where she lives.  (I knew her as an actor here in New York City back in the late ’70s.  I directed her in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan for which she also designed the costumes.)  It's called A Casual Gathering,” she wrote me.  “He’s very chuffed about it and I told him I’d tell you.”  (‘Chuffed’ is British slang for ‘pleased.’  Helen’s a former Brit.)  She was writing to let me know about the festival production and recommending that I try to catch it.

(What I didn’t realize until a few days later—because Helen didn’t mention it—was that Casual Gathering was a play, under a different title, that Helen had staged in Tel Aviv back in 2011.  She’d written me about it at the time, when it premièred as Happy Hour: “It’s a bittersweet piece and Danny has written some lovely music for it.”  She also declared, “I like it."  When I read an on-line description of the play and its content, my memory stirred and I realized the connection between A Casual Gathering and Happy Hour and I immediately confirmed the fact with her; “Yep—that’s the one . . .,” she acknowledged.)

The Dream Up Festival performance at TNC in the East Village was the play’s American première.  Happy Hour débuted in a production directed by Helen Eleasari for the Tel Aviv Community Theatre (TACT) at Beit Yad Labanim in November and December 2011.  Schwartzman, who seems to have written the play around 2003, when it’s set, was a member of TACT at the time and eight of his plays had been performed there before Happy Hour.  Helen’s production, she told me, was an effort to revive TACT, which had stopped producing some time before, and the new troupe was presenting a series of one-act plays and short musicals.  TNC’s Casual Gathering was Schwartzman’s first musical to be performed in New York City (which may be why he was so “chuffed”). 

A Casual Gathering at TNC, staged in the small, 91-seat Community Space Theater (which was renovated in 2001), was part of Dream Up Festival 2015.  The book, music, and lyrics are all by Schwartzman and the production was directed and choreographed by James Martinelli with music direction by Erica Kaplan.  The set and costumes were designed by Martinelli and the lighting by Alan Sporing and Marialana Ardolino, the stage manager.  Casual Gathering, a 75-minute musical, ran from 12 to 20 September, and my friends Diana and Kirk and I saw the 9 p.m. performance on Wednesday, 16 September. 

A Casual Gathering depicts a February 2003 reunion in an East Village bar of six high school friends, all 1972 graduates of New York City’s High School of Music & Art who have not seen each other for 30 years (“High School Friends”).  After the initial joy at seeing each other again, the realities of their lives and what they have failed to achieve (“Life Happens”)—none of the budding musicians, singers, or poets has a life in his or her chosen field—come to the surface as a blizzard starts up outside (“Back Into the Cold”).  Though the two non-Music & Art spouses, feeling like outsiders, feel uncomfortable (and leave early), the classmates feel the warmth, despite the snow, of renewed friendships, rekindled love (“We Had Something”), and nostalgic looks backward to the best time of their lives.  That long-ago graduation ceremony, as the reuniters sing in the opening number, “Graduation Day” (reprised later in the show), promised adventure, success, happiness, and a life of art and fulfillment, a golden future which none of the grads experienced, but the promise remains wonderful.  Even the promises of the reunion—a romance reignited, another one newly discovered, lapsed friendships reborn—aren’t as sweet as they first seem—but the aging grads still take away into the showy night a feeling of renewal.  

The story is based on an actual event in playwright Schwartzman’s life (he is himself an alumnus of Music & Art), and while he was there, he wondered, “What if I was able to put this onstage?”  (“With some imagination added of course,” he continued.)  In Helen Eleasari’s words, the old grads, edging onto 50 now (“Don’t Want To Be Fifty”), are all living “very different lives from the ones they’d envisaged” on that far-away graduation day.  She explained that “none of [them] have realized their dreams.”  She concluded, “You might say that during the course of the reunion the protagonists finally grow up.” 

(New York’s High School of Music & Art, founded in 1936 by order of Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, was located on Convent Avenue and 135th Street in Harlem.  It operated there as a public school where New York City students could develop talents in music, art, and the performing arts.  In 1948, a companion institution, the High School of Performing Arts—the school where Fame, both the 1980 film and TV series, 1982-1987, was set—was founded on West 46th Street near the Theatre District.  In 1984, the two schools were combined into the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, situated on Amsterdam Avenue just behind Lincoln Center.  Many prominent actors, directors, dancers, singers, and musicians have graduated from the two schools and the combined facility.) 

Daniel Schwartzman, who turns 61 on 30 September, is a native New Yorker, a graduate of Music & Art and the Conservatory of Music at SUNY’s Purchase College in Westchester County.  He “made aliyah” to Israel in 1978 to join  the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and moved to Tel Aviv in 1980, where he received a Master of Arts degree in composing and conducting from Tel Aviv University.  He’s been directing Hebrew translations of Broadway shows throughout Israel; his 2014 musical direction and orchestra conducting of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s The Sound of Music at the Israel Opera House was well received and he’s now working on the Israeli production of The King and I, also as music director and conductor in the pit.  He acknowledges that his musical models are Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. 

Director James Martinelli, also a native New Yorker, is the recipient of the Yvonne Fanter Award.  He started out as a dancer and currently works as a director/choreographer.  Martinelli’s work will be seen in the 2015-16 season at the Heights Players, Brooklyn, as director of Mame by Jerome Lawrence, Robert Edwin Lee, and Jerry Herman, and Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women.  

Theater for the New City, founded in 1971 by actor and dancer Crystal Field and actor George Bartenieff with directors Theo Barnes and Lawrence Kornfeld, is one of New York City’s leading Off-Off-Broadway theaters.  The four theater artists had met at the Judson Poets Theatre, one of the original venues of the infant Off-Off-Broadway theater in the late 1950s and early 1960s where Kornfeld had been resident director.  Feeling that they’d gone with Judson Poets as far as they could, the TNC founders decided to form a theater of their own for poetic work that would also encompass a community outreach. They named their new company Theater for the New City after a speech in which then-Mayor John V. Lindsay envisioned a “new city” for all New Yorkers. 

TNC, officially opened in March 1971, made its first home in the Westbeth Artists Community in Greenwich Village.  Becoming known for radical political plays and community commitment; the company presented political plays, experimental poetic works, dance theater, and musical theater.  The new company’s earliest productions included work by Richard Foreman, Charles Ludlam, Miguel Piñero, and Jean-Claude van Itallie.  With puppeteer Ralph Lee, TNC initiated the Village Halloween Parade in 1974, but in 1976 Lee spun the Halloween Parade off as an independent event and TNC launched its Village Halloween Costume Ball, which it still holds. 

Productions, at TNC, which have included the American premières of Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine (1984) and Buried Child (1978) by Sam Shepard, have won 43 Obie Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  TNC currently exists as a four-theater complex in the 30,000-square-foot former First Avenue Retail Market located at 155 1st Avenue, in Manhattan’s East Village.  In the first year, Kornfeld and Barnes resigned and TNC moved from Westbeth to the Jane West, a transient hotel on Jane Street in the far west Village.  In 1977, the company moved again, this time to the East Village, converting the former Tabernacle Baptist Church at 156 2nd Avenue.  When rent increases forced TNC to move again, the company bought the underused market building between 9th and 10th Streets on 1st Avenue, their present home.  In 1992, Bartenieff resigned as executive director of TNC, leaving Field the artistic director. 

TNC runs several programs under which it produces scores of plays, mostly new, and community-oriented programs such as Arts in Education and the Community Festival Program, which consists of two free annual events, the Village Halloween Costume Ball and the Lower East Side Festival of the Arts.  TNC maintains the reputation as the least expensive Off-Off-Broadway theater of its caliber and many of its programs are free.  Its four theaters are: the Seward and Joyce Johnson Theater, the oldest performance space in the building (finished in 1991) which can be used as a 99-seat Off-Off-Broadway theater or a 240-seat Off-Broadway house, named for a major donor and scion of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical family; the Cino Theater, named after Off-Off-Broadway theater legend Joe Cino (see my post “Greenwich Village Theater in the 1960s,” 12 and 15 December 2011), a 74-seat adjustable space; the Cabaret Theater, TNC’s smallest space at 65 seats, is used most frequently for one-person plays, late-night cabarets, performance artists, and musicians; and the Community Space Theater.  In addition, TNC’s lobby houses the Theater for the New City Art Gallery and a small concession stand that’s open during performances.  (The basement of TNC’s home holds its huge collection of props, set pieces, and costumes.)

The Dream Up Festival is an annual event that’s been presented since 2010. This year’s festival, the sixth, ran from 30 August to 20 September and was staged in two venues: TNC and the Producer’s Club on West 44th Street in the Theatre District.  The festival presented 27 shows of nearly every description, most of them world and U.S. premières.  The motto of the festival is “Dream Up: Invent, Concoct.”  Dedicated to new works, the festival “does not want traditional theater which is presented in a traditional way,” according to its own statement.  The Dream Up Festival is comprised of performing artists from theater and performance companies in downtown New York, the country at large, and around the world, presenting wide-ranging and original theatrical works from the realms of drama, poetry, music, and dance—and combinations of several forms.  TNC sticks with its commitment to affordable tickets for the festival, whose prices range from $12 to $20 a seat for the participating productions.  Most shows are performed at least five times, though many run more, including untraditional times of day. 

My two friends and I were disappointed, especially after Helen’s warm characterizations of Happy Hour.  (There were also some nice descriptions of the TACT production on Israeli websites and blogs.)  I read that Schwartzman (whom I met briefly just before the show) had revised some of the play since 2011—for instance, he apparently changed the school to which his reuniters had gone to Music & Art from Performing Arts, perhaps because, as Helen reported four years ago, the play’s “sort of autobiographical—although the playwright/composer won’t admit it”—but I don’t know how much.  What was the most damaging in the performance we saw, however, wasn’t the script, it was the cast.  They were barely above amateur level, both in singing and acting.  A non-union showcase, it sounded like a college or even high school company.  Just to rub salt in the wound, the cast couldn’t project lyrics over the piano, which was right down front.  I lost a good many of the words to the songs even though the space wasn’t large or cavernous; the acoustics weren’t very good anyway.  I don’t know if the pianist (musical director Erica Kaplan) played loudly or not, but the company needed to make some accommodation for the weak voices one way or another.  

I don’t feel that a run-down of the performances is of any value, so I’m not going to belabor the point.  I will, however, list the cast:  Kevin Paul Bain (Robert, the outsider husband of Andrea), Meg Dooley (Helena, the would-be singer and the alumni pres), Terry Ellison (Pete, the bartender), Wendy Lazarus (Sue, a grade-school music teacher), Betsy Marra (Celia, the poet who now teaches English lit), Valerie O’Hara (Lindsay, the outsider wife of Will), Raffael Pacetti (Vinny, the failed trumpeter), Juan Luis Sanchez (Young Vinny, Young Will), Devra Seidel (Young Andrea), Angela Shultz (Andrea, the cellist who wasn’t), and Kerry Wolf (Will, the wannabe singer). 

I also wasn’t impressed with James Martinelli’s directing—certainly not his casting (although I do know the hardships of casting middle-aged non-Equity actors)—if for no other reason than that he couldn’t coach his singers to project over the music.  None of the cast was particularly convincing in their roles, which is also a directorial function, so on the whole, I’d have to say Martinelli’s major accomplishment was to prevent the actors from bumping into each other or the set.  His choreography, though that’s supposed to be his specialty (he teaches dance, after all), was of the same caliber.  Lighting designer Alan Sporing and the uncredited designers of the set and costumes essentially kept the Community Space from going dark, the characters from having no place to sit in the bar setting, and the actors from going naked.  (I’m sure, from my own experience in Off-Off-Broadway, that the actors supplied their own costumes and that the lights and set pieces were all pulled from TNC’s basement storage area.)

I can’t be sure that the deficiencies of the production of Casual Gathering my friends and I saw at TNC were due entirely to the performances and the staging.  Many descriptions of the play say it’s “a warm romantic comedy,” “bittersweet,” and “playful and poignant,” that it has “real charm,” all with overtones of sweetness, misty nostalgia, and truth.  It was all missing from the production I saw.  Perhaps it was all wiped out by the acting and directing, but that’s a tad heavy to lay on one element of the performance.  Granted, the actors weren’t convincing—or even truthful—in their characterizations, but what were they working with?  First, Casual Gathering is awfully contrived: of the six alums, no two have been in contact for most of the ensuing 30 years; not one became a musician, singer, or writer; both of the two outsider spouses are controlling pills and are mismatched with their Music & Art wife or husband; and there are no enemies or even antagonists, no jealousies or resentments among the six classmates (in a school full of nascent artists?  Really?)  No school group is that harmonious or homogeneous!  Either Schwartzman has cleaned up his memories a lot or he seriously cherry-picked his character models.  The snowstorm is a bit convenient, too, particularly since it has so little impact on the play’s content—a few lines and an excuse to bring the reunion to an end.

Schwartzman’s music has been called Sondheim-esque both in the promotions and spectator descriptions, and I admit that “High School Friends” did make me flash on “Married People” from Company, but Schwartzman isn’t remotely as good as Sondheim, however much he wants to emulate the great theater composer.  To start with, neither his music nor his lyrics are anywhere near as clever or surprising and he doesn’t have Sondheim’s range and variety.  At best, Schwartzman’s Sondheim (ultra) lite.

Unsurprisingly, at the time I’m writing this report there have been no reviews of Casual Gathering (or the Dream Up Festival), either in the papers or on line.  Off-Off-Broadway, especially short-run festival performances, often don’t get press coverage.  (There are some exceptions: the Summer Shorts one-acts some of which I saw last July and reported about on 12 August, was reviewed in omnibus notices and the annual New York International Fringe Festival is usually covered as well.)  That obviates my customary review round-up, of course.

16 September 2015

Henry Fielding’s Theater

by Kirk Woodward

[My friend, and frequent ROT guest-blogger, Kirk Woodward sets out in “Henry Fielding’s Theater” to examine the playwriting of the 18th-century English writer, best known as a novelist now, to demonstrate, if not that he’s “the greatest dramatist with the single exception of Shakespeare, produced in England between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century”—as George Bernard Shaw avers—then that “his plays have [some]thing significant to offer.”  Kirk’s not only covering an interesting—and under-addressed—subject in the unfamiliar plays of Fielding, but his approach is fascinating.  I can guarantee that even readers who do know Fielding’s theater work (and I do not) will learn something new from Kirk’s treatment.]

Henry Fielding (1707-1754) is celebrated today for his raucous novel Tom Jones (1749), but he is distinguished for much more than that. He was also a respected magistrate in London; he and his brother founded the Bow Street Runners, which are known as London’s first professional police force. And he was also a playwright, at a crucial point in both British history and the history of the British stage. George Bernard Shaw tells the story this way in the Preface to Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, volume 1 (1898):

In 1737, the greatest dramatist, with the single exception of Shakespeare, produced by England between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century – Henry Fielding – devoted his genius to the task of exposing and destroying parliamentary corruption, then at its height. Walpole, unable to govern without corruption, promptly gagged the stage by a censorship which is in full force at the present moment [1898]. Fielding, driven out of the trade of Moliere and Aristophanes, took to that of Cervantes; and since then the English novel has been one of the glories of literature, whilst the English drama has been its disgrace.

Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) was the “prime” or leading minister – a title that first came into use in the early 1700s – from around 1721 (when he became First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Leader of the House of Commons) to 1742, the longest term any Prime Minister has served. Walpole dominated Parliament in most of this period through oratory, thorough organization, and clever manipulation, and was frequently accused of corrupt practices, particularly by writers who opposed him, like Fielding, John Gay (author of The Beggar’s Opera), Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson.

Fielding’s writing tended toward comedy and satire, so it was natural that he would use the stage as an instrument for attacking Walpole. Shaw’s account may be oversimplified; scholarship today is uncertain whether Fielding’s plays were actually the cause of Walpole’s drive to censor the theater, since it appears that Walpole had already begun his campaign to establish the censorship before the two plays of Fielding most often cited as causes, The Historical Register for the Year 1736 and Eurydice Hiss’d (both 1737) were produced. But there is no question that Fielding was a thorn in Walpole’s side; that after 1737 he continued to attack Walpole, for example in his novel The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, The Great (1743), which implied that Walpole resembled one of the most notorious criminals of the day; and that Fielding continued to write plays after the censorship was established, although they could only be printed, not performed.

But Shaw’s comment is interesting because it also suggests that Fielding was more than simply a satirist – that he was a major playwright, in fact the greatest between Shakespeare and the start of the Twentieth Century. The competition for the title is truthfully not particularly robust. (Some possibilities include Oliver Goldsmith, actually Irish; Robert Browning; W. S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame; Oscar Wilde, also Irish; James M. Barrie; Harley Granville-Barker; and the novelists Arnold Bennett and James Galsworthy. Much of Shaw’s best dramatic work was ahead of him in 1898.) The paucity of outstanding names perhaps proves Shaw’s point; who knows how many potentially great writers didn’t bother to write for the stage because they knew the censorship would keep their plays from ever being performed? (It was finally abolished in 1968.)

If we look at the list of playwrights above and ask whose plays are still performed, the answer does not include Fielding. But there is another way to look at the question of Fielding’s importance as a playwright, and that is to ask whether, apart from his political involvement, his plays have anything significant to offer. I want to try to demonstrate that they do – that they have a coherent outlook on human nature which Fielding embodies in theatrical terms. What we will not find in his plays is depth of characterization, or anything that “touches the heart.” That was not his territory. We classify his outlook as “satirical,” and it is; but it has the merit of being based on a consistent point of view. The evidence is found in the eight plays and fifteen farces that he wrote between 1727 and 1736.

Fielding’s plays may be classified as meta-theater – theater about theater itself. The template he follows is the play The Rehearsal (1671), probably written by several authors and credited to George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (1628-87). The Rehearsal was itself a piece of meta-theater, a satire of the plays of John Dryden (1631-1700). In the play, a group of actors, authors, friends, and hangers-on, depicted as present at a rehearsal for a play, make comments that are supposedly impromptu, not in the printed text. The device encourages the audience to identify with the actors (who think the play-within-the-play is silly, as in fact it is), and the author, who loves his own work. It is clear in The Rehearsal whom we should admire and whom we should laugh at.

Building on The Rehearsal for the purpose of further intensifying his satire, Fielding complicates this device. In his plays there’s no easy identification with some characters as admirable, some as not. He treats everyone as “suspect” – all the characters in the plays, and the audience, too. This approach in theory presents a difficulty, because theaters depend on audiences for their success; a play has to please the audience or it won’t run. What if the theatrical artist believes – or claims to believe, for purposes of the play – that the audience is evil? As a human being, the artist ought to fight evil, but whether or not the artist eats is determined by the audience itself. To make things more complicated, if society is diseased, then the artist, as a member of society, is diseased as well. 

So in Fielding’s plays, such as Historical Register, the satirist-author doesn’t come forward as the enemy of the audience; on the contrary, he is the most civil, most polite, even fawning, even obsequious person imaginable:

MEDLEY. (the playwright) My lord, your most obedient servant; this is a very great and unexpected favour indeed, my lord.

Everyone’s chief concern is to make money:

            SOURWIT. I hope, sir, [all the play’s elements] conduce to the main design.
            MEDLEY. Yes, Sir, they do.
            SOURWIT. Pray, Sir, what is that?
            MEDLEY. To divert the town, and bring full houses.

The fact is that the artist has no justifiable position behind his attack on the audience, because by his nature he’s as guilty as anybody else. Likewise for his plays: they have to deny that they have anything to say about us, because we won’t accept their pretentions or their attacks on our own pretentions – unless the attack is disguised. Therefore the plays deny from the start that they have any claims against us; we aren’t being attacked at all, as in this prelude to a satire of women:

MEDLEY. As for the nobler part of the sex, for whom I have the greatest honor, their character can be no better set off than by ridiculing that light, trifling, giddy-headed crew, who are a scandal to their sex, and a curse on ours.

Satire can also be disarmed by being identified in advance, and made fun of:

I would have a humming deal of satire, and I would repeat in every page that courtiers are cheats and don’t pay their debts; physicians, block-heads; soldiers, cowards . . . .

So the situation is that a blunt attack will not succeed, because the audience won’t want to hear it, and the satirist is in no position to lead the attack anyway; a weak or general attack may not be heard and certainly will not change anything. So the question becomes, what is possible for a play to accomplish that can bring about a change in conditions?

Fielding answers this question in a fairly drastic way. He uses the ready-at-hand metaphor of theater, and makes the claim that our actual lives are theatrical – not in the sense that they’re exciting, but in the sense that our being, ourselves, our actual essence, is rhetorical. We are in a real sense, Fielding says, the way we appear to be, whatever that is. We are the way we present ourselves at the moment. If we can be led to understand that fact, Fielding implies, then perhaps it is possible for us to modify our behavior – since we are in fact the way we (the word is appropriate) act.

A look at a few of Fielding’s plays may demonstrate how he works this idea out.

The Historical Register for the Year 1736. We already noted that this play includes an attack on Sir Robert Walpole. It consists of a series of scenes, essentially, showing different groups of people speaking. The play, that is, is “about” speaking. The first scene-within-the-play shows politicians working on foreign policy. Their understanding of the world situation extends exactly as far as their words do:

These mighty preparations of the Turks are certainly designed against some place or other; now, the question is, what place are they designed against? And that is a question which I cannot answer.

The playwright character in the play assures us that one politician does understand; however, since that politician is the wisest, he doesn’t say anything at all.

The second scene shows the country’s women in conversation. Their talk doesn’t fasten on anything of substance; neither do their minds:

            FOUR. He’s everything in the world one could wish.
            ONE. Almost everything one could wish.
            TWO. They say there’s a lady in the city has a child by him.
            ALL. Ha, ha, ha!
            THREE. Madam, I met a lady in a visit the other day with three.
            ALL. All Parinello’s?
            THREE. All Parinello’s; all in wax.
            ONE. O Gemini! Who makes them? I’ll send and bespeak half a dozen tomorrow morning.
            TWO. I’ll have as many as I can cram into a coach with me.

The third scene presents an auction of concepts – Patriotism, Courage, Modesty, and so on – all turned into devices of deception, or in other words to false rhetoric, except for some Interest at Court, which needs no disguise in order to succeed.

In the fourth scene we get to Walpole, presented as Pistol, the empty-headed blank verse-speaking Prime Minister Theatrical:

            But, wherefore do I try in vain to number
            These glorious hisses, which from age to age
            Our family has born triumphant from the stage?

Remarkably, even someone powerful like Walpole appears in the play, not as dangerous, but as absurd. Of course the thought might occur to someone in the audience: what will happen in Walpole’s fifth act?

An Old Man Taught Wisdom (1735). In case we might be tempted to think that the idea that people are their rhetoric is only a clever concept, Fielding in this play gives a concrete example of its reality: the way a person’s occupation can influence that person’s speech, and vice versa. The story of the play is that a father wants to marry his sheltered daughter off to one of his relations. He calls in three suitors: a druggist, a fencing master, and a singing teacher. Each thinks only in terms of his profession and acts according to its ways:

QUAVER. If you had given your daughter a good education, and let her learnt [sic] music, it would have put softer things into her head.
BLISTER. This comes of your contempt of physic. If she had been kept in a diet, with a little gentle bleeding and purging, and vomiting, and blistening, this would never have happened.
WORMWOOD. You should have sent her to town a term or two, and taken lodgings for her near the Temple, that she might have conversed with the young gentlemen of the law, and seen the world.

In case we are tempted to feel that “I can avoid this,” Fielding demonstrates that there are only two choices in the matter: we can adopt a rhetorical style, or we can try not to, and be ignorant and even dangerous, as is the daughter, who gets everything wrong:

LUCY. O, but I would not have you think I love you. I assure you I don’t love you; I have been told I must not tell any man I love him. I don’t love you; indeed I don’t . . . . Hope, indeed! What do you take me for? I’ll assure you! No, I would not give you the least bit of hope, though I was to see you die before my face. – (aside) It is a pure thing to give one’s self airs.

She marries a footman, who turns out to be a good man, but this is only Fielding’s irony: she is saved by a theatrical convention, since she hasn’t developed enough brains to take care of herself. Both the footman and the father accept the radically limited view of humanity that this play suggests. As the footman says:

. . . as I have lived in a great family, I have seen that no one is respected for what he is, but for what he has; the world pays no regard at present to anything but money . . . .

The father, whose plan essentially was to marry the girl to someone with money, also learns that there are risks in knowing about corruption and risks in remaining ignorant of it; his wisdom is that there is no dependable wisdom.

Tumble-Down Dick, or, Phaeton in the Suds (1736). Fielding, then, conceives of human experience as role-playing. Not only do we live lives of rhetoric ourselves; we experience it in art, and art’s rhetoric and our own interact, providing, for example on stage, the living image of what our minds are like. Much of Fielding’s work concerns itself with types of theatrical art, and with what theatrical rhetoric tells us about ourselves. Tumble-Down Dick is Fielding’s equivalent to the major commercial entertainment of today (film, television, Broadway plays). It uses the story of Apollo’s son who tries to drive his father’s chariot and fails. The play’s commentary works in two directions: first, the basic story becomes fancied up beyond belief for the audience’s pleasure; we see Harlequin scenes, a trained dog, dances, the King and Queen of Tragedy, and so on. Secondly, the “extra” fun in the play is of atrocious quality; a lantern represents the sun, the comedy is demeaning and clichéd, the play’s author is named Mr. Machine. The “serious” plot flies by so fast it is hardly noticed:

            APOLLO. Thou art so like me, sure you would be mine;
                        I would be glad if you would stay and dine;
                        I’ll give my bond, whate’er you ask to grant;
                        I will by Styx! An oath which break I can’t.

The reason for this, of course, is that the audience requires less care in drama than in “entertainment:”

In tragedies and comedies and such sort of things, the audiences will make great allowances; but they expect more from an entertainment; here, if the least thing is out of order, they never pass it by.

But because the aim of both the producers and the audience is mindlessness, the play has no mind:

            2 COUNTRY. S’bud, I sweat as if I had been at a hard day’s work.
            1 COUNTRY. O, I’m scorched!
            2 COUNTRY. O, I’m burnt!
            3 COUNTRY. I’m on fire.   (Exeunt crying fire)
                        NEPTUNE descends.
            NEPTUNE. I am the mighty emperor of the sea.
            FUSTAIN. I am glad you tell us so, or else we should have taken you for the emperor of the air.

Mindless “innocent” entertainment is the worst of all; it offers escape, but false rhetoric destroys both the audience’s and the artist’s imagination, as Fielding illustrates in his “pantomime:”

Enter Harlequin in custody; Columbine, poet, etc. The poet makes his complaint to the justice; the justice orders a mittimus [arrest warrant] for Harlequin; Columbine courts the justice to let Harlequin escape; he grows fond of her, but will not comply until she offers him money; he then acquits Harlequin, and commits the poet.

Eurydice (1737) (“as it was damn-d at the Theater-Royal, Drury Lane”). On the surface Eurydice is primarily a take-off on Italian operas and imported opera singers. Orpheo, one of those singers, goes to Hell to bring back his wife:

EURYDICE. How is it possible you could come hither to fetch me back when I was dead, who had so often wished me here while alive?
ORPHEO. Those were only the sudden blasts of passion.

Orpheo is always getting those “blasts,” and whenever he does, he bursts into song. Below the funny digs at Italian opera, though, lies the idea that art comes from something we cannot control. “Sudden blasts” sounds suspiciously like farting or belching. Art comes from irrational springs in ourselves; by extension we ourselves are irrational. The only truly controlled person in the play is Eurydice, and in the play she has no intention of going back with her husband. She tricks Orpheo into turning around to look at her – which ruins his chance of getting her out of Hell – and then becomes all innocence when he accuses her of it. He is once more moved to song, and she uses rhetoric precisely to reverse her real feelings:

            ORPHEO. And must we, must we part?
            EURYDICE. We must away,
                        For if you stay,
                        Indeed ‘twill break my heart.
                        Your servant, dear,
                        I downward steer,
                        You upward to the light;
                        Take no more leave,
                        For I must grieve,
                        ’Till you are out of sight.

Hell, in the play, is exactly like Earth, where man and wife cannot stand each other. Shaw says that when we want “the pure emotions of the heart,” we look in the divorce and murder columns. Fielding posits that drama portrays violence and conflict because the human “normal” is a frightening thing.

Incidentally, I indicated above that the play was howled off the stage. Fielding wrote another farce to celebrate the condemnation of Eurydice, called Eurydice Hissed (1737). This play also celebrates the irrational springs of art, by putting the playwright, Pillage, rather than the audience, in a dubious light. The writer attempts to bribe Honestus (the name, representing a straightforward member of the audience,  indicates his difficulty) but fails; and he goes out and gets drunk in fine rhetorical style:

PILLAGE.     . . . my head begins to swim,
And see Eurydice all pale before me;
Why dost thou haunt me thus? I did not damn thee.
By Jove there never was a better farce.
She beckons me – say – whether – blame the town,
And not thy Pillage – Now my brain’s on fire!
My staggering senses dance – and I am –

Pasquin: A Dramatick Satire on the Times (1736). This highly successful play contains within it the “rehearsal” of two plays, “The Election,” a “comedy,” and “The Life and Death of Common Sense,” a “tragedy.” The first deals with politics, the second with the reason for political and cultural ruin. The two plays confirm each other; politics has a personal source, private life is lived in a public world.

The politicians in “The Election” confront the problem of bribery. They solve it through language:

SIR HARRY. And will you be bribed to sell your country? Where do you think these courtiers get the money they bribe you with but from you yourselves? Do you think a man who will give a bribe won’t take one? . . . . For my part, I would as soon suborn an evidence at an assize as vote at an election.
MAYOR. I do believe you, Sir Harry.
SIR HARRY. Mr. Mayor, I hope you received those three bucks I sent you, and that they were good.

It does not matter what a man says as long as he says it. It does not even matter what a man feels as long as he believes it:

O momma, I have grieved myself to death at the court party’s losing a majority in the house, what would become of us; alas, we should not go to London? Shall we go to London? then I am easy; but if we had staid here, I should have broke my heart for the love of my country.

Politics, in summary, competes with other forms of theater. It consists of making announcements:

. . . you have it now in your power to oblige my lord more than ever; go and return my lord and the colonel as duly elected, and I warrant you I do your business with him yet.

The play’s link to reality is the character of the Mayor, the basically good man without the strength to fight rampant evil, trapped by external corruption and his own ambiguity. He is easy prey for his horror of a wife (she forthrightly encourages her daughter to become a mistress when they reach London), and he takes refuge, again, in slogans:

MRS. MAYOR. Yes, I am too reasonable a woman, and have used gentle methods too long; but I’ll try others.
            (Goes to a corner of the stage and takes a stick.)
MAYOR. Nay, then, liberty and property and no excise! (Runs off.)
MRS. MAYOR. I’ll excise you, you villain! (Runs after him.)

In the second play, “The Life and Death of Common Sense,” Queen Common Sense is finally killed by servants of the Queen of Ignorance (Law, Medicine, and the Clergy). Common Sense has virtually no supporters; but she rises again as a ghost, and Ignorance flees to where she will be completely safe, probably in a theater. “Ignorance” is roughly equivalent to undifferentiated erotic drives. Common Sense comes to stand for discrimination of values, hence of a saving humanness:

I have also heard . . .
That men unable to discharge their debts
At a short warning, being sued for them
Have, with both power and will their debts to pay,
Lain all their lives in prison for their costs.
LAW. That may perhaps be some poor person’s case,
Too mean to entertain your royal ear.
COMMON SENSE. My lord, while I am queen I shall not think
One man too mean, or poor to be redressed . . . .

But common sense is no panacea either:

COMMON SENSE. And can my subjects then complain of wrong?
                        Base and ungrateful? What is their complaint?
IGNORANCE. They say you do impose a tax of thought
                        Upon their minds, which they’re too weak to bear.

Ignorance is not simply blissful freedom from worries. It involves giving up responsibilities and accepting inhuman behavior to others. Common Sense represents the attempt to control and order instincts of dullness (not to eliminate them, which is impossible), but Ignorance tries to repress consciousness, even the quality of humanness. It cannot succeed without causing guilt, which is why the ghost of Common Sense returns when she is killed. The one who chooses Ignorance is allowed to become the thing he chooses:

Beat a retreat, the day is now our own.
The powers of Common Sense are all destroyed;
Those that remain are fled away with her.

The theater is a servant to this human experience, so Harlequin reappears to offer himself to Queen Ignorance. Tragedy and Comedy die with Common Sense; all art is corrupted by Ignorance’s conquest. The playwright is at least as much to blame as anyone else:

POET. I have been damn’d
            Because I was your foe, and yet I still
            Courted your friendship with my utmost art.
COMMON SENSE. Fool, thou were damned because thou didst pretend
            Thyself my friend . . .

The result is that human beings become vile creatures, less than human. Harlequin presents to Ignorance:

Two dogs that walk on their hind legs only, and personate human creatures so well, they might be mistaken for them.
A human creature that personates a dog so well that he might also be taken for one.
Two human cats.
A most curious set of puppies.
A pair of pigeons.
A set of rope dancers and tumblers from Sadler’s-Wells.

*  *  *  *

I am not certain that this look at Fielding’s plays confirms Shaw’s opinion of his rank as a playwright; but I hope it is clear that Fielding’s plays do not spring simply from indignation over issues, but from a conception of human nature as role playing, often without knowledge and control and therefore dangerous. Only a small amount of freedom comes from being aware of this situation; as the Beatles put it in their 1967 song “Penny Lane”:

. . . though she feels as if she’s in a play,
She is anyway.

But something worse happens to the one who tries to repress this awareness; he pays a terrible price for not knowing the terrible price. Fielding looks for modest results that make life more decent – for small gains, mostly, in the theater:

Our author then in jest throughout the play,
Now begs a serious word or two to say.
Banish all childish entertainment hence;
Let all that boast your favour have pretense,
If not to sparkling wit, at least to sense. (Pasquin)

[Kudos to Kirk for getting the Beatles into a piece on an 18th-century playwright.  (I wonder if that's a first.)  What's next—“The Beatles and Shakespeare”?  How about “Molière and the Fab Four”?

[The contrast Kirk observes between using a “rhetorical style” and being “ignorant and even dangerous” sounds like a capsulization of the differences between the rest of the Republican presidential candidates (rhetorically “on topic” and prepped) and Trump (“ignorant and dangerous”)—MHO, of course.  (“I had Trump in mind,” Kirk wrote me when I raised this with him.)  And the designation of the playwright in Historical Register as wise but silent strikes me as the mirror image of Chance the Gardener, Peter Sellers’s character in Being There.  He was thought wise because he didn't say much—but he was really a moron who didn't speak because he just didn’t understand what was going on!

[I asked Kirk if any of Fielding’s plays are stageable today, even as Kirk notes, the writer’s not on anyone’s list of playwrights whose work is still performed—but could he be?  (I was thinking specifically of Pasquin, based on Kirk’s description. The points seem valid today, especially during an election year.)  While most forgotten and neglected plays are that way for the simple reason that they’re just not very good, sometimes they’ve just been overlooked. Kirk replied, “I agree, Pasquin is the one I’m most interested in for possible production,” after which he decided to add that statement in the article.  I’m curious enough now that if Kirk or someone else decides to produce a Fielding play when I’m nearby, I’ll try to go see it.]