Friday, April 9, 2021

Lanford Wilson Semifinalist

I just received word that my new play The Silver Tureen was a semifinalist for the Lanford Wilson New American Play Festival.

Unfortunately, the play was not chosen as one of the five official selections for the festival. Still, it's nice to be recognized, and I hope the piece will get picked up by another theatre in the future.

The Lanford Wilson New American Play Festival identifies and supports new plays that feature robust roles for college-aged actors, while also providing students at Southeast Missouri State University with the opportunity to work with living playwrights.

My play, The Silver Tureen, tells the story of five young women home from college who sneak into an attic and start to tell each other ghost stories. Joined by a mysterious young man they recently met, the friends each take turns at spinning tales as they attempt to come to terms with secrets from the past.

The piece wasn't written for the festival, but it certainly provides roles for the college-aged demographic. It also fits in with the legacy of Lanford Wilson, a dramatist who often created ensemble pieces, as was the case with his play The Mound Builders.

Friday, April 2, 2021

The Digby Play of Mary Magdalene

A manuscript in the Bodleian Library in Oxford contains a unique miracle play about the life of Saint Mary Magdalene. The manuscript, known as "Digby 133" for its 17th-century donor, seems to be imperfectly copied, but it gives us some fascinating insights into medieval drama.

The Digby Mary Magdalene portrays its protagonist as coming from a wealthy family. Her father Syrus even owns his own castle, but when he dies, grief sends Mary into a downward spiral. The Seven Deadly Sins, sensing the weakness of her emotional state, all come after her and eventually have to be exorcised by Jesus.

As is the case with many medieval plays, allegorical figures make numerous appearances, and not just the Seven Deadly Sins. The sins of Pride and Covetousness attend a character known as World. Another allegorical character, Flesh, rules over Sloth, Gluttony, and Lechery. The Devil himself appears as well, attended by Wrath and Envy.

Magdalene Castle is assailed, and Lechery gets inside, along with a character known as Bad Angel. Mary complains to Lechery of her grief for her father, and the sin advises her to engage in "sportes whych best doth yow plese." Traveling to Jerusalem with Lechery as her companion, Mary goes to a tavern and meets a young man named Curiosity.

According to the Bad Angel, Curiosity is none other than Pride, and Mary grants him all his requests. Fortunately, Good Angel shows up to awaken her conscience, and the saint repents, falling at the feet of Jesus and anointing the Lord with ointment. Jesus orders the seven devils out of Mary. They depart, and together with the Bad Angel "enter into hell with thondyr."

Hellmouths frequently show up in medieval drama, but this one appears to have been particularly impressive. A stage direction indicates: "Here xal the tother deylles sette the howse one a fyere..." Presumably, the set for hell actually had real pyrotechnics! This isn't the only use of special effects, though. In the second half of the play, Mary takes a sea journey, which is one of several shipboard scenes. The ship apparently moved, since there are stage directions like "Her goth the shep owt of the place."

Over the course of the play, pagan idols tremble, and a cloud from heaven sets a temple ablaze. Later, Mary goes out into the wilderness to fast and pray, and angels descend with a sacred host to nourish her. We think of our own theatre as being technologically advanced, but it might not have been a match for what theatre artists were doing way back during the middle ages!

Tuesday, March 30, 2021


Before he wrote The Government Inspector, arguably the funniest play ever written in Russian, the writer Nikolai Gogol began another comedy called Marriage.

Gogol started the piece in 1833, but he was reluctant to submit the first draft for production. In the meantime, The Government Inspector had its premiere in 1836, with the czar himself in the audience. Marriage didn't have quite as lavish a reception, but it was performed in 1842 at the Aleksandrovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.

The plot of the play is rather light, but it delights audiences with the comic characters it presents. The bachelor Podkolyosin begins the play by complaining that he has waited too long to get married. "Now I've gone and missed the marrying season again," he laments. Not wanting to put things off any further, he calls in the matchmaker, Fyokla, who offers him Agafya Tikhonovna as a potential bride.

Podkolyosin's recently wed friend Kochkaryov runs on and berates Fyokla for getting him married when he had been perfectly happy single. Once he learns that his friend is considering matrimony, however, Kochkaryov seems to think this is a great idea. (Perhaps this is because misery loves company!) He resolves to play matchmaker himself and get Podkolyosin married to Agafya without Fyokla's assistance.

The scene shifts to a room in Agafya's house, where Fyokla brings in a string of ridiculous suitors. Podkolyosin likes the young woman well enough at first, but when he hears some of the other men making negative remarks about her, he begins to rethink the whole thing. The curtain falls on the first act with Kochkaryov convincing his friend to get married so long as he can arrange things for him.

Those arrangements rise to a frantic pace, as Kochkaryov manages to eliminate all of the other suitors and get his friend some one-on-one time with the blushing beauty. Blushing is right, too, since neither one of them can think of much to say to each other. Kochkaryov pushes on, and manages to get both to agree to a wedding that very day.

In a classic example of cold feet, Podkolyosin ends up leaping from the window and running away rather than facing a hasty marriage. Poor Agafya is left alone in her wedding gown, and Fyokla gets the last word, shouting out a final I told you so....

Though Marriage with its large cast is not likely to be produced soon in the current pandemic environment, The Russian Arts Theatre and Studio will be performing a socially distanced adaptation of Gogol's short story The Overcoat starting at the end of next month. It should be a triumphant return of live performance to New York!

Monday, March 29, 2021

Mademoiselle Clairon

The 18th-century French actress Hippolite Clairon was famous for her portrayal of classic heroines, but she also inspired contemporary dramatists to write parts specifically for her.

According to the biographer Frederick Hawkins, "Many tragedies were written in the hope that she might appear in them, and nearly all of those in which she did appear received at least a temporary vitality from her disciplined art and intensity of passion."

Voltaire was a particular admirer of hers, and he penned the role of Idamé in L'Orphelin de la Chine expressly for Clairon. That play was based on a Yuan-era zaju play from China, but ended up being re-adapted by dramatists all over Europe, including Arthur Murphy.

The admiration between Voltaire and Clairon was mutual. Hawkins claims that in Clairon's eyes Voltaire "had always been a sort of demi-god. On his side, the aged philosopher was quite prepared to view her as a demi-goddess, especially after witnessing in his little theatre the superb combination of art and truth which her acting had presented."

Clairon began her career at the Comédie Italienne, debuting in a small role in a play by Marivaux. She became famous, however, at the Comédie-Française, playing many of the parts exalted by the neoclassical French stage, including Racine's Phèdre.

She survived the French Revolution, but like many artists who were associated with the old regime, she fell on hard times after the change in government. Her economic need became a boon to historians, and she published her memoirs in 1799, quickly selling out the first edition.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Aran Islands

Last night, I watched Irish Repertory Theatre's digital production of The Aran Islands, a one-man play with Brendan Conroy based on a non-fiction account by John Millington Synge.

At the suggestion of fellow writer William Butler Yeats, Synge lived for a while out on the stark, remote islands off Ireland's west coast. The idea was to give Synge a better understanding of rural Irish people and their native language.

Synge's account of his stay there, first published in the New Irish Review in 1898, describes a hardened but life-filled people, prone to superstition and brimming with stories to tell. Conroy relates many of these yarns, including an account of a child stolen by fairies, and a folk-tale that contains elements from The Decameron as well as Shakespeare's Cymbeline and The Merchant of Venice.

Other stories Synge picked up in the Aran Islands made their way into his one-act plays Riders to the Sea and In the Shadow of the Glen. The remote location in western Ireland also inspired Synge's most famous play, The Playboy of the Western World.

Joe O'Bryne adapted and directed The Aran Islands, which can be viewed as part of the online performances offered by Irish Rep. The production is currently running through March 28th.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Poor of New York

Dion Boucicault's play The Poor of New York was a hit when it opened at Wallack's Theatre in New York City in 1857, just as a financial panic had taken hold of the United States.

The play begins twenty years in the past, during the Panic of 1837. In the opening scene, the banker Gideon Bloodgood is preparing to skip town before his firm collapses. His irresponsible clerk Badger is more than happy to let his boss leave quietly, provided he gets a sizable bribe to keep quiet.

"In business there are two ways of getting rich, one hard, slow, and troublous: this is called labor;" Badger says. "The other easy, quick and demanding nothing but a pliant conscience and a daring mind--is now denominated financiering--but when New York was honest, it was called fraudulent bankruptcy...." This line continues to resonate today, when a supposed titan of finance can declare bankruptcy after bankruptcy, never pay more than a pittance in taxes, and still call himself rich.

The first act of the play ends with a certain Captain Fairweather depositing $100,000 with Bloodgood and then dying in his office. The banker pockets the money, his clerk picks the receipt off of the floor, and the story moves ahead twenty years to the present year of 1857. That year marked a turning point in economic history, because 1857 was the first time a financial panic could spread as quickly as electricity, since newly installed telegraph lines now carried news of financial collapse at lightning speed. While the Panic of 1837 gradually moved across the country, audiences in 1857 had seen a spectacular collapse that began with a bang and quickly enveloped the entire nation.

Act II of the play opens with the formerly wealthy Mark Livingstone lamenting how in the course of three months he has lost nearly everything. In a tour-de-force monologue he explains who the true poor of New York really are:

The poor!--whom do you call the poor? Do you know them? do you see them? they are more frequently found under a black coat than under a red shirt. The poor man is the clerk with a family, forced to maintain a decent suit of clothes, paid for out of the hunger of his children. The poor man is the artist who is obliged to pledge the tools of his trade to buy medicines for his sick wife. The lawyer who, craving for employment, buttons up his thin paletot to hide his shirtless breast. These needy wretches are poorer than the poor, for they are obliged to conceal their poverty with the false mask of content--smoking a cigar to disguise their hunger--they drag from their pockets their last quarter, to cast it with studied carelessness, to the beggar, whose mattress at home is lined with gold. These are the most miserable of the Poor of New York.

This speech gets Livingstone arrested for making a public oration in the park. In the third act he resolves to kill himself if he cannot recover his honor and marry the woman he loves, none other than Captain Fairweather's daughter Lucy. Bloodgood's own daughter, Alida, plots to have Livingstone's debts forgiven so she can marry him herself and gain entrance to fashionable society. Into this mess walks Badger, returned from California and ready to blackmail his former employer. The act ends with Livingstone distraught, Lucy in tears, and Badger being hauled off by the police.

In Boucicault's plays the fourth act generally provided a sensation scene, and The Poor of New York delivers. The play takes us to a dilapidated apartment building at 19 and a half Cross Street in Five Points. Cross Street was one of the five streets that converged in one place, giving the notorious neighborhood of Five Points its name. The street was not only in the heart of the worst neighborhood of New York City, but the address of 19 and a half indicates that a single lot had been divided into two. Badger lives on the fifth floor in the back. Buildings were not supposed to be higher than five stories, with rents decreasing the more flights tenants had to climb. Front apartments were naturally more desirable than the rear, so fifth floor rear of 19 and a half Cross Street is pretty much the worst apartment in all of New York City!

Badger lives in an adjoining room to the domicile of the Fairweather family. (The building, already subdivided, seems to have split in two its very worst apartment!) The Fairweathers, who are starving and crowded into this squalid living space, have become desperate. Both Lucy and her mother separately decide to commit suicide by sealing the apartment and burning charcoal to suffocate themselves. Lucy's brother Paul arrives just in time to save them, but the fumes poison Badger in the next room. He has concealed the receipt proving the $100,000 deposit with Bloodgood, but before he can reveal the hiding place, he falls unconscious.

In the climactic fifth act, Bloodgood sets fire to the tenement building in an attempt to destroy the concealed receipt. Badger returns to retrieve it, and the whole structure goes up in flames on stage. Boucicault later wrote an article for Scientific American in which he explained how he had created the fire effect. Quick burning "flash torches" illuminated "a very large endless towel upon which is printed a mass of flames." This huge piece of cloth was "kept in constant motion" behind the facade of the on-stage tenement building and could be glimpsed through the windows.

The large cast, including firemen, added to the effect, and a period print records what the scene looked like on stage. The Poor of New York made such a sensation that Boucicault rewrote the piece over and over again, changing the place names to add new local color, and produced The Poor of Liverpool, The Poor of Manchester, The Poor of London.... 

No one seemed to mind the derivative nature of these works. After all, Boucicault had himself adapted the play from a melodrama called The Poor of Paris by Edouard-Louis-Alexandre Brisbarre and Eugene Nus. It also contained contributions by a fellow dramatist and two local journalists, but Boucicault is usually credited as the sole playwright.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Frances Abington

Frances Abington, born Frances Barton in 1731, is probably best remembered for originating the role of Mrs. Teazle in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's play A School for Scandal. While that was one highlight of her career, she actually had a long and varied life upon the British stage.

According to biographer Austin Brereton, young Frances, known as "Nosegay Fan," could be seen daily as a girl selling flowers in St. James's Park. As she got older, she began reciting the works of Shakespeare and other authors in the piazza at Covent Garden. She later "became a servant to a French milliner in Cockspur Street, acquiring thereby a taste for dress, afterwards of great service to her," Brereton writes.

Numerous authors have remarked on the actress's fashion sense, which must have come in handy at a time when performers were usually asked to provide their own costumes. Miss Barton made her stage debut at the Haymarket Theatre in 1755, appearing as Miranda in Susanna Centlivre's comedy The Busybody. From there she went to Bath, and the following summer she played in Richmond, where someone from Drury Lane spotted her and hired her for London's most prestigious theatre company.

It was while working at Drury Lane that Miss Barton became Mrs. Abington, marrying James Abington, her music-master and one of the trumpeters in the Royal service. The marriage does not appear to have been a particularly happy one, and Frances left London for Dublin, where she acted at the Smock Alley Theatre, playing such roles as Mrs. Sullen in George Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem and Kitty in James Townley's High Life Below Stairs. While acting these parts, "so nice was her taste in dress that the 'Abington cap' was the rage among the Dublin ladies," Brereton claims.

In 1762, Abington returned to Drury Lane, but she clashed with the theatre's manager, David Garrick. In 1782 she went over to the rival patent theatre at Covent Garden. She made her last public appearance on stage there on April 12, 1799, when she acted as Lady Racket in Arthur Murphy's comedy Three Weeks After Marriage in a benefit performance for Alexander Pope (the actor, not the poet).

Abington excelled in numerous Shakespeare roles, including Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Portia in The Merchant of Venice, and Olivia in Twelfth Night. Here's an engraving of her playing Rosalind in As You Like It.