Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Overcoat

I just got back from seeing live indoor theater for the first time in more than a year. Though vaccinations have protected many of us, it's going to be a long time until the arts--and indeed humanity--can recover.

The play I saw was The Russian Arts Theater and Studio's production of The Overcoat, adapted and directed by Aleksey Burago from the short story by Nikolai Gogol. I enjoyed Burago's staging of the Bulgakov novel The Master and Margarita, so I had high hopes for the evening.

Actor Tom Schubert appears onstage as Gogol, joyfully narrating the story of an ill-fated clerk, Akaky Akakievich. While Schubert gives us a feel for the wacky weirdness of the author, we get little sense of the dark, haunted soul who gave us such plays as The Government Inspector and Marriage as well as some of the best short stories ever written in Russian.

Since Schubert mimics the light, airy quality of Gogol's narration, the production relies on Christopher Zach to provide depth to the play through his portrayal of Akaky Akakievich. The poor old clerk is ridiculous, but genuinely sympathetic when his overcoat wears out beyond repair and he is forced to spend all his savings on a new one. After his coat is stolen by a robber (one of numerous parts played by Roman Freud), Akaky Akakievich slowly declines into sickness and despair.

That decline is not sped up in this production, no matter how desirable it might be for dramatic purposes. Instead, Burago's adaptation expands on Gogol's tale, even introducing the titular olfactory organ in the author's "The Nose" which makes an appearance in the person of Di Zhu, a talented actor and pianist who supplies several small roles as well as providing live music. Burago mixes live and recorded music, which is not generally to my taste, but the use of a motif from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is a highlight of the show.

The sold-out production has to keep the audience socially distanced, and masks are required at all times for audience members, though thankfully not for actors. "It's the new normal," one usher said to me, as patrons were allowed up the stairs one at a time. In spite of these restrictions, we were happy to be able to be there.

I noticed several people taking photos during the show, perhaps an indication that after more than a year of isolation, no one is sure what the basic rules of civility are anymore. As spring arrives, signs of life are returning, but they are modest, indeed.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The PRO Act

By law, playwrights are forbidden from unionizing. Since we license performance rights rather than sell them outright, technically, we're management.

Do playwrights feel like management? Absolutely not. But we don't have the same rights as labor, either. Recently, actors took to the streets to protest (among other things) a certain abusive producer. Why did the Dramatists Guild remain silent? It had to. If the Guild had called for collective action against a particular producer, it would have run afoul of anti-trust laws.

"Oh, come on," you might say. "It's not like producers are going to sue the Dramatists Guild under anti-trust laws." Except that they have. Twice. Both times, the courts ruled we could keep the Guild, so long as its model contracts and recommendations remained merely advisory. That means the Dramatists Guild provides symbolic solidarity, but has little real power.

Essentially, playwrights are a part of the gig economy, freelancers without collective bargaining power. However, that could change... at least a little bit. For years, the Guild has advocated for special legislation allowing us to unionize. Not surprisingly, it's gone nowhere. Dramatists are not exactly a powerful lobby in Washington, DC. However, another bill currently before Congress could improve things considerably.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act would amend the 1935 National Labor Relations Act to allow independent contractors to act collectively. Though the bill would not make the Guild a union, and dramatists would still not be considered employees, the proposed legislation would provide the Dramatists Guild with exemptions from certain anti-trust laws.

What would that mean on a practical level? Playwrights would legally be allowed to negotiate collectively and advocate for minimum payments, or even for pensions and healthcare, which we are generally left to figure out on our own. The bill would also protect our right to share information regarding how much we are paid and to report incidents of harassment.

Most relevant to recent events, the law would allow the Guild to put abusive producers on a Do Not Work List, something we are absolutely forbidden from doing now. The PRO Act wouldn't solve all of our problems, but it would certainly be a good start.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Busie Body

Susanna Centlivre was one of the most famous British dramatists of the early eighteenth century. She wrote nineteen plays, but today her reputation rest on only three of them, The Busie Body, The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret, and A Bold Stroke for a Wife.

Of those three, The Busie Body was the most popular throughout the eighteenth century. The piece borrows freely from Molière's The Bungler as well as John Dryden's adaptation of that play, Sir Martin Mar-all. Centlivre added much of her own humor, however, as can be seen in this exchange from Act I:

Charles: My Lady Wrinkle, Sir, why she has but one Eye.
Sir Francis: Then she'll see but half your Extravagance, Sir.

The plot is as ridiculous as most eighteenth-century comedies. Charles is in love with the beautiful Isabenda, but her father, Sir Jealous Traffick, is obsessed with all things Spanish, and is determined to marry her off to a Spanish husband. Meanwhile, Charles's father Sir Francis is set upon marrying his pretty little ward, Miranda, and getting his hands on her thirty-thousand-pound inheritance.

Miranda is in love with Charles's friend, Sir George Airy, though she pretends to dote on her guardian in order to humor him. Into this web of affections walks Marplot, a well-meaning but bungling gentleman who seems to mangle everything he touches. "Lord, Lord, how little Curiosity some People have," Marplot says, adding just in case we didn't get the title's reference: "Now my chief Pleasure lies in knowing every Body's Business."

Just as Hamlet must by indirections find directions out, Miranda must sometimes say the opposite of what she means in order to get what she wants. In Act III, she connives a way to make Marplot unwittingly set up a tryst with her lover, Sir George, saying, "advise him to keep from the Garden Gate on the left Hand; for if he dares to saunter there, about the Hour of Eight, as he used to do, he shall be saluted with a Pistol or a Blunderbuss." George has never met her at this gate, but now he knows not only which gate to find her at, but also at which hour to come!

Poor Marplot never catches on, and when Miranda later hides George behind a chimney-board, pretending she is keeping a pet monkey, the busy-body announces that he's a crack monkey trainer. Marplot later complains he never could have guessed Miranda was engaging in a deception. "Who cou'd divine your Meaning, when you talk'd of a Blunderbuss, who thought of a Rendevous?" he asks, "and when you talk'd of a Monkey, who the Devil dreamt of Sir George?" Miranda replies that this just proves he has no knowledge of women, since he "can't reconcile Contradictions."

The fifth act shows the young people at last outmaneuvering parents and guardians. George dresses as a Spaniard to hoodwink Sir Jealous, and Miranda uses the promise to marry Sir Francis to get control over her estate and a license to marry George. What makes the play stand out, however, is not the mechanisms of its plot, but the insights of its heroine, Miranda. In the last act, she reflects:

Now to avoid the Impertinence and Roguery of an old Man, I have thrown my self into the Extravagance of a young one; if he shou'd despise, slight or use me ill, there's no Remedy from a Husband, but the Grave; and that's a terrible Sanctuary to one of my Age and Constitution.

The brief soliloquy isn't enough to spoil the mood of the play's silly ending, but it does provide some depth lacking in other plays of the period. Perhaps this is what helped The Busie Body to become one of the top comedies of the eighteenth century.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Notes from Chuck Berst

Bernard Shaw scholars tend to be a generous lot. When I first went to the Comparative Drama Conference, folks from the International Shaw Society made me feel quite at home, and they have continued to be welcoming as I've met up with them at subsequent conferences.

When the Shaw scholar Chuck Berst passed away in 2019, it was a great loss. His wife Roelina, however, has tried to pass on his large collection of books about Shaw, and generously offered to send me the Constable & Co. collection of the great dramatist's works. One thousand and twenty-five copies of the 32-volume set were printed in 1931, and they are a treasure.

In the past, I have always checked out individual volumes of the Constable & Co. set from the library when I needed them. Unfortunately, libraries have been declared "non-essential" for more than a year now, so I was excited to receive the books. Even better, Roelina left in place the bookmarks where Chuck noted passages of particular interest. I've been going through them, trying to glean what I could from his insights.

One volume of Shaw's writing, Pen Portraits and Reviews, had quite a few passages flagged. The first one was a book review called "The Old Revolutionist and the New Revolution" which Shaw published in The Nation in 1921. Though actually about a book by H.M. Hyndman, the article is more interesting for what it says about the novelist H.G. Wells, a long-time associate of Shaw who had joined him in championing Socialism.

Another book mark, labelled "Terry" in an underlined fashion, marks an interesting comment on the actress Ellen Terry, who "has always been adored by painters." That is certainly true, and John Singer Sargent's 1889 portrait of her as Lady Macbeth has frequently been reproduced in prints and postcards (of few of which I might own). Shaw admits that he wanted Terry to perform his own plays and implies that he wrote Captain Brassbound's Conversion for her. Chuck marked in the margins where Shaw acknowledged that the description of the heroine of The Man of Destiny was "simply a description of Ellen Terry."

Shaw's contribution to a memoir on the journalist H.W. Massingham was also marked, but I was more interested in a flagged article called "Shaming the Devil about Shelley." The first article I published on Shaw had to do with the influence Percy Shelley's play The Cenci had on Shaw's early work. Shelley had anticipated Shaw's vision of the "life force" he worshipped, or at least Shaw thought so when he wrote "there never was a man with so abiding and full a consciousness of the omnipresence of a living force, manifesting itself here in the germination and growth of a tree, there in the organization of a poet's brain."

The final bookmark in the volume is for a published letter Shaw wrote about fellow Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde. Each slip of paper was illuminating for me, and I look forward to exploring some of the other marked passages in the set.

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!