Mark Twain is so well known for his successes that it's refreshing to learn that he wrote several mediocre plays, mostly commercial-minded light comedies, to help pay bills in his later years. Some of these plays were better than others, and it was only five years ago that Stanford University Twain scholar Shelley Fisher Fishkin discovered one diamond in the rough, a crazy send-up of the French art scene called Is He Dead? that Twain wrote in 1898 (it was almost produced, but the plans fell through).
Fishkin published a book version of the play that caught the attention of a top Broadway team headed by Michael Blakemore, and Is He Dead? is finally opening on Broadway this Friday night. I caught a preview last weekend.
Twain's comic sendup of the pre-Impressionist art scene in Paris and Barbizon, France is hardly sophisticated; it resembles a Three Stooges comedy more than a Whit Stillman film, and there's nothing wrong with that. A great real-life painter, Jean-Francois Millet, is the hero of this comedy, although the character based on Millet is played mainly for laughs and would certainly have horrified the real life Millet, who was the creator of many touching scenes of French peasant life, including The Sower:
... which also happens to be the source of the Simon and Schuster logo:
Millet was a revolutionary artist of his time (Vincent Van Gogh admired him), but he gets no respect at all from Mark Twain, who simply employs him as a standard character type, the starving Bohemian artist. Desparate for money, Millet and his rakish friends decide to drive up the prices of his paintings by faking his death, and for some reason they end up dressing Millet as his long-lost sister, turning Is He Dead? into a staple cross-dressing comedy (in the tradition that stretches from Twelfth Night to Tootsie).
And that's where the evening's best talent comes in: skilled comic actor Norbert Leo Butz makes little impression on stage as Millet until he puts on a fancy dress, and then the actor becomes suddenly possessed by an inexplicable strangeness. Butz's performance completely dominates the play at this point, particularly whenever he speaks in a hilarious plaintive bray that evokes Harvey Fierstein or possibly Joan Rivers. The good news is, Butz is so funny that anybody who showed up at the Lyceum Theatre to laugh will be satisfied with Is He Dead?.
The surprising news is that Butz's performance thoroughly eclipses not only every other performer on stage (they are barely noticed), but also eclipses both Mark Twain's script and Jean-Francois Millet's presence as a character. Millet's paintings are well displayed within the clever sets, and Mark Twain's comedy is polished enough. But the remarkable thing about Is He Dead? is Norbert Leo Butz roaming the stage like a madman for an hour and a half, and Norbert Leo Butz doesn't even need a script by Mark Twain or a character like Jean-Francois Millet to do that.
Is He Dead? is good literary history and good laughs. Find out more about the play at the Is He Dead? site.
John Osborne, the subject of a new biography by John Heilpern, has never been a household name on my side of the Atlantic Ocean. But they knew him well in England in the 1950's, when he and Kingsley Amis (father of our Martin) and Harold Pinter and many others bandied around London as The Angry Young Men, a close match to the Beat Generation writers in America, as well as the cafe-haunting Existentialists of Paris. But the fad of the Angry Young Men of London quickly fizzled out, and John Osborne's subsequent career deserves to be considered on its own terms.
His signature work is Look Back in Anger, which opened in 1956 and gave the "Angry Young Men" their name. It's the story of a fuming, flannel-shirt wearing London bloke named Jimmy who slaves away at a candy stand all day and plays hot trad jazz saxophone all night. He's married to a lively young woman, but he's too brutal and impulsive to keep her love or, ultimately, her respect. Which is okay with him, because he's more interested in her prim, conceited best friend, who drives him crazy much the same way Blanche DuBois drove Stanley Kowalski crazy in A Streetcar Named Desire. In fact, the film version of this play shows Richard Burton at his most Brando-esque as the rambunctious Jimmy (it also features Claire Bloom, Philip Roth's future wife, ex-wife and harshest critic as Jimmy's romantic nemesis, Helena Charles).
Unlike some of his Beat Generation counterparts in America, John Osbourne chose not to continue to milk the "crazy youth" image, but instead turned to the story of an aging, sad music hall singer for his next hit play, The Entertainer. This can be enjoyed in a canonical film version starring Joan Plowright and the great Laurence Olivier, who turns this movie into such a deeply personal statement that many viewers will forget John Osborne (or anybody other than Laurence Olivier) had anything to do with it.
Osborne withdrew further from modern times with his next big success, Luther, a biographical study of the German founder of Protestant Christianity, which opened in London in 1961. Osborne clearly related to the iconoclastic Martin Luther, whose boiling sense of permanent rage recalls the cruel saxophone-wielding Jimmy of Look Back in Anger. (Luther can also be enjoyed in a good 1973 film starring Stacy Keach).
Unfortunately, in his private life John Osborne all too frequently resembled the growling mad, self-pitying male heroes who graced his most successful plays. John Osborne's literary career was a proud one, but those who know him well speak of a personality marred by fame, self-doubt and selfish impulsiveness.
John Osborne died in 1994. He was married five times, and was said to have had a cruel and terrible relationship with his daughter. In his personal decline, the angry Brit does resemble his flannel-shirt wearing American counterpart, Jack Kerouac. Neither were ready for the ravages of literary fame.
This mammoth tale of betrayal and human folly is running at the Public Theater in Greenwich Village, New York right now in a James Lapine production, and you better believe I ran out to get tickets the minute I heard Kevin Kline would be playing the lead. I love King Lear, though I'm not always sure why.
It's a difficult play. Unlike Hamlet, which presents a clear howl of existential rage, King Lear lurches, cries and mumbles through a ragged plot, a woolly tapestry of pre-medieval succession struggles that doesn't really make sense (there was a true King Leir, though this play mangles his story). This is Shakespeare at his least articulate, but that's not always a bad thing, since you can have a great time discerning (or inventing) metaphysical meanings for many aspects of this play.
The plot follows two separate narrative threads, both involving elderly parents with good and bad kids. I'll try to briefly summarize the two plots here.
First, there's King Lear and his three daughters. The play opens at a royal banquet where the elderly Lear is planning to divide his kingdom equally between the three. Kline plays the King as a proud and impulsive wounded animal, smarter than he is wise, and a heavy drinker. At the banquet, Lear suddenly banishes Cordelia for speaking truthfully to him while Regan and Goneril flatter him with bad poetry. He casts her away, along with another of his trusted advisers, and divides his kingdom between Regan and Goneril, who proceed to scheme against him and each other until nearly everybody is dead. Towards the end (and before the part where everybody gets dead), Lear has a brief reunion with Cordelia, the one child who has truly loved him all along.
The story of Lear and his daughters could have been a play in itself. But then there's the Duke of Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar (who is noble but gullible) and Edmund (an evil semi-outcast bastard, literally). Edmund fabricates evidence that Edgar is hiding weapons of mass destruction, and Gloucester completely falls for the ploy and attempts to arrest Edgar, who escapes, leaves town and covers himself with dirt to impersonate a madman. Gloucester later joins King Lear in the battle against Regan and Goneril and is caught and blinded (on stage, with much fake blood) by his enemies. A war ensues between Edgar (the good guy) and Edmund (the bad guy). Edgar and Cordelia join forces near the white cliffs of Dover, and they triumph over evil in the end, though by this time virtually everybody but Edgar is dead.
Two remarkable long tableaus form the dramatic core of this play, and I was very curious to see how director James Lapine would handle these key scenes. The first is the storm at the end of Act One, after the ungrateful daughters Regan and Goneril cast King Lear out of their castle along with a local "fool" and a couple of village ruffians who have joined Lear's entourage. The vision of the raging King, the sanguine fool and the helpless clowns splayed out on a stage floor as thunder blasts and fake-rain curtains shake should wash over the audience like a glorious hurricane of metaphors, and that's what I came to the Public Theater to see. I'm happy to report that Kevin Kline and his fellow performers handle the famous storm scene beautifully, and watching it is certainly the greatest pleasure of the night for me.
In this play's other flagship scene, young honest-son Edgar has found the Duke of Gloucester wandering in agony, having recently had both eyes gouged out with a knife. Gloucester wants to kill himself, so Edgar tricks his father by taking him to the Dover cliffs and walking him out to the edge. Edgar allows Gloucester to "kill himself" by leaping over the cliff, but Edgar has not actually taken him to the edge, so Gloucester simply falls on his face and passes out. Edgar then pretends to his awakened father that he has miraculously survived a fall. In Larry Bryggman's and Brian Avers's quiet hands, this father-son scene is a marvel of tenderness and forgiveness.
Kristen Bush is likable as the too-smart for-her-own good Cordelia, and Logan Marshall-Green stands out as a slacker Edmund the Bastard. But a production of King Lear will live or die by its most symbolic character, the fool, and scrawny Philip Goodwin is a standout in this role. Like Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, this character has no will or motivation of his own except the will to always tell his King the truth. He speaks mainly in bawdy songs and riddles, and I'd be lying to you if I said I understood half of the jokes Shakespeare wrote for this great character. But the fool's comic sensibility neatly balances the portentous heaviness of the play's main plot, and provides several of the best moments. Maybe the reason King Lear is a better play than Macbeth or Othello is that King Lear has a fool and Macbeth and Othello don't.
Find a ticket to this show if you can. It won't be easy (it's near sold out), and it won't be cheap. But it's a fabulous night of theatre, and a hell of a lot better than that most of that Disney crap they're running up on Times Square.
The hype about this play, which got rave reviews but no Tony Awards in last night's ceremony, is that it's the most violent thing to hit midtown Manhattan since Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen checked into the Chelsea Hotel. It's definitely got a harder-hitting attitude than most Broadway shows, which some people think is great while others fear the Quentin Tarantino-ization of Broadway.
At the beginning of the evening I did not have a strong position on this matter, and I entered the theater ready to be swayed one way or the other.
The lights fall, the audience ruffles its jewelry, and the spotlight shines on two very scared Irish men, a father and a son. The son seems to have just smashed into the family's beloved cat, Wee Thomas, with his bicycle. The cat is dead, and this is bad news because the family's eldest son is a famous (and famously deranged) terrorist who loves the cat more than anybody else, and will surely kill his brother for killing his cat.
As James Kirkwood once proved in a novel called P. S. Your Cat Is Dead, an expired feline is sometimes all the material required for an entertaining evening. The father and son desperately try to scheme a way out of their impending doom as the terrorist returns home, having interrupted an important act of torture (which is apparently his day job) to rush back as soon as he'd heard his cat was in trouble.
We soon learn that this terrorist exists without a coherent cause. He has splintered off from his I.R.A. splinter group, and is now left in a ragtag gathering of tired friends who mouth bored cliches about Irish freedom. He's in love with guns, though, and so is a neighborhood girl who adores him and has a habit of shooting the eyes out of cows. The strange thing about all of these people is that they seem addicted to violence the way people can be addicted to television or junk food. It's all anybody talks about in Inishmore, the only language anybody understands.
More gun-toting people show up on stage, and most of them end up killing the rest of them, after which the stage of the Lyceum theater turns into the grisliest tableau I have ever seen on a Broadway stage, featuring enough fake-blood and bleeding limbs to power a Korn video.
Let's just say that the stage crew must have a hell of a clean-up job every night. The play starts moving fast as it moves towards the end; secrets are revealed, more cats are killed, more people are killed, and we discover which character will truly emerge as the Lieutenant of Inishmore by the end (hint: it's not the tough guy).
The play does suggest Tarantino (which is not, in my opinion, a bad thing), but it also suggests Harold Pinter and David Mamet, and I recommend it to anyone who doesn't mind watching a human body get jointed with saws and drills while enjoying a relaxing evening of theater. In other words, it's a good play but it's not a date play (and I think I personally lucked out that my girlfriend was busy that night).
More than any work of drama, though, what this play suggests is the newspaper I'm going to read tomorrow morning. As shockingly violent as this play is, it's really only just violent enough, just cartoonish enough, just Absurdist enough to equal the real crap that's going on around the world today. Aggresion speaks. From Ireland to Israel to Palestine to Iraq to Iran to Chechnya to Moscow to Darfur to Texas, the warlords shout their slogans and hold us all at gunpoint, and we cower in fear instead of standing up and fighting back. The characters in this play are almost ridiculous enough to be real.
If you're interested in catching The Lieutenant of Inishmore the next time you're in New York City, the theater is offering a discount code to readers of LitKicks: just go to www.broadwayoffers.com and enter code INHDS28, call the box office via the website above, or show up in person with the code at the Lyceum Theatre in Manhattan.
Somebody correct me if I'm wrong about this, but I've read several reactions to Harold Pinter's aggressive Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and I get the feeling I'm the only one here who actually knows Pinter's work.
Harold Pinter has spent his career studying the way human beings lie. It is his obsession, his medium. A play is called "Pinteresque" when the audience cannot trust a single character on stage. His working class Brits deceive, intimidate and overpower each other in tightly packed, oppressive rooms. They speak with great volume and speed, but they never mean anything they say -- their words are either weapons of cruelty or pathetic pleas for help.
By the time a Pinter play ends, at least one character has been completely destroyed, and at least one character has won a petty, hollow victory. The audience shuffles out of the theater feeling both excited by the naked display of power and guiltily complicit in the depraved brutality of human aggression.
I've heard enough about this production to discern that it is aiming to be a feel-good blockbuster (indeed, the finances of the Broadway musical biz mandates that virtually every new production must spend high and aim for the family/tourist market), and as such I suspect it is not an adaptation of the Alice Walker novel, as it claims to be, but rather an adaptation of Steven Speilberg's warm-hearted but sappy movie version of the Alice Walker novel.
My complaint is not that I consider the original text too sacred for interpretation. I have never worshipped at the temple of Strunk and White, though I will admit I can't think of a better style guide for writers. My gripe is with the utter preciousness of Kalman's artwork, which I'm sure violates E. B. White's penchant for powerful subtlety and understatement. The man who gave the world a spider who spelled "radiant" in her web to save the life of a pig doesn't need to be compromised by a painting of a sad-faced basset hound with enormous ears and big wet eyes. It's just too damn cute, and cuteness kills.
"James said that she began exploring the connection between Shakespeare and Neville about six years ago when she deciphered what she believes is a code on the dedication page of Shakespeare's sonnets. The code revealed the name Henry Neville."Can we be sure? Will our Shakespeare-wasn't-Shakespeare hearts be broken again with the next earth-shattering discovery of Shakespeare's true identity? Well...
"The authors say Neville's life helps explain a switch in Shakespeare's plays, from histories and comedies to tragedies, at the turn of the 17th century. Neville was imprisoned in the Tower of London from 1601 to 1603 for his role in the Essex rebellion (the attempt by the Earl of Essex and his supporters to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I), which the authors say accounts for the more tragic tone of Hamlet, written in 1601 and 1602, and the plays that follow."Oh yes. I believe the world is now collectively saying "Duh," completely unable to believe that nobody saw it before. Hamlet's a tragedy because its author was in prison. Obviously.
I hope that when they pick the next William Shakespeare, they can find someone whose life can explain the switch from the tragedies to the romances, because that's a real head-scratcher.
Seriously. I think it's time someone called Dan Brown.
Harold Pinter, the British playwright who just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, was savaged as an idiot and a fashionable phony when the play that made him famous, The Birthday Party, opened in London in 1958.
It was one of those famously bad opening nights, though it didn't cause a riot like Stravinsky's Rites of Spring. The play is an existentialist tableau, a British nod to the then-fashionable European absurdism of Alfred Jarry, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre. We open in a dowdy seaside bed-and-breakfast, where a slightly giddy but charming old lady named Meg is prattling to her bored husband, who works as a deck-chair attendant on the nearby beaches.
We're ORF to the races and it's Lazy Charley taking the lead, at the clubhouse turn there's your -- darling, marvelous eggs just fluffy and light ... hm just like my baby's pudding, hoo! ... and now listen now old Buck now old wild sonumbitch don't you get drunk today on that w-i-n-e cause boy, we've got -- who's got a cigarette, I'm fresh out -- we've got to out out there, and we've got something to do today ...
That's Kerouac talking. Or actually it's Neal Cassady, aka Dean Moriarty, aka Milo, Jack Kerouac's mouthpiece and the fast-talking hero of a play Kerouac wrote in the late 50's. The play is being published now for the first time by Thunder's Mouth Press, and it's a notable work.
It's usually no big deal when a new publication from the Jack Kerouac archives is released. We've recently seen the collected letters, early stories, poems, half-finished novels, paintings, songs and annotated dreams. In fact, he's got the biggest posthumous career since Nat King Cole or Jimi Hendrix, and much of the stuff is mundane. But it'd be a shame if nobody paid special attention to this play, because Kerouac wrote it at the peak of his skills, and it shows his talents in a new perspective.
The play (unfortunately titled Beat Generation) is about a bunch of charmingly crazed adults acting like general fools in the 1950's. We're in the home of beatnik family man Milo and his hip-chick wife, and they're entertaining guests, playing speed chess, composing spontaneous poetry and arguing about how to calculate their exact odds when they go to the race track. Then the local church Bishop comes by with his two elderly aunts, and the beatniks have a great time with this situation. A situation comedy is what it is, in fact, and Kerouac keeps the dialogue crackling.
Dialogue was always Kerouac's strength -- even his first-person narratives were dramatic monologues, spoken "in character". Here's Irwin (based on Allen Ginsberg) testing out the Bishop's patience:
'IRWIN: Ooh you twisted like a snake then
IRWIN: Yes your movement then was exactly like a supenatural illuminated serpent arching its back to Heaven
BISHOP: Well, yes, probably, of course
IRWIN: I mean, that was the hippest thing I've seen you do tonight.'
Jack Kerouac wrote this play at the same time he was preparing On The Road for publication. A New Yorker who enjoyed going to the theatre, he yearned to see a play of his own produced on Broadway, and he spoke of wishing for Marlon Brando in the lead role. According to biographer Ann Charters, Kerouac asked the playwright Lillian Hellman for advice on the play, and she didn't think it could work. The script eventually became the basis for the movie 'Pull My Daisy' (which is also about a dinner party including a bishop and a bunch of beatniks), but that film was largely improvised and Kerouac's artistry is hardly visible in it.
Despite what Hellman might have said, I think this script would fly in a theater -- it's got humor, plot momentum and plenty of snappy dialogue for an energetic ensemble cast. I hope some high school or college or community theater companies will give it a try -- tell us if you do.
Beat Generation will be available from Thunder's Mouth Press in October.
No less worthy (though perhaps less newsworthy) is a source book, Conversations with Jack Kerouac, edited by Kevin J. Hayes and published by the University of Mississippi. This is a useful and smartly designed slim paperback volume of interviews with Jack Kerouac from the days of his first fame in 1958 to just before his death in 1969. Among the notable interviewers are Mike Wallace, Al Aronowitz, Stan Isaacs, and, most successfully, a posse from the Paris Review that includes poet Ted Berrigan and author Aram Saroyan. In the early interviews, Kerouac is nervous, high-pitched but passionate. His main theme is religion, and he speaks unceasingly of the practice of writing as a spiritual event. In the early sixties, a switch seems to be flicked and Kerouac suddenly morphs from a hopeful and mystical poet into a mean, funny, miserly crank, drunk off his ass, scratching his belly and mouthing off like Archie Bunker about the hippies, minorities and communists who are ruining America.
The best interview is the Paris Review piece, in which Kerouac can play off the literary skills and insights of his interlocutors. My favorite piece, though, is Stan Isaac's deadpan description of a baseball card game Kerouac invented to amuse himself. Here are some of the names of his players: Lefty Murphree, Burlingame Japes, Herm Bigger, John Gronning, Johnny Keggs, Sugar Ray Simms, Byrd Duffy, Francis X. Cudley, Hophead Dean. Kerouac could even make rotisserie baseball swing.