Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Lonergan

Hello! I hope you’re all well. It’s the season of final exams and allergies, so I wanted to read something funny…

“Lobby Hero,” by Kenneth Lonergan

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“WILLIAM. OK, good. I’m glad to hear it. But that’s why I try to get you to improve your mind a little bit and apply yourself to something. Aim a little higher. But I can see it’s a hopeless cause. You’re probably intended to be just one of those guys who drifts through life doing one job or another, no plan, no specific intentions of any kind. And one day you’re gonna wake up in a lobby just like this one, except everybody’s gonna be calling you ‘Pops.’ And then you’re gonna look back and remember, ‘I should have listened to that guy William. He’s the only one that ever took the time to try to encourage me to cultivate my potential. My whole family was content to see me fritter my life away, but that William, man, he really tried to get me to focus my energies a little bit. And doddering useless old unemployed Pops doorman that I am, I have to admit he could have been a positive influence on me if I hadn’t been such a callous, careless kind of joke-telling, sit-on-my-ass-my-whole-life type of person when I was younger.’ But I guess that’s all right, because you’re not really trying to climb any higher anyway. You see what I mean?”

“Lobby Hero” probably could have been called, “The Play in Which Everyone Tries to Figure Stuff Out.” It’s about a man named Jeff who works in a lobby. He’s trying to figure out his life. Meanwhile, his boss William has a brother who’s in trouble with the police. William has to figure out how to help his brother, and one of the police officers, named Dawn, has to figure out her relationship with one of her superiors.

Parts of this play reminded me a lot of Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” in terms of their levity and humor. That was very surprising, considering that the playwright of “Lobby Hero” was the same man who wrote the script for that super-sad movie from a few years back. You know, the one called Manchester by the Sea.

In any case, “Lobby Hero” felt a bit like a sketch instead of a fully fleshed-out experience. Maybe it was because the entire play took place in a lobby and 90% of the play’s important action happened off-stage. That meant the majority of the play consisted of characters talking about all the interesting things that happened in other places. Imagine the entirety of “Hamlet” being told from the perspective of one of the pirates who capture Hamlet during his voyage to England—“Oh, yes, I knew Prince Hamlet, he was a bloke I captured. He had to avenge the death of his father, who was killed by his uncle. Did Hamlet succeed? Oh, yes, his friend Horatio just sent me a postcard telling me he did. Well, that’s all there is to that story. Now I have to figure out my life.”

In other words, all of the interesting action felt like it was just being summarized instead of being enacted on the stage, which took away from its power.

This type of approach could work in certain cases (like Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” or O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), but the character’s inner-life has to be interesting enough to compensate for the plot’s lack of immediacy. In Chekhov and O’Neill, the characters had a lot of cool layers, subtext, and secrets that the audience didn’t learn about right away.

Meanwhile, considering the fact that Jeff’s only real depth was that he couldn’t figure his life out and that the audience basically came to understand that upfront, his inner-life didn’t feel interesting enough to make the play feel fleshed out. The same felt true for the other characters, too.

So basically, read “Lobby Hero” if you want to see the writer of Manchester by the Sea being funny. That alone is pretty enjoyable.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Auburn, James, and Vonnegut

Hello! Happy spring. For those who celebrate, I hope you enjoyed your Easter. I’ve been writing a lot of papers for school, but I still managed to read three books. For your enjoyment, here they are:

“Proof”, by David Auburn

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“CATHERINE. I haven’t been lazy, I’ve been taking care of you. ROBERT. Kid, I’ve seen you. You sleep till noon, you eat junk, you don’t work, the dishes pile up in the sink. If you go out it’s to buy magazines. You come back with a stack of magazines this high—I don’t know how you read that crap. And those are the good days. Some days you don’t get up, you don’t get out of bed. CATHERINE. Those are the good days. ROBERT. Bullshit. Those days are lost. You threw them away. And you’ll never know what else you threw away with them—the work you lost, the ideas you didn’t have, discoveries you never made because you were moping in your bed at four in the afternoon.”


This is a play about a woman named Catherine who took care of Robert, her mathematical genius of a father who was suffering from delusions. Robert has just died, and now a mysterious proof has been found among his belongings which might revolutionize the field of mathematics…a proof that may have been written by Catherine.

This play was interesting but not very good in my opinion. Mind you, it won a Pulitzer Prize, but I’ll give my thoughts anyway:

First, the play’s structure hinged on a mystery that somehow seemed irrelevant to the story’s overall arc. Maybe this was because the characters never really grew as a result of the mystery. In other words, it was like the mystery was happening to the characters instead of the characters actually growing and making meaningful choices that solved the mystery. That disconnect seemed to weaken the story.

Second, the characters felt more like “types” than actual nuanced people. For instance, there are plenty of angry-but-secretly-vulnerable women out there in the literary world, and the protagonist of this play was one of them. I was excited to see if something would happen to give her more depth and nuance, but nothing did.

Third, some of the dialogue wasn’t believable. At one part, I got the sense that the playwright was just writing what he thought a genius would sound like without thinking about how such a genius could possibly exist in reality.

Finally, there were loads of backstory dumps that felt like they were just in the play for the sake of informing the audience instead of something the characters had an organic need to say. When you have lines similar to, “Your father was a genius, Catherine, surely you know how he revolutionized the math world”, you tend to stop and wonder why the other character is telling Catherine something she obviously already knew.

So overall, the play had some good parts but it wasn’t that good in my opinion. Maybe read John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” instead (which also won a Pulitzer Prize). Or maybe read “Proof” anyway. You might enjoy it more than I did.

The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James

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“The case, I may mention, was that of an apparition in just such an old house that had gathered us for the occasion—an appearance, of a dreadful kind, to a little boy sleeping in the room with his mother and waking her up in the terror of it; waking her not to dissipate his dread and soothe him to sleep again, but to encounter also herself, before she had succeeded in doing so, the same sight that had shocked him [….] ‘I quite agree—in regard to Griffin’s ghost, or whatever it was—that its appearing first to the little boy, at so tender an age, adds a particular touch. But it’s not the first occurrence of its charming kind that I know to have been concerned with a child. If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?’ ‘We say of course,’ somebody exclaimed, ‘that two children give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them.’”

The Turn of the Screw is about a woman who becomes governess to not one, but two children. The woman sees ghosts in the house and tries to keep the children from also seeing them. I won’t spoil any more.

I heard so much about how subversive and mind-blowing this book was going to be that I got very engrossed in trying to figure out the plot twist in advance. I completely overthought the whole situation to the point that when I got to the twist, I was very underwhelmed. The moral: don’t do what I did.

Anyway, about the actual book. A better title for it could have probably been “The Perils of Babysitting,” because the two children basically give the protagonist a lot of trouble. The build-up in figuring out what exactly was happening with the ghosts was the most interesting part of the book.

There were some parts where it felt like James was just trying to fill space without really knowing where he was going. Or maybe because he was writing this as a serial, he had to write a certain number of installments to get paid. Either way, those parts kind of took away from how interesting the book was.

In the end, though, it was a good read. Just don’t over-hype it, and don’t read it while babysitting someone’s kids.

Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

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“‘But,’ he said, ‘but how the hell innocent is a man who helps make a thing like an atomic bomb? And how can you say a man had a good mind when he couldn’t even bother to do anything when the best-hearted, most beautiful woman in the world, his own wife, was dying for lack of love and understanding…’ He shuddered, ‘Sometimes I wonder if he wasn’t born dead. I never met a man who was less interested in the living. Sometimes I think that’s the trouble with the world: too many people in high places who are stone-cold dead.’”

This book left me wondering why Vonnegut never won a Pulitzer. Let me explain.

Cat’s Cradle was so cool. It’s about a man who tries to find out about a scientist who helped build the atomic bomb. In the process, the protagonist learns about a dangerous substance called Ice-Nine and becomes king of an island.

As usual with a Vonnegut book, Cat’s Cradle was very funny. There’s just something about Vonnegut’s ability to understate things.

Also, he had some profound ideas and was able to get across their profundity very well. This was probably because Vonnegut didn’t seem to take himself too seriously. He didn’t present them to the reader as if the reader had to agree with him, and he didn’t try coming off like the absolute authority on life’s meaning. So even though he was making all these statements about nihilism, religion, science, and how people kill each other out of stupidity, the statements weren’t the only reason for the book to exist. The statements felt like they were just part of the book’s story.

Basically, read it. Then wonder with me about why he didn’t win the Pulitzer. Finally, watch the Vonnegut cameo from the movie “Back to School”:

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Osipovich, Bruder, and Berry

Hello! I’ve reviewed three books this week. I would definitely recommend the first one, and I would definitely not recommend the third one.

Stanislavski in Rehearsal: The Final Years, by Vasily Osipovich

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[Stanislavski was talking about an experience he had:] Smoke from the bonfires arose, the crowd murmured in a thousand voices. What was this? ‘These people are waiting for tickets for your production,’ I thought. ‘My God, what a responsibility we have to satisfy the spiritual needs of these people who have been standing here freezing all night; what great ideas and thoughts we must bring to them!’ So consider well, whether we have the right to settle accounts with them by merely telling them a funny anecdote. I could not fall asleep that night for a long time because of my feeling of responsibility [….] that night I felt that the people whom I had seen in the square deserved much more than we had prepared for them.”

This book was mind-blowing. The Russian director Konstantin Stanislavski is inherently mind-blowing, but he’s even more mind-blowing when he is in the final years of his life and striving to teach others his approach to acting so that they can develop it beyond what he had done so far.

Meanwhile our narrator and memoirist, Vasily Osipovich, has mastered the “old” way of acting which relied on playing clichés (an actor playing an evil character would twirl his moustache, for instance). Now, Osipovich wants to join Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theater to learn from him. The result: Osipovich gets his mind blown by Stanislavski and has to relearn everything he thought he knew about acting. So we see two journeys: Osipovich’s journey to improve as an actor, and Stanislavski’s to pass on his wisdom before he dies.

Stanislavski’s way of rehearsal seemed tyrannical—he’d stop the actors every few seconds and insist that they redo an entrance or a line. He’d keep having them redo it until they got it right, even if it took up all the hours in that day’s rehearsal.

On the other hand, it seemed like Stanislavski was committed to hard work for the sake of getting great results. Once, when Osipovich and the company got frustrated by Stanislavski’s insistence that they adopt a kind of “rhythm,” they asked him to do it himself, and he did so. When they asked him how he could do it so convincingly, he said he drilled himself extensively every day. After reading about how he drilled his own actors, I don’t doubt that he did the same to himself.

Stanislavski also said things that showed the power of this type of work. He started off with this: “Every exacting actor, however great, at certain intervals, say every four or five years, must go back and study anew.” Actors had to constantly examine themselves to get rid of clichés they were playing and other bad habits they’d fallen into. Apparently, each time Stanislavski himself started playing a new role, he relied on clichés. For every role he ever played, he then had to work hard to get rid of the clichés and replace them with truth.

Given all of this, Osipovich’s book about Stanislavski made me realize that talk of the “hard work” an artist has to do to learn his or her craft is a euphemism for insanely hard-core work.

I would definitely recommend reading this book.

A Practical Handbook for the Actor, by Melissa Bruder

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“Many actors have spent their careers trading on, and thus were limited by, their natural talents. Many of these actors had successful careers, it’s true, but few grew as artists, because they never took the time to develop a set of skills they could call their own, skills that could never be taken from them [….] How much greater is the self-respect of the man or woman who can call upon the technique he or she has developed over his or her years in the theatre to see him or her through even the most seemingly insurmountable acting problem.”

I can’t say much about this book because it basically just echoes some of the things Stanislavski said better ~200 years earlier. Because of that, I’d say that if you ever have to choose between a book by Stanislavski and a book by Bruder, I would choose Stanislavski.

My Experiences as an Executioner, by James Berry

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“Fortunately none of the people knew me, so that when the old gentleman asked them what was the matter, they could only tell them that Berry was traveling by that train, and that they wanted to have a look at him. The old gentleman seemed anxious to see such an awful man as the executioner, and asked me if I should know him if I saw him. I pointed out a low-looking character as being possibly the man, and my fellow traveler said, ‘Yes, very much like him’ [….] We got quite friendly, and when we reached Durham where I was getting out, he asked for my card. The reader can imagine his surprise when I handed it to him.”

James Berry was an English executioner in the 1800s, and he wrote this memoir about his experiences. It was one of the grimmest books I’ve read. To give you some perspective, it was much grimmer than Dostoyevsky’s books, and only slightly less grim than Enemy at the Gates.

Somehow, it managed to be this grim without any graphic descriptions. I think this was because of the book’s specificity. You don’t need to describe anything else if you give enough details about the exact number of inches an executioner wants to make the rope fall in a given execution and how he came to that calculation.

On the other hand, the book did give some valuable insights into humanity. Some of these included how awful an executioner feels about his job, how people react differently before they get executed, why people commit crimes, and the stigma that an executioner faces for having to execute people.

I don’t think any of that makes the book more readable, though.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Afremow, Chekhov, Stanislavski

Hello! Happy New Year! I hope you all had a happy and safe New Year. I’ll be reviewing 3 books today– the last one I read in 2020, and the first two I read in 2021.

The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive, by Jim Afremow, PhD

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“Our desire to better ourselves and develop our natural gifts is what makes us all distinctly human.”

This was a very interesting and inspiring book. It’s written by a sports psychologist who trains professional athletes, so the book had a lot about developing the “champion’s” mindset, which is apparently essential for succeeding in elite athletics.

The book had tips from Afremow’s own experience, reflections written by Olympic athletes, Zen stories (my favorite part), and funny yet inspirational sayings– “cope, don’t mope,” and “when you’re anxious, make the butterflies in your stomach fly in formation.”

Needless to say, this book gave me a lot of insight into an athlete’s mindset. That sounds obvious, but let me explain. I like to play tennis for fun, but I always thought of tennis as hitting a ball around in a court, and I thought of professional tennis-players as people who were just really good at hitting a ball around in a court. It turns out that becoming a professional involves a whole way of life that requires commitment, character, resilience, and wisdom. And here I was thinking it was all about hitting a ball around in a court! Reading this book was fascinating just for that new perspective alone.

In the end, the book gave me much to think about, and has made me appreciate sports more than I used to. If you’re someone who’s looking to become athletic this New Year’s, this would be a good book to look at. If you’re someone who’s looking to self-actualize in any way, this would also be a good book to look at.

Forty Stories, by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Robert Payne

ORIGINS: Anton Chekhov

“He went up to her and put his hands on her shoulders, intending to console her with some meaningless words and to fondle her; and then he saw himself in the mirror. His hair was turning gray. It struck him as strange that he should have aged so much in these last years, and lost his good looks. Her shoulders were warm and trembling at his touch. He felt pity for her, who was so warm and beautiful, though probably it would not be long before she would begin to fade and wither, as he had done.”

This book contains Chekhov’s first story, his last story, and thirty-eight stories in between. Reading them in chronological order like this gave me an appreciation of how Chekhov developed over time. In the beginning, he wrote somewhat melodramatic sketches, but as time went on he started writing more detailed and thought-out pieces.

Something cool about this book is that at the end of every story there’s the month and year in which the story was published. This sounds like a trivial detail but it made for some fascinating autobiographical insights. In the 1890s, Chekhov wrote a bunch of stories where the protagonist had an affair, which was possibly inspired by an affair he was having. Also in the late 1890s to early 1900s, he wrote a lot about people aging or dying. He was aging and dying during that time, too.

What makes this interesting isn’t just that we can match up Chekhov’s life with his fiction. We can also see how life inspired his fiction and how his fiction became a constant reworking of the thoughts he probably had in life. For instance, he wrote all those affair stories in the 1890s, culminating with his famous “Lady With the Little Dog.” Just reading “Lady With the Little Dog” makes it seem like he just came up with all these great ideas while writing this one story, but reading this collection made me realize that Chekhov wouldn’t have been able to write such a great story had he not been spending the past few years working out all these ideas in his previous affair stories. It felt like watching a bunch of rehearsals for a play.

Now that’s interesting.

My Life in Art, by Konstantin Stanislavski,
Translated by Jean Benedetti

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“[The actor Rossi] reflected a while. ‘God has given everything you need for the stage, for Othello, for the whole of Shakespeare.’ (My heart leapt at his words.) ‘Now the matter is in your hands. You must have artistry. It will come, of course…’ Having spoken the truth, he began to dress it up with compliments. ‘But where and how am I to learn it, and from whom?’ I enquired. ‘Mmmm… If you don’t have a great master to hand, who can guide you? I can only suggest one teacher to you,’ the great actor replied. ‘Who? But who?’ I asked. ‘You,’ he concluded, with his famous gesture from Kean.”

The Russian actor and producer Konstantin Stanislavski is a genius. He wrote many amazing books about acting that went on to inspire “Method” acting. My Life in Art is Stanislavski’s autobiography.

In this book, Stanislavski tells how he got his start in acting, how he tried to figure out his own approach to acting (which he eventually did), and how he met and befriended people like Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Gorky. Apparently, Stanislavski got Chekhov and Gorky to write a few masterpieces for his Moscow Art Theater. Without Stanislavski, we might not have had plays like The Cherry Orchard or The Lower Depths. Also, Chekhov apparently met his second wife while working with Stanislavski in the 1890s, so without Stanislavski we might not have had masterpieces like “Lady With the Little Dog.” This basically makes Stanislavski a triple genius.

In any case, his book is brimming with wisdom and humor, and since it’s only about Stanislavski’s art-life, it felt very focused and rich. Yes, the ending of the book seemed a little unpolished, but if you were to read the book’s intro you’d understand why–Stanislavski was rushed into finishing his book before he was ready.

Even with the rushed ending, the autobiography was still a terrific last read for 2020. It showed that genius doesn’t come from innate talent but from trying so much and messing up so many times that you somehow mess up less and less and eventually start succeeding a bit.

Basically, I’d recommend it.

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Aristotle

Hello! Happy Tuesday. I hope you’re all healthy and safe.

I started school yesterday (online) but have managed to read a book. It’s by Aristotle. You may have heard of it:

Poetics, by Aristotle

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“Also the poet should as far as possible work out the play with the appropriate dramatic gestures, for among poets of equal ability, those who themselves are in the emotional states they depict are the most convincing; that is, one who is in the throes of distress conveys distress and one who is in a rage conveys anger most truthfully and accurately. For this reason, poetry is the art of a man of genius or of one having a touch of madness—the first sort are versatile, the second excitable.”

Aristotle’s Poetics is considered to be super-influential in fiction and drama and screenwriting and literature and so on. It’s also surprisingly short.

But is it worth the read?

Maybe. It’s so short it’s not even like you have to make time to read it. It’s also the origin of all sorts of cool ideas, but you’ve probably already heard of most of them before—deus ex machina doesn’t really make a story satisfying, endings are much harder to write than beginnings, and unity is the key to everything.

So it may be good as a refresher, but it doesn’t really add much beyond that. It’s also a bit outdated. Take unity. Aristotle says that if you have a drama, you have to have it take place in such a way that every event has to arise out of the previous event in the story, and that every event should go on to cause the next event. Don’t include anything that isn’t caused by something before it and doesn’t go on to cause something after it.

Okay, but look at Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” There’s an event that happens that isn’t caused by anything else—the arrival of a troupe of theater performers. This troupe goes on to cause the play’s protagonist to take action towards his main goal (which I won’t spoil). It’s well-done, and makes the play better, even though nothing in the play caused the troupe to arrive other than coincidence.

So there are events that can happen without being caused by previous events as long as they go on to cause future events. That’s something that Aristotle didn’t seem to mention.

So, with that being said, Poetics is good as a basic overview of dramatic theory, but it’s also good as a basic overview of how “canonical” rules can and should be broken.

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Calvino, Tolstoy, and Moliére

 

 

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Hello everyone. I hope you are all healthy and safe. I have reviewed three more books. Hopefully they’ll be helpful:

 

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Calvino

“Dawn had broken when he said: ‘Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.’ ‘There is still one of which you never speak.’ Marco Polo bowed his head. ‘Venice,’ the Khan said. Marco smiled. ‘What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?’ The emperor did not turn a hair. ‘And yet I have never heard you mention that name.’ And Polo said: ‘Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.’ ‘When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice.’ ‘To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.’ ‘You should then begin each tale of your travels from the departure, describing Venice as it is, all of it, not omitting anything you remember of it.’”

In this book, the explorer Marco Polo talks with Kublai Khan about the nature of reality. Polo also describes all of the cities he has traveled to within the Khan’s domain. The catch: none of the cities actually exist. However, Polo reasons that by describing all of the cities that don’t exist, he can give the Khan insight into the cities that do exist. His reasoning is borne out throughout the rest of the book.

There is a lot of description of different made-up cities, which is interesting to read. What makes the book satisfying is the way Calvino is able to draw conceptual connections between the frame dialogues and the descriptions of the cities. In the end, this gives humanity and meaning to what would otherwise have just been a series of pretty descriptions.

Another interesting part of the book is that Calvino writes about different cities under different headings, and scatters these headings throughout the book. For instance, he would describe one city under “Trading Cities 1”, then go on to describe another city under “Thin Cities 3”, another under “Cities & The Dead 5”, and then another under “Trading Cities 2.” I’m not sure why he does this, but it gives the book a sense of complexity that calls for multiple readings. Is there a reason behind this complexity, or did he just put them in to confuse readers?

Read it and find out.

 

Childhood, Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy

“Every now and then [the greyhound] Gizana kept stopping, pricking up his ears, and listening to the hallooing of the beaters. Whenever he did this I was not strong enough to move him, and could do no more than shout, ‘Come on, come on!’ Presently he set off so fast that I could not restrain him, and I encountered more than one fall before we reached our destination. Selecting there a level, shady spot near the roots of a great oak-tree, I lay down on the turf, made Gizana crouch beside me, and waited. As usual, my imagination far outstripped reality. I fancied that I was pursuing at least my third hare when, as a matter of fact, the first hound was only just giving tongue.”

This was the first book Tolstoy ever published. It’s about the childhood of a Russian boy named Nicholas, and is heavily autobiographical.

Sometimes it was boring, other times it was entertaining, other times it was funny, and other times it was sad. However, from this book alone, you would not immediately be convinced that Tolstoy would have become a great writer. For the most part, the chapters don’t really relate to each other. It seems like you could take some of them out without losing much of the overall story.

Also, ¾ of the book is overrun with melodramatic sentimentality (“My lips parted themselves as though smiling, the perspiration poured from me in streams”). However, there are flashes of sincerity throughout which comprise the other 1/4 (“In early days it never occurred to me to think what a rare and wonderful being this old domestic was. Not only did she never talk, but she seemed never even to think, of herself”). These bits of sincerity are what save the book from being boring, and they are the first hints of Tolstoy’s genius.

Everybody starts somewhere, but not everybody arrives. In his future work, Tolstoy could have easily ditched sincerity in favor of melodrama. In that case, he likely wouldn’t have arrived at his position as a great writer.

Fortunately for us, he chose sincerity instead.

 

“Don Juan”, Moliére

DJ

“DON JUAN (about to strike PIERROT) What did you say?
PIERROT (moves behind CHARLOTTE) Lord, I’m afraid of no one.
DON JUAN (goes after PIERROT) Just wait a minute.
PIERROT (moves to other side) I’m afraid of nothin’.
DON JUAN (runs after him) We’ll see.
PIERROT (again goes behind CHARLOTTE) I’ve seen better ones than him.
DON JUAN Hah!”

In this hilarious play, Don Juan’s womanizing ways lead to his downfall. That’s not the best part of the play, though. The best part is the comedy. It’s like a form of psychological slapstick—there is physicality in the humor (like in the excerpt above), but there’s also a psychological element that makes the physicality even funnier (Pierrot pretending not to be afraid). This humor makes the play a joy to read.

The story itself is somewhat contrived: Don Juan is repeatedly told that he will suffer because of his womanizing, Don Juan repeatedly ignores these warnings, then he suffers due to heavenly intervention. Thankfully, the humor is there to keep the play fresh.

 

I hope you have enjoyed these reviews. I will not be able to post next week because I will be studying for finals, but check back afterwards for more lit in the time of Coronavirus. In the meantime, I wish you all the best.

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Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Welty, O’Neill, and O’Neill Possessed by Wagner’s Ghost

Hello everyone! I hope you’re surviving quarantine okay. Since reading is amazing for passing the time, here are three books/plays that I have reviewed.

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One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty

Welty

“My mother always sang to her children. Her voice came out just a little bit in the minor key. ‘Wee Willie Winkie’s’ song was wonderfully sad when she sang the lullabies. ‘Oh, but now there’s a record. She could have her own record to listen to,’ my father would have said. For there came a Victrola record of ‘Bobby Shafftoe’ and ‘Rock-a-Bye Baby’, all of Mother’s lullabies, which could be played to take her place. Soon I was able to play her my own lullabies all day long.”

This is a thin memoir about Welty’s writing life. It’s not that interesting. The best part of this book is the insight it gives into the inspiration behind some of her stories, and the glimpse it gives into old rural Mississippi. The rest of the time, she tells about various events that happened to her without really reflecting much on her thoughts and feelings. This creates a sense of distance between her and the reader. For me, this meant that I couldn’t relate to her experiences.

If you’re looking for a good memoir written by a writer, don’t look to Welty. Look to Saint-Exupéry or Gorky. For memoirs on non-writers, Douglass and Shayakhmetov are good. Only read Welty if, near the end of the quarantine, you find that no other books remain but hers.

Even in that case, there are plenty of e-books that you could read first.

 

“A Touch of the Poet,” Eugene O’Neill

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“DEBORAH: Why, that the Hartfords never part with their dreams even when they deny them. They cannot. That is the family curse. For example, this book Simon plans to write to denounce the evil of greed and possessive ambition, and uphold the virtue of freeing oneself from the lust for power and saving our souls by being content with little. I cannot imagine you taking that seriously.”

Eugene O’Neill intended to write an 11-play cycle about the experiences of two families over the course of American history. These plays were supposed to examine materialism and dreams and greed. They were supposed to be his greatest accomplishment. However, for all of the tragedies he created, this turned out to be the worst of them all—he left us with an eternal cliff-hanger, because he only managed to draft two of the plays before he died.

“A Touch of the Poet” is the first play. It takes place in the late 1820s, and is about the two families—the Melody family and the Hartford family. The plot itself seems very simple on the surface. Sara Melody is in love with Simon Hartford, a boy who is recovering from sickness in the upstairs room of her father’s tavern. However, while Sara’s parents are okay with nursing Simon back to health, they’re not okay with her marrying him. The two families are apparently rivals.

Sara also has a father named Cornelius. Cornelius is in love with the past—he dresses in his old regiment uniform and reminisces about when he fought in the British army against the French in the Battle of Talavera and was commended by the Duke of Wellington. Cornelius also mistreats his wife. Sara despises him for that. She despises him even more because he doesn’t want her to marry Simon. The majority of the play is Sara fighting him for the right to marry Simon, and Sara fighting Simon’s mom, Deborah, for the same reason.

Somehow, even in draft-form, O’Neill manages to make this play more than a cheesy “star-crossed lovers” story. The interest comes from the ideas that O’Neill examines throughout the play—dreams vs. reality, past vs. present. Cornelius represents dreams and the past, and Sara represents reality and the present. These ideas mean that the conflict between them takes on greater importance than one in a typical “star-crossed lovers” story. In a way, this play reminded me a lot of Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung” cycle, because similar themes are explored (greed, family, etc.).

NOTE: “A Touch of the Poet” sets up events that happen in the next play, so scrolling down and reading that will expose you to minor spoilers.

 

“More Stately Mansions,” Eugene O’Neill (collaborating with Wagner’s Ghost)

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“SIMON […] It is a long time since I have thought of the soul. Out there in the gutters called streets beyond the wall it appears to be a weak sentimental supposition, a superstitious superfluity—but here in this garden—He checks himself as he meets [Deborah’s] eyes staring at him with a tender gloating fixity. He reads again. ‘And, but once kindled, quenchless evermore.’ He pauses, giving the pause a tense significance—thoughtfully. ‘Evermore.’ Yes, it is, I think, the most cowardly and convenient of all man’s evasions, that he forgets the present is merely the last moment of the past, and the delusion of his hope he calls the future is but the past returning to demand payment of its debt.”

This play is even more like Wagner’s Ring cycle. In addition to its high-falutin monologuery, “More Stately Mansions” takes place over 10 years, a time scale of Wagnerian proportions. Fortunately for us, while the performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle is 17 hours long, O’Neill’s play only lasts for 400 pages. Even so, it made me wonder if Wagner’s ghost perhaps possessed O’Neill while he was writing this play…

Simon and Sara have started a family. In the past, Simon used to want to write poetry, but with Sara’s urging, he took charge of a textile mill, then bought out his partner. In this play, he ditches his dreams, succumbs to greed, and goes on to buy out even more companies. Meanwhile, Sara puts aside her differences with Simon’s mother, Deborah. The two women become best friends for all of two acts, then spend the remaining 255 pages battling for dominance over Simon’s attention.

As in the previous play, O’Neill is able to make this play much more than a mere “rivalry” story. He does this by further developing the conflict between dreams and reality—Sara represents reality, and Deborah represents dreams. Both of them give long, clumsily-worded asides about these ideas. Simon also gives long, clumsily-worded asides, where he laments about how he’s caught between these two forces. In the end, the main conflict is resolved, but the ideological one is not. This makes for a massive cliff-hanger.

Unfortunately, O’Neill’s death means that this cliffhanger will be eternal. However, there’s an interesting book that some scholar wrote about the play cycle as a whole. I haven’t yet read it, but it’s supposed to give an overview of the cycle’s entire plot and thematic development. It’s scant consolation, but at least it’s not a cliff-hanger, and at least it’s not Eudora Welty’s memoir.

my cat busy for book reading - GIF on Imgur

I would love to hear your thoughts about these books, or about any other books you’ve been reading so far. In the meantime, I wish you the best.

Comedy in Tragedy and Yellows in Blues

Happy almost New Year! I hope you’re all enjoying the last few days of 2019!

I recently read this essay online (the Lehigh University link) about comedy in Eugene O’Neill’s tragic play, “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”

The paper’s writer says that a lot of people focus on the pathos of the play–which I won’t spoil because you should read it for yourself–but don’t consider the role of comedy.

In “Long Day’s Journey”, the paper’s writer asserts that comedy serves to humanize the characters. This makes them, and their reactions to their tragic situation, more convincing and compelling.

This idea reminded me of how painters, in painting a picture, use a lot of colors. That sounds obvious. But they use them in such a way as to promote contrast. For instance, there’s a yellowish layer in Winslow Homer’s 1880 painting, “Boys in a Dory.”

It seems counterintuitive to use yellow in painting a nautical scene. However, when combined with the painting’s blue hues, the yellow serves as a contrast that gives the painting a new dimension and makes it more convincing and compelling.

Similarly, comedy serves to contrast with the tragedy in O’Neill’s play. This contrast gives the characters more nuance and makes them more realistic, which increases the compelling nature of their tragic situation.

In writing, comedy doesn’t just have to be comic relief–it can also play a key role in giving extra dimension to a work and deepening its power.

I hope I gave some insight into this technique. It sounds fascinating, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

I Read, and Revel in the Fridayness of Friday

It’s Friday, and I thought I’d celebrate by giving you my review of all nine works in “Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill.” Brace yourselves!

“Nine Plays by Eugene O’Neill” by… You guessed it (Eugene O’Neill)

Favorite Quote: (From “Strange Interlude”): All the twenty odd books I’ve written have been long-winded fairy tales for grown-ups–about dear old ladies and witty, cynical bachelors and quaint characters with dialects, and married folk who always admire and respect each other, and lovers who avoid love in hushed whispers! That’s what I’ve been, Nina–a hush-hush whisperer of lies! Now I’m going to give an honest healthy yell–turn on the sun into the shadows of lies.”

In September, I vowed to read everything O’Neill had ever written. This book was a great resource. O’Neill himself chose the plays that would feature in this book, so we get to see what works he considered his best. Also, they’re arranged in chronological order, so we get to see O’Neill mature as a playwright.

At first, he writes shorter and simpler works like “The Emperor Jones,” but by the end of this anthology, he’s progressed to complex trilogies (in the form of “Mourning Becomes Electra”). By the end of this collection, he’s experimented with using drums to increase tension, employing masks as props, and having his costume-clad characters exit the play alongside the audience and get into limousines that are waiting outside the theater (!!!).

Were the 800 pages of play worth it? Yes.

The only complaint I have about this marvelous writer is that his female characters all chase men. Evidently, there are more things to want in the world than men. Maybe his future plays will be able to do women justice.

Short Takes on Each Play:

“The Emperor Jones”: This reads like a fable–the islander challenges a Brit, and the islander loses his mind. The protagonist’s dense accent helps to obfuscate meaning rather than to clarify it, but the use of gradually-quickening drum-beats in the background effectively accentuates the protagonist’s increasingly-wild thoughts.

“The Hairy Ape”: It reads like another fable, this time about man’s descent into bestiality. It’s slightly better at its readable accents, and its ending is more impactful than that of “The Emperor Jones.”

“All God’s Chillun Got Wings”: This play is about race-relations. It has a good beginning and a good middle. However, the ending seems to lack the impact possessed by “The Hairy Ape”. You do begin to see O’Neill trying his hand at somewhat longer works of drama though (by a few acts). He also begins to write with more nuance and realism.

“Desire Under the Elms”: Cardboard female characters run rampant in this play. Although it’s more nuanced than O’Neill’s previous plays, it still seems somewhat contrived.

“Marco Millions”: This is the play that has an epilogue where Marco Polo (yes, that Marco Polo) exits the theater alongside the audience and takes a limousine that awaits him on the street outside. I don’t see how this adds to the play, other than to perhaps suggest that European colonialism was the source of American wealth. This play is much longer than any of the previous plays in the book. It’s better than “The Hairy Ape”, although the female characters remain cardboard.

“The Great God Brown”: This play incorporates masks to show the difference between a character’s public self and private self. Interestingly, characters are usually afraid of each others’ private selves. Some characters steal others’ masks, which leads to even more identity-based chaos. The play is good, but the women are still obsessed with the men.

“Lazarus Laughed”: This play has a good idea but I feel like its execution is flawed. O’Neill tells of the time after Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus. Lazarus constantly laughs, and his laugh inspires joy in others, so they form a cult around him. This cult constantly chants, “Laugh! Laugh! Laugh!” This cult chants this throughout the whole play. Because there is so much chanting, it slows the pacing, and is rather distracting.

“Strange Interlude”: This play is pretty long. It involves a woman who wants to have a child. Her husband’s family has mental health issues that may be inheritable. The woman wants a child, so she has one with another man and tries to pass it off as her husband’s. For the first time in O’Neill’s drama, each and every scene has momentum. Each scene changes the dynamic between characters and increases tension. The play is great. Just beware of contrived female characters.

“Mourning Becomes Electra”: This play parallels “The Oresteia” by Aeschylus, only it takes place during the Civil War. The best part of this play is a character named Sid who sings “Shenandoah” at various intervals throughout the trilogy, which really accentuates the changing mood of the play. O’Neill’s play cycle is better than Aeschylus’s in some parts (characters are more-fully realized, for instance). At this point, O’Neill’s writing has matured. It shows through his treatment of his content. “Mourning” combines some fable-istic aspects from “The Hairy Ape” with the more naturalistic elements of “Desire Under the Elms.”

Those are the nine plays. I hope you enjoyed my reviews, and check out the book here.

I Read and Reread, While Sick on Memorial Day Weekend

Being bedridden with a high fever has plenty of benefits, the best of which is extra reading time. Here are some books I’ve read that may be of interest to you:

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” By Tennessee Williams

Favorite Quote: “Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s own character to himself.”

This play is about a man named Brick who doesn’t want to get hot and heavy with his wife, who complains that she feels “like a cat on a hot tin roof.” There’s also an inheritance. I find this play interesting not necessarily for its amazing craftsmanship (the version I read had two endings), but for the insight it gives into the working mind of Tennessee Williams. The quote I gave is taken from one of his stage directions, for instance. Also, the very fact that the play has two endings means that readers can get inside Williams’ head to see what he wanted to accomplish in his play (by reading Ending #1), and contrast it with what his director, Elia Kazan thought (by checking out Ending #2).

El Capitán Alatriste by Arturo Peréz-Reverte

Favorite Quote: “Hay que ganarse el pan, zagal.” (“You have to earn your bread, kid.”)

This book taught me all the Spanish I know. I spent hours looking up all the words in it on Word Reference. It was worth it, because the story is great. It takes place during Spain’s Golden Age, and stars a kid named Iñigo Balboa, whose father was slain in battle, and who now resides under the guardianship of his father’s friend, Diego Alatriste. Alatriste is a mercenary-for-hire, and is given the task of assassinating two gentlemen with suspiciously unimportant-sounding names. This gets Diego and his kid sidekick into trouble. It’s worth a read to see how (and if) they get out. If you don’t have time to translate a lot of Spanish, check out the English-language version, called “Captain Alatriste.”

Taggerung by Brian Jacques

Favorite Quote: “Tears are only water, and flowers, trees, and fruit cannot grow without water. But there must be sunlight also.”

This is a book I first read when I was in middle school. As I lay in the throes of sickness, this book proved to be a trusty companion indeed. In this installment of the Redwall series, an otter is raised by an evil tribe, and is prized as the “Taggerung” because of his superior fighting skills. However, our otter hero is too pure of heart to live a life of murder, and so he sets out to find his true home. Although some sentences are clunky, this book is heartwarming for people of all ages, and is especially fulfilling if you’re sick in bed on Memorial Day Weekend.

I hope you enjoyed my books! If you have any recommendations for me, leave a comment, and I’ll try to write about them on my site.