Thursday, March 5, 2015

Not Waving But Drowning

the quintessence of British life in one awful, glorious poem:

Not Waving but Drowning

BY STEVIE SMITH
Nobody heard him, the dead man,   
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought   
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,   
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always   
(Still the dead one lay moaning)   
I was much too far out all my life   
And not waving but drowning.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tree by Daniel Kitson and Tim Key

When I went to the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green a few years ago, we drove into London and I become incensed watching the pedestrians because apparently everyone had received a memo about wearing topknots and I never got the memo. There I was with my blow-dried hair looking at old doll houses in an old train station, excruciatingly without a topknot. I was 45. I guess 45 is when you stop getting the memos.

I can report from last night at the Old Vic that the memo this year required a combination of dark-rimmed glasses and excruciatingly vitamin D-deficient skin for any gender. Transclucent levels of pale. But men, chin to collar bone, need to look like Montana separatists who spent the winter cleaning their guns and shooting antelope. 

No one's beard is longer than Daniel Kitson's. I don't know how long he has been growing it, I have never seen him live before. He is a phenomenon. His shows famously sell out in a heartbeat. In ten years of him at the Edinburgh Fringe I have never managed to get tickets. But my friend E managed for Tree. 

There is a tree in the play, Daniel is hidden up the tree for the play, hard to see. Underneath the tree a man in a hurry appears with a picnic. They begin to talk. It is easy to be bored with two characters revealing their backstories in anecdotes but this was done with a charm and a mindfulness. They snuck up on the audience, it seemed so innocuous at first, an English eccentric who lives in a tree and a man planning a picnic. Amusing enough, maybe a bit boring at parts -  I mean, are there no confident romantics on this entire island? Does every British man have to have this Hugh Grant-style emotional incapacity/slapstick/acute embarrassment? 

But then in the last twenty minutes of the play something happens, and the parallels between the characters emerge, not at all in a didactic way, in a quietly amazing way. In a subtle way the parallels expand to us, sitting in the audience, staring up at the tree to get a glimpse of the recluse. Our choices are indicted or at least reviewed. What are you committed to and why? How much of it is inertia or is shaped by the world around you? How does  your commitment matter? Do you tell yourself the truth when you answer those questions? 

Gently Kitson questions, and his long beard almost seems a disguise, because how could someone with so much insight care about the memo? 


Monday, December 8, 2014

my perverse obsession

I mean really. Probably once a day I get invited via social media to join the beginning of the peaceful revolution. An invitation to an Occupation, the launch of a political party, a global conference call. A people's assembly. Or a link to a blog post exactly like the ones I was writing three years ago in October 2011. Bloated with optimism, newly enlightened, burning with anger, intent on success.

I love these beautiful actions. I even love the blog posts, even as I slightly cringe at the arrogance required to stand up. Critical mass is not building though, not fast enough. Activists are not organized like say the Evangelical Christians. I heard recently from this consultant that businesses now study Evangelicals because they are so good at training and promoting leaders. In this manner, activists could really use their company and insight. And actually, I think not only in this manner. And that ladies and gentlemen is my perverse obsession. This infernal, unshakeable blight upon my writing, this hopeless certainty. Please wring your hands with me, I am quite overwrought.

No, it's that I can't shake this idea that the ills of the world could be cured if the activists and the Christians united. Formed an alliance. All my previous attempts have abjectly failed, I mean really, it's like they're fending off a lunatic. On both sides.

And yet it remains my perverse obsession. Especially now at Christmas it haunts me, in the darkness, as I think about what is holy, what is sacred. In case you were wondering, the tree is winning over the nativity this year. My Christmas songs are on my ipod and while I was cooking Sunday supper yesterday I got really super mad when O Holy Night got to the third verse:

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love, and His gospel is peace.
Chains He shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in His name, all oppression shall cease.

You might know as a blog reader how I come out on the whole Peace on Earth thing. We really accept an astonishing amount of war for a people who worship a god of peace and it George-Carlin-Style pisses me off. It's the silence around peace: where are the advocates? Where are the candidates? Call me old-fashioned, but if you really wanted peace couldn't you just stop fighting? (quote, Dr. Who, The Doctor's Daughter (2008))

And how about the oppression? We're not doing so great on that either. Who can escape the ugly truths surfacing about the police? How many Syrians? How many Ukranians? How many petty tyrants made possible by neo-liberal support can we name?

I was very grumpy until the Spectorette's version of Frosty the Snowman came out and I thought about that girl band, those poor impressionable girls controlled by Phil Spector and how oppression and darkness are all around us, even at Christmas. The truth is forces for good could be gathering and falling into place, there will always be darkness to see and I am free to step into lighter moments, as I amuse myself with the ludicrous painfulness of life. How I get so worked up over everything. So then I make a dinner and cuddle a child, read a story, make a lunch, draft a contract, tinker with a play. And I am fine. Until my perverse obsession takes me again. And then I can't breathe.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Sleepless Ones

The Sleepless Ones

What if all the people
who could not sleep
at two or three or four
in the morning
left their houses
and went to the parks
what if hundreds, thousands,
millions
went in their solitude
like a stream
and each told their story
what if there were
old women
fearful if they slept
they would die
and young women
unable to conceive
and husbands
having affairs
and children
fearful of failing
and fathers
worried about paying bills
and men
having business troubles
and women unlucky in love
and those that were in physical
pain
and those who were guilty
what if they all left their houses
like a stream
and the moon
illuminated their way and
they came, each one
to tell their stories
would these be the more troubled
of humanity
or would these be
the more passionate of this world
or those who need to create to live
or would these be
the lonely
ones
and I ask you
if they all came to the parks
at night
and told their stories
would the sun on rising
be more radiant and
again I ask you
would they embrace

~ Lawrence Tirnauer

Thursday, October 16, 2014

When Great Trees Fall by Maya Angelou

When Great Trees Fall

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.


When great trees fall
in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses
eroded beyond fear.


When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines,
gnaws on kind words
unsaid,
promised walks
never taken.
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
Our souls,
dependent upon their
nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
radiance,fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignoranceof
dark, cold
caves.


And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

― Maya Angelou

posted in loving memory of Mark Kuller who died early this morning.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Ballyturk

Having this past season read reviews of Bill Clinton Hercules, my play in the Edinburgh Fringe, I am slightly more reluctant to write one.  The BCH reviews seemed to me to say more about the reviewer than the play. What the hell though? It's my blog. It's all supposed to be about me anyhow.

On Friday I saw Enda Walsh's new play at the National, Ballyturk. I felt like I was at the premier of Hamlet. It is a particular and peculiar masterpiece.  So I'm a big fan of Walsh.  Walworth Farce, Penelope, New Electric Ballroom... I am full of wonder at his ability to plumb the limitations of our psyches, see what we are in new ways and show us in his plays.  Damn these Irish playwrights with their wisdom and charm.

Audiences typically applaud heartily at his plays and then turn around to each other and say, what the hell just happened? What does it all mean? What was that blue stuff? It's always hard to exit a Walsh play in a timely manner because people are clumped together excitedly talking.

You can read my review of his Misterman here .

Ballyturk. Spoiler alert.  Cillian Murphy and Mikel Murfi are in a giant studio apartment/womb/locus of consciousness/monad. They are nameless and they may be two parts of the same person. Or one may be a character created by the other.  Maybe the superego and the ego. The more intensely physical of the two has fits. They are, like all Walsh's characters, and indeed like all of us, are trapped in a narrative - they spend their days playing games involving the people of the town of Ballyturk.

One day Cillian catches a fly, joyful of evidence of an external world. One wall of their studio falls and Stephen Rea appears. He has this monologue about the relationship of his left hand to his right hand that will be a staple of every audition in London very shortly I am sure. Rea may be the fly. He may be authority. He may be reality outside the mind. .  He speaks pure poetry about the magnificence of the outside world heralded by the fly. Life in all its magnificence, he says, demands only one thing, a death. He demands that one of them join him outside. The rest of the play flows from that demand.

The play is shot through with a kind of nostalgia, but nostalgia almost like a high speed train running through the neural networks of the play. Power ballads play from the 80's. Yaz. (Upstairs at Erics was such a staple of my existence in the 80's) The nameless men dance. Rea croons. The recontructions of Ballyturk are Vaudeville.  There is yelling and fear and frustration. Murphy bangs his head bloody against a wall.

Mysterious and primal. In Misterman Walsh has Murphy so steeped in his own version of reality that the sound of people trying to speak to him is distorted. In Ballyturk we get to see inside that reality. It's almost like Beckett's play Not I (which I saw at Cambridge Arts) - it's like being inside someone's mind.

People take refuge in stories, right? They escape into a movie. And that's one level. But when I say Walsh's characters are trapped in a narrative I am being trite and annoying because really, the characters escape there too. They like it there. It is what they know. It must go on. We of course have these narratives too: I am a doctor, a teacher, a mom, a drunk, a loser, a Christian, a Conservative, a Jew. I live in a democracy. America is the best country. My children's safety demands my constant vigilance. It's necessary that air travel is the way it is. The world is basically fair. The world is governed by the rule of law. It is the human condition to have these narratives. It is the work of the very best playwrights to point out how these narratives trap you even as they keep you safe, how they are wrong or incomplete.

Walsh was always up there with McDonagh and McGuiness and now I feel like he's up there with Stoppard.

In my review of Misterman I complain bitterly that Walsh's comparatively least compelling play got a big standing ovation at the National. When I saw Ballyturk on Friday, it was sold out, but no one stood up. No one stood up for the better play. Sometimes that is how it is.