Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Matinee for the Misbegotten

5/24/09. To the St James with Eugene O’Neill to see the final performance of Desire Under The Elms. O’Neill warns me that there will be too much of one and not enough of the other, and based on this era’s preference for set declaration over emotional declarations, I assume that I will be watching very little Desire under a forest of Elms. It turns out to be the other way around. The set is Early Director’s Statement. There are no trees anywhere, only rocks, and several boulders hanging from the flies by knotted lengths of anchor ropes. Even the house is hanging over everybody’s head, which is to blatant symbolism what fourth-stage cancer is to the common cold.

The play begins with two yokels shifting a cart of stones from off right to stage left, which makes no mining sense at all. Shouldn’t they be taking the rocks away and clearing the land? But no. That would be realistic. And realistic is not on the menu tonight. We are dining on symbolic. Today’s main course will be an interpretation, not a play. This is only slightly less painful than watching (a) a production of As You Like It where the royalty are all Nazis and the forest dwellers are resistance fighters; or (b) Rebecca Hall in anything. Oh well. At least it’s not set in a jail.

And then the actors start shouting at each other, and jail is exactly where I feel like I am. Especially since the play is performed without an intermission. We are four lines into the thing and everyone is screaming casual remarks like “Hello” and “How are you?” to let the audience know that this is a play about PASSION, GOD DAMN IT. It’s like listening to John Barrymore through a bullhorn. After two minutes of this, my ear drums cover their own ears and curl up into a fetal ball of pain and yell: “You try and figure out what they’re saying--we can’t!”

Poor Eugene is beside himself. He so rarely gets produced, and when he does, his plays are rarely done well. Ten minutes in, he’s halfway through a flask of whiskey and muttering about the Tony Awards.

O’NEILL: I’m Eugene Fucking O’Neill and my play didn’t even get a nomination. Not one. A play about Beethoven’s ghost got nominations, for Chrissakes. I could write a play about Beethoven’s ghost during a two-day bender. And if I did, Moises Kaufman would ask my actors what it was about, tape record their answers, and then write his own play—and it would STILL be twenty times better than the piece of crap he DID write.

It doesn’t take long for Gene to become titanically inebriated. Every time he exhales, fumes of whiskey curl out from our box seat like the animated tendrils of cartoon perfume, lifting up people in the orchestra by their noses and making them sigh with pleasure. It is the only sound of happiness for the first thirty minutes of the play. By that time, O’Neill’s muttering has grown to an audible grumble. “Why do they do this?” he says loud enough for Brian Dennehy to hear. “Why do these God damn actors all equate anger with shouting? Shouting is not anger. Shouting is a TECHNIQUE!” “Not the way I shout!” yells Dennehy. Which is what I think he said. Hat I actually heard was “NAA THAA AY EYE OW!”

O’NEILL: What? What did you say? I can’t understand a misbegotten thing you said!
DENNEHY: You’re drunk, O’Neill.
O'NEILL: And you were a better ACTOR when you were drunk.
DENNEHY: Come down here and say that.
CARLA GUGINO: Brian, please, it’s the author.
CARLA GUGINO: Oh, go take your shirt off.
DENNEHY: I don’t give a damn if it’s the author.
DENNEHY: Nobody tells ME he can’t understand a word I say.
O’NEILL: What?
DENNEHY: I said, nobody--
O’NEILL: What?
DENNEHY: I said, --
O’NEILL: ENUNCIATE, you feckless coffee-drinker.
DENNEHY: What do you know about enunciating, you long-winded Mick?
O’NEILL: What the hell are you even doing on this stage?
DENNEHY: Come down here and say that.
O’NEILL: You’re a dumb ex-cop who only did one good movie.
DENNEHY: And you’re a beat-me-over-the-head-with-the-obvious hack whose best play never got performed in his lifetime.
O’NEILL: Come up here and say that !

It's at this point that Dennehy picks up one of the stage stones and throws it at O'Neill's head. O'Neill ducks and throws his empty flask at Dennehy. The flask hits Dennehy in the chest at about the same time the stone bounces off the wall behind us and lands on an old woman who's been asleep since the play began. She jumps up with a yell and her flailing arms whack the head of a producer type in the row in front of her, rearranging his perfectly white toupee so that it looks like a jaunty sailor cap. He starts yelling, the old woman starts yelling, O'Neill and Dennehy continue yelling, and when somebody in the balcony yells for everybody to shut up, Dennehy tosses a stage rock at him, too, and that's when the afternoon turns into the Irish version of the end of Hair, with everyone storming the stage not to dance, but to fight.

This is when I leave. I've seen this happen enough times before to know that the riot police will be called in and arrest everybody, after which O'Neill will wave his Nobel Prize and offer to buy everybody drinks, after which they will all adjourn to The Bucket Of Blood and drain the place of cheap whiskey (unless Dennehy stays on the wagon, in which case he'll drain the place of cheap tonic water), after which O'Neill will tie the director and the actors to a row of chairs and perform the entire play himself (including stage directions), after which he'll untie them and buy them more drinks and they'll all sing Sondheim numbers until they pass out.

DARK LADY: Sondheim numbers?
ME: Oh yes. O'Neill loves them. He's even turned one of his plays into a Sondheim musical.
DARK LADY: You're joking. Which one?
ME: Long Day's Journey Into Night Music.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Merchant of Venice at BAM

Continued from here and here.)

5/14/09. As the lights come up for intermission, the following conversation takes place behind me:

FIRST WOMAN: We’re going home.
MAN: Honey?
FIRST WOMAN: I am so confused. I’m going home.
SECOND WOMAN: What’s wrong?
FIRST WOMAN: I don’t know what’s going on! I’m completely lost and it seems like a waste of time.
SECOND WOMAN: It’s artistic license.
FIRST WOMAN: It’s a license to confuse.
SECOND WOMAN: Like Double-Oh Seven?
FIRST WOMAN: Like Double-Oh What The Fuck.
MAN: What does the program say?
SECOND WOMAN: It’s very dark in here, I can’t read the program.
FIRST WOMAN: You shouldn’t have to read the program to understand what you’re seeing. I don’t understand what I’m seeing. Why jail? I don’t get it. It works against the play.
I have no clue what’s going on. As much as the actors are brilliant, it’s a waste of time. The interpretation obscures the play.

I can’t resist; I turn around and offer a correction over my shoulder:

ME: The alleged interpretation.
FIRST WOMAN: Yes! Thank you! Even the author admits it! The alleged interpretation! Is it saying anything about mercy? Is it saying anything about justice and vengeance? No -- all this play is saying is, “I am the balls -- I’m directing Merchant of Venice like it’s an episode of Oz.”
ME: We never had directors back then, you know. Just stage managers.
FIRST WOMAN: Like Peter Quince in Midsummer’s?
ME: [nodding] Exactly. Just somebody who tells the actors when to enter and exit. The rest was up to us.
FIRST WOMAN: Well that couldn’t have been easy.
ME: It was a lot easier than this.
FIRST WOMAN: I’ll bet. [Standing up; to Second Woman:] Let me know how it ends.
MAN: You mean we’re going?
FIRST WOMAN: Of course we’re going. This is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in my life. [To me:] No offense.
ME: None taken.

“Well you should take offense,” says the Dark Lady as they walk out. She’s sitting with her arms crossed and her head down, like she’s preparing to gore a matador. “‘Artistic interpretation.’ It’s artistic bollocks, is what it is. It’s a director jumping and down saying ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ Why do they do that?” I shrug. “In my experience, it’s part of the job description,” I say mildly. But the DL is still fuming. “Well you know what? If it was his job to make me sit here for two hours saying to myself ‘What’s that pain in my heel? Oh—right-it’s a shoehorn,’ then he should be promoted.”

I have to agree with her. It is quite possibly one of the most misguided interpretations of Merchant that I have ever seen. It is set entirely in a prison, where the Christians and the Jews go at it like the Aryan Brotherhood versus the Crips and Bloods. Which makes for (a) some interesting byplay between the prisoners and the so-called guards, which becomes totally confusing when (b) the play switches to Belmont, and instead of it being somewhere outside this Venetian jail (a country club prison maybe? Where the Wall Street types hang out and have lesser restrictions and more freedom?), it’s just another cell block on another floor. Why would you need three thousand ducats to bribe a guard to get you access to a different part of the same jail? And if you’re actually asking that question while the scene is happening, doesn’t that mean the interpretation is a total failure?

Well, not total. Everybody tries to make Merchant realistic, when it has more in common with Pericles than it does with Measure for Measure. It’s a fairy tale –- three fairy tales, in fact –- and it’s always been misunderstood. Even when I played Shylock, it was misunderstood. Nobody ever wants it to be about the story –- they want it to be about the character. It’s the Jew play. Shakespeare’s Jew play, as opposed to Marlowe’s Jew play. (Fucking Marlowe. I’ll never get out of his shadow.) It’s the same with Hamlet; the same with Falstaff. Like the character is more important than the story. That upsets me a great deal more than a production which replaces Denmark with Venice in the phrase “Denmark’s a prison.” Making Shylock the center of attention has ruined the play from the beginning. By the time I finished rewriting it in ’96 to make Shylock more rounded, Kempe wasn’t speaking to me and Burbage insisted that we trade roles and I play Bassanio so he could do Shylock. I said no, but I was outvoted. So Shylock became another Humpbacked Dick, and I did Bassanio about as well as Claude Rains would have done Errol Flynn if they had switched roles in Robin Hood -- and Gus Phillips, between his scenes as Antonio, could be heard muttering in the wings, “Now if we could only get rid of those fooking fairy tale subplots.”

But the Shylock in this production does not tower over everyone else. Because it’s all about the director’s interpretation, and not “Anti-Semitism: Pro or Con -– Discuss,” this Shylock is that rarity of rarities: just another actor in an ensemble piece, who has his part to play and plays it without doing the Full Pacino, which is an Italian meal consisting of three courses of scenery followed by scenery a la mode. This Shylock is just another potentially violent prisoner, which is the only refreshing thing in an otherwise confusing evening.

During intermission, a good quarter of the audience has decided to go home and watch the equivalent of bear-baiting (aka American Idol) rather than the second half of my play, which is a pity, because this is the part where the director throws up his hands, cries: “I don’t get this God damn jail thing either!” and just stages the play, period. Which is why it works much better than the first half. If you ignore all the prison cells. And the moments where Portia calls out “Oh jailer!” to Gobbo-doubling-as-Balthasar. And the final scene, which should have taken place as far from Alcatraz as possible.

“It’s the fucking Shylock Redemption,” says the DL as we leave. “All it’s missing is Tim Robbins and a Rita Hayworth poster.” I roar with laughter; Roz is one of the few people who can always make me laugh out loud. Which means of course that I have to top her joke, because I can never let anyone have either the last word or the last laugh.

“In such a night,” I say, “Did Shaxpere’s Jew get twenty-five-to-life, For crimes against artistic truth, which put, The shiv in shivah.” Roz snorts, which is as close as she ever comes to admitting that I’ve said something she thinks is clever. “I can’t believe you’re making jokes about this,” she says. “My dear Roz,” I reply, “when you’ve seen Measure for Measure staged in Auschwitz? You learn to take things with a grain of salt, and not a pound of flesh.” “You’re much more merciful than I am,” says the DL. To which I refrain from telling her, “If this is true, then it is not my nature, but my experience that makes me so forgiving. You too could be this way, my sweet, if you but put yourself in someone else’s place.”

4/30/09 continued: Three Blind Bards

(Continued from here.)

“Where should I begin?” I ask, dreading the answer. “Let’s start with Chapter 18,” says Homer. I turn to page 307 and begin to read.

"Chapter 18. AFTER MACHIAVELLI. “‘Shakespeare’s writing career may have begun in 1589, as he waited for the Lambert case to come before the Lord Chief Justice’s court at Westminster.’ Oh bollocks.” "Something wrong, Will?" asks Homer with a smile. “What’s the Lambert case?” asks Dorothy Milton. I ignore Homer and answer Dorothy. “A lawsuit between my father and the Lambert family over a piece of property my other used to own,” I say, not wanting to go into the details of a complicated lawsuit which was incredibly important in 1589 and now only memorable because John Shakespeare’s son Will was involved in it. “And is that when you started to write?” Anne Milton asks. “I was writing almost the moment I became an actor,” I reply with some peevishness, “and I was an actor for a good three years before any of my work was good enough for Lord Strange’s Men to perform. To think that I started writing because of that damned Lambert lawsuit, --” “Can we continue?” Homer says mildly, clearly enjoying my burst of temper. “Oh most assuredly,” I reply, and pick up where I left off.

“‘It was probably some time earlier that year -- to judge from a topical allusion to the assassination of the Duke of Guise, leader of the Catholic faction in the French civil wars of religion -- that Christopher Marlowe’s hugely popular Jew of Malta had its premiere. Shakespeare was probably not in the cast, but he was certainly at some point in the audience.’ Jesus wept,” I cry, “if you take the word probably out of the English language none of these books would ever get written. And how can an actor see another actor’s plays when he’s performing in a rival play across town? Send his twin brother?” I take a deep breath and continue reading. “‘His Aaron in Titus Andronicus is a part written in response to Marlowe’s Ithamore, and his Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is his answer to Barabbas the Jew, with the play’s resolution achieved through a courtroom instead of a boiling cauldron and a bloodbath.’” And then I emit a wordless scream of frustration. “My ‘answer to Barabbas the Jew?’ Ignorant fecking coont. I had nothing to do with it at all. It was because of Marlowe. Marlowe and that bloody fool Lopez.”

"Ah yes -- Lopez," says Milton. "Lopez?" asks Anne. And Milton proceeds to tell her about Doctor Roderigo Lopez, a Spanish Jew who was Elizabeth's personal physician, and how Essex hates him so much that he accused the poor trusting fool of trying to poison the Queen at the behest of the King of Spain. In December of '93, he was on top of the world; one month later he was arrested, two months later he was convicted, and on the 7th of June in '94 he was hanged, drawn and quartered, to the laughter and delight of the watching crowd. And what was also getting a lot of laughter and delight was Henslowe’s revival of poor dead Marlowe’s Jew of Malta during all this. It was so successful that Gus Phillips and the rest of the sharers said,“We need a Jew play!” “They’re cleaning up at the Rose!” “Nobody wants to see shrews tamed any more!” “We need a Jew play, Shakebags!” (That from Will Kempe.) And then they started thinking of ways to top Marlowe's grand finale, in which his Jew is boiled in a cauldron. "We want a boiling scene." "No -- something bigger!" "Draw him and quarter him!" "Stick a spit in him and roast him!" "No -- even better -- crucify him!"

I sat there listening to my brother Christians devising new and exciting tortures for the Jew in whatever play I wrote, and I said nothing and made notes, as I always did whenever we had those meetings, and then I used some of their dialogue for the Christians in the Shylock scenes when I finally wrote the play. But because they were so insistent on a play about revenge, I wrote a play about mercy; and because they were so insistent on making it topical, I threw together three hoary old folk tales as the plot: the pound of flesh story, the caskets whopper, and the ring gift howler. Then because they took it so seriously and I could have cared less, I titled it The Merchant of Venice, as if it was about Antonio. They were not happy. "You play the Jew," they said, and immediately advertised it as The Jew of Venice. And the rest is history, or at least it would be if the facts had survived. The play, with its three silly plots, was an even bigger success than R&J, or at least it was until Doctor Lopez watched his intestines being cooked in a brazier before his dying eyes. By the autumn of '94, the Rose was doing The Venetian Comedy, The Massacre at Paris, Cutlack, and Palamon and Arcite; we were doing Shrew, Two Gents, Hamlet and Humpbacked Dick; and I was making notes on how to make Shylock more sympathetic (because if I was stuck playing him then I was going to make God damn sure I had something to play besides a cartoon), which meant reducing Lancelot Gobbo's part by two-thirds to make room for the changes. Which succeeded in doing two things -- it won me the undying hatred of Will Kempe, who played Gobbo, and it totally ruined the play.

After Milton explains all this, or as much if it as he knows, I read some more from Chapter Eighteen of The Soul of The Age (which barely has half a dozen mentions of Merchant in its index) until I hear Homer sigh. “Nobody writes to be read aloud any more,” he says sadly. “I’m doing the best I can,” I protest. “Oh it’s not you,” he says, “not even the best actor in the world could save writing like this. It’s the writer. He’s writing to be read in the classroom, not sung in the court, or the courtyard. Doesn’t any writer sing any more?” “Well,” I begin, “if you’d just let me bring in my copy of Burgess’ biography,” but Homer cuts me off the moment Burgess’ name leaves my lips. “Poor John here probably doesn’t even know what we’re talking about. You never had your works spoken aloud, did you, John?”

It’s a good thing Homer is blind, because the glare from Anne and Dorothy would scale the sight from hundred-eyed Argos. “As a matter of fact, they were,” Milton says mildly. “I couldn’t write Paradise Lost, so I dictated it. Had it read back to me. Made changes.” “Had it read back to him again,” said Anne. “Made even more fucking changes,” said Dorothy. “Have you ever heard a three-year-old boy practice on the piano?” said Anne. “Wrong note after wrong note after wrong note?” said Dorothy. “False start after false start after false start?” said Anne. “That was me,” Milton said proudly. Dorothy rolls her eyes; Anne gives him the finger; and I think wistfully of my own daughters. "I never knew that," Homer says. "How could you not know that?" Milton replies. "Everybody knows that. The life of Milton is an open book. Too open," he says with a sigh. “I would kill to have someone write a worshipful biography of me.” Homer grunts in agreement. “I would kill to have someone write a fictional biography of me,” he says. “And that is the only biography I ever get,” I say. "The grass is always greener," says Homer. "Not when you're blind it isn't," says Dorothy.

And I reflect on the fact that both these men are jealous of something I have which they don't, something I think is worthless and beneath me. Which, if they had it, would make them supremely satisfied. Or would it? I wonder. Are we not all blind to what we have, until we see it through someone else's eyes? Is not value measured as a slight thing on our own personal scales until we see how weighty it is in the world's scales? And if we do change our opinion, does that not mean that we have come to worship the opinions of others more than our own? Perhaps that is why I have never valued my own biographies. I worship something different, something more personal. So my disdain for these so-called lives of mine? My dismissal of them, my condescension? Chalk it up to Will’s God. As opposed to God’s will.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

04/30/09 - Homer's Nod and Milton's Fall

To the Andra Moi Ennepe Museum to perform my bi-weekly charity audiobook work for Homer. I wonder with trepidation which biography of mine he will have me read to him today. Whatever it is, I’m sure the chapter he chooses will be designed to get under my skin like a poisonous tick. I swear he has one of his sons read these travesties beforehand and pick out just the right passages that will turn me into a frothing angerbeast. He never wants me to read the biographies that come close to the truth –- it’s always the ones that should be filed in the Fiction aisle. Does he have me read from 1599: A Year In The Life Of William Shakespeare? Does he hand me a copy of Shakespeare The Player? No --- he wants to hear every word of Will In The World, which had me cursing like an Irishman after every other sentence. “I am amazed,” Homer said after the first ten minutes of this. “I didn’t think a book could ever be published in America that had so many instances of the phrase ‘ignorant fecking coont’ in it. No wonder it’s a best seller.”

The ignorant fecking coont whose book the Bard of Chios wants me to read to him today is Jonathan Bate, who has just published a book called Soul of the Age. "I hear it's excellent," says Homer. "Of course, if they wrote my biography it'd have to be titled Soul of Western Civilization, Bitch. Because, you know, I am." I agree with him verbally, all the while shaking my head "No." "Let's start then," he says. But first he apologizes for missing my birthday party. He always misses my birthday party. Ben says it’s because he’s jealous that I get a huge celebration and he doesn’t. “If the world knew my birthday, I would have to rent out a small country every year for the party,” Homer insists, before telling everyone when his birthday is. (It’s November 24th, which makes him a Sagittarius. Or as he calls it, a Centaur.) “And that’s the real date,” he adds when he mentions this to me. “Not like April 23rd. The 23rd isn’t even your actual birthday,” he points out, “it’s just the day people like to think is your birthday because it was the date you died.” And he’s correct, of course -- my actual birthday is April 22nd. “You should say something about this,” Homer muses. “You get so angry when your biographers get the facts of your life wrong, that it always surprises me that you do nothing to correct this atrocious error. You really should say something.” “I suppose so,” I say. But I never will. Personally I like the fact that the man the world thinks of as William Shakespeare has a different birthday than Will of Stratford. There is precious little of Will the glover’s son in Will (The Bard of Avon) Shakespeare, and since I long ago conceded to the world the ownership of the latter, everything associated with the former has become more and more precious to me. It’s like having a secret identity, except that in my case, Clark Kent never once shows up in any panel of the story.

“So,” Homer says, still talking about my birthday, “how many candles again?” We go through this every time. “545,” I say. Homer shakes his head. “Still counting those extra hundred years.” “I lived them,” I reply. “Technically,” he says. “We only have your word for it, Will. And personally, I’ve always thought that treating something as real which cannot be proven as fact is a sign of senility.” “How odd," I reply. "I’ve always thought that the Trojan Horse fit that definition as well.” Homer says something that sounds like “Touche!” but probably means “Up yours” in ancient Ionic Greek.

At that moment, there is a cough from behind us, and we turn to the door of Homer’s suite to see old blind John Milton standing there. “Can I join you?” Milton asks. Homer mouths the words “Can we stop you?” as I say, “By all means -- come in, John.”

He takes a step forward, and his two daughters appear, one on each arm. Together they gently guide Milton into the room and point him directly at a leather chair, which Milton hits head on. He yells “Whoa!” as he topples over, and hits the floor in an arm-waving leg-pumping heap. It is a pratfall that Buster Keaton would have envied. “What the hell was that?” he mutters as he gets to his feet. “Sorry, Daddy,” say his daughters in unison. Milton waves their apology away. He’s long ago resigned himself to the fact that this is their way of paying him back for all those years when he dictated Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained to them. “It is a kind of justice,” he says, “and I will take my punishment gladly. Besides, it’s not like they can actually hurt me, being a thing immortal like yourself. That’s yours, Will,” he adds, as if I didn’t know. He is always saying things to people as if they didn’t know them. I once heard him lecture Einstein on relativity. After about five minutes, Einstein left the room, came back with a tape recorder, recorded himself saying “Uh huh,” “Mmm,” and “You don’t say,” set each phrase to run every thirty seconds or so, pushed the Play button, and left the room with both of Milton’s daughters, who looked quite flustered (and quite happy) when Einstein brought them back thirty minutes later. Milton was still talking. “I think your theory is very solid,” he was saying as Einstein and the girls entered. “Oh very solid,” said Einstein. “Solid and firm,” said Milton’s daughter Anne. “And infinitely long,” said his daughter Deborah.

“So what are we hearing?” asks Milton. “Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate,” says Homer. "So many biographies,” says Milton with exaggerated wonder in his voice. “How many are there now, I wonder?” he asks. “I have no idea,” I reply. “But in fact it is an actual number,” Milton says. “In just the same way that there is an actual number which represents the amount of atoms in the universe, there is an actual number which represents the total of Shakespeare biographies which have been published since 1616.” “The biography number is probably larger,” says Homer. “Oh, only by one or two,” Milton concedes. “Are we listening to a book,” I ask, “or are we debating how many Bardographies can dance on the head of a pin?” “Oh book, book, by all means,” says Milton, and I proceed to read.