Book Reviews

Book Review – War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk

But these Germans are different. Orders do not seem merely to guide their actions; orders, as it were, fill their souls, leaving no room for a human flicker in their faces or eyes. They are herdsmen, and we are cattle; or they are soldier ants, and we are aphids. The orders cut ties between them and us. All. It is eerie. (Loc 11365)

This chilling paragraph serves as a good summation of Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance. While the sequel to The Winds of War took readers along the Henry family’s continuing journey, the ‘remembrance’ portion focused on the Holocaust. That made reading this novel much more uncomfortable than perusing its predecessor.

As in the book’s precursor the war’s impact on the Henry family played a key role in the overall narrative. I enjoyed reading about Victor Henry’s ascent to two-star admiral. Aside from the Second World War’s effect on his career, Mr. Wouk described how the conflict generated much disturbance in his private life.

The tales of his son Byron’s development into a proficient submariner made for engaging reading, as well. I liked the character’s continuing transition from a carefree, directionless kid into a mature leader of men. The author enhanced this portion of the drama by adding a personal conflict for him to battle, as well. His wife Natalie—a Jewish woman, no less—and newborn son found themselves stranded in Fascist Italy at the war’s outbreak.

The author crafted extraordinary secondary characters for this novel. I’ll refrain from giving away spoilers. I will note that both Leslie Slote and Aaron Jastrow would have made for great protagonists in a shorter tale.

As in The Winds of War, the author inserted the German perspective on the war. This gave the story more balance than I’m used to reading in historical fiction. Mr. Wouk utilized the histories of fictional General Armin von Roon as one source. To allow readers a sense of how trustworthy this member of the German General Staff, one comment in his book read, “From Adolf Hitler alone proceeded the policy regarding the Jews.” (Loc 2876)

In War and Remembrance, the author took the German point-of-view even further. He added a priest’s thoughts on the German mindset.

 You must understand Germans, Herr Slote.” The tone was calmer. “It is another world. We are a politically inexperienced people, we know only to follow orders from above. That is a product of our history, a protracted feudalism.” (Loc 2730)

The author also included actual historical figures in the book. Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, appeared as a character. Mr. Wouk used his point-of-view in expressing this figure’s thoughts regarding efficient means of execution.

No, the poison gas in rooms of large capacity has always been an idea worth trying; but which gas? Today’s experiment shows Zyklon B, the powerful insecticide they have been using right along at the camp to fumigate the barracks, may be the surprisingly simple solution. Seeing is believing. In a confined airtight space, with a powerful dose of the blue-green crystals, those three hundred fellows didn’t last long! (Loc 2310)

To provide even sharper insight into the character’s mind, the very next paragraph opened with the words: “Well, time for Christmas dinner.” (Loc 2323)

Mr. Wouk added some exceptional use of language throughout the narrative. Some notable examples included, “Laughing into each other’s eyes” (Loc 4598), “…Things happen once then roll away into the past, leaving one marked and changed forever.” (Loc 3412) “Forbidden fruit has its brown spots, but these are not seen in the dusky glow of appetite.” (Loc 6953) “A look like a long conversation passed between them.” (Loc 9807)

My favorite occurred in these poetic thoughts regarding the British Empire’s dissolution.

When an empire dies, it dies like a cloudy day, without a visible moment of sunset. The demise is not announced on the radio, nor does one read of it in the morning paper. The British Empire had fatally depleted itself in the great if laggard repulse of Hitler, and the British people had long since willed the end of the Empire, by electing pacifist leaders to gut the military budgets. (Loc 1936)

Mr. Wouk performed exceptional research on the time period. I found many of his descriptions very realistic; at times, frighteningly so. At one point the author crafted a passage that depicted the scene from inside a gas chamber as the poison filled the air. He wrote it in such detail that I felt like I was in the room suffocating. It bothered me so, I can’t bring myself to quote it here.

I had two criticisms of War and Remembrance. One involved its scope. I read the digital version of its nearly 1400 pages. The inclusion of so many characters involved in so many events of the Second World War necessitated the book’s size. This segues into my other issue.

To hook readers, the author used an exceptional technique; perhaps too well. Mr. Wouk often concluded chapters by placing his characters in horrible situations. Of course, I wanted to know the outcomes. He would follow such scenes with several chapters concerning the other characters’ stories. Those would also leave off at their own harrowing endings.

I understand that a writer must keep his/her readers engaged. Because of the nature of the character’s peril, this became annoying at times. I don’t mind the “cliff hangers.” I do have a problem when I have to wait several hours to discover their resolutions.

Mr. Wouk did something extraordinary in War and Remembrance. In it, he crafted both a great sequel and a fantastic work of historical fiction. It’s difficult to do either of those things. This author did them in the same book. That’s why some have referred to him as “an American Tolstoy.” That’s quite an encomium for a Jewish kid from the Bronx who simply wanted to be a writer.

Drama Review – The Great White Hope by Harold Sackler

After suffering through the incoherent gibberish that passed for dialog in the Rocky movies, I never would’ve thought boxing as a good subject for drama. The late Howard Sackler proved otherwise. Perhaps, that’s because The Great White Hope isn’t really about boxing. In this masterpiece of the stage the playwright explored one man’s battles against society, racism and fundamentally, himself. A transcendent work resulted.

Based on a true story, the play told the tale of Jack Jefferson, an African-American prizefighter during the early twentieth century. The character flaunted the era’s cultural taboos with abandon. He defeated a white boxer, nicknamed “The White Hope”, for the title. He abandoned his common-law wife. He had a white girlfriend. His unorthodox behavior led authorities to frame him for a dubious crime. Mr. Jefferson’s exploits made for a most engaging read.

I liked the drama’s pace. Most award winning plays focus on the characters’ relationships. The Great White Hope contained much of that, but Mr. Sackler managed to work in a lot of action. Even during a press conference the playwright fit in multiple occurrences. After Mr. Jefferson’s controversial expressions to the media, his estranged wife, Clara, burst in and interrupted. During a party members of the temperance movement interfered. It seemed fitting that all this activity and conflict would appear in a show about boxing.

Mr. Sackler crafted genuine dialog. He did a nice job of adding some sports “trash talk” to the narrative.

Press One: You starting to get jumpy?

Jack: Yeah. I scared Brady gonna change his mind…

Smitty: So you think you can take him, Jack?

Jack: Well, I ain’t sayin’ I can take him straight off—an anyway, dat be kina mean, you know, all them people, big holiday fight—how they gonna feel I send ‘em home early? (Page 21)

Then Jack used a decidedly “modern” insult against his opponent.

Press Two: What about that yellow streak Brady talks about?

Jack: (Turns u. and flips up his robe.) Yeah, you wanna see it? (Page 21)             Jack spoke in a dialect. It corresponded with a man in his profession. It may assist some to read the dialog out loud. Sounding the words will make them more understandable than just reading the text.

A certain racial epithet appeared numerous times in the play. Because of the time period and the characters speaking, it fit the story. I would caution sensitive readers that it may offend them.

While I appreciated the author’s language usage in these cases, I found other places it could’ve improved. Part of the story occurred in Europe. Because of that in several scenes characters spoke in foreign languages. I understood the effect the playwright wanted, but would’ve preferred to follow the conversations instead.

The one aspect I thought Mr. Sackler could’ve improved concerned the fight scenes themselves. In the one at the end of the story, several people looking in from outside narrated the action. To be fair to the writer, it’s difficult to stage a multi-round fight during the course of a show. The method he chose did successfully move the story forward without dragging it.

Mr. Sackler also included some deft symbolism. The main fight occurred on the Fourth of July. While the playwright based the protagonist on the real-life boxer Jack Johnson, Jack Jefferson shared the surname of a beloved Founding Father. These traits showed that the boxing match held much more significance than a normal sporting contest.

I’m glad I went the distance and finished reading this play. After all, it was a knockout with the critics when it first appeared in 1969. It won both the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Its message still hits home today. For that, readers and audiences are the real champions.

Drama Review – Amadeus by Peter Shaffer

The term masterpiece often gets overused into banality in our society. Applying it to Amadeus would be underutilizing it. Fans of great drama and historical fiction can appreciate this offering on multiple levels. It included quirky characters, phenomenal conflict and an unparalleled story line.

Through Amadeus, Mr. Shaffer presented the story of Antonio Salieri: a bitter, selfish narcissist who would defy his God in order to achieve greatness. He manifested this quest through the destruction of an unwitting rival. Initially, this character lived a pious existence devoted to the Lord. I found Mr. Shaffer’s story a bit of a twist on the Faust legend. Instead of selling his soul to the devil, the composer consecrated his life to the Almighty. In return he expected his deity to make him the greatest musician of his day. I found this very interesting coming from a character who acknowledged and indulged in his own gluttony.

This sanctimonious bargain sustained Salieri until a prodigy named Mozart entered the scene. The latter character possessed crass and immature mannerisms; undignified traits for a composer. He also had an unparalleled gift for music. As Salieri himself noted upon listening to his work,

It seemed to me I had heard a voice of God—and that it issued from a creature whose own voice I had also heard—and it was the voice of an obscene child! (Page 28)

The Marquis de Sade created a character named Lord Gramwell. This individual sought to violate every social taboo society held. That’s pretty evil. Shaffer’s Salieri gave the ignoble noble a true run for his money. He pursued every conceivable act he could to eliminate his rival. His reason for doing so made him horrifying.

The title made this play an exceptional work of art. Not only did it share Mozart’s middle name it also referenced the traditional meaning of the word. Amadeus translates to “love of God.” Through original writing, the playwright wove this into the story’s main theme.

There are three types of conflict an author may pursue: person against person, person against nature or person against God. Mr. Shaffer chose the latter for this piece. Salieri expressed the following thoughts to conclude Act I.

When I return I’ll tell you about the war I fought with God through his preferred creature—Mozart named Amadeus. In the waging of which, of course, this Creature had to be destroyed. (Page 60)

Nice guy. It’s interesting that on the surface the play seemed to be a semi-autobiographical story about Mozart. Salieri’s conflict with God became the real focus of the drama.

The show’s resolution confused me a bit. In the end, Salieri regretted his eradication of Mozart. In spite of this, he still elevated himself above other people. Earlier in the play he explained the difference between his and his rival’s approaches to music. “We were both ordinary men he and I. Yet he from the ordinary created legends—and I from legends created only the ordinary.” (Page 83) At the end of the play he referred to himself as, “Antonio Salieri: Patron Saint of Mediocrities.” (Page 117) For his last line he commented, “Mediocrities everywhere—now and to come—I absolve you all. Amen!” (Page 118) Even when associating himself with “average” people, the composer needed to feel superior to them. His conferring upon himself the ability to forgive placed himself on the same level as a deity.

Salieri may not have achieved the greatness he craved, but Amadeus did. For Mr. Shaffer’s outstanding work, the play received the Tony Award Winner for Best Play in 1981. I read the playwright’s sixth version of Amadeus. No need for Salieri to absolve him. Even after the show’s very successful initial run the playwright continued revising it. He deserves tremendous credit for his continued commitment to making his work the best it could be. Mr. Shaffer didn’t destroy other plays or playwrights in the process, either.

Book Review – The Winds of War by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk woke me up to the concept of the epic American novel. The Winds of War traced a naval family’s experiences from the summer of 1939 through the Pearl Harbor attack. A magisterial work of historical fiction resulted.

In the process, Mr. Wouk created the most unique literary character I’ve ever encountered in Captain Victor Henry. In a way, he reminded me of Forrest Gump. The captain always seemed to find himself in the middle of many major historical events; at least the ones leading up to the Second World War. While he longed to command a battleship, the brewing “winds of war” swept him up into a fascinating series of positions. At the book’s beginning he received the post of US Naval Attaché in Berlin. Later he travelled to the UK where he “observed” a bombing raid on Berlin. Following that he received reassignment to Moscow during the German invasion. While serving in these varied locales, he met the war’s most influential figures including Hitler, Churchill and Stalin. Interestingly, of all the people he encountered, he only experienced nervousness prior to meeting Churchill.

Of course, Captain Henry’s interactions with FDR served as the sine qua non of the book. In fact, he first met this iconic historical figure during one of his first naval assignments. Here are the captain’s recollections of that encounter prior to meeting Roosevelt the President.

He was wondering whether the President would remember him, and hoped he wouldn’t. In 1918, as a very cocky Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt had crossed to Europe on a destroyer. The wardroom officers, including Ensign Henry, had snickered at the enormously tall, very handsome young man with the famous family name, who made a great show of using nautical terms and bounding up ladders like a seadog, while dressed in outlandish costumes that he kept changing. He was a charmer, the officers agreed, but a lightweight, almost a phony, spoiled by a rich man’s easy life. He wore pince-nez glasses in imitation of his great relative, President Teddy Roosevelt, and he also imitated his booming manly manner; but a prissy Harvard accent made this heartiness somewhat ridiculous. (Page 148)

The descriptions in this passage showed that the author performed significant research while writing this book. This attention to detail continued in the scenes describing the German invasion of Poland, the discussions over America’s support of the British prior to Pearl Harbor and the Nazi occupation of Russia.

In an acknowledgement to the time period, Mr. Wouk referenced the plight of Europe’s Jews. In the most disturbing quote in the book, a Jewish historian presented his thoughts on why Christians persecuted Jews.

“He’s a Jew’s Jesus,” said Jastrow. “That was my point.”

“Then tell me one thing,” said Rabinovitz. “These Europeans worship a poor murdered Jew, the young Talmud scholar you wrote about so well—to them he’s the Lord God—and yet they go right on murdering Jews. How does a historian explain that?”

In a comfortable, ironic, classroom tone, most incongruous in the circumstances, Jastrow replied, “Well, you must remember they’re still mostly Norse and Latin pagans at heart. They’ve always chafed under their Jewish Lord’s Talmudic morals, and possibly take out their irritation on his coreligionists.” (Page 818 – 819)

            The author related most of the story through the exploits of various Americans. He still cleverly fit the German perspective into the novel. Mr. Wouk created a fictitious book titled World Empire Lost written by a German general of his creation, Armin von Roon. He wove it into the narrative through Captain Henry’s postwar translation. He entered the German frame of mind through comments such as, “the one war crime is to lose” (Page 859) and “Churchill was a Hitler restrained by democracy.” (Page 247) He contrasted this with lines such as the following that Captain Henry delivered to FDR, “Mr. President, the quality of mercy is mightiest in the mightiest.” (Page 149)

The Winds of War ended following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Mr. Wouk resumed the Henry family saga in the sequel, War and Remembrance. With that acknowledgement, while I enjoyed the reading, I didn’t find the book strong enough to stand on its own. I’d classify it as more of an adventure story since I didn’t get a sense of the characters changing during the course of the story. I detected shades of submariner Byron Henry maturing at the end of the book, however, but not to the point it would justify concluding it.

I applaud the author for crafting a novel this complex and making it reasonably realistic. All of the major characters possessed involved story lines. These multifarious elements help explain why The Winds of War came in at close to 900 pages. While lengthy, I enjoyed the book so much it inspired me to read War and Remembrance. That tome contains close to 1500 pages. If that one’s as good as the first volume, I hope I still remember The Winds of War when I finish.  

 

Drama Review – Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss

Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade presented the most original take on the “play-within-a-play” concept that I’ve ever read. The fictitious historical drama described the events leading up to the bloodthirsty firebrand of the French Revolution’s assassination. One of literature’s more infamous writers penned the work. An asylum served as the setting. Should I even continue with this review? I’d be surprised if a number of readers haven’t logged off to find a copy of the book by now.

Mr. Weiss selected a rather verbose title. Most refer to The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade by the abbreviated Marat/Sade. While lengthy I give the playwright credit: the drama corresponded with what I expected from the label.

That’s where the ‘easy’ reading ended, however. As someone familiar with both the French Revolution and de Sade’s writing, I anticipated a philosophical take on the historical events surrounding this pivotal event in human history. Once again, the playwright didn’t disappoint. He presented a deep intellectual exploration of conditions during the Revolution in 1793 when the Marat story occurred. He then contrasted them to French life on the fifteenth anniversary of Marat’s murder when de Sade directed the play. Mr. Weiss cleverly inserted his own leftist views into the 1965 text, too. The Herald character noted:

The Revolution came and went

And unrest was replaced by discontent. (Page 26)

Four of the asylum’s patients followed this up with their thoughts.

Patient: We’ve got rights the right to starve

Patient: We’ve got jobs waiting for work

Patient: We’re all brothers lousy and dirty

Patient: We’re all free and equal to die like dogs (Page 26)

While I disagree with Mr. Weiss’ political leanings I respect his excellent use of subtext.

I didn’t read the play in the original German. Geoffrey Skelton’s English translation contained some outstanding usage of language.

I found Marat’s assassin’s–Charlotte Corday’s—view of her target expressed exceptionally well. In the following dialog she alluded to Marat’s medicinal baths where he wrote his invectives calling for more and more violence.

Corday (sleepily and hesitantly): Poor Marat in your bathtub

Your body soaked, saturated with poison

 (waking up)

Poison spurting from your hiding place

Poisoning the people

Arousing them to looting and murder. (Page 30)

I liked the interesting way of describing his venomous words.

Marat described his country’s upheaval in unflattering terms.

We stand here more oppressed than when we began

(Points across the auditorium)

And they think the Revolution’s been won. (Page 56)

Mr. Weiss’ used the character of the Marquis de Sade in amusing ways. Not only did he write and direct the play-within-the-play he also took part in it. Several times he interjected his own views on the subject; in some cases directly speaking to the Marat character. Sade opined the following on the killing of aristocrats.

Look at them Marat

These men who once owned everything

See how they turn their defeat into victory

Now that their pleasures have been taken away

The guillotine saves them from endless boredom

Gaily they offer their heads as if for coronation

Is that not the pinnacle of perversion (Page 41)

I enjoyed the touch of irony with the character’s use of that final word.

De Sade also explained his thoughts on public opinion to his protagonist.

Marat

Today they need you because you are going to suffer for them

They need you and they honor the urn which holds your ashes

Tomorrow they will come back and they will smash that urn

And they will ask

Marat who was Marat (Page 71)

While not expressed in the text, I wonder if those words hurt Marat more than Ms. Corday’s dagger.

I thought the playwright used exposition too liberally in the play. It opened with the asylum’s director (Coulmier) delivering a prologue. The character explained the setting, the date and the set-up as well as other aspects of the Marat/Sade show. Later in the drama, various characters from Marat’s past described various aspects of his personality during his formative years. While already familiar with the story of Marat’s assassination, I would’ve preferred the playwright interspersed these incidents into the narrative itself. A parade of characters coming on stage to talk about the main character stopped the story too abruptly for me.

I’d also encourage readers unfamiliar with Marat to learn about him before reading. Those lacking knowledge about his publication L’Ami du people, his murder by Charlotte Corday and his medicinal baths won’t understand the story. Some background in the Marquis de Sade’s political philosophy and writings would help in that regard, as well. Reading Marat/Sade with this context would give the play more impact as it’s cerebral instead of action driven.

Marat/Sade succeeded on multiple levels. It presented a philosophical take on political and social conditions in Revolutionary France with parallels to the modern era. The playwright framed them through the perceptions of two of history’s most notorious figures. It impressed me that he achieved all this using the play-within-a-play technique. I enjoyed reading and would welcome the opportunity to watch it performed. I won’t do either of those things from a bathtub, though.

Drama Review – Equus by Peter Shaffer

Equus contained the most unusual trifecta in the history of theatre. In this Tony Award winning play, Peter Shaffer combined these disparate themes: the merits of psychiatry, sexual repression and equine deification. This is just the short list of themes the playwright addressed. The drama certainly earned the litany of awards it received for creativity alone.

A real life event inspired the play. A friend of Mr. Schaffer’s related a story of a young man who blinded several horses. Without learning the actual reason for this bizarre crime, the playwright took creative license and delivered his own take using a similar though fictitious incident. Equus resulted.

I found the play very complex and recondite. It’s not a light-hearted yarn about horses, that’s for sure. It’s an exploration of Alan Strang’s mind as discovered through his psychiatrist, Martin Dysart. The doctor attempted to uncover the troubled teen’s motivations for his heinous crime. While doing so, Dysart also ruminated on his own profession’s capability to ‘help’ people by ‘curing’ them. As he observed, “Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created.” (Page 109) I told you this play had depth to it.

While I have yet to watch Equus performed on stage, the set-up described by the playwright intrigued me. He wrote:

All the cast of Equus sits on stage the entire evening. They get up to perform their scenes, and return when they are done to their places around the set. They are witnesses, assistants—and especially a Chorus. (Page 3)

I also liked how he directed that actors play the roles of horses. The use of people as opposed to props no doubt enhances the drama. Based on the religious references in the play I suspect he had a symbolic reason for that as well.

As I indicated earlier, Equus would perplex general readers due to its unusual story and theatrical staging. Because of these traits I found the play more symbolic than an actual telling of a story.

The dramatis personae seemed more like symbols than characters. (For more of my thoughts on this technique read my reviews of both the theatrical production and novel version of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.) Jill Mason served as the sole believable character in the drama. Mr. Shaffer crafted her as a flirtatious teenaged girl. Both Alan’s father’s hypocrisy and his mother’s religious fanaticism seemed contrived. Although he crafted the latter more measured than the former. I interpreted Alan as primarily source material for Dyson’s monologues. This made it very difficult for me to suspend my disbelief while reading the play.

I really despised the choice to open with the psychiatrist’s soliloquy. This struck me as cliché. I didn’t care for this type of beginning in John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God and I didn’t care for it in this story. (I should note that Equus premiered six years prior to the other show.) To be fair: the playwright presented a much wider take on Dyson’s views regarding Alan’s mental state throughout the drama. Of course, we writers know none of that matters if you lose the audience from the beginning.

I’ve heard of the horse whisperer, but the horse worshipper!? For this reason among others Equus wouldn’t appeal to all audiences. For those interested in an intricate psychological journey, it may be worth the read. All others would be better served cleaning a stable.

Drama Review – Lost in Yonkers by Neil Simon

Writing either comedy or tragedy challenges any playwright. Few possess the skill to pen either of these genres well. Rarer still are those dramatists with the proficiency to combine the two in the same work while concurrently creating compelling journeys for the characters. In his Pulitzer Prize winning masterwork, Lost in Yonkers, Neil Simon executed all these daunting feats.

The play delivered an original take on a “coming of age” story. While Jay’s and Arty’s mother suffered with terminal cancer their father, Eddie, accumulated a large debt to pay for her treatment. In order to pay it off, he accepted a job that required him to travel throughout the country. After some cajoling and begging he talked his mother, whom he rarely visited after his marriage, into taking his sons in his absence. Since the grandmother and Aunt Bella operated a candy store, this would seem like a boy’s dream. Grandma’s strict temperament made it otherwise. Their interaction with eccentric characters such as the mysterious Uncle Louie, Aunt Bella and Aunt Gert added to the play’s appeal.

Mr. Simon developed a unique ability to express humor in otherwise tragic circumstances. It’s one feature that set him apart from other playwrights. Eddie explained that the loan shark he borrowed the money from sent flowers to his wife’s funeral. He had the following witty take on his own situation. (All the ellipses appeared in the original text.)

Eddie: …There is no way I can pay this man back…So what’ll he do? Kill me?…Maybe …If he kills me, he not only loses his money, it’ll probably cost him again for the flowers for my funeral. (Page 23)

I also liked the amusing way Eddie explained how he got into financial trouble.

Eddie: …I couldn’t go to a bank because they don’t let you put up heartache and pain as collateral…You know what collateral is, Arty?…You have to give them something to hold that’s worth eleven dollars…That’s for their interest…A Shylock doesn’t need collateral…His  collateral is your desperation…So he gives you his money…And he’s got a clock. And when you get your money, the clock starts…And what it keeps time of is your promise…If you keep your promise, he turns off the clock…and if not, it keeps ticking…and after a while, your heart starts ticking louder than his clock…” (Page 22)

As with Brighton Beach Memoirs, Lost in Yonkers contained an emotional confrontation scene towards the end of the play. During an argument with Grandma, Bella angrily asserted that she envied her two deceased siblings. In the denouement from this exchange, Grandma reached a painful moment of self-realization.

Bella: I’m sorry, Momma…I didn’t mean to hurt you.

Grandma: Yes. You do…It’s my punishment for being alive…for not surviving my own children…Not dying before them is my sin…” (Page 113)

Grandma expressed quite a revealing statement here. Throughout the play she conducted herself as a rather unemotional person. Earlier she delivered the following thoughts on Eddie to his children: “Your father vants you to grow up, first let him grow up.” (Page 36)

While the comedic quips in Lost in Yonkers stood out the most, Mr. Simon added much more depth to the story than that would suggest. In spite of the tragedies and traumas affecting all of the characters’ lives, they all became better people by the end. It takes a very special playwright to fuse all these disparate elements into the same piece. It’s difficult to laugh at the playwright for that achievement.

Drama Review – The Humans by Stephen Karam

All those dreading Thanksgiving dinner with relatives should be thankful they’re not spending it with the Blake family. Stephen Karam presented readers the opportunity to sit in on this dysfunctional household’s holiday celebration in this 2016 Tony Award winner for best play: The Humans.

Due to the way this family presented themselves, several times I had to refer back to the title to clarify that I was reading about people. The Humans originated from Richard’s recollection of a sci-fi comic book he read as a child. In it the monsters told scary stories to each other. While Earthlings prefer to tell horrific accounts regarding monsters, these creatures frightened each other by telling tales about humans. After reading this play, I wouldn’t be surprised if this abnormal Blake family Thanksgiving dinner wasn’t among them.

The playwright constructed this piece brilliantly. He managed to translate normal patterns of speech and conversation to the page better than any I’d ever read. In the opening notes, Mr. Karam explained that the “/” in the text signified that the character with the next line of dialog began his/her speech at that point. This caused characters to interrupt and speak over one another quite often. With the nature of the conversations this made the discussions very believable.

I always look for non-verbal communication whenever I review a play. I liked how this playwright gave actors plenty of opportunities to exhibit their skills on the stage. Any dialog he bracketed by the symbols “[ ]” meant that the performer would express that line non-verbally. Here an example that would challenge any thespian:

Dierdre: Anything I say makes her [annoyed]… (Page 56)

This one is rather difficult as well.

Brigid: Ahhh….[will we make it through dinner?] Page 63

I’d like the opportunity to watch someone try and animate this line.

Erik: …coupla nights I’ve had this [recurring dream]…there’ll be a woman… Page 74

Mr. Karam also utilized this device to add tension to the narrative. Here are some fantastic examples.

Richard: What?

Erik: …[no, nothing important] Page 41

And

Erik: (Smiling, to Brigid) [Man you’re a piece of work.] Page 55

Here’s an exchange following Deidre’s comment about trying to maintain her diet during the holidays.

Brigid: Especially if you eat a bucket of ranch dip before dinner.

Aimee: [Don’t say stuff like that…] (Page 95)

The animosity expressed between Brigid and Aimee enhanced the subtext. Here’s another superb instance.

Aimee: (to Brigid) [Why are you being such a bitch?] (Page 99)

Towards the end of the play, Erik delivered the line that best summed up the narrative.

Erik: Hey, sorry this was…[a total fucking nightmare]…(Erik goes to embrace Deirdre.) (Page 139)

As one can guess from the examples cited, a lot of hostility flowed beneath the surface at this holiday meal. Mr. Karam’s inclusion of quirky characters struggling with both external and internal conflicts enhanced the stress. In the process of losing her job while failing to cope with her soul mate’s breaking-up with her, Aimee’s ulceritic colitis flared up at dinner. Her sister Brigid recently realized that her life’s sole professional ambition was about to elude her. Their grandmother “Momo” Blake’s progressive dementia rendered her more rambling and incoherent. Their parents, Erik and Deirdre, struggled with some underlying difficulties of their own. Brigid’s boyfriend Richard, twelve years her senior at the age of 38, provided the outsider’s view of this family.

With all this drama within the drama, The Humans would seem like a very difficult work to read. The playwright’s skillful dialog and clever insertions of humor at the right times made it readable. I found the play very interesting, entertaining and difficult to put down. Part of the latter may have been an interest in seeing the magnitude of the impending “train wreck.” To be fair to the author: he penned a very engaging and well-written work for the stage.

Mr. Karam added some excellent lyrical passages to the text. The most memorable included:

Erik: (To Brigid who is still angry with him.) Hey, hey. I don’t want to see you bent outta shape over something you can fix. / The Blakes bounce back, that’s what we do. (Page 110)

I thought it clever how Brigid cut Eric off when he reached the part about the “Blakes bouncing back.”

Richard: I got to reboot my life. It was good…

Erik: I dunno. Doing life twice seems like the only thing worse than doing it once. (Page 113)

While these quotes reflected negativity, the author did include a somewhat positive observation. It’s a line that would apply to anyone in pursuit of a dream. Here’s Erik’s sound advice to Brigid.

Erik: -you’re lucky to have a passion to pursue, if you don’t care about it enough to push through this setback you should quit and do something else… (Page 109)

As Thanksgiving approaches I’m sure some readers are dreading sharing the table with someone (s)he doesn’t like. I’d advise such people to read The Humans beforehand just to understand the situation could be much, much worse. For those interested in exceptional drama, this play is a phenomenal read. Those not anxious about the upcoming holiday may want to wait until after Thanksgiving to peruse it, though. The writing made the play so realistic it could cause sensitive readers to lose their appetites.

Drama Review – The Goat, or Who is Sylvia by Edward Albee

“Something can happen that’s outside the rules, that doesn’t relate to the way The Game is Played.” (Location 1078) That one line serves as a good synopsis of Edward Albee’s Tony Award winning play, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Imagine, if you will, Martin’s wife Stevie discovering that her husband had been unfaithful. While marital infidelity would be an appropriate topic for a tragedy, the playwright opted to take the drama much further. The object of Martin’s affections wasn’t another woman; or even another man, for that matter. Instead, Martin had fallen for…well, let me allow him to describe his feelings.

(Slow; deliberate) “And what I felt was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It was so…amazing. There she was.” (Location 1496)

…She was looking at me with those eyes of hers and…I melted, I think. I think that’s what I did: I melted. (Location 1507)

I’d never seen such an expression. It was pure…and trusting and…and innocent; so…so guileless. (Location 1507)

Mr. Albee used this play as a vehicle for exploring social taboos. I only wish he’d chosen a less taboo subject with which to do so. The above lines came from Martin’s confession to Stevie that he’d fallen in love with a (ugh) goat.

In spite of the unorthodox nature of the story, the playwright managed to work in some humor. Here’s another exchange between Martin and Stevie. In this one Martin explained his (ugh) attraction to Sylvia.

Martin: …that she and I were…(Softly; embarrassed) that she and I were going to go to bed together.

Stevie: To stall together! To hay! Not to bed. (Location 1607)

The playwright added another complexion to this situation. He made the couple’s son Billy a homosexual. At one point he told his father:

…you’ve figured out that raising a kid does not include making him into a carbon copy of you, that you’re letting me think you’re putting up with me being gay far better than you probably are. (Location 1879) 

This enhanced the drama in that Martin didn’t feel totally comfortable with his son’s sexuality. This at the same time he pursued a (ugh) physical relationship with a goat.

In the text Martin noted, “So that’s what it comes down to, eh?…what we can get away with?” (Location 2060) Mr. Albee could’ve described the play itself with these words. While a very unorthodox work, even based on what I’d expect from Edward Albee, I enjoyed reading it. As I suspect many readers would, I found the situation bizarre. The playwright still crafted believable dialog. His deft interjections of humor helped make the unsettling topic a little easier to handle. It took a very gifted playwright to accomplish all this.

Obviously, this drama won’t appeal to all readers or theatregoers. I still applaud Mr. Albee for daring audiences to open their minds and to challenge social conventions. That’s what only the very best writers achieve through their work.

 

Book Review – Death etc. by Harold Pinter

Some time ago I had a discussion regarding Harold Pinter with my writing partner. We got talking about his 2005 Nobel Lecture. I explained how the playwright devoted half the speech to his vitriolic hatred of the leaders of the United States and Great Britain; the then on-going war in Iraq germinating much of this animosity. At times I believed Mr. Pinter became unhinged in his excoriation of Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair. My writing partner suggested that since he did suffer from terminal cancer at the time, he may not have felt any reason to restrain himself. Death etc. left me with the impression his remarks to the Swedish Academy reflected an ordinary conversation with Mr. Pinter.

Death etc contained a diverse sampling of the playwright’s later works. It included several poems, a number of speeches and some of his shorter dramas. As a fan of his plays, I enjoyed the diverse sampling of his writing.

I’ve read Pinter’s Collected Works volumes one through four. The latter ended at 1981. I liked that this book included his later dramas Mountain Language, The New World Order, One for the Road, Press Conference, and Ashes to Ashes.

The plays provided a solid sampling of Pinter’s unique gift for language. In One for the Road he included the expression, “Your soul shines out of your eyes.” (Location 492)

In my review of Betrayal I commented on Pinter’s minimalist use of language. The following passage from One for the Road made the wording in that play seem like something out of a thesaurus.

Nicolas: When did you meet your husband?

Gila: When I was eighteen.

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: Why?

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: I just met him.

Nicolas: Why?

Gila: I didn’t plan it.

Nicolas: Why not?

Gila: I didn’t know him.

Nicolas: Why not?

(Pause.)

Nicolas: (Continued.) Why not?

Gila: I didn’t know him.

Nicolas: Why not?

Gila: I met him. (Location 529)

I mentioned in my opening that Mr. Pinter vocally criticized both the US and the UK for their roles in the Iraq War. His dissatisfaction with their respective policies towards that country began long before then. He expatiated on his anger in Death etc. Here’s an excerpt from “An Open Letter to the Prime Minister” written five years prior to the conflict. He wrote:

Dear Prime Minister (Tony Blair):

We have been reminded often over the last few weeks of Saddam Hussein’s appalling record in the field of human rights. It is indeed appalling: brutal, pathological. But I thought you might be interested to scrutinize the record of your ally, the United States, in a somewhat wider context. I am not at all certain that your advisors will have kept you fully informed.

The United States has supported, subsidized, and, in a number of cases, engendered every right-wing military dictatorship in the world since 1945. I refer to Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, Greece, Uruguay, the Philippines, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey and El Salvador, for example. Hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered by these regimes, but the money, the resources, the equipment (all kinds), the advice, the moral support, as it were, has come from successive US administrations. (Location 719)

I felt his observations would’ve had more resonance if he placed them against the appropriate back-drop of the Cold War. Nonetheless, I accept the old libertarian adage that, “Freedom is your freedom to disagree with me.” I also respect the author for the strength of his convictions.

While Mr. Pinter’s political views may offend some readers, his poetry will, no doubt, turn off others. I thought his verse rather cross and graphic. Here’s a stanza from 1997’s “Death.”

Did you wash the dead body

Did you close both its eyes

Did you bury the dead body

Did you leave it abandoned

Did you kiss the dead body (Location 1339)

The playwright also quoted this poem during his Nobel Lecture.

Mr. Pinter held strong left-of-center political positions. He also didn’t show reticence or restraint when he expressed them. For that reason, Death etc would best be enjoyed by hard-core Harold Pinter fans. I’d advise those with a modest interest in his plays read the four volume Collected Works.

In The Press Conference, Pinter wrote, “He that is lost is found.” (Location 704) That expression summarized his view of political philosophy. While I disagree with his harsh condemnation of the free world’s policies, individuals like Mr. Pinter show us that our leaders and existing orthodoxy should always be challenged.