Book Reviews

Drama Review – Three Tall Women by Edward Albee

It’s never easy to write a show with four characters with three being the same person. Edward Albee did so. After crafting such memorable shows as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? and Seascape he added the extraordinary Three Tall Women to his catalog. It provided the perfect vehicle for the playwright to exhibit the range of his genius. In addition to the creativity involved in the concept, he crafted a moving meditation on the physical and psychological effects of the aging process.

The play contained three main characters. The playwright chose not to name them; settling instead for the appellations A, B and C. It turned out that each character played the same “tall” woman at different points in her life. A was an old woman in her nineties. In the list of characters, Mr. Albee described B as “looks rather as A would have at 52; plainly dressed.” C “looks rather as B would have at 26.”

The drama commenced with A on the verge of death. The three characters discussed the key events from her life and how they led to this conclusion. The disparity in their views concretized the ways people evaluate the same events at different points in their lives.

The author animated this point very well. I especially enjoyed the exchanges between A and C on pages 104 and 105. Both admitted to each other, “I don’t like you.” I found that very interesting for two characters that were, in essence, the same person.

I liked how the author worked A’s difficulty remembering things into the story. With the way the narrative progressed I wondered if the character lacked this ability intentionally. With some of the unpleasant events that occurred during her life I could understand why. A good example took place when B expressed hatred for her own son.

(Rage) He left! He packed up his attitudes and he left! And I never want to see him again. (To him) Go away!! (Angry, humiliated, tears.) (Page 92)

I found the portion where C discussed their future husband with characters A and B the most interesting section of the play. The playwright made C a young lady of 26 years. A and B informed her that she married at 28. The characters derisively described the spouse as “little and he’s funny looking—a little like a penguin.” (Page 82) B even called him, “The little one; the little one-eyed man?” (Page 79) She added that they went on to spend forty years with one man: “more or less.” (Page 79) Under C’s questioning, she acknowledged a torrid affair during the marriage. I enjoyed how C became disgusted by the description of the husband along with her (future) behavior towards him. Of course, we know that she’s the character who went on to marry and cheat on him shortly afterwards.

I did have some issues with the dialog. I found a lot of it repetitious. I can understand that since all three characters played, in essence, the same person the playwright would choose to show that by having the individuals speak in similar ways. It did get a little tedious to read after a while.

Characters B and C also recited a line made famous by Kurt Vonnegut. They both used the expression, “And so it goes.” It really grabbed my attention. I didn’t understand if the Mr. Albee deliberately referenced Vonnegut or if he had a meaning more endemic to the play in citing him. I would’ve appreciated a clarification.

On an episode of The Simpsons, Marge told Lisa, “You could write a depressing Broadway play. It could be about people coming to terms with things.” That would serve as a good general synopsis of Three Tall Women. While a very cerebral and unhappy story, it’s still an extraordinary exploration of aging and its effects on the human psyche. If you don’t believe me, and you’re young enough, try reading it when you’re 26, 52 and 91.

Drama Review – How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel

During an interview playwright Paula Vogel expressed her debt to Vladimir Nabokov. His Lolita inspired her to craft a similar story written from the Lolita character’s point-of-view. The superb play How I Learned to Drive resulted.

I found the play’s structure outstanding. The author instructed that during the show a voice over recite messages as though coming from a driver’s education film. These included expressions such as, “Safety first – You and Driver education” (Page 9), “Shifting Forward from First to Second Gear” (Page 16) and “You and the Reverse Gear.” (Page 45) The playwright cleverly inserted these messages into places where they corresponded with the scene. As disturbing as I found the one on “Implied Consent” (Page 44), the following expressed the most troubling message.

Before You Drive.

Always check under your car for obstructions – broken bottles, fallen tree branches, and the bodies of small children. Each year hundreds of children are crushed beneath the wheels of unwary drivers in their own driveways. Children depend on you to watch them. (Page 32)

No play would be presentable without the addition of quirky and memorable characters. How I Learned to Drive didn’t lack any. This family had a very unique tradition. As the protagonist, Li’l Bit explained.

In most families relatives get names like “Junior” or “Brother” or “Bubba.” In my family if we call someone “Big Papa,” it’s not because he’s tall. In my family, folks tend to get nicknamed for their genitalia. Uncle Peck, for example. (Page 12)

The playwright provided great insights into Uncle Peck’s character through his behavior. As he taught Li’l Bit to drive, the occasions became a metaphor for their illicit relationship. He took Li’l Bit out for oysters and cocktails after she passed the driving test. (Page 17) When she was 13, he had her do a sensual photo shoot for him. He told her:

Peck:…You’re doing great work. If we keep this up, in five years we’ll have a really professional portfolio. (Li’l Bit stops.)

Li’l Bit: What do you mean in five years?

Peck: You can’t submit work to Playboy until you’re eighteen. — (Peck continues to shoot; he knows he’s made a mistake.)

Li’l Bit: –Wait a minute. You’re joking, aren’t you, Uncle Peck?

Peck: Heck, no. You can’t get into Playboy unless you’re the very best. And you are the very best. (Page 43)

It seemed very eerie to me that an adolescent girl would still address a man as “uncle” when he talked about sending erotic photos of her to a men’s magazine. I credit the playwright for crafting this scene so well. It gave readers an insight into Uncle Peck’s true nature.

But this was just warm-up depravity for Uncle Peck. He had more despicable conduct to commit. In the play’s most dramatic scene, Li’l Bit expressed her disgust in the following exchange.

Peck: — They were gifts! I just wanted to give you some little perks for your first semester—

Li’l Bit: –Well what the hell were those numbers all about! Forty-four days to go—only two more weeks.—And then just numbers –69—68—67—like some serial killer!

Peck: Li’l Bit! Whoa! This is me you’re talking to—I was just trying to pick-up your spirits, trying to celebrate your birthday.

Li’l Bit: My eighteenth birthday. I’m not a child, Uncle Peck. You were counting down to my eighteenth birthday.

Peck: So?

Lil’ Bit: So? So statutory rape is not in effect when a young woman turns eighteen. And you and I both know it. (Page 49)

The playwright added another distressing bit of realism to this story, too. In the end, Aunt Mary blamed the teenaged Li’l Bit for seducing her husband. It’s always terrible when a victim gets blamed for the crime committed against her. It’s even more awful when that sufferer is a child.

While the nature of the story made for a somber read, the playwright managed to work in some fantastic humor. My favorite occurred when Li’l Bit shared a “Mary Jane joke” with another character.

“Little Mary Jane was walking through the woods, when all of a sudden this man who was hiding behind a tree jumps out, rips open Mary Jane’s blouse, and plunges his hands on her breasts. And little Mary Jane just laughed and laughed because she knew her money was in her shoes.” (Page 37)

For Ms. Vogel’s extraordinary work, How I Learned to Drive received the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for drama. To those not familiar with it, I’d encourage these people to get in their cars. Adjust the seat. Fasten the seatbelt. Then check the right side mirror – check the left side. Finally, adjust the rearview mirror. And then—floor it to your nearest theater or bookstore.

God of Carnage by Yasmin Reza Translated by Christopher Hampton

With God of Carnage, Yasmin Reza put the drama into drama. The playwright utilized the perfect formula to do so. First, she created four quirky characters who didn’t like each other very much. Then she placed them in a confined space. To enhance the set-up she added a story spark that would lead to conflict among them. One enteraining and disconcerting play resulted.

I first have to credit the playwright for the pace. At first God of Carnage began as a civil discussion between two sets of parents. The Novak’s 11 year-old son hit the other family’s child in the mouth with a stick. The latter lost two teeth over the incident. These children’s fathers and mothers opted to have a diplomatic meeting regarding the matter. They began by calmly discussing how best to rectify the situation. As the evening progressed, their personalities became the main obstacles to reaching an understanding.

In the course of evaluating the situation the grown-ups exhibited some issues of their own. Alan, the father of the attacking boy, happened to work as an attorney. Interesting enough, he mentioned having to leave town the next day for the International Criminal Court. He represented the pharmaceutical industry in a different matter. The child’s mother, Annette suffered from a nervous stomach and, dare I write, enjoyed a bit of a nip on occasion.

Tolstoy opened Anna Karenina with the immortal line about every unhappy family being unique. That description would well-suit the Novaks. Michael worked an “ordinary job” and harbored dark thoughts regarding family life. Veronica earned a living by “writing” primarily regarding injustice in Africa. A bit of an elitist, she took her children to concerts and introduced them to art. She told her guests, “We’re eccentric enough to believe in the soothing powers of culture!” (Page 14) Ms Reza used the remainder of the play to show that naïve would’ve been a better word than eccentric.

This dialog occurred a little over ten pages into my version of the book. At that point in the reading I knew: the train wreck’s coming; a really, really nasty one.

I found God of Carnage an outstanding theatrical work. I would strongly encourage people to either read it or watch it performed. Because of that I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s enjoyment by giving away spoilers. I would mention how brilliantly the playwright crafted the Alan character. I loved how he became progressively more wedded to his cell phone as the play progressed. In the midst of serious discussions about the children, he repeatedly broke off from the conversation to discuss a business matter with colleagues. The way he dropped the f-bomb in front of everyone during one of the conversations was priceless.

The author showed extraordinary skill at foreshadowing…and displaying hypocrisy. Early in the evening Anette told the Novaks: “We can’t get involved in our children’s quarrels.” (Page 15) Very, very shortly thereafter she changed her view. It turned out the other child verbally offended her son prior to the altercation.

Annette:…(embarrassed pause.) Something occurred to me in the bathroom…

Veronica: Yes?

Annette: Perhaps we skated too hastily over…I mean…What I mean is…

Michael: Say it, Annette, say it.

Annette: An insult is a kind of assault.

Michael: Of course it is.

Veronica: Well, that depends, Michael.

Michael: Yes. It depends.

Annette: Benjamin’s never shown any signs of violence. He wouldn’t have done that without a reason.

Alan: He got called a snitch! (Pages 23 – 24)

At this point the action degenerated into Lord of the Flies with a grown-up cast. While I found the play very amusing, Ms. Reza earned credit for her trenchant depiction of human nature at its worst. During one of his numerous cell phone conversations, Alan told his wife, “Annette, right now I’m risking my most important client so this responsible parent routine…” (Page 20)

Keep in mind all this occurred PRIOR to the couples passing around the bottle of rum. Not the best idea at this point, but, after all, these weren’t the most responsible people. The alcohol really allowed the characters to release their inhibitions.

Michael: What I always say is, marriage: the most terrible ordeal God can inflict on you.

Annette: Great.

Michael: Marriage, and children. (Page 32)

Now, Michael could have stopped there, but no. He decided to elucidate his point even further.

Children consume our lives and then destroy them. Children drag us toward disaster; it’s unavoidable. When you see those laughing couples casting off into the sea of matrimony, you say to yourself, they have no idea, poor things, they just have no idea, they’re happy. No one tells you anything when you start out. I have an old school buddy who’s just about to have a child with his new girlfriend. I said to him, a child, at our age, are you insane? The ten or twelve good years we have left before cancer or a stroke, and you’re going to screw yourself up with some brat? (Page 33)

Not to be outdone, Alan shared his own enlightening view of the human condition with the group.

They’re young, they’re kids. Kids have always given each other a good beating during recess…I believe in the god of carnage. He has ruled, uninterruptedly, since the dawn of time. (Page 35)

Many adjectives could describe God of Carnage, entertaining would serve as my first choice. It did have a much more serious side to it. Ms. Reza used a school yard fight as a catalyst for a disturbing journey into the basest aspects of human nature. It’s one of those stories readers can enjoy for the simple reason they can close the book and walk away from the madness. They also don’t need to worry about the Novaks or Raleighs ever watching their kids.

Drama Review – The Flick by Annie Baker

What cinematic aficionado doesn’t long for the days when film was just that: film? Playwright Annie Baker crafted a semi-humorous take on the subject. The Flick told the story the end of an era. Avery, Sam and Rose worked in one of the last 35mm movie theaters in Worcester County, Massachusetts. They struggled to cope with an abusive boss, changing times and even each other. A charming dramatic work resulted.

The playwright selected an excellent array of characters to tell the tale. Ms. Baker made Sam a disgruntled 35 year old theater employee with a secret. The free-spirited Rose worked the old projector. Avery served as the newcomer to the group. This character wasn’t “into” movies: he “loved” the movies. (Page 12) In fact, when Sam challenged his with a host of “six degrees of separation” games, he solved them all; sometimes in less than six degrees. With that passion for cinema, a reader would suspect he’d fit right into this ensemble. Not so.

This play contained outstanding conflict. Sam and Rose informed Avery that they skimmed money from the box office. They gave this theft the more benign appellation “dinner money.” Due to the scant wages they made, these funds would help them afford meals. They expressed their expectation he would take his cut. Avery battled his own aversion to a changing society manifested through his affection for old style movie making; even calling digital film “immoral.” When a new owner purchased the theater, he wrote a letter imploring him to retain the 35mm projector. Sam felt he’d been passed over for promotion too often. I enjoyed reading how the characters coped, or didn’t, with these issues.

In addition to the drama, the playwright included a sold dose of comedy. While cleaning the theater Sam complained about all the outside food people would bring in and leave there. While visiting family out of state he caught himself doing same thing. He later lamented his hypocrisy to Avery.

I’m that douchebag who brings in random weird ethnic food into a movie theater and then forgets about it and leaves it there!

I am my own worst nightmare! (Page 73)

Ms. Baker resolved this complex story rather well. The playwright brought the points of the “dinner money”, the references to Pulp Fiction and the debate over a digital versus 35mm project to proper resolutions. It surprised me that she managed it so well.

I’ve read some criticism of the play regarding banal dialog and the characters performing too much “sweeping.” I found both appropriate for the story and characters. Both Sam and Avery enjoyed movies. The discussions allowed Avery to demonstrate his passion for them. Plus, the two men performed custodial work at a movie theater; the latter serving as the lone set in the show. Other than sitting in the seats and talking, what else could they have been doing?

The Flick entertained on both a humorous and dramatic level. It takes an extraordinary playwright to balance the two while keeping the overall narrative cohesive. For Ms. Baker’s efforts, this work received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s well worth a read. Don’t wait for the movie.

Drama Review – All the Way by Robert Schenkkan

What Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln did for film, Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way did for the theatre. Both works followed the journeys of American Chief Executives in the quest to pass revolutionary civil rights legislation. Mr. Schenkkan selected a much more controversial public servant for his story. While today Lyndon Baines Johnson takes the majority of blame for escalating the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam Conflict, the playwright chose to focus on the pinnacle of his domestic achievements: the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

As the child of a Vietnam Veteran, I grew up exposed to a negative take on America’s 36th President. Robert A. Caro’s four-volume (to date) biography of Johnson introduced me to his myriad complexities as both a politician and a person. I read Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award winning play All the Way curious to discover his take on the nation’s most significant post-war leader. It didn’t disappoint.

This biographical work explored Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first year as the nation’s chief executive. It encompassed his first moments in the Presidency following the Kennedy assassination through his election to the office in 1964. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill served as the main story line. The play contained myriad conflict. It illustrated Johnson’s superb managing of civil rights leaders, his subordinates and reactionary Southern Democrats to get the proposal enacted into law. This made for a very engaging and tense read.

The playwright clearly performed his research. I found the portrayal of his protagonist accurate. Several times I felt like I was sharing a drink with the former President at the Johnson Ranch. I could envision LBJ saying things such as, “You can tell that Liberal crowd of yours, I’m gonna out-Roosevelt Roosevelt and out-Lincoln Lincoln!” (Location 523) and “’Politics is war by other means.’ Bullshit. Politics is war…You’re not running for office. You’re running for your life. You’re trying to cheat death.” (Location 1729)

The rattlesnake story sounded like vintage Johnson, too.

Knew a good ole boy once, caught a rattlesnake bare-handed on a dare. Stood there with that big ole thing wrapped around his arm, head snapping this way and that, with this stupid look on his face, saying “Wow! It’s a whole lot easier to catch one of these critters than it is to let it go.” (Location 605)

In Caro’s biography he quoted one person as saying, “Some people read books. Johnson read men.” Mr. Schenkkan incorporated this uncanny understanding of human nature in the drama. Here’s the President’s assessment of Senate Minority Leader Republican Everett Dirksen as told to the Floor Manager of the Civil Rights Bill: Senator Hubert Humphrey.

Let me tell you about Senator Everett Dirksen. That man is in love with himself; in love with his voice. Did you know that every day he gargles with warm water and Pond’s beauty cream? I shit you not. Now, a man like that wants one thing—he wants to be a “Great Man.” And you’re gonna give him every opportunity to do just that. Every chance you get, you praise Dirksen, you thank Dirksen. You’re gonna kiss his ass so much, he won’t be able to sit down. He wants the spotlight? Give it to him. Six months from now, all anybody will remember is that the Democratic Party passed a historic civil rights bill. (Location 1324)

The author included several famous figures among the characters; FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover among them. I enjoyed the following exchange between him and LBJ. It took place following a male Presidential aide’s arrest for lewd behavior with another man. As the scandal occurred so close to the election, Johnson worried it would impact him at the polls.

LBJ: CLEAN UP YOUR MESS! I worked with that man for twenty-five years. Not a clue. (A threat.) How do you know when somebody’s that way?

J. Edgar Hoover: Well, well, there are certain signs; mannerisms. The way a man dresses or combs his hair. Or walks kind of funny.

LBJ: News to me. I’m not questioning you; I’m sure you’d know—In your line of work, I mean. Take care of this. (Location 2707)           

LBJ noted during the play: “What’s the point of bein’ President if you can’t do what you know is right?” (Location 1414) Later he added, “People think I want great power, but what I want is great solace; a little love. That’s all I want.” (Location 2433) Abraham Lincoln once commented that upon serving in the Presidency he found only “ashes and blood.” After reading All the Way, the same could be said for Lyndon Baines Johnson. Instead of adapting LBJ’s 1964 campaign slogan for the play’s title, a version of the Chinese curse “may you get what you wish for” may have been more appropriate.

Drama Review – Ruined by Lynn Nottage

You will not fight your battles on my body anymore. (Location 1906)

Lynn Nottage captured the horrific nature of war in her 2007 masterpiece Ruined. This drama elucidated the true tragedy of armed conflict by exploring its effects on civilians. This story focused on how women became its true victims during a civil war in the Congo. It explored the aftereffects of sexual assault as a weapon and its subsequent relation to social taboos. A disturbing yet unforgettable theatrical opus resulted.

I’d classify Ruined as one of those rare works of art which contained both an extraordinary setting along with compelling characters. In addition, they complimented each other very well. The drama took place at a brothel located in a small mining town in the Congo. The playwright made the woman running this establishment, Mama Nadi, a well-developed character. She protected ‘her girls’ while running the ‘business’. In the course of doing so, she balanced the careful accommodation of rebel soldiers as well as those fighting for the government. I liked how with some charm she corrected Sophie upon their introduction.

Sophie: Madam.

Mama: (Defensively) It’s “Mademoiselle.” (Location 371)

While the author made all the characters believable, I found Sophie and Salima the most remarkable. Both women had been victims of repeated sexual assaults by soldiers. Sophie’s uncle described her as physically “ruined” from her recurrent attacks. Salima’s assaults ruined her as well, but in the sense that they made her a social pariah. She delivered this heartbreaking description of her husband’s reaction to her brutalization.

He called me a filthy dog, and said I tempted them. Why else would it happen? Five months in the bush passed between the soldiers like a wash rag. Used. I was made poison by their fingers, that is what he said. He had no choice but to turn away from me, because I dishonored him. (Location 1382)

Her outcast status forced Salima to find work in the only field open to people in her situation. Later in the story her husband appeared at the brothel looking for her. She added the following thoughts on what brought her life to this point:

I walked into the family compound expecting wide open arms. An embrace. Five months, suffering. I suffered every single second of it. And my family gave me the back of their heads. And he, the man I loved since I was fourteen, chased me away with a green switch. He beat my ankles raw. And I dishonored him? Where was he? Buying a pot? He was too proud to bear my shame…but not proud enough to protect me from it. Let him sit in the rain. (Location 1428)

The fact these assaults forced victims into lives of prostitution made Ruined even more tragic. Mama Nadi delivered a somewhat ironic response to this occurrence.

You men kill me. You come in here, drink your beer, take your pleasure, and then wanna judge the way I run my “business.” The front door swings both ways. I don’t force anyone’s hand. My girls, Emilene, Mazima, Josephine, ask them, they’d rather be here, than back out there in their villages where they are taken without regard. They’re safer with me than in their own homes, because this country is picked clean, while men, poets like you, drink beer, eat nuts and look for some place to disappear. And I am without mercy, is that what you’re saying? Because I give them something other than a beggar’s cup. (Location 1731)

The civil war raging in the background added to the play’s tension. One of the characters assessed it as such.

The man I shake hands with is my enemy by sundown. And why? His whims. Because?! His witch doctor says I’m the enemy. I don’t know whose hand to grease other than the one directly in front of me. At least I understood Mobutu’s brand of chaos. Now, I’m a relative beginner, I must relearn the terms every few months, and make new friends, but who? It’s difficult to say, so I must befriend everybody and nobody. And it’s utterly exhausting. (Location 1784)

“…What those men did to me lives inside of my body. Every step I take I feel them in me. Punishing me. And it will be that way for the rest of my life.” (Location 695) It’s difficult to comprehend the magnitude of trauma inflicted on women in war zones. Thanks to Lynn Nottage, the world community possesses a keener awareness because of Ruined.

 

Drama Review – Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris

Through Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris delved into the deceptively complex nuances that comprise discrimination. To elucidate this uncomfortable theme he divided the play into two acts: the first occurred in late 1959 and the second too place during the modern era. He utilized housing as a framework to explore the topic. A difficult, although enlightening, work resulted.

I found Clybourne Park a very challenging read, and not simply due to the subject matter. The first act was fairly straight-forward in terms of the story and theme. Mr. Norris did add a bit of twist by alluding to the couple’s son’s situation. While this portion of the play came across as rather facile to follow, the playwright introduced a bit of intricacy through the following quote:

Karl: Now, Russ, you know as well as I do that this is a progressive community. (Location 1385)

The second act confused me a bit. I found the theme much more difficult to comprehend. The more I reflected on the narrative I thought that may have been the playwright’s purpose. In the modern era themes of racism and discrimination aren’t as blatant as they were prior to the Civil Rights Movement. While a clever method of approaching the subject, it took me a while to follow the drama’s direction.

I also thought the explanation of the meeting in Act II took place too late in the story. Lindsey commented, “I mean, the demolition was scheduled to start on Monday and unless we get this resolved which I want as much as anyone then what do people expect?” (Location 3871) I interpreted the way the playwright added this passage as ‘info dump.’

I applaud the playwright for addressing such an unpleasant topic. I also respect the clever way he crafted this piece. Mr. Norris instructed that the actors who played the characters in Act I play different characters in Act II. With that noted had I watched the play performed it may have been easier for me to understand all the show’s intricacies.

Clybourne Park contained some well-written passages. I especially enjoyed the following semi-humorous one:

Russ: (continued) –if you do keep going on about those things, Jim, well, I hate to have to put it this way, but what I think I might have to do is…uh, politely ask you to uh, (clears his throat)…well, to go fuck yourself. (Pause.)

Jim: Not sure there’s a polite way to ask that. (Location 828)

The author also included dialog that expounded on the topic’s nuances.

Lena: And some of our concerns have to do with a particular period in history and the things that people experienced here in this community during that period–…

Both good and bad, and on a personal level? I just have a lot of respect for the people who went through those experiences and still managed to carve out a life for themselves and create a community despite a whole lot of obstacles?…

Some of which still exist. That’s just a part of my history and my parents’ history—and honoring the connection to that history—and, no one, myself included, likes having to dictate what you can and can’t do with your own home, but there’s just a lot of pride, and a lot of memories in these houses, and for some of us, that connection still has value, if that makes any sense? (Location 3282)

The Steve character added another memorable comment regarding the subject’s complexities.

Steve: But that’s the thing, right? If you construct some artificial semblance of a community, and then isolate people within that—I mean, what would be the definition of a ghetto, you know? A ghetto is a place, Where—(Location 3463)

I had one major criticism of the play. Both Acts I and II opened with trivial and banal discussions. Characters at the begging of both engaged in trivial discussions regarding various world capitals. I found this palaver boring. It took me out of the story and I started skimming the text. Because of this I may have missed key plot points.

In spite of that one flaw, Mr. Norris performed an exceptional job making the whole story cohesive. I liked the way he concluded it by bringing readers (and audiences) back to the beginning. This showed me the playwright really thought out the story.

Mr. Norris explored an uncomfortable topic in an intellectually engaging way. For his efforts, Clybourne Park received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play. While a difficult read both for content and structure, it’s worth the time to explore.

 

Book Review – The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer selected an extraordinary topic for his “true life novel.” In The Executioner’s Song, he provided a detailed take on the life and subsequent death of Gary Gilmore. The latter’s cold-blooded killings of two innocent men led to the State of Utah sentencing him to death in 1976. To add a twist to this saga, Gilmore didn’t contest the court’s decision. He actually wanted to be killed by a firing squad. At one point he even asked his attorneys: “Now don’t I have the right to die?…Can’t I accept my punishment?” (Page 510) Mr. Mailer took readers along the condemned man’s journey.

This set-up drew me into the story. I found myself anxiously flicking through the e-book version’s screens to discover the next event. While reading the opening sections that described Gilmore’s life following his parole, the author made me sympathetic for his protagonist. One passage reflected my own views rather well.

Court had seen some of his artistic work. Before he met him, Brenda had shown Mont Court a couple of Gary’s drawings and paintings. The prison information he was receiving from Oregon made it clear that Gilmore was a violent person, yet in these paintings Court was able to see a part of the man simply not reflected in the prison record. Mont Court saw tenderness. He thought, Gilmore can’t be all evil, all bad. There’s something that’s salvageable. (Page 55)

The author even added an element of sensitivity to Gilmore. He did so by detailing his relationship with Nicole; the true love of his life. In fact, while awaiting his execution on Utah’s Death Row, his one wish was for the opportunity to see her once more.

Mr. Mailer crafted his prose in an unorthodox way. I interpreted the novel’s structure as a series of brief vignettes held together through the overall narrative’s scope. Each paragraph read like a newspaper blurb. It helped make the 1,109 pages read faster than I expected.

In spite of both the unpleasant subject matter and unusual presentation, Mr. Mailer worked in extraordinary uses of language. Some of them read more like verse than prose.

Overhead was the immense blue of the strong sky of the American West. That had not changed. (Page 20)

“Brenda, I am not insensitive,” said Gary, “to being called insensitive.” (Page 61)

It was as if somebody had hidden sparklers inside her heart in that place where she had expected to find nothing. (Page 172)

It was like waking up from a dream to answer a knock on the door but the knock came from the person you had just kissed in the dream. (Page 349)

Certain kinds of bad news were like mysterious lumps that went away if you paid no attention. (Page 475)

Whole fields of the soul could be defoliated and never leave a trace. (Page 419)

We are only stronger than the things we overcome. (Page 494)

My main criticism related to the book’s length. The beginning section that covered the period prior to Gilmore’s killings engaged me. I nervously read as quickly as I could. The author did an outstanding job piquing my interest in discovering the next event. After the killings, the story became rather cumbersome and even dull. I thought the sections on the individuals battling for the rights to Gilmore’s story too overdrawn. They also lacked the intensity of the book’s beginning. So did the parts on the efforts of various organizations to stay the execution. (By this time, is there anybody living in the United States who doesn’t know how this story ended?)

About a third of the way through the book I completely lost all empathy I had for the main characters. I’ll avoid spoilers for those interested in reading. I will note that depraved would be the best word I could use to describe these people’s behavior. Add to that the vicious nature of Gilmore’s crimes and the last 800 pages became a tortuous slog.

For Mr. Mailer’s efforts The Executioner’s Song received the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  That’s quite an achievement for a story that’s source material included myriad interviews surrounding true events. It’s also a fitting encomium for a work that took such an unconventional approach to an unorthodox subject. Still, I’m glad the author never wrote a sequel to it.

Drama Review – ‘night, Mother by Marsha Norman

Marsha Norman took an original approach to an unsettling topic. Using only two characters she explored the final 90 minutes of a young woman’s life. Jessie chose to share the time leading up to her demise alone with her mother. While that premise alone made for a dark, uncomfortable story, the impending cause of her passing made it deeply distressing. Jessie nonchalantly informed Mama that she’d commit suicide before the evening’s close.

The playwright even crafted a setting to fit this morbid foundation. Ms. Norman provided the following detailed description of the door leading to Jessie’s bedroom.

One of the bedrooms opens directly into the hall and its entry should be visible to everyone in the audience. It should be, in fact, the focal point of the entire set and the lighting should make it disappear completely at times and draw the entire set into it at others. It is a point of both threat and promise. It is an ordinary door that opens onto absolute nothingness. The door is the point of all the action and the utmost care should be given to its design and construction. (Page 6)

I’ve read my share of set instructions, but I’ve never seen one so detailed for a door. I liked that in my version of the play (published by Dramatists Play Service, Inc.) the book included a photograph of the set designed by Heidi Landesman from the New York production. It helped me to understand the author’s vision.

I liked the way the playwright infused a somber tone to the backstory. Several times in the text Jessie referenced realizing she needed to end her life “since Christmas.” Her decision to die amidst a time known for joy and merriment did something I wouldn’t have thought possible. It added to the impact of Jessie’s choice.

Several months ago I watched a performance of ‘night, Mother at Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage. I thought the performers magnificent in their roles. I did feel that the script could have been written better. For that reason I wanted to read the actual text version of the play to determine the accuracy of my initial assessment. My reading of it reinforced my original thoughts.

While an intense subject matter, I didn’t feel that the play’s structure allowed for the emotional impact the topic deserved. Shortly after the story began, Jessie retrieved her deceased father’s gun from the attic. When Mama asked why, Jessie explained her intentions. A dialog between the two characters ensued. Jesse explained,

I’m just not having a very good time and I don’t have any reason to think it will get anything but worse. I’m tired. I’m hurt. I’m sad. I feel used. (Page 22)

As the drama progressed, Jessie explained the events that led to her decision. She talked about her failed marriage, the hooligan her son developed into and the epilepsy that made it difficult for her to remain employed. She interspersed these recollections with descriptions of where Mama could find various household goods and how to place orders with the grocery store.

For me, the concept would’ve worked better if, as a reader or an audience member, I got to watch Jessie’s emotional deterioration as these events occurred. Mama observed during the play, “I can’t stop you because you’re already gone.” (Page 51) That’s the impression Jessie gave me at the beginning of the story. (It’s also what performer Stevie Neale made me think when I watched the play presented.) If I already know exactly how the story will end, there are only two characters and one set, why continue reading?

In my review of the community theatre production I wrote that, “Mama ran the entire range of grieving emotions from denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance in less than 90 minutes.” (Once again: I give kudos to Phyllis Josephson for pulling this off.) I had the same sense from reading the text. I agree that a mother would experience all these feelings over her daughter’s impending passing. I just thought they occurred too quickly in this play: a full production of it only takes 90 minutes.

All writers know that the first rule of fiction is that the protagonist must change. I didn’t get a sense of either character changing in this drama. Mama realized she made mistakes as a parent. This doesn’t qualify as the character changing. While she would’ve done some things differently with the benefit of hindsight, her errors in raising Jessie weren’t committed out of malice.

The characters of Mama and Jessie possessed one key difference. Mama would fabricate stories whereas Jessie always remained rooted in reality. The scene in which Mama told Jessie how her friend Agnes burned down several houses concretized this disparity; it also went on a little too long for the point the playwright wanted to make. At the end of the story neither character deviated from their original personalities. Once again, I didn’t get a sense of either character changing.

‘night, Mother received 1983 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. I can understand why based on the unique topic. While Ms. Norman clearly put a lot of thought into the story, set and the characters, I didn’t experience the emotional impact I expected from the play. For readers interested in a highly emotive Pulitzer Prize winning drama about people coping with death, I’d recommend David Lindsey-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole over this one.

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.