Thank-you card by Mallory Taylor

Thank-you card by Mallory Taylor

Thank-you card by Kiyah Davender

Thank-you card by Kiyah Davender

When Stephanie Lindsay, who played Karla in the recent LR Playmakers’ production of Wonder of the World, first visited class on February 6, the students had not begun drafting their analyses of the play and opening night was more than a week away. Today when Lindsay returned for a follow-up visit, the students had submitted their revisions of their papers and many had also seen one of the performances of the show. After all of the students projected their analyses-turned-blog posts on the big screen and spoke briefly about the focus of their writing, Lindsay led them in a discussion that traced the journey of the play from page  to stage.

Along with her insightful remarks regarding the actors’ and the director’s roles in bringing the characters to life, Lindsay reflected on the vital opportunity that live theatre offers us in the digital age: the experience of sharing stories together face to face in real time in an increasingly fragmented culture.

thank-you-card-4As Lindsay spoke, my thoughts turned to the readings that I selected for the course, ones that we can see performed on stage or that we can see addressed by the visiting writers who wrote them. In a course titled Critical Thinking and Writing, virtually any texts could serve as our subjects of inquiry. But studying plays produced at Lenoir-Rhyne and books written by the university’s visiting writers creates opportunities for face-to-face, real-time experiences that the study of other texts doesn’t allow.

Thank you, Stephanie Lindsay, for bringing Karla to life, both on the stage and in the classroom, and thank you for your observations on live theatre and stage craft. And thanks also to Kiyah and Mallory for producing cards to express our gratitude.

 

David Lindsay-Abaire’s farce Wonder of the World chronicles Cass Harris’ search for meaning as she embarks on a new life in Niagara after discovering that her husband of seven years, Kip, has harbored a secret sexual perversion. Once she reaches her destination, she finds that life away from Kip is no honeymoon either but a series of encounters with an assortment of eccentrics grappling with their own losses.

For Cass, the loss is one of innocence. No longer innocent of the knowledge of her husband’s bizarre fetish, she ww-script-notesstruggles to come to terms with it. Though Cass chooses to start a new life, she continues to see the world through the lens of the ninth-grade teaching job that she leaves behind (along with Kip), equating her mistake of marriage to a mathematical miscalculation. As she explains to Kip: “Look, I agreed to marry you based on what I knew to be true. Kip equals X. X will make me happy. Everything added up. Seven years later I find out that you’re not X at all, you’re Z. And if you’re Z, then I did the math wrong” (1.1). Ever the math teacher, Cass perceives the world as a series of signs with determinate meaning, a tendency that seems to compound the difficulty of her quest. On the bus to Niagara, where Cass adopts fellow traveler Lois Coleman as her sidekick, Cass continues to think in terms of numbers, measuring her old life as “463 road signs behind me” (1.2). Though she eventually loses track of the signs, she remains focused on her numbered to-do list, which includes becoming a contestant on The Newlywed Game, a show that turns couples’ compatibility into a numbers game.

Unlike Cass, her husband, Kip, does not seek meaning in numbers. When Karla and Glen (partners in marriage as well as private investigation), confide to Lois that Kip has hired them to track down Cass, Glen notes that Kip “[s]tarted to put two and two together” (1.7). For Kip, “started” is the operative term. He is not a numbers man. The proof that he offers of their undying love—including the ring they found, “the sign,” as Kip a calls it (2.1) —is insubstantial evidence in the eyes of Cass. Their sign systems aren’t the same; they speak different languages. For Kip, numbers games are “crass and divisive” (1.2).

When couples counselor Janie, clad in a clown suit, leads Cass and her cohort of misfits through a Newlywed-style ww-draft-1therapy session, Cass says that “[i]t’s not just a game! Things have meaning. Or at least they should” (2.3). Her emphasis on “should” indicates that she has embraced the concept that meaning may be indeterminate. But neither she nor the other characters can leave numbers behind, not altogether. After Captain Mike, Kip’s rival for Cass’ affection, accidentally shoots himself, rather than reflecting on his death, the characters attempt to quantify fears as they quibble over which is number one: being alone, public speaking, or needles (2.3).

Only Karla seems to yield to the idea that answers may elude us. As she observes to Lois: “I don’t even think about my marriage anymore. Why this, why that? I have no idea how it works, and that’s fine by me. It’s like Stonehenge, an unknowable mystery that the world has come to accept” (2.4).

ww-draft-2The final scene on the river leaves the audience, along with Cass and Lois, in a holding pattern. What happens remains unclear. The ambiguity comes at a risk; it may try the patience of audience members who find the play’s farcical humor too ridiculous or contrived, or as New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley wrote “forced rather than organic.” For others, though, the grotesqueness of Cass’ Niagara Land may serve as an apt metaphor for our own absurd political terrain with its crass and divisive stream of fake news and alternative facts. Perhaps asking “[w]hen does the clarity come?” (2.4) and persisting in our quest for it will sustain us, like Cass and Lois, as we find ourselves over a barrel.

Works Cited

Brantley, Ben. “Setting Forth, the Wind in Her Sails.” Review of Wonder of the World, by David Lindsay- Abaire, The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2001, http://www.nytimes.com, Accessed 18 Jan.  2017.

Lindsay-Abaire, David. Wonder of the World. Dramatists Play Service, 2003.

othello-and-draftSusan Snyder’s “Othello: A Modern Perspective,” considers the various approaches Shakespeare scholars have offered to the question, what’s the source of the tragedy? Is it Iago, the inhuman embodiment of evil? Is it Iago, the human villain? Is it Othello, himself? Or is it the social forces of Venice? Though all of these approaches are valid—and as Snyder observes, “[n]either separately nor in conjunction can they offer anything like ‘the whole truth’” (288)—Iago’s actions as an all-too-human have-not, someone who feels left behind, is the answer that resonates in the minds of many of us now.

Our recent campaign season has spotlighted citizens who, like Iago, believe that they have been passed over, and we have witnessed repeatedly the discrepancy between appearance and reality that Iago masterfully exploits. In the first scene of the play, when Iago recounts Othello’s appointment of Cassio as his lieutenant, he observes that Cassio lacks his experience in the field, noting that “Mere prattle without practice / Is all his soldiership” (1.1.27-28) and “Preferment goes by letter and affection / And not by old gradation” (1.1.38-39).  For Iago, it’s another way of saying the system is rigged.

To set things right for himself, “honest” Iago manipulates not only the gullible Roderigo but everyone else, “show[ing] out a flag and sign of love / Which is indeed but sign” (1.1.173-74). As he betrays Roderigo, Cassio, and Othello, even as he publicly conveys the utmost devotion, he also offers the appearance of Desdemona’s handkerchief—first in the hands of Cassio and later in Bianca’s—as the “ocular proof” (3.3.412) of Desdemona’s infidelity.

That ocular proof stokes the jealous rage that leads Othello to murder Desdemona, an irrational act of violence that points to the Moor’s own tragic flaw and indirectly to prevailing social forces. We see Desdemona and Emilia fall victim not only to the husbands who murder them but also to their prescribed roles in Venetian society. Still, if not for Iago, Desdemona and Emilia would live, as would Othello and Roderigo. As Lodovico says to Iago, “This is thy work” (5.2.427).

Iago’s “work,” as Lodovico puts it, is an evil that continues to haunt us, not because it’s inhuman but because it’s all too real. We know the hatred engendered by the have-nots and the ease with which mere appearance can seem to be ocular proof—a problem that’s compounded for us in the digital age, both in politics and in our personal lives. Othello leaves us wondering who our own Iagos may be, not just the trolls wreaking havoc on Twitter for all to see, but also the BFFs—“I am your own forever” (3.4.546)—stroking our egos even as their private messages poison us.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library Edition, Simon and Schuster, 2009.

Snyder, Susan. “Othello: A Modern Perspective.” Folger Shakespeare Library: Othello by William Shakespeare, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon and Schuster, 2009. pp. 287-98.

 

Sarah Vowell / Bennett Miller

Sarah Vowell / Bennett Miller

Thursday night at Lenoir-Rhyne, Sarah Vowell spoke of herself as a writer who takes her readers on a trip with her. Seeing Vowell interviewed on stage was a similar journey, one that led the audience from her childhood in Montana to her most recent book, Lafayette in the Somewhat Unites States (2015), with digressions along the way on Charlies Angels, the Trail of Tears, Louis Armstrong, The Incredibles, and Paul Gauguin.

When interviewer Mike Collins asked Vowell about her work on This American Life, she spoke of her writing process, noting that although the stories she wrote sounded casual, there wasn’t one from her twelve-year stint on the show (1996-2008) that underwent fewer than sixty-four revisions. Vowell recalled that Ira Glass, producer and host of the show, chided her for her repeated tangents–what she calls shenanigans–reminding her again and again of the need for brevity in radio. Paring her writing for the airwaves taught Vowell that she was better suited to writing books because they gave her room for shenanigans, citing her detour through the Oneida Community in Assassination Vacation.

In response to an audience member’s question about her writing process, Vowell said that it begins while she is travelling. Vowell explained that she takes “voluminous notes” on index cards. Later, when she returns home, she puts the cards on her living room floor and the process of organizing her research begins. The image of Vowell sitting cross-legged in her living room, placing cards on the floor in front of her as if she’s playing Solitaire, reminds me of her earlier remarks about radio, how each of those casual-sounding pieces she wrote was the product of sixty-four or more drafts. The meandering narratives of her books have a casual quality as well, but they’re the product of a highly organized process.

Vowell is one of the featured authors in the Visiting Writers Series as well as the author of this year’s Campus Read, Assassination Vacation. Her interview with WFAE’s Mike Collins was recorded for later broadcast on Charlotte Talks.

Work Cited

Vowell, Sarah. Visiting Writers Series Interview by Mike Collins. 27 Oct. 2016, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

Off-Broadway promotional poster / wikipedia.org

Off-Broadway promotional poster / wikipedia.org

Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation chronicles her pilgrimage to the sites commemorating the lives and deaths of our first three assassinated presidents–places including the Lincoln Memorial, where she notes that reading his Second Inaugural speech “is to see how Lincoln’s mind worked” (27). Similarly, reading Vowell’s own words shows readers how her mind works. Crafting a narrative that combines memoir, travelogue, revisionist history, and cultural critique, Vowell’s 2005 book recounts her journey in her characteristic roundabout fashion, one that risks frustrating readers who crave a more straightforward narrative. Among the devices that give unity to Vowell’s meandering story are the musicals and songs that she turns to repeatedly, to frame her narrative, to comment on the presidents and their assassins, and to make sense of her morbid obsession.

Vowell’s preface opens in the Berkshires, where she has traveled to visit the home of Chester French, the artist who designed the sculptural centerpiece for the Lincoln Memorial. But the preface doesn’t start with French or with Chesterwood, the site of his house and studio. Instead, Vowell recounts watching a production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, beginning her book with these words: “One night last summer, all the killers in my head assembled on a stage in Massachusetts to sing show tunes. There they were—John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz—in tune and in flesh” (1).

Original production logo /wikipedia.org

Original production logo / wikipedia.org

Chapter One opens in a similar fashion, with Vowell in another theater watching another musical. This time it’s 1776 at Ford’s Theatre, where Vowell observes with her trademark wit that going to watch a play “is like going to Hooters for the food” (21). Her primary reason for being there is to see the site where John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. Though she had planned to leave at intermission, Vowell stays for the second act, which dramatizes Adams and Jefferson “yielding to the southerners’ edit” of the Declaration of Independence (23). Vowell’s account of watching 1776 at Ford’s Theatre becomes a link between the founding fathers’ concession and Lincoln’s assassination. In Vowell’s words, “I can look from the stage to Lincoln’s box and back again, and I can see exactly where this compromise in 1776 is pointing: into the back of Lincoln’s head in 1865” (23).

Heroin / genius.com

“Heroin” 45 / genius.com

With Chapter Two, Vowell faces the challenge of depicting a subject far less important and interesting than Lincoln. Writing of our second assassinated president, James Garfield, Vowell admits that “it’s hard to have strong feelings about him” (135). To breathe life into her description of Garfield, Vowell turns to music, likening his diary entry about rearranging his library to “the druggy glow you can hear in Lou Reed’s voice on ‘Heroin’” (135). And she turns again to song when she recounts doctors probing Garfield’s wound with their unsterile fingers, prompting the infection that led to his death. Observing that Garfield might have survived otherwise, Vowell writes: “[A]s Laurie Anderson once put it, “It’s not the bullet that kills you, it’s the hole” (160).

Though Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, enlivens Chapter Two, the same can’t be said of William McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz in Chapter Three. Writing of the problem of depicting the sad sack Czolgosz, Vowell turns again to Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, the musical that opens the book:

Even Stephen Sondheim cannot tart up Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz is such a sad pathetic character, and by pathetic I mean drowning in pathos, that he is the one psycho killer in the musical Assassins who never gets a laugh. He is as drab and morose as Charles Guiteau is snappy. (214)

In the final chapter, Vowell joins in on the singing briefly, when she takes part in an a capella rendition of “How Great Thou Art.” Singing that hymn at an Easter Sunday service at the Lincoln Memorial reminds Vowell of Elvis’s recording of it, one of her mother’s favorites, which leads Vowell to realize where her preoccupation with presidential killings began: “I can probably trace this whole morbid assassination death trip back to my parents’ record collection. Specifically, Buddy Starcher’s spoken-word LP History Repeats Itself” (252).

“History Repeats Itself” 45 / 45cat.com

The title track of Starcher’s album, which recounts the similarities between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, still sparks something inside her, Vowell observes, because “these creepy historical flukes offer momentary relief from the oppression of chaos and that is not nothing. They give order to the universe. They give meaning” (254). Likewise, Starcher’s song and the others Vowell weaves into her narrative give Assassination Vacation a sense of order and meaning.

If Vowell were writing her book on assassinations now, she might offer a digression on the recent debates, perhaps observing that the first question Elaine Quijano posed of vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine referenced Lloyd Bentsen’s opening statement in his 1988 debate with Republican vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle: “[T]hat has happened too often in the past. And if that tragedy should occur, we have to step in there without any margin for error, without time for preparation, to take over the responsibility for the biggest job in the world.”

The unnamed tragedy is assassination, of course, reminding viewers of the same uncomfortable truth about history repeating itself, the truth that haunts Vowell’s ears as she ends the book, years before we would find ourselves in our current political landscape—one as unimaginable as rap songs about the first secretary of the treasury.

Surely if Vowell were writing Assassination Vacation now, references to Hamilton would abound. When Hamilton’s writer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, hosted Saturday Night Live earlier this month, he said of his Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that “it’s such a nice escape from all the craziness in our world right now. It’s about two famous New York politicians locked in a dirty, ugly, political, mud-slinging campaign. It’s escapism.” Those words could have been written by Vowell, herself. Escapism, indeed. Not the storyline, sadly, but the sarcasm that gives us some comic relief.

Works Cited

Miranda, Lin-Manuel. Opening Monologue. Saturday Night Live. 8 Oct. 2016. NBC, http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/linmanuel-miranda-monologue/3112623. Accessed 10 Oct. 2016.

October 5, 1988 Debate Transcripts: “The Bentsen-Quayle Vice Presidential Debate.” Commission on Presidential Debates, http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-5-1988-debate-transcripts. Accessed 10 Oct. 2016.

Vowell, Sarah. Assassination Vacation. Simon and Schuster, 2005.

Marlon James / macalester.edu

Marlon James / macalester.edu

Only a few hours after the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature, novelist Marlon James, recipient of the 2015 Man Booker prize, took the stage at Lenoir-Rhyne’s Belk Centrum and said that he was “very excited” about Bob Dylan’s win. James questioned whether the people who opposed the choice of Dylan had heard much of his music. Many ancient epics were written to be sung, James observed, and he challenged the audience to “listen to ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’” and “tell me it’s not literature.”

Turning from Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize to his own writing, James—one of the featured authors in Lenoir-Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series—said that the first sentence that he wrote of his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014), was now on page 458 and joked that the 680-plus page novel was actually an 800-page book, but he reduced the font and narrowed the margins.

James said that he had begun by writing a novel about a really sloppy hit man who was also in love, but around page fifty he ran into a dead end. After creating additional characters and running into more dead ends, James concluded that he was writing a string of failed novellas. Then he had a Eureka moment: He reread William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), narrated by fifteen characters, and realized that he was writing about the failed dream of the Jamaican 1960s, and that one voice alone could not tell the story. James also credited James McEllroy’s novel American Tabloid (1995) as a major influence on the writing of A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Among the excerpts James read from the novel include ones featuring the ghost of the dead Jamaican politician Arthur Jennings and immigrant Dorcas Palmer—whose name isn’t really Dorcas Palmer—who works a series of no-questions-asked jobs as a care giver in New York. They are the branches of the novel, James said, noting the book began with them rather than the trunk—though it may seem like the opposite, that the book began with Marley at the center.

James noted that one of the difficulties of writing about Marley was that by the time of the 1976 assassination attempt, Marley was already a literary device of sorts. For me growing up, James noted, he was a series of news reports: Marley is on tour, Marley has been shot, Marley has cancer . . . .

To guide him as he wrote around the dying man at the center of his novel, Marlon James turned to the classic Esquire magazine story “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (1966), a profile that Gay Talese had been assigned to write as an interview with Frank Sinatra, but the singer refused to talk to him. Talese’s solution to the problem was to talk to everyone around Sinatra. Similarly, instead of moving in close, James’s narrators circle Marley in his last days.

In response to an audience member’s questions about knowing when you’ve finished revising, James said that he knows early on in the process when he’s done, but that it takes him four or five months to admit it. James said that A Brief History of Seven Killings doesn’t end with a flourish or with a profound statement about the human condition; it doesn’t end as much as it stops. He kept working on the book until a voice in his head told him, you finished four months ago.

One of the problems with writing stories, James said, is that we start too early and end too late. James recounted that once while submitting copies of the manuscript of his first novel, John Crow’s Devil, that he was short on paper and money, so he sent out a copy without the first and the last twenty pages. The agent who read it, James said, didn’t say that it started too late or ended too early.

Reflecting on James’s observations about writing—beginning with his opening remarks about Bob Dylan—brings to mind the role of music in his own writing, starting with the lines from Captain Beefheart’s “Dachau Blues,” lyrics that serve as the epigraph for his debut novel, John Crows’ Devil. Those song lyrics are some of the first words we see in the book, but it’s likely that neither those words nor the words of the chapter that they introduce are the first ones he put on the page, evidenced by the fact that the first sentence he wrote for A Brief History of Seven Killings appears on page 458.

Beginnings and endings are difficult, Marlon James reminds us, though in the case of these words about his Thursday-night presentation, I knew from the start that I would begin with his opening remarks on Bob Dylan. (How I would begin was another matter altogether, and so was where and how I would end.) Of A Brief History of Seven Killings, James said that the novel doesn’t end as much as it stops. Taking a cue from him, I will stop here, reflecting on the insight that his remarks shed on his first novel—one that my students and I studied earlier this semester—one that begins with the chapter “The End” and ends with the chapter “The Beginning.”

Work Cited

James, Marlon. “An Evening with Marlon James.” Visiting Writers Series, 13 Oct. 2016, Belk Centrum, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

 

 

Readings for English 131, Fall 2016

Marlon James, speaking at Lenoir-Rhyne last Thursday: “Listen to ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’ and tell me it’s not literature.”

And from Rob Sheffield’s Rolling Stone feature:

The best argument for Dylan’s Nobel Prize comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson, even though he died a century before Shot of Love. His 1850 essay ‘Shakespeare; or the Poet,’ from the book Representative Men, works as a cheat sheet to Dylan. For Emerson, Shakespeare’s greatness was to exploit the freedoms of a disreputable format, the theater: ‘Shakespeare, in common with his comrades, esteemed the mass of old plays, waste stock, in which any experiment could be freely tried. Had the prestige which hedges about a modern tragedy existed, nothing could have been done. The rude warm blood of the living England circulated in the play, as in street-ballads.’

This is a key point–Shakespeare was a writer/actor/manager hustling in the commercial theater racket for live crowds. He didn’t publish his plays–didn’t even keep written copies. Once it was onstage, he was on to the next one. (After his death, his friends had to cobble the First Folio together, mostly from working scripts, hence the deplorable state of his texts.) Low prestige meant constant forward motion. The theater was becoming a national passion, ‘but not a whit less considerable, because it was cheap.’ He aimed his poetry at the groundlings: ‘It must even go into the world’s history, that the best poet led an obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public amusement.’

Dylan didn’t write many books either–his songs came out of that same ‘rude warm blood.’

Works Cited

James, Marlon. “An Evening with Marlon James.” Visiting Writers Series, 13 Oct. 2016, Belk Centrum, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

Sheffield, Rob. “Why Bob Dylan Deserves His Nobel Prize.”  Rolling Stone, 13 Oct. 2016,          http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/why-bob-dylan-deserves-his-nobel-prize-w444799