Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

An epigraph stands out as a curious element in a play. For readers of the script, that quotation,which precedes the opening of the play and presents its prevailing theme, offers a signpost to guide them on their journey. However, for those who first encounter the play on the stage, the choices of the director and the actors must convey that idea, which the audience, unlike readers of the script, does not see in written form.

For the epigraph of her comedy Creature (2009), playwright Heidi Schreck turns to the words of thirteenth-century poet and mystic Hadeviijch of Brabant: “He who has seen her comings and goings knows that Love is the highest name of Hell.” The notion of just how devilish divine love can be runs rampant, or like hell fire, through the recent production of Creature at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Among the funniest depictions of the hellishness of divine love are the ones in which the central character, Margery (Liz Bokhoven), based on the real-life, fifteenth-century Christian mystic Margery Kempe, struggles with her religious calling after she believes she experiences a vision of Jesus in purple robes.

In Margery’s eyes, Christ’s choice of purple is not liturgical, but personal. As she says to him, “[o]h, you are wearing purple, my favorite color” (16). Though the lollardly, married, brewery-owning Margery seems an unlikely—if not downright heretical—candidate for Sainthood, and though her story yields many unanswered questions, the audience willingly follows her on her pilgrimage, drawn into the play by Schreck’s humorous depictions of the yearnings and conflicts of Margery and everyone in her orbit.

To quell accusations of heresy and avoid public burning at the stake, Margery seeks validation of her vision from the anchoress Juliana of Norwich (Milissia Koncelik), whose book Revelations of Divine Love echoes the play’s epigraph. In Juliana’s words, “[t]rue Sin is the terrible distance between ourselves and God. There is no harder Hell than this” (73). Yet for all of the burden and pain of her wisdom, Juliana—played with wry humor by Koncelik—does not brood. She can say hello to a thought and then let it go—and chatter on about her late cat, Mathilda, and her love of babies, even as she grants Margery her certificate of approval, telling her, “[i]t’s a respectable vision” (70). Whether the audience believes in Margery’s vision, Juliana apparently does.

Along with casting doubts about the nature of Margery’s vision, Creature raises many questions that remain unanswered, including the one that Margery starts to answer repeatedly throughout the play, when she begins the confession that she never finishes. What sin she committed as a ten-year-old remains a mystery. Complicating the uncertainties of Margery’s story is a question of accuracy: Scholar Lynn Staley asserts that the Margery in the pages of Schreck’s source material, the autobiography The Life of Margery Kempe, is herself a fictional persona, one constructed by Kempe to offer commentary on fifteenth-century English life.[i] To readers and audience members who ponder these unknowns at length, Juliana might say—as she does to Margery—“[y]ou’re so serious” (71). Like religious devotion itself, following Margery on her spiritual journey requires a leap of faith—one that can feel like Hell, as Creature shows. But Schreck’s play also reminds us of the vital role of humor in our lives. Rather than offering Hadeviijch of Brabant’s words alone as the play’s epigraph, Schreck might have paired them with this reflection of Anne Lamott’s: “Laughter is carbonated holiness” (66).


[i] For a discussion of Lynn Stale’s argument, see Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions. Penn State UP, 1994.

Works Cited

Creature. By Heidi Shrek. Dir. Liz Bokhoven. Perf. Liz Bokhoven, Chase Fowler, Benjamin Thomas-Reid, Callie Cope, Milissia Koncelik, Corey Smith. LR Playmakers, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC. 21 Sept. 2017.

Lamotte Ann. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. Riverhead, 2005.

Shrek, Heidi. Creature. Samuel French, 2011.

 

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The “South Carolina” chapter of The Underground Railroad finds the protagonist, Cora, recruited to work as a living model at the Museum of Natural Wonders. In a series of three rooms that trace the American slave experience from Africa to the plantation, Cora poses in costume, silently critiquing the scenes she inhabits, pointing out their inaccuracies. For author Colson Whitehead, Cora’s stint at the museum offers a frame story within the novel’s sprawling alternate history, one that prompts readers to reflect on Whitehead’s juxtaposition of fact and fiction.

In the room “Life on a Slave Ship,” where Cora dons a sailor outfit, she observes that “[t]here had been no kidnapped boys swabbing the decks and earning pats on the head from white kidnappers. The enterprising African boy whose fine leather boots she wore would have been chained belowdecks, swabbing his body in his own filth” (116). And in the room “Typical Day on a Plantation,” she notes that “slave work was sometimes spinning thread, yes; most times it was not. No slave had ever keeled over dead at a spinning wheel or been butchered for a tangle” (116).

Readers witness Cora’s reflections knowing them to be the observations of a fictional character but realizing as well that that the tableaux vivant of the Museum of Natural Wonders are as fictional as the novel, itself. Cora is not a historical figure, but her plight parallels the harrowing experiences of real-life fugitive slaves, a truth that Whitehead underscores by prefacing his state-titled chapters with runaway slave advertisements  (from the digital collections at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). The chapters named for characters are free of those ads, symbolically liberating them from the Fugitive Slave Laws that impede their journey on Whitehead’s literal Underground Railroad.

Some readers may question Whitehead’s choice to create an actual Underground Railroad, turning the metaphor into a series of subterranean tracks, noting the apparent irony of such deviations even as the novel’s central character meditates on historical inaccuracies. But Whitehead is a novelist, not a historian. His aim is not to produce a history but to breathe life into characters who speak truths from their fictional worlds—not our current terrain of alternative facts but a reimagined past where Cora astutely critiques what Whitehead called a  “sanitized history” in his recent appearance at Lenoir-Rhyne University.

Sanitized versions of the past deny truths laid bare by Whitehead’s novel and other alternate histories. Notably, last year marked not only the publication of The Underground Railroad but also Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines. The fictional worlds of both novels evoke the legacies of slavery that remain, though the truths of those legacies—police brutality and anti-immigration policy, among them—may be obscured by rhetoric and mythos. As Cora in her role as a living, breathing mannequin observes: “Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach” (116).  At the novel’s close, readers unsettled by the difficult truths within the fiction, can at least find solace in the last image of Cora, still headed north and still out of reach.

Works Cited

Whitehead, Colson. “An Evening with Colson Whitehead.” 14 Sept. 2017, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

—. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.

Colson Whitehead / Madeline Whitehead

Colson Whitehead grew up listening to the Donna Summer version. Others of you know the Richard Harris version, he said, and some of you have no idea what I’m talking about. And then for anyone in the audience who belonged to the last group—who may have said, “Huh?” when he started talking about “MacArthur Park”—he held his tablet up to the mic so everyone in P.E. Monroe auditorium could hear the Disco Queen sing: “MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark/ All the sweet, green icing flowing down/ Someone left the cake out in the rain/ I don’t think that I can take it’ ‘Cause it took so long to bake it/ And I’ll never have that recipe again.”

And then as Donna Summer, began to cry, “Oh no!,” Whitehead joined in, losing himself for a moment in song. He had the audience then, at “Oh no!,” if his self-effacing humor hadn’t already won them over. What’s not to love about a writer who says, “I usually spend my Thursday nights in my apartment weeping over my regrets, so this is a nice change of pace”?

Whitehead’s remarks began with a false start, as writing often does. But his false introduction was intentional: “I was born a poor black child. I remember the days, sittin’ on the porch with my family, singin’ and dancin’ down in Mississippi,” riffing on Steve Martin’s opening scene of The Jerk. After that, Whitehead turned to the real beginning.

I wasn’t one of those writers who spent time indoors because I was a sickly child, he said. (Marcel Proust comes to mind.) He was just a kid who liked to stay inside and watch The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and read comic books. I wanted to be a writer because you didn’t have to go out, he said. As a teenager he wanted to write the black Salem’s Lot or the black The Stand. He wanted to write the black-anything Stephen King, he said, until later he read literary fiction and was drawn to the stylings of the modernists, noting in particular the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez.

After college, while working as a TV writer for The Village Voice, Whitehead penned his first novel: the later-in-life adventures of a former child star, a Gary Colemanesque character. That novel was never published. He received rejection after rejection, which brought him back to “MacArthur Park.”

The song was an enigma, he said, until he realized that it was an investigation of the author’s journey. Why, he asked, did you leave my cake out in the rain, Alfred A. Knopf? Why did you leave my cake out in the rain, Houghton Mifflin? “I don’t think that I can take it/ ‘Cause it took so long to bake it/ And I’ll never have that recipe again.”

Rejection after rejection—or layer after layer of soggy cake—led Whitehead to rethink his decision to become a writer. He considered other professions, but he didn’t seemed well-suited to any of them—surgeon, for instance. Surgeries can last for more than twenty hours. What if you have to go to the bathroom? he asked.

And then there was the matter of the minuscule audience. A literary novel might sell 5,000 copies, and if there’s ten readers for each copy, that’s still only 50,000 readers in a world with a population of over seven billion. So if you’re a writer of literary fiction, “you aren’t the gnat in the butt of the elephant,” he said. “You’re a microbe in the gnat in the butt of the elephant.” Colson Whitehead kept writing anyway, realizing that he had no choice—that’s who he was—so he started over.

Seventeen years ago, he got the idea to create a fictional antebellum America where the Underground Railroad wasn’t a metaphor, but the literal railroad he imagined as a child. He didn’t think that he was up to the task then, but three years ago he decided to give it a try.  That try became The Underground Railroad, which has now received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the heartland Prize, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Though he’s become one of the most celebrated novelists of his generation, as a writer Whitehead still finds himself filled with uncertainty.

Near the end of the Q&A session that followed his talk, a woman asked what is was like for him, that stay-inside, work-at-home guy, to be the public figure that he has now become. He answered that it’s very different from being a writer and having all these doubts . . . is this paragraph too long? It’s a very lovely thing.


Whitehead, Colson. “An Evening with Colson Whitehead.” LR Visiting Writers Series. 14 Sept. 2017, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

Bruce Eric Kaplan’s “Screen Time” / newyorker.com

Today when I first saw this week’s issue of the New Yorker, I thought again of Twenge’s article.  Cartoonist Bruce Eric Kaplan’s depiction of a toddler fixated on a smartphone, oblivious of the looming flat-screen TV, reminded me of Twenge’s observations of her own young daughters: “They’re not old enough yet to display the traits of iGen teens, but I have already witnessed firsthand just how ingrained new media are in their young lives. I’ve observed my toddler, barely old enough to walk, confidently swiping her way through an iPad.”

While Twenge stresses the importance of instilling moderation, she admits that “[p]rying the phone out of our kids’ hands will be difficult, even more so than the quixotic efforts of my parents’ generation to get their kids to turn off MTV and get some fresh air.”

Quixotic. For Twenge the word simply serves as a synonym for impractical, but I can’t shake the image in my mind of the Man of La Mancha himself, alternately tilting at MTV and smartphones.

 

Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” doesn’t offer a definitive answer to the question of its title, but the evidence that its author, Jean M. Twenge, identifies linking depression to smartphone use leads her to recommend that parents limit their teenagers’ screen time. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has studied generational differences for twenty-five years, has observed a significant shift in teenagers’ behaviors and emotional states that began around 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones first exceeded fifty percent. Twenge’s findings present a portrait of adolescents who are psychologically more vulnerable, and whose increased vulnerability coincided with the dual rise of smartphones and social media.

For tomorrow, for their first reading assignment of the semester, my students will read Twenge’s article on paper, making notes in the margin as they read. Last week as I composed that assignment, stipulating that students print the article, I heard their voices of dissent in my head.

In the process of reading Twenge’s article, some students may decide that my requirement was reasonable. Others, perhaps most, will see it as unnecessary.

When I first read Twenge’s article a couple of weeks ago in the September issue of The Atlantic, I knew that I would ask my students to read it as well, in part to demonstrate why I limit their use of digital devices in the classroom. But I also knew that I could not in good conscience ask them to read Twenge’s words on the screen. If, as she reports, two or more hours a day on electronic devices negatively impacts mental health and sleep, it would seem nothing short of cruel irony to require my students to read Twenge’s 5,000 words online.


Twenge’s article is adapted from her forthcoming book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us.

In Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of The Devil in the White City, she claims that Erik Larson avoids the risk of “turning [the book] into a random compendium.” For all of his density of detail, Larson does manage to avoid that risk, creating instead a gripping dual narrative—one that succeeds, as Maslin asserts that it does—but not by using what Maslin cites as tactics that might ordinarily seem “alarming.” Rather the techniques that Larson employs are among the very building blocks of contemporary narrative.

Chief among Larson’s most successful narrative strategies is his cross cutting, both between the dual storylines of the book (those of the Devil and the White City of the title) and between characters. One of his most compelling uses of cross cutting occurs in the chapter “Claustrophobia,” where Larson deftly shifts from the point of view of serial of killer H. H. Holmes, the devil of the title, to that of one of his victims, Anna “Nannie” Williams. In the first paragraphs of the chapter, Holmes and Anna are together in his office, where he asks her “if she would mind going into the adjacent room, the walk-in vault, to retrieve for him a document he had left inside” (294). Anna complies, and thereafter the point of view shifts between Anna inside the vault, believing “the door had closed by accident” (294), and Holmes standing outside the door, listening for the panic to come “as it always did” (295).

Readers witnessing the events leading up to Anna’s death do not stop to ask: How can Larson know what happened? Though they know in the back of their minds that only Holmes and Anna themselves could know what transpired, Larson’s dramatic cross cutting draws them so close to both the victim and her killer that they experience those moments as Holmes and Anna do.

In his endnotes, Larson addresses his reasons for depicting Anna’s murder as he did. Based on police speculation that Holmes killed both Anna and her sister, Minnie, in his vault, an earlier chronicler of Holmes’ exploits—Harold Schechter, author of Depraved (1994)—proposed that Holmes walked into the vault with Anna: “Grasping Nannie by the hand, he led her toward the vault” (Schechter qtd. in Larson 416). Rather than depicting the events as Schechter did, Larson presents Holmes sending Anna into the vault on a false errand because that scenario, in Larson’s words, “would have suited more closely his temperament” (416).

Whether Holmes sent Anna into his vault on a false errand, Larson’s compelling rendering of it exemplifies how the author employs the dramatic effects of fiction—not tactics that are “alarming” as Maslin claims, but ones that writers have commonly applied to narrative nonfiction for more than fifty years, since the publication of Truman Capote’s groundbreaking  account of the Clutter family murders in In Cold Blood. And like In Cold Blood, The Devil in the White City presents a true crime story with the narrative arc of a novel. But Larson’s book is more ambitious and broader in scope than Capote’s. Ultimately, The Devil in the White City is a hybrid of true crime and popular history—the gruesome murders of a serial killer juxtaposed with the construction of the magical white city that inspired Walt Disney and L. Frank Baum. For readers fascinated by the minds of criminals and visionary architects, it’s a page turner. And for writers drawn to the challenge of giving facts the appeal of fiction, it offers a blueprint.

Works Cited

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2004.

Maslin, Janet. “Add a Serial Murderer to 1893 Chicago’s Opulent Overkill.” Review of The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, The New York Times, 10 Feb. 2003, http://www.nytimes.com, Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

 

Scorsese and DiCaprio / Paramount

Last month, when Erik Larson cancelled his campus visit to Lenoir-Rhyne, our study of The Devil in the White City took an unexpected turn. No longer would our last weeks of reading be informed by the author’s own commentary. As I asked myself how my students and I might proceed in the absence of Larson, it occurred to me that the film adaptation in development could be the source of a series of assignments. Subsequently, I crafted a research exercise, an individual blog post assignment, and a follow-up collaborative blog assignment that involved looking ahead to the upcoming film while looking back at the pages of Larson’s book for textual support for possible casting choices.

Reading the cast recommendations that my students’ produced–each student’s individual choices as well as the expanded proposals that they produced collaboratively–revealed a level of detail and engagement with the subject that many of their previous short assignments lacked. Notably, most of their individual blog posts far exceeded the 150-word minimum length requirement.

Though I regret that my students and I didn’t have the opportunity to see Larson, I am grateful that his cancellation led me to rethink my approach to teaching The Devil in the White City.

The paragraphs that follow offer my version of the assignment: the casting recommendations that I wrote along with my students.


Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City—now in development at Paramount—will star Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor well suited to play the devil of the title, H. H. Holmes, not because he possesses the same “striking blue eyes” (35), as the charismatic serial killer—though he does—but instead because of DiCaprio’s ability to embody charming characters who trade in deception. Larson’s descriptions of Holmes as someone who could “bewitch men and women alike” (146) and who had “a talent for deflecting scrutiny” (364) bring to mind roles from his previous collaborations with Scorsese—notably Jordan Belfort of The Wolf of Wall Street—as well as Frank Abagnale, Jr. from Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can.

While DiCaprio—who bought the film rights to Larson’s book in 2010—is set to play Holmes, the rest of the film’s casting remains undetermined, or at least unknown to outsiders. One possible contender for Daniel Burnham, the other figure at the center of Larson’s book, is Hugh Bonneville. The Downton Abbey actor’s  ability to play a “decisive, blunt, and cordial” (35) figure is evidenced in his portrayal of that other turn-of-century character: Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. And Larson’s depiction of Burnham as a man who “symbolized all that stood in the way of [young architect Louis] Sullivan’s emerging ethos” recalls the tension between Grantham and his son-in-law, Tom Branson (Allen Leech).

For Frederick Law Olmsted, chief landscape architect and elder statesmen, Scorsese might turn to Anthony Hopkins. Though Hopkins’ frame is not slight, as Larson describes Olmsted’s (53), his face does fit the description of Olmsted’s as “worn and gray, except for his eyes, which gleamed beneath his skull like marbles of lapis” (113). More importantly, with his signature quiet intensity, Hopkins could masterfully convey Olmsted’s struggle as a visionary figure—a benevolent version of Westworld’s Dr. Ford—striving for his field to be “recognized as a distinct branch of the fine arts” (50), as he transforms the landscape of Jackson Park.

Although Dora Root, wife of John Root (Burnham’s partner in architecture) appears only briefly in the book, the passage in which Larson recounts her mixed emotions upon seeing the White City—finding the park “infinitely sad” but “entrancing” all at once (253)—is among the most poignant that Larson writes. As the widow witnessing the fair that her husband didn’t live to see, Laura Linney could deliver a nuanced performance akin to hers as Abigail Adams, beloved wife and advisor to the second president, in the HBO miniseries John Adams. And Linney’s co-star in John Adams, Paul Giamatti, could adeptly portray detective Frank Geyer, who “never tired” (349) in his investigation of Holmes’ crimes, echoing Giamatti’s role in The Illusionist as Uhl, the police inspector who doggedly pursued Eisenheim (Edward Norton).

Paul Dano / twitter.com

Prendergast / chicagonow.com

Lastly, Paul Dano comes to mind as an apt candidate for the role of Patrick Prendergast, the young Irish immigrant whose murder of Carter Henry Harrison turns the fair’s closing ceremony into a memorial for the slain Chicago mayor. The meltdown that Dano exhibited as Dwayne Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine, when Dwayne’s sister, Olive (Abigail Breslin) reveals to him that he can’t become a pilot (because he’s colorblind), illustrates Dano’s ability to convincingly play the unstable—and eventually delusional assassin—in his “accelerating mental decline” (183).

Work Cited

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2004.


Scorsese’s choices will likely differ from the ones that my students and I have presented, but the process, itself, of returning to the pages of Larson’s book to explore casting possibilities has offered a valuable exercise in textual analysis, one I may return to in future semesters. Even if the books that my students and I study aren’t slated for film production–and many of them will not be–we can still ask the question, whom would I cast? as a starting point for exercising our imaginations along with our intellects.