All this traveling also meant that I was on buses from Ithaca to NYC, NYC to DC, DC to VA, and as they say in Middle Earth, there and back again (and again and again). So I finally squeezed in some pleasure-reading time. And this week, with the Pulitzers being announced and John Patrick Shanley's fascinating-looking Doubt copping the prize, plays were definitely the thing in my reading repertoire. Here are some new recommendations:
- Jean Genet, The Screens: Genet is one of my favorite playwrights, as baffling as his work can be. The Maids and The Blacks are probably my favorites—difficult plays, yes, but they look like Morning's at Seven compared to The Screens. Rendered in an elaborate series of baroque vignettes, The Screens devotes its first 100 pages to a whole cascade of "Arabs" who are basically lowlifes in all of the ways typical of Genet: they are thieves, whores, scandal-mongers, jailbirds, traitors, harpies, predators, conspirators, gossips, and nags. The most sympathetic character is the ugliest woman in the city, who has a grand time being insolent and flippant to everyone who cringes at her. Then, in the second 100 pages, the whole thing explodes into a territorial war between the Arabs and a colonizing French army, such that living and dead characters are at each other's throats, the seven or eight levels of the stage represent multiple planes of heaven, purgatory, and hell (though not in any obvious order), and the seeming infinitude of screens that serve as backdrops, scrims, and hand-drawn canvases throughout the play start getting ripped to shreds. It's a violent, demanding, wholly impolitic play, and it was sometimes a little taxing to read, but as always, I enjoyed being so provoked. The delish cover image on the Grove Press edition (reproduced above) makes me wonder all the more how beautiful and yet how scarifying this thing must be to stage and to see.
- Ridgely Torrence, Granny Maumee: The fame of this one-act play, a mere third of Torrence's Three Plays for a Negro Theatre, is based on the fact that Three Plays marked the first occasion (in 1917) that African-American actors appeared on Broadway in non-musical, non-parodic roles. Granny Maumee is a harsh little play about a blind black woman from the South driven to fury by the fact that her great-grandson is a mulatto. (The companion plays, The Rider of Dreams and Simon the Cyrenian, are a domestic dramedy and a Biblical parable intriguingly inflected with African revolutionary politics.) Interesting more for historical value than aesthetic attainments, Granny Maumee is still a compelling script. This collection is a little hard to find, but you can read a lot about it in this academic account of Torrence's opening night or, if you're really interested, in Ridgely Torrence's papers at Princeton. (Also interesting: this 1935 post-date on the legacy of Torrence's plays, published in the important, early 20th century African-American magazine Opportunity. Torrence, by the way, was white.)
- Warren Leight, Side Man: Somehow, this play was both the Tony winner for Best Play and a finalist for the Pulitzer in 1999. (It lost the latter, deservedly, to Margaret Edson's Wit, and was also eclipsed by its stunning co-finalist, Cornelius Eady and Diedre Murray's Running Man.) Side Man isn't bad by any stretch, and the first of its two acts builds to a terrifically tense conclusion. But the second act is only half as long, and pretty banal at that. Unless this script was played by gangbusters, it's hard to see how it improves immensely on every other memory play you've ever seen or read. (Knowing that Christian Slater played nostalgic-savant Clifford on Broadway helps me to understand what he's doing as Tom in the current Glass Menagerie, though I'm still not persuaded by that casting choice.) As a Tony voter that year, I certainly would have sprung instead for Tennessee Williams' Not About Nightingales or Patrick Marber's recently resuscitated Closer. (I haven't read or seen the fourth nominee from that year, Martin McDonagh's The Lonesome West.)