Monthly Archives: September 2012
Time-traveling Victorian ladies. Impressive, almost overwhelming wordplay. Strange men at every turn. Such is the world of Eric Overmyer’s On the Verge. Occasionally disoriented but always adventurous, Mary, Fanny, and Alexandra bravely enter into a new time period almost every scene, eggbeaters at the ready. Did any of that make sense? No? That’s a little what reading On the Verge is like. And yet, while exchanges like, “I have always traveled solo hitherto… Occasionally encountering a sister sojourner on a trek-” “Pausing briefly for the pro forma cuppa-” “And then going our separate ways alone” can be bewildering, it’s always intriguing.
The play finds Mary, Fanny, and Alexandra already full immersed in their time-traveling. These are no neophyte traversers; entering a jungle in 1920 and exiting into 1955 doesn’t impress them nearly as much as the new Kodaks and the debate about the acceptability of trousers. In each era they meet a man (all played by the same actor) who exemplifies the an extreme version of someone from that time. Between 1888 and 1950, they meet Alphonse, a German-French-Dutchman, who is not actually Alphonse, but the cannibal who ate Alphonse. Somewhere in between years, they meet a rapping teenage bridge troll. In a dream, Fanny converses with Mr. Coffee, an icon who informs her that her beloved husband Grover, to whom she spends the play writing letters, killed himself after the crash of ’29, but not before having his time-traveling wife declared dead and remarrying. When they finally reach 1955, the final year of the play, the ladies meet Gus and Nicky, a greaser and a casino owner, respectively. It’s these two men that have the biggest effect on the ladies. Gus answers their biggest questions and Nicky changes Alex and Fanny’s lives by helping Alex score a career as a lyricist and winning Fanny’s heart. And Mary, the seemingly most straight-laced of the trio, decides that 1955 is not for her, and moves further into the future on her own.
The synopsis on the back of the book compares Overmyer’s style to Tom Stoppard and Thornton Wilder, which is very accurate. Overmyer combines Stoppard’s clever wordplay and intricate plot with Wilder’s historical monologuing style. Each scene ends with one of the women composing a letter or “writing” in a journal (though no physical writing actually happens), in which they reveal their innermost fears and most candid observations.
The most striking thing about this play is its dialogue and vernacular. I can’t even fathom how Overmyer’s brain works to have written this play. At the beginning of the play, Mary finds a button with a Latin phrase engraved into it, which she pronounces phonetically as “Hec-kwhod-ont.” None of the trio can puzzle out what it might mean until they find an “I Like Ike” button later in their travels and discover that they two button are companions: “I like Ike.” “Heck, who don’t?”
And who couldn’t like this play? It’s silly, it’s confusing, it makes the reader think about life and relationships, what it means to be alone and together, and how seeing new places and meeting new people can change you for good.
FANNY: You won’t see what you’ve Kodaked?
ALEX: Not until we return home.
FANNY: How do you know that it works?
ALEX: You trust. You “click.” You store. You protect. You wait.
“Alexandra, the civilizing mission of Woman is to reduce the amount of masculinity in the world. Not add to it by wearing trousers.”
“I would sooner saunter across the Sahara sans sandals than don trousers. An umbrella comes in handy. In the jungle.”
MARY: Why is there evil in the world, Alexandra?
ALEX: To thicken the plot.
“I dream abut mysterious machinery, discover strange objects in my baggage, and strange phrases in my mouth: ‘Air mail,’ ‘Blue-sky ventures.’ ‘So long.’”
Though 31 Plays in 31 Days ended last month, I was crazy busy with moving and picking up a second job (oh, post-grad life…) and procrastinating to post about it. But here it is: the final entry on the subject.
Sadly, I was not “playwright enough” to complete the challenge; I wrote twenty-seven plays in 31 days which, while impressive, does not qualify for a win. Those that did “win” get to submit one piece for possible publishing in the 31 Plays in 31 Days anthology.
My final plays:
DAY TWENTY-ONE: Mr. Sealy’s Opinion. Babysitter Evelyn tries to find out how nine year-old Claire really feels about her baby brother.
DAY TWENTY-TWO: Friendly Advice. A woman discovers that her best friend has used the first woman’s personal life as an example in her advice column… and it’s not flattering.
DAY TWENTY- THREE: Fair Friends. Going to your town fair means running into a lot of people you grew up with and discovering that sometimes you don’t want to know them anymore.
DAY TWENTY-FOUR: Everything to Nothing. Written entirely sans action, a girl decides to leave everything she owns and knows behind and move on. To where? She doesn’t know.
DAY TWENTY-FIVE: A-B. While writing this play, I wanted to see if I could create a sort of play-palindrome: that the play was the same lines, growing from the middle out to the beginning and end.
DAY TWENTY-SIX: A Real Brother. After unexplained events, a six year-old boy tried to convince his older brother that he’s truly sorry.
DAY TWENTY-SEVEN: A Pair of Strangers. Inspired by the true events of this date twenty-two years ago, a college dean at the University of Florida breaks the news to two students that their roommates have been murdered.
I learned a lot during this process, namely how to turn off my inner editor. This project also made me brave enough to try ideas that had been rolling around in my head for a long time. While obviously I can write whatever I want, when I want, for some reason, the idea that I might try out an idea in ordinary life and it doesn’t work out is terrifying. With this project, a bad idea lasts one day. It’s strangely freeing.
Though I didn’t win, I’m really glad I did this challenge and plan on doing it again next year.
It’s 1913 and the women of London have been fighting for rights for what seems like forever. Sadly, their efforts seem to be getting them nowhere except Holloway Prison, where they continue to fight by going on hunger strikes. And even in the midst of this war, everyday life manages to exist: at the center of the play, Lady Celia Cain tries to endure her marriage to her childhood best friend for whom she no longer loves, and considers that perhaps a more erotic and questionable relationship with fellow suffragette Eve Douglas, might be worth fighting for.
Her Naked Skin, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is yet another of my London finds. I’m a sucker for stories about women’s suffrage, and this one did not disappoint. The play starts with a bang, by showing Emily Wilding Davison readying herself for what seems to be a rally. As soon as she walks out the door, however, a film starts on an on-stage screen, showing the grainy footage of Wilding Davison’s death when she stepped in front of racing horses and is trampled. Quickly switching between Celia’s house, Eve’s small flat, gentleman’s clubs, the House of Commons, and the various rooms of Holloway Prison, this script works as tirelessly as the women whose stories are being told.
The two main characters are Lady Celia Cain and her young friend Eve Douglas. The women come from very different backgrounds: Celia continued her comfortable childhood life by marrying an old friend, with whom she has seven children. Eve is a seamstress with a tragic background. But Celia’s life isn’t as perfect as it seems. Her passion for her husband William peaked when they were children, and it’s obvious to him. Towards the end of the play, after being taunted about his wife by the men at the club, an inebriated William snaps at Celia that he knows that she doesn’t enjoy sex with him because she cries every time afterward. It is obvious that Celia’s lack of love for William hurts both of them, but William more deeply. Celia, who reveals that she’s had affairs before, has turned her attentions to Eve. After a history of sexual abuse, Eve gladly accepts Celia’s genuine love, however unexpected it is. But every relationship, conventional or no, must mature and develop, and such a change doesn’t always happen for the better. For Eve, twenty years Celia’s junior, her first experience with passion and attachment is a confusing and tumultuous one. “Love is just fear, I suppose,” Celia tells her. “Masquerading as a fever. Then you explore each other and suddenly you have license to become totally pedestrian. And ultimately abusive.”
There is a lot of debate about the heroism of the women who participated in these movements. While many commend them for their deeds, especially as they did eventually earn women the vote, just as many scorn the women for their extremist actions: breaking windows, going on hunger strikes, burning down buildings, and bombing railway stations aren’t supported by everyone, no matter their view on women’s rights. I fall into the former category, as does Lenkiewicz, if this play is any indication. While these women did go to questionable lengths to gain their rights, they were driven to those actions because nothing else was working.
The playwright handles every scene with skill and care, but also with unflinching honesty. Besides her look at relationships between both men and women (romantic and no), Lenkiewicz also had no choice but to include the prison force feedings. This practice was used on both English and American women who were imprisoned for suffrage movements, and it is truly appalling. Involving forcing a rubber tube down a woman’s throat through either the nose or mouth (usually requiring her to be held down by multiple people and the use of a steel gag to keep the woman’s mouth open) the method has often been compared and equalized to rape. The scene that covers Eve’s force feeding reads as one, and it is terrifying and graphic. After painfully removing twenty inches of tubing from Eve’s throat, the doctor slaps Eve across the face and tells her, “You must not be so stubborn.”
Whether one agrees that the suffragists’ actions were commendable or not, one must admit that their story is worth telling. And so Lenkiewicz does, with enviable flair.
GREY: Damn miracle the gal’s lasted this long.
ASQUITH: Bugger. There’ll be a major funeral, no?
BIRRELL: It’ll be women as far as the eye can see.
ASQUITH: Which should sound like heaven, but it doesn’t.
POTTER: What do you want?
CELIA: What I want is a crepe-de-chine nightgown and glass slippers. What I’m asking for are undergarments that don’t look and smell like someone died in them.
CELIA: File is an anagram of life, isn’t it?
KLEIN: You were placed in the hospital ward the last time you were incarcerated?
CELIA: My window loked out onto the girls in the exercise yard. Two of them were always laughing together. One was about eighteen, the other perhaps thirty. The girl’s hair kept blowing into her face and eyes and her companion kept brushing it away from her because the girl needed to keep her hands warm in her pockets. The friend understood that.
KLEIN: Is that what you would like? To be understood?
CELIA: To be loved, you mean?
KLEIN: Is that your definition of understanding?
CELIA: What I would really like is… is a cigarette.
KLEIN: So. I ask myself, what can we do for this new woman we see before us?
CELIA: Very little, I expect.
WILLIAM: Would you stop all of this, Celia? For me?
CELIA: You said you’d never ask me to.
WILLIAM: That was before it was dangerous.
CELIA: First of all you try and pronounce me lunatic. Now you want me to be a no-show.
WILLIAM: Better a no-show than a dead one, don’t you think? Who do you actually think you represent?
CELIA: You’re not twenty-one.
FLORENCE: And I have no desire to be such an age. All I remember of being twenty-one is crying like a loon.
CELIA: Desire is very strange. One shouldn’t try to pin it down.
WILLIAM: Where have you been? We’ve all been worried bloody sick. Telephoning the police stations. Hospitals.
WILLIAM: Is that it? ‘Sorry?’
CELIA: Please don’t go into the sulks. I’ve rather had enough of all that.
WILLIAM: I thought you might be dead.
CELIA: I probably was.
I happened upon Maggie O’Farrell’s book, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, in a small library in the East End of London. The synopsis on the back instantly captivated me:
Edinburgh in the 1930s. The Lennox family is having trouble with its youngest daughter. Esme is outspoken, unconventional, and repeatedly embarrasses them in polite society. Something will have to be done.
Years later, a young woman named Iris Lockhart receives a letter informing her that she has a great-aunt in a psychiatric unit who is about to be released. Iris has never heard of Esme Lennox and the one person who should know more, her grandmother Kitty, seems unable to answer Iris’ questions. What could Esme have done to warrant a lifetime in an institution? And how is it possible for a person to be so completely erased from a family’s history?
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox is a rich, layered novel. As I was reading it for the second time, I tried to think of an author I’ve read who is nearly detailed, who can write such sensuous passages such as “In the distance somewhere she can hear her sister’s skipping rope hitting the ground and the short shuffle of feet in between. Slap shunt slap shunt slap shunt. She turns her head, listening for other noises. The brr-cloop-brr of a bird in the mimosa branches, a hoe in the garden soil- scritch, scritch- and, somewhere, her mother’s voice. She can’t make out the words, but she knows it’s her mother talking.”
In the end, the only author I could possibly think of to compare O’Farrell to is her fellow Briton, Ian McEwan.
As in all of her books, O’Farrell skillfully switches between the 1930s and 2000s, from Esme’s story, to Iris’, to Kitty’s, dropping little bits of story as she goes. And while Esme’s story is less linear than Iris’ straightforward narrative, her mind slipping between the two time periods, Kitty’s is the most intriguing. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, Kitty thinks in incomplete paragraphs, sentences broken off halfway through when something distracts her and steers her mind in another direction. One might think it would be confusing, but O’Farrell manages to remind you exactly where she left you without going back and reviewing.
Esme’s story is a shocking and sad one; seen as “different” for her curiosity and passion as a young child, her family never looks at her any other way. As she gets older, she continues to feel things just as deeply, and resist the things she doesn’t want: cutting her hair, going to the pictures with a cocky young man who’s supposed to like her sister anyway, wearing dull colors to a dance. For this, she is seen as an embarrassment, and when she is caught one day dancing in front of the mirror in her mother’s nightgown, her parents decide that it’s time for her to go somewhere where she will learn how to behave. They send her to an institution, where the extraordinary but sane sixteen year old will spend the days before she “gets better.”
As soon as Iris hears of this estranged great-aunt, she is asked to house the woman she’s never met. Before going to pick her up, Iris does some research, only to find that most of the women in Esme’s institution were put away for things that seem, to her, minor: “Iris read of refusals to speak, of unironed clothes, of arguments with neighbours, of hysteria, of unwashed dishes and unswept floors, of never wanting marital relations or wanting them too much or not enough to not in the right way or seeking them elsewhere. Of husbands at the end of their tethers, of parents unable to understand the women their daughters have become […] Daughters who just don’t listen.” Esme’s crimes are her uncut hair and trying on her mother’s clothes, and Iris is unconvinced, especially after meeting her great-aunt, that the woman was ever actually insane.
O’Farrell has the amazing ability to write in a way that makes the reader feel the emotions of the character, not just observe them from outside the page. Using a mix of sensuous words, run-on sentences, and sparse dialogue, O’Farrell makes sure the reader feels within them Esme’s panic or Iris’ frustration or Kitty’s confusion, and she does it in every paragraph.
The best part of this book by far is the slow reveal of the story, the little hints O’Farrell drops here and there that make complete, shocking sense by the end. It was only on this second read through that I understood what happened in the last moments of the book, and it made the novel all the better. I love this book and feel like I’m not saying enough about it, but it’s hard to discuss without giving away plot points. So just go and read it. Do it now!
Her parents and sister were going ‘up country’, to a house party… Esme was staying behind because she was in disgrace for having walked along the driveway in bare feet. It had happened two days ago, on an afternoon so scorching her feet wouldn’t fit into her shoes. It hadn’t even occurred to her that it wasn’t allowed until her mother rapped on the drawing room window and beckoned her back inside. The pebbles of the driveway had been sharp under her soles, pleasurably uncomfortable.
She’d sat up and the fury was within her, and instead of saying, please give me my book, she said, I want to stay on at school.
She hadn’t meant to. She knew it wasn’t the time to bring this up, that it would get nowhere, but it felt sore within her, this desire, and she couldn’t help herself. The words came out from where they’d been hidden. Her hands felt strange and useless without the book and the need to stay at school had risen up and come out of her mouth without her knowing.
You are not well, the nurses tell her. You are not well, the doctor says. And Esme thinks she may be starting to believe this […] Later, during her long-awaited appointment with the doctor, she tells him she is feeling better. Those are the words she must use. She must let them know that she, too, thinks she has been ill; she must acknowledge that they were right after all. There has been something wrong with her but now she is mended.