Monthly Archives: August 2013
Most children in the first world saw Mary Poppins during their childhood. I was one of these kids, but to be honest, I don’t remember much of it. From what I remember of the title character, Mary Poppins was a magical, mysterious nanny who seemed strict upon introduction, but soon softens and speaks nonsense words while skipping through animated flowers.
P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins is a bit different. She’s still a magical, mysterious nanny, but there is no singing from this Mary Poppins- in fact, there is rarely a smile. Travers’ Poppins is a real person, which is to say, she is very flawed. She is vain, constantly admiring her reflection in windows, and is rather cold toward her charges throughout the novel. She’s even stern toward people she loves, like Bert the street artist and her uncle, and when caught doing a good deed, she brushes away compliments with “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The Banks children, despite their nanny’s coldness (or perhaps because of it), are fascinated by her. After all, she can have conversations with dogs, disappear into sidewalk drawings, and has an uncle who floats in midair when he laughs on his birthday. She’s not one to offer them a cuddle, but they are drawn to her nonetheless. The infant Banks twins too, love Mary Poppins because she understands what they’re saying where other adults think the babies are just gurgling.
Travers’ book is fantastical and charming, full of grand talking animals and a magical version of London where dogs have deep friendships and constellations appear on Earth in human form to do their Christmas shopping. It also discusses the tragedy of growing up from the points of view of both the child and the child’s elders, and parents’ stress about raising children well.
The reason I read this book was because of the upcoming movie, Saving Mr. Banks, which is about Travers’ response to the making of the Mary Poppins film. In the trailer, it is revealed that one of the reasons why Travers is so upset by Disney’s approach to the story is that he is missing the point: the nanny doesn’t come to rescue the children or the family… she’s there to, as the upcoming movie’s title suggests, save Mr. Banks. I approached the novel excited to see the complexities of that in the novel, but wasn’t able to find even an inkling of that. Mr. Banks is barely in the story, and when he is, he has very little contact with Mary Poppins. This is obviously not a criticism of the novel- Travers’ book stands on its own as a great piece of writing for children, and she can’t be held accountable for themes that are tagged on by others- but I am disappointed that the thing that most drew me to the upcoming film has very little root in the original source. But that shouldn’t dissuade people from reading the novel, especially if they’re a fan of Roald Dahl, whose style Travers’ is very like.
Bekah Brunstetter’s play I Used to Write on Walls seems to fulfill the dreams of any casting director looking for a contemporary play featuring women: the cast requires six women and only one man, and the women have fairly well-written speaking parts, some of them largely monologues.
The play features Diane, a 30-something cop; Georgia, a 22 year-old beat poet; and Joanne, a lonely 30-something. Also featured are 11 year-old Anna, two mothers (one to Anna and one to Diane, played by the same person), and Mona, a possibly crazy former astronaut. The synopsis on the back of the book describes the play as featuring the lives of these women and how they navigate their opportunities and their passions and fantasies. But as it happens, the thing all of these women are focused on is a man, which completely ruins the play’s fantastic feminist opportunities.
I Used to Write On Walls opens with young Anna on her eleventh birthday. Within five lines, she’s longing for her period. I took that in stride; plenty of eleven year old girls long for that first step into womanhood. It’s actually kind of cute that in her second scene, she makes a list of all the “womanly” supplies she’ll need: tampons, Pamprin, an overwhelming sense of joy. It’s not even too much that Anna asks her mom if Anna has begun to develop. But Brunstetter takes it several steps too far by giving Anna a vocabulary that’s obviously only there to shock the audience: instead of Anna asking her mother if she’s growing “boobies” or “breasts” or something along those lines, Anna’s line is, “That dress makes my titties look small!” She also talks about shedding her placenta (even though she doesn’t actually know what a placenta is), and repeats something she’s overheard about her mother recieving oral sex from the mom’s boyfriend. If a play discusses these subjects intelligently, or even just with a reason, I think that strong choice can be great. But Brunstetter seems to have written this just to make sure that we know that she’s an Edgy Playwright.
Then we meet Trevor. His character description reads as follows: 24. Sexy. Oh my God. Sexy. Stoned, oblivious. Philosopher, Surfer, Skater. When I first read this, I thought it was funny. It hinted at a candid, colloquial writing style that I tend to enjoy. But the fact that every scene that featured Trevor (nine out of the twelve) revolved around his hotness and the desperation for him being experienced by whichever woman happened to be onstage at the time made me a little ill. Even his cousin (who we find out at the end of the play is Anna) is romantically linked to him. The play fails the Bechdel test at every single turn, especially in moments like Joanne’s first conversation with Diane, when Joanne proclaims that she’s finally discovered her self-confidence and says it’s because “I met a boy. A guy. I mean a man-person.”
I almost stopped reading this play mid-way through, but kept going, hoping it would get better. Besides its potential to be a great almost-all-female cast, there was also a fantastic opportunity to show female relationships, namely mother-daughter ones, and especially the one between Anna and her mother. Anna is beautiful, so beautiful that her only-sort-of-pretty mother can hardly bear to look at her. There was such a great chance to subtlely reveal Anna’s mother’s jealousy and insecurity, but instead, these feelings are broadcast through lines such as, “I DESERVE TO FEEL PRETTY TOO” and, when she looks at Anna, “Ow” (because, you know, it hurts.)
i would write more, but it’d just be me complaining a lot, so I’ll leave it here. The play was disappointing. Ow (it hurts me that it was.)
“We met two months ago. The day I made up my new name. When I signed up for the poetry thing where we met. I go to write my name down, but I didn’t write my name, GEORGIA. I mean, fuck all names that are also secretly states or flowers or feelings.”
MOTHER: I don’t want to- but I have to bring up Robert and how-
DIANE: WE DON’T SAY THAT NAME. I don’t know that name. That name is a dead word.
MOTHER: It took a long time to cancel all the catering and flowers. There are still envelopes in the attic. I’m just asking, are you SURE?
DIANE: YES. WE HAVE SEX.
TREVOR: Where’s your husband?
TREVOR: What for?
MONA: Beating me up. And I have an MFA. You can’t beat on somebody with an MFA.