Wednesday, May 26, 2010

(Smiles back, with a hint of menace)

I recently finished reading Albee’s “A Delicate Balance.” It’s one of those plays that I’ve always meant to read but somehow never got around to. Anyway, finally I did. As I understand it, this was the play that turned his ascendant star on a downward trajectory that would lead to many years in the wilderness in the eyes of the critics. After the raw, brutal brilliance of “Woolf” it’s not hard to see why this play was the cause of some disappointment, and indeed head scratching. It did, however, win the Pulitzer that year…though, as so often happens with Academy Awards, I think this may have been in part something of an atonement for past misjudgments – i.e. “Woolf” not getting it.

However, I found the play to be quite affecting for the most part, and at times rather harrowing. I'm certain that any play he’d written after the huge critical and commercial success of “Woolf” would inevitably have been seen as something of a letdown. Consequently, I don’t think this play has been given a fair shake, and I wish it was produced more often, as I would love to see it performed. Although “Woolf” has its share of Albee’s penchant for metaphor and clever wordplay (something which some of his later plays have a little too much of in my opinion – and I say this as someone who puts Albee on a higher pedestal than any other living playwright), it also has a grounded quality that never alienates you from the reality of the characters’ lives. “Balance,” though, has an odd combination of realism and something else - I resist calling it absurdism, as that, to my mind, is misleading. Perhaps, hallucinatory would be closer to the mark – a heightened, nightmarish realism. I would reserve judgment on how well they work together in this particular play, as I’ve not seen it, but it certainly made for some interesting, and on occasion, very disturbing reading.

One thing about the play that I also found quite surprising was his bounteous use of stage direction. Albee is famous (some directors might say infamous) for his insistence that his plays be performed exactly as written, down to the last stage direction. I myself believe that is the playwright’s prerogative, and is no more unreasonable than a composer insisting that every note in his score be played as written. However, in “Balance” almost every piece of dialogue is preceded by a very specific piece of stage direction, frequently long and detailed. I don’t recall ever having seen so many stage directions in a play before. Clearly, Albee wants (and has every right to expect) his play to be heard exactly the way he heard it in his head. But not until I’d seen the stage directions in this script did I realize just how exactly that was. Quite amazing, really.

For my own work, the amount of stage direction I include depends entirely on the individual play. Some have quite a few (though not by Albee standards) and some almost none. The latter are a minority, I admit, but occasionally I’ll write something that really can’t be choreographed, as it were, until it’s on a stage being worked through by the actors and the director. Perhaps all of Albee’s plays are this heavily loaded with stage direction. I suspect they are and will definitely investigate further.

But all of this talk of stage direction brings me to my final comment. There are those (including a lot of playwrights, in fact) who frown upon using much stage direction. There are also those who will readily trot out that crusty old adage that “plays are meant to been seen, not read.” And to those people, I will say this: Whatever else may happen to a play, it is – without exception – read before anything else. Nothing happens to that play until after it’s been read by someone somewhere, who must imagine as they do so, what the script would play like on a stage. There is no way around this. Therefore, if the playwright wishes to have the reader understand their work as they’d intended, they have to arm the reader with as many signposts and as much information as is needed to achieve that.

That old adage is true in principle, but in practice, if your play doesn’t read well…it may never be seen.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Cormorant Comma Rant

Here’s a fine example of why the common-or-garden comma (not just the Oxford variety) should be embraced with open arms. While reading a review by Michael Billington of a play called Madagascar in yesterday’s Guardian, I stumbled (literally) upon this sentence:

"Lillian, speaking five years ago, is a super-civilised American dwelling on her son's defection, possibly to Madagascar."

How, I asked myself, could Lillian be a house? Was it metaphor? Symbolism? Theatre of the absurd? No, it was none of those. It was, of course, the absence of a comma that lay behind my initial confusion. Now, I’m sure there are plenty who would read that sentence for the first time without any misunderstanding or puzzled double-take. But I’m also confident that there are many who, like me, had to reread the line before understanding its intent.

In Mr. Billington’s case, I’m sure this omission was more of an oversight that a conscious decision. But it does highlight what I see as a world that increasingly finds the use of proper punctuation to be an option and not an obligation. Hardly a day goes by that I’m not tripped up while reading an article, often in some of the most vaunted and respected publications, where lack of punctuation has punctured the flow of the piece. This has increased alarmingly as the use of email and “quick” writing has rapidly become the norm, and is especially prevalent in the news media, where the 24/7 news cycle has pushed expediency at the expense of accuracy. But I also think that a lot of it is simply laziness, where too many people just aren’t willing to make the little extra effort that’s required. Unfortunately, the more people there are that adopt this laissez-faire attitude, the more acceptable it becomes, until eventually it’s no longer perceived as poor grammar, but rather a more modern approach to writing.

Yes, language is something that continually evolves over time – this is a given. At the same time, there are certain fundamentals of language that have to be respected, lest we devolve into a world of BlackBerry-speak and shapeless rambling.

I am not a grammarian. My grammar is not perfect (I’m quite sure this blog is riddled with imperfections and mistakes). But punctuation is a valuable toolbox that allows the writer to structure sentences so that his or her literary intentions are clearly set out, while affording the reader a smoother and more immediately coherent reading experience.

And finally…this rant went on far longer than I intended. I shall stop now.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Folk Tales

Yesterday, Playbill announced that Joan Collins would be making her pantomime debut in “Dick Whittington” at the Birmingham Hippodrome this Christmas. Among the other stars mentioned who will be joining her in this production was the (very funny) comedian Julian Clary. What the article neglected to mention, though, was the fact that when Julian Clary began his career, he went by the stage name (moniker?) “The Joan Collins Fan Club.” And thus a beautiful symmetry was wrought that day and the sun shone just a little bit brighter.

And yet I can’t help feeling I should be applying my focus to more weighty matters.

Hmm…what would Goodluck Jonathan do?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Mr. Jonathan’s Big Day

You might think that the inauguration of a new President in the most populous country in Africa would have considerable global press coverage…but alas, no. Yesterday, this event – whilst obviously a matter of great significance for Nigeria’s 150 million people – slipped by with barely a flicker of acknowledgement from the fourth estate. It seems to me that Western media seem completely uninterested in what happens on that continent unless it relates to war, famine, or disease, and consequently frame and define Africa through such a prism for the more casual observers of world affairs. This is a shame, obviously, but I must confess that the main reason that the swearing in of Nigeria’s new president caught my eye was because of something equally facile…his name: Goodluck Jonathan.

How odd, I thought. And yet, how perfect. His parents, in their infinite wisdom, bestowed upon him from the very moment of his birth, a benediction in perpetuity.

Let’s hope that it bodes well for his time in office and that he can do great things for his country and soon bring peace to the Niger Delta. Good luck, Goodluck!

Perhaps one day I’ll write a play about his rise to power, the title of which would simply be “Goodluck Jonathan.” What else do you need?

That said, I'm not sure I'd have been entirely thrilled with them had my parents decided to name me Bestwishes Biss.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Recently Cited

I saw this excellent quote from Moss Hart in The Dramatist (the Guild's bi-monthly magazine):

"I was the guy there when the paper was white."

Great stuff. And I think I'm quoting it accurately...but if not, remember the words of Hesketh Pearson:

“Misquotation is ... the pride and privilege of the learned. A widely-read man never quotes accurately for the rather obvious reason that he has read too widely.”

Hesketh Pearson (1887 – 1964) English biographer and writer

Thanks, Hesketh, I’ll try to remember that (but not accurately).

Sunday, May 2, 2010

What's in a Name?

I just recently finished a short play entitled "A Small Act of Vandalism." It's part of a larger project I've been working on for sometime now - a collection of one-person plays centered around a theme. Yes, I'm aware that this is not exactly an original concept, but let's face it, a four character, two-act play is hardly a groundbreaking idea either, is it?

Anyway, every time I've finished one of these, I've run up against the same problem...what do I label it? Is it a monologue? A one-person play (as noted above)? A monologue play? Or just a play? I hesitate to call them monologues or even monologue plays, even though technically that's what they are, as I think calling it a monologue somehow suggests that it's something less than an actual play. This is not the case, but I think there's a tendency to see them as pieces or extracts rather than complete stories. I've been drawn to the idea of calling them one-person plays, but in another sense that seems rather silly. It's not as if you would call a two-character full-length play " a two-character play." Or a duologue play, for that matter. So, after much rumination, I have decided to simply call them "plays," as in "A Small Act of Vandalism - a play by Andrew Biss." While this may all sound very punctilious, it's been (perhaps bizarrely) the cause of some consternation for a while now. So, having happily resolved my pedantic crisis, I am now free to contemplate the larger issues around me, such as war, famine, and the decline of Western civilization.

All in good time...