Constant Havoc

Yes, I thought about this stuff before I put it here.

Living Abroad

from here to there

from here to there

I had the great fortune to live abroad for quite a number of years as a young adult. I called Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, England, and France home at one time or another. Reading travel writing is one of my favorites, and I get the most pleasure from what experienced writers have to say about their jaunts. I like both fiction and nonfiction when it comes to stories about life overseas.

Graham Greene wrote often about the many different places he visited. He is well known for The Quiet American, and I have a couple of favorite quotes from the book.

[Americans] were so charming, and I wanted to send them home too. (Part 3, ch. 2, 2)

Americans abroad need protection. We’re too cute for our own good.

“Perhaps you ought to have been a priest.” [Thomas]

“I didn’t read the right authors for that — in those days.” [Vigot] (Part 3, ch. 1, 1)

Reading plays an important formative role for all of us, and perhaps it’s a bit different for those who ruminate over words. I was marked and changed by Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The words, characters, and ideas of the book invaded my head at a young age. My university English professor, who guided me through Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, asked me why I’d thought I could read such a tome. My quick, youthful and honest reply was “Arrogance.”

Mark Twain traveled, and of course, he wrote.

The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak, now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother. I shall always delight to meet an ass after my own heart when I shall have finished my travels. Innocents Abroad, vol. 1, ch. 23

Of course, I am a consummate ass and a proud one, too. There’s such a wide world to see, and in the twenty-first century, it takes very little to become a consummate ass. Join us.

Nox by Anne Carson

Nox by Anne Carson is a type of accordion book.

Nox by Anne Carson is a type of accordion book.

I bought Anne Carson’s newest book the other day. She is one of two authors alive today whose works I will buy at the drop of a hat. (The other is Thomas Pynchon.) It’s called Nox, and it is a beautiful piece of literature. Physically, it is a beautiful book.

It’s more of a box than a book exactly. The box opens like a book, but the pages come out in accordion-like fashion as one long strip. It is one piece of long paper. At first, it’s difficult to decide how to handle these odd pages. I assumed the thing was fastened into the bottom of the box-book somehow, so I carefully held it in my lap and gently turned the pieces over revealing one page at a time the words.

Then came a section that ran on for several folds in the manuscript and made me look at the thing in a whole new light. I could lift out the front part and stretch the words out over several pages and take in a larger section than is normally afforded to the reader with the average book.

Finally, came the realization that the back of the manuscript was free of the bottom of the box-book. I could lift it entirely from its case. So, I did. I spread it out before me on the bed where I sat reading and took in the beauty of the lovely words that lay before me.

Nox is the Latin word for night, and the manuscript is a long, loving translation of Catullus 101. The pages alternate between dissertive translations of the poem word by painstaking word and fragments of letters from Ms. Carson’s deceased brother and her thoughts on their life and relationship. The manuscript is a facsimile of something she created for herself in memory of her brother.

There are old photographs and copies of handwritten letters. I should say that there are copies of torn pieces of letters from her brother. We are left wondering whether we have all to go by to decide what we should think.

But isn’t that life? Aren’t we in a constant state of wondering whether we have all the information we need to think?

The physical manuscript itself calls out to me and begs to be handled. It implores me to stretch it across the floor to try to piece it together.

Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

Even More Thoughts on Acting

To bring an audience the revelation of the failings and aspirations, the dreams and desires, the negative and the positive aspects of human beings—this is what we should set as our goal as committed theater artists. Then we will be respected and have respect for ourselves and respect for acting! —

Uta Hagen, Respect for Acting

I have read both of Uta Hagen’s books about acting and admire each one. Besides the one quoted above, there is Challenge for the Actor, which I prefer.

Revelation. That word is miraculous. I go about my days meeting various people in many different walks of life, and it’s always astonishing to me to think about their lives. I wonder what the home is like for the cashier at the grocery store. What story has the doctor just been a part of before he comes in to take a look at my sore throat? What’s going on with the friend who isn’t returning calls? The individuals I meet on a daily basis are full of failings and aspirations. They have inner lives that I can imagine and gather occasional glimpses of.

The study of people around me assists me in building a character. My role in a play assumes that I know much more about my character’s thoughts and actions than simply when he’s speaking. I have to know what he’s thinking between the lines. More acting happens when I’m not speaking than when I am. I’ve been in long scenes on stage with only 5 lines of my own, but my character must exist the whole time I’m in front of the audience. While it might not be written down, I have to know what my character would say if suddenly called upon to speak.

To get to that level of character, I have to work. I relate that work to my own life as well. What are my motives for pursuing a certain goal? What are the dreams and desires behind it? Finally, what are my negative and positive aspects that I present to the world every day? Playing me takes full time. I never get to lay it down, take off the costume, or wash off the makeup. I’m aware that I perform everywhere I go.

A Few More Thoughts on Acting

Johnston Forbes Robertson as Hamlet, Lyceum Theatre, London, 1897.

Johnston Forbes Robertson as Hamlet, Lyceum Theatre, London, 1897.

Is acting a craft? Is it an art? How do we allow for such differences in the acting world as lie between the Little Rascals on the one hand and Meryl Streep on the other? What makes an actor?

Stanislavsky was the first who put in writing what came to be a widely accepted answer. It became so widely accepted that it is accorded the status of a proper noun and capitalized as the Method. He put on paper a formula for creating a character that still carries weight today and still engenders controversy. In the same interview in 1961 quoted previously, Mr. Jose Ferrer said:

By definition, how can Stanislavsky’s so-called Method, which was created for the period of 1890 in Russia, be valid today,…in a period that has television, has the atom bomb, has radio, and media of communication for actors that didn’t exist for him.

Indeed, why does the Method still matter and what is it? Mr. Ferrer went on to call it a kind of realism arising out of the Industrial Revolution and the political milieu of the time also evident in Impressionism in painting and music. I am just beginning to read Creating a Role and Building a Character, but I know a lot of what I’m going to find simply due to being in and around the theater and actors since I was six.

An actor is more than a shell. He brings experience and talent to a role. His body carries physical memories of emotions. His mind remembers mental images of events. He is a whole, and a good actor applies it all to his assignment. He takes his own inner life and uses bits and pieces to create a character for the audience to believe in. He uses it all to craft a being to live and breathe its hour on the stage.

Shakespeare had something to say on the subject of acting in Hamlet (III.2):

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness…

Be not too tame neither; but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own image, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

Shakespeare draws a line between using all gently and anything so overdone. Isn’t he calling for realism? While the words here concentrate on outward shows of action, won’t the inward feelings follow that give the Player the ability to cry for Hecuba? Or is it all bound up in talent? I don’t know the full answer to that yet, and I’m looking forward to the possibility of discovering it.

A Few Thoughts on Acting

In an interview published in 1961, Jose Ferrer said, “I like to tell the author’s story. That’s the satisfaction of acting to me.” He stressed relaying the playwright’s narrative. He did not address the issue of absurdest theater in what I read, but I came away with the clear sense that the play’s the thing.

What is the actor’s responsibility to the script? Can it be as simple as to breathe life into it? An actor takes written words and transforms them into an oral medium. He gives them voice. If he’s any good, he may even give them life. But a lot happens between the first reading and the performance. Words spark imagination. Words inspire the actor to feel. A whole range of physical reactions stir the actor to create. And it all starts with words. Words. Words.

In another part of the interview, Mr. Ferrer described memorization as the most unpleasant part of the acting process, and I agree. There’s a tyranny of the script, and it makes me ask about the choices the author has made. Hamlet gives us a brilliant speech about his inept handling of his dead father’s wishes in “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” The words fight to get off the page and fly about the theater firing the passions of the hearers. Hamlet is chastened by the Player’s tears for an unknown Hecuba, while he himself toils with the knowledge of a dear murdered father.

Yet, when we see him next, Hamlet is lost in “To be, or not to be…” A good actor has to be responsible for the transition from one to the other. There must be a world he occupies where objects and events lead him from shouting to hesitation. What can the actor accomplish between those two disparate speeches to arrive from the passion of one to the pathos of the other?

The author only sets down what is absolutely necessary to advance the plot. Any extraneous speech, line, phrase, or word has to be struck from the page. While we can write reams about the difference between these two speeches and how inappropriate their timing may be, we have to assume that Shakespeare set them down on the page in sequence for a reason. In Olivier’s movie of Hamlet, he interposes the scene with Ophelia between the two. I think he does a disservice to the writer.

As Mr. Ferrer said, the actor is telling a story, one written by someone else (except on very rare occasions). The actor is not an editor. He is a vessel. He is the important transporter of the playwright’s words, delivering them to a receptive audience, hopefully, in a dynamic and correct manner. He exists to animate what is on the page.

“Never May the Fruit be Plucked” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

tomatoes

Never, never may the fruit be plucked from the bough

And gathered into barrels.

He that would eat of love must eat it where it hangs.

Though the branches bend like reeds,

Though the ripe fruit splash in the grass or wrinkle on the tree,

He that would eat of love may bear away with him

Only what his belly can hold,

Nothing in the apron,

Nothing in the pockets.

Never never may the the fruit be gathered from the bough

And harvested in barrels.

The winter of love is a cellar of empty bins,

In an orchard soft with rot.

In this poem, four lines are almost repeated save one or two words. Importantly, those changes are verbs. There is something in the action that the poet wants us to look at closely. In the lines beginning “never, never…,” plucked becomes gathered, and in the lines about the barrels, gathered becomes harvested. The ideas in the words rhyme. It’s interesting that she chose only 3 verbs to play with. Plucked. Gathered. Harvested.

Plucked has joy in it. Spring laughs.

Gathered begs multiplicity. It is full.

Harvested is final. Ripening completes.

And in the end, in love’s winter, nothing is stored but rots where it hangs or lays. The ripe, full joy comes to an inedible sour sweet stench.

Reading Opening Lines

Published 1973 by Jonathan Cape

Gravity’s Rainbow. Published 1973 by Jonathan Cape.

A screaming comes across the sky.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon opens with that sentence. I like the simple, declarative structure. Sound takes on the active role. Something that we see as normally passive and received becomes the actor, the mover. It does so in a medium that is painted with adjectives to adorn it with meaning. Here sky stands alone. It’s not stormy, blue, clear, cloudy, or even star-studded.

And how does sound relate to this empty sky? It comes. Of all the ways it could have passed, ridden, approached, or appeared. The whole idea has been stripped to its essence, and in those naked words, a glimmer of what is to come is born.

Opening sentences carry enormous responsibility in books. They have to inform the reader about the subject of the book, and good ones subtly set the tone. Great ones make the astute reader stop and stare. The line quoted above is one of those. It announces to anyone interested enough to consider it that the following book is going to be loud enough to fill an empty space. Gravity’s Rainbow roared into literary space in 1973 and has been the subject of study, adoration, and derision ever since. It happens to be one of my top 5 favorite books.

Another great book also opens simply. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden starts with “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” At first glance, the sentence is almost boring, until you consider the elements. There is a name, and there is place echoed from the book’s title. What follows in the story is a wrestling of name and identity in place that grows, anchors, and frees.

I read books. I can tell a lot by the opening line. I’ve read some pieces in which I knew the entire plot by the first sentence, and I’ve read some that needed a lot of work on that one little sentence.

My favorite opening line of all time comes from a little book with a big title, Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett. While it’s very good, no, the book did not win the National Book Award. That’s not what we’re here to consider.

What does the opening line say?

Lightning sought our mother out, when she was a young girl in Brown County, Indiana.

There it is. It’s got sentient natural electrical weather. It’s got the maternal role juxtaposed against the promise of a youthful girl. And it’s got place. I love that the moving inanimate electricity searches for the girl. It injects just a note of paranoia. But it’s in the past and in a seemingly unlikely place. The book goes on to fulfill the promise of this opening. It’s got bad weather and women and an odd place little thought of by people except those who live there.

When I browse bookshops, I often read the opening lines of books. I rarely look at what the cover has to say. The verbiage written on the dust jacket is advertising, but the opening line is there to hook me. It’s there to compel to read what follows.

Reading ‘ART’ by Yasmina Reza

There’s more to reading a play than meets the eye. When an actor reads one, he constantly looks for hints for building character. I look for little pictures in the words, for scenic interpretations to pop off the page.

Two friends came over the other day to read ‘ART’ by Yasmina Reza, and one picture presented itself in a humorous and dramatic way. The play is about three friends and a white painting that one has purchased for a small fortune. It’s a totally white painting. The words used to describe the piece by one of the friends are “resonance” and “system.” Another simply pronounces it “shit.” The playwright allows the characters the full range of reactions to what is essentially empty.

In any event, the whole situation is comical, and the way each character confronts this expensive void is telling. Their treatment of each other is what fills the picture. It’s what the artist really intended us to see. The culmination of which is a bit of physical confrontation resulting in one man’s ear being hit. He collapses in agony and holds a compress to his injury when what should appear but a rat.

A rat dashes through the room.

And isn’t that just like life? Just when we are brought to the utmost end of our tolerance, just when we strike out against our lack, just at the edge of our control, something small invades us. Here sits a man in pain inflicted on him by accident since the blow was meant for another, here are three friends driven to the extreme by an expanse of white canvas, and we are treated to a sideshow.

The three men are not so much in control as they imagine.

An actor reading a play molds the written words into mental images of stage action. He starts with emptiness and fills it with entrances, exits, walking, gesturing, shouting, whispering, and any other expression that comes to mind to fill the expansive theatre, to bring life to the void.

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