Sunday, February 28, 2010

Behind the Scenes

Not much going on at this blog lately, so if you're looking for new blogs to read, here are some new blogs from friends of mine that take you behind the scenes at two different theatrical productions:

A Farm in Harmony.  Ethan Angelica, a former Latin student of mine and a professional actor based in Brooklyn, is on the road with Theatreworks/USA's production of Click, Clack, Moo. Follow his adventures as Farmer Brown, and see him in a chicken suit, here.

Neverwhat?  Maren Robinson is a professional dramaturg in Chicago.  Her current project is a production of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere.  She and the director team up to blog their work-in-progress here.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

50

Note: For those of you who couldn't make it to the Northfield Arts Guild this evening for the special reading in honor of the NAG's 50th anniversary, here's the poem I wrote for the occasion.

Fifty

In celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Northfield Arts Guild

Unless, like Nicolas Copernicus,
it happens to be your birthday,
no one celebrates February 19th,
the fiftieth day of the year.
Fifty is ordinary, not golden
(the atomic number of tin)
and not even as old as it once was:
fifty, we are told, is the new thirty.
Sure, fifty has some interesting
mathematical properties—
it’s the smallest sum
of two squares in two different ways—
but fifty percent is still only half:
half-hearted, half-empty,
a failing grade on any scale.
So I suppose what we celebrate,
after all, is not completion,
but the brief moment of equipoise
and everything that falls on either side—
so much putting up and taking down;
so many rehearsals,
the striking of so many sets;
so many lumps of clay,
so many empty bowls to fill.
What matters most in this poem
may be the word “unless,”
or it may be the shape of the whole—
the performance, the painting in its frame,
the bowl that you fill
with whatever part of yourself
you offer to the experience of art.
Or the most important part
may be what happens next,
when the poem supposedly ends,
and there is still so much more to say.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Reading Journal: "Mariana"

Monica Dickens, Mariana. Persephone Books 2006/2008. Originally published in 1940.

Mariana opens as Mary Shannon, a young English wife, hears the news on the wireless that the naval destroyer on which her husband is serving has struck a mine. There are survivors—but in the midst of a storm, the telephone lines are down, and Mary has to wait until morning to go into town to get more news. Unable to sleep, she lies in bed and looks back on her life to this point: her childhood and education, her relationship with her independent mother and the rest of her extended family, and her faltering search for the right man. The title of the novel comes from Tennyson's poem of the same name, about a waiting woman whose lover "cometh not."

The novel is episodic. Mary is an engaging character, and Dickens is an engaging and humorous writer, but this long novel (377 pages) will not sustain the interest of every reader. It's the kind of leisurely, character-driven novel I enjoy, in the rather specialized genre of the English girl's interwar coming-of-age story. Other novels in the genre include Rosamond Lehmann's Dusty Answer (1927), E. Arnot Robertson's Ordinary Families (1933), and, from a slightly later period, Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (1948). Of these, Robertson's and and Smith's are my favorites. Both are written in the first-person, and capture not only the stories, but the distinctive voices of their young narrators. Perhaps especially for me, as a male reader, the first-person narration further collapses the distance between me and the female narrator, and makes it easier to enter her experience through her voice in my head.

Harriet Lane, in her introduction to the Persephone edition, writes that Dickens's handling of her material is "cinematic." Some of the most successful scenes early in the novel—the train journey to the family's summer home, the exhilarating hunt scene—unreel with cinematic vividness. Mary's uncle is an actor who makes a specialty of portraying slightly dotty monocled aristocrats, and eventually receives the call from Hollywood. Mary herself briefly attends acting school, before following her mother into the dressmaking business. Dressing up is important in the novel—costuming, surfaces that don't always conceal depths. Mary puts herself into various scenes—acting school, a Parisian romance—searching for one in which the depths will be as beautiful as the surfaces, in which she'll feel like she's living her own reality, not simply playing a part in someone else's scene.

Early in the novel, Mary's uncle invites her out to a Tom Mix cowboy feature. But Uncle Geoffrey falls in with a group of his theatrical friends, and ends up leaving Mary to go to the cinema alone. For Mary, the experience is emancipating. "She was one with the dashing, miraculous cowboy." Some art, some films and novels, creates that feeling of identification, that complete absorption in another life. But I never felt entirely absorbed in Mary's life.

Public Poetry at the Northfield Public Library

In early August, the director of the Northfield Public Library, Teresa Jensen, asked me to write a poem to be displayed prominently in the...