Sledgehammer of a Salesman

deathsalesmanLet me frame this one a little bit before diving in.

I read a lot of plays. More than I ever see. Where I live the opportunities are limited.

I’ve never been very well tuned to Shakespeare, although the recent Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Henry V was a stunning wake up call to what I’ve missed all these years.

I have never been able to get through any of Eugene O’Neill’s work. Still trying though.

I haven’t read Our Town either. I’ll get to it.

In fact, I’ve mostly tended toward modern angsty, or at least toward emotionally exhibitionist, works. I’d rather read Nicky Silver, Tracy Letts, David Lindsay-Abaire, or John Patrick Shanley than I would Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Samuel Beckett, the aforementioned O’Neill…

Or Arthur Miller.

Yet I recognize that these, and others, such as Chekhov, Wilde, Ibsen, Pinter, Brecht, and so on, are the foundation upon which the plays that speak to me are built on. I felt bereft of some element, some ingredient, some depth of field in my own artistic reserves. Clearly I needed to fill those reserves.

If you randomly asked 25 people on the street what is the greatest American play, I will bet that among the Our Towns and Streetcars, Miller’s plays will get the most nods – specifically Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. So I thought I must start with Miller.  As I’m middle-aged, and a salesman by trade, and having never been a witch or hanged one, perhaps Death of a Salesman was the place to start.

I approached the reading with great anticipation. One of THE great works of modern theater.  One of the greatest plays of the 20th century.  I already wanted to play Willy Loman (hey, in 10 years, damn it) and I hadn’t even read it.

Arthur Miller’s writing is electric. It is full of vigor and snap and wind:

Linda:  … I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person…

Willy Loman’s insecurity is palpable. His bullying of his wife and sons to protect his ego is heartbreaking and terribly accessible, at least to me. You can feel the chill of his oncoming dissolution and failure, that unavoidable collapse into powerlessness seeping in, page after page.

Linda’s codependency is frustrating and stifling, and you yearn for her to tear herself free from it – not from Willy necessarily, but from his emotional domination. You feel that it would actually help him if she did, as well as her. Biff’s purposelessness, the way he wanders unmoored, reaching for smoke rings, hits close to home.

The entire play crackles with power.

There is, of course, a big “BUT” coming.  Before I get to the “but” – this is sounding worse every minute – I want to say that I tend not to be contrary. If anything, my friends think that when it comes to theater, I’m not selective enough. They accuse me of loving everything under the lights.

Now that’s not true, not at all.

I didn’t care for Grand Hotel. A Chorus Line also didn’t do much for me.

I hate Oklahoma.

So now that I’ve cast myself the heathen, I’ll share the one big problem I had with Salesman.

(By the way, I don’t really have to worry about spoiling a 65 year old play, right?)

The play leads up to the big reveal, the one that is, to me, too telegraphed to begin with. True, he was Arthur Miller and I’m not. Still, it was obvious what was going to happen.

And I get that finding out the dad you idolize is just another traveling schlep who cheats on mom would be heartbreaking.

But it just seems to me that Miller drew that one *way* too on-the-nose, as it were. Not the dialogue itself, of course, but Miller seems to have drawn a huge, thick black line from this affair to Biff’s aimlessness, to Linda’s codependency, and to Willy’s self-destruction.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just being an asshole. Of the people I know who’ve had affairs, the process and its effects are far more subtle. The spouses wrangle and either deal with it or break it off. It’s variable, it’s convoluted, there are lies and denials, arguments and fights, highs and lows, hopes for a solution, despair at the end, all sorts of things. They affect all the lives around them. Yet the gravity of this one affair, and it’s overtly central place in the individual’s lives, didn’t strike me as quite as honest as the rest of the play. Yes, it destroys a family, or at least changes it drastically, and surely it changes people, but to be so thermonuclear in its effect, to lose the other subtleties and dynamics of such a situation left me wanting.

In truth, it probably it means I need to read it again. I have a very good actor friend, just about the right age, who is determined to play Willy Loman.  Maybe I ought to direct him. Maybe I just haven’t got underneath it enough.

After all, attention must be paid.

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Taking Leave of King Lear

This fall I’m directing an amazing play, Taking Leave, by Nagle Jackson.

When I read the script last year, I was blown away by its sense of truth, its humor, and its poignancy.

I’m a guy who is very into theater.  I love plays, and I would love to direct and perform in plays that probably wouldn’t suit our small town audience.  I’m always reading plays.  But not Shakespeare.  Not entirely anyway.  One I got all the way through and really enjoyed is “As You Like It.”  I have some ideas about that one, but that’s for another day.

I had never read Shakespeare’s King Lear, nor studied it, not had any idea what it was about, who the characters are, what happens to whom, and so on.  The main character in Taking Leave, Eliot Pryne, was, until getting Alzheimer’s, one of the nation’s leading experts on King Lear.  Therefore I assumed, at the very least, that Taking Leave contained references to King Lear.  But it’s apparent that there are more references than I thought, and I’ve caught close to zero of them.

So it’s time to slog through King Lear.  I say slog not because of the quality of the play, but because of my non-existent grasp of the dialect of the day.

Oh well, at least I’ll be able to count myself among the crowd that has read King Lear.  I hear it’s fairly small and exclusive.

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Gotta Have Game

I love this article:

In Support of Play

I have loved the theater since my fifth grade teacher handed me a script, the lead, and a chance to be good at something since I wasn’t good at paying attention, doing my homework, or any other part of the normal schooling experience.  There is nothing like the process of learning a role, of becoming, getting underneath, finding the heart of a character.

Finding the truth in a play doesn’t happen when you’re first reading through a script.  It can’t be fully discovered in a reading, no matter the talent of the readers.  But the magic of discovery when an actor is making their character’s words their own is unique.  It usually is only uncovered after weeks and even months of rehearsal, learning, tying together, asking why.  Sometimes it’s a slow dawning.  Sometimes it’s an “A-ha!”  Sometimes it only comes with some real hashing and digging.  Sometimes the actor finds it on their own.  Sometimes the director, the other actors, the stage manager, whomever, provides that key, that breaking point.

It’s not a science.  You don’t engineer it.  It doesn’t follow a formula.  It’s found by playing.  There is no substitute for play in its fullest experience and expression.


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Welcome to AnthonyWrites

Welcome to the newly restored AnthonyWrites, now on WordPress.  Like many others, I left behind Livejournal and add this to my other WP blogs.

I may eventually move my old posts from my Livejournal site, but for now I plan to start fresh.

My current WIP is a full length stage drama/dark comedy titled “It’s Not Love on My Part,” about a family whose vigil over their comatose, dying father becomes a reckoning over the wreckage of their past.

I’m nearly done with the first act and already sketching out the second.  I really need to get it done because I have two more plays scratching at the inside of my skull, dying to escape, living only in little parcels of handwritten scraps.

One is titled “Kilroy’s Unfinished Symphony,” about a brilliant concert pianist whose career had been derailed by substance abuse.  Now, several years into recovery, teaching a teenage prodigy opens the raw wounds of his own childhood trauma.

The other is tentatively titled “A Few Too Many Things,” about an elderly woman whose clinically out of control hoarding has forced a do-or-die confrontation with her son and daughter-in-law.

As I progress I’ll post occasional updates.  Hopefully a year or two down the road, I’ll be posting notices of readings and development.  But for now, it’s just me writing.


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