Thursday, June 2, 2016

Realism Lays Brutality Bare

A Young Vic production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Benedict Andrews, came to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.  Having seen Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, another Young Vic production two years ago, which featured a frenetically rotating house set (by Ian McNeill), I was weary when I read that here again the house set (by Magda Willi) rotated. But it was fine; with the seating on all four sides, the house moved slowly most of the time to allow the audience on all sides to see the action fully.  The production was intensely dramatic, gripping for sure, almost to the extent of exhausting the audience.  I was however left with a mixed feeling.  For one, Gillian Anderson as Blanche, praised by critics, was for me far too frenetic; her overdone Southern accent and her histrionic actions to match it at once stood out against the rest of the cast and at the same time set the tone of the entire play by dominating it. The action was set in a characterless, almost antiseptic, skeletal house, as dictated no doubt by the present day the play was placed; I missed the sense of the locale, the sultry air and languid squalor of New Orleans’ French Quarter, an integral element in Williams’ creation; and, so, Anderson’s Blanche also disturbed me in her lack of the ethereal otherworldliness I expected of the character.  In saying this, I am remembering the two earlier productions (aside from the 1951 Elia Kazan film featuring Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, and Kim Hunter): one in 2005 at Studio 54, directed by Edward Hall and featuring Natasha Richardson, John C. Reilly, and Amy Ryan, and the other in 2009 at BAM Harvey, directed by Liv Ullman and featuring Cate Blanchett, Joel Edgerton, and Robin McLeavy; both were very impressive and the latter, in particular, is still vivid in my mind.  Pervasive cruelty in Blanche but above all in Stanley’s physical brutality disturbed me almost painfully.  A part of this effect had to the proximity of the actors to the audience; they deployed the floor around the house, brushing the knees of the first-row spectators.  But I alsowondered if I am getting too old to take violence enacted on stage.

This thought, however, led me deeper into the matter of Tennessee William;’s plays, many of which deal with human cruelty of one kind or another, and I began to see that the nature of realism in modern theater brings it closer to us and more immediate in contrast to the stylization that prevailed in older forms of theater.  Certainly, cruelty of all kinds abounds in Green drama — revenge, torture, and murder, all colorful and terrifying as such but distanced one way or another; they may take place off stage, or else be told but not shown, and if shown formalized, and this is true in Shakespeare and opera and Kabuki, this last being the theater I was nurtured in.  When a realist play like Williams’ is realized in the Stanislavskian mode in which authenticity is insisted upon more than, or even instead of, credibility, violence on stage achieves such immediacy as to close the aesthetic distance between fiction and reality.  If cruelty is psychological as in the plays of Strindberg, whose The Father was recently performed in a production by the TFANA, featuring remarkable John Douglas Thompson as the Captain, the distance is harder to close compared with physical brutality.  Violence in close prosimity becomes menacing. Realism, possibly by its nature, lays brutality bare.

Vacation or Vocation

Vacation means vacating, that is to say, leaving home, customarily in town, to spend time elsewhere, more often in the countryside which conventionally suggests the seashore or the mountains, sometimes abroad, in order to escape the seasonal discomfort like the summer heat and winter cold.  Vacationers go to live  in a country house or a beach house, owned or rented, or else stay in an inn or a hotel.  Underlying the notion of vacation is the urban living, which developed into a norm with the rise of the industrialization.  The more strict sense of vacation, dictionaries explain, is a scheduled period of closing the shop as applied to schools and law courts.  The term vacation, meaning the leave of absence from a regular occupation is a more recent usage, and it is a notion integral in that of the wage, also a product of industrial revolution, by which a worker is paid by the hour rather than by the output of the work.  Since work by wage is bound to be tedious in so far as it is the result of the division of labor and imposes a high degree of repetition and monotony, work came to mean something onerous which requires the worker to “take a break” from now and then to provide a respite, to recuperate. So, vacation in contemporary usage came to mean, especially for wage earners, an escape not so much from any climatic discomfort but from boredom of work and as such a necessity verging on obligation. 

In the preindustrial society before the coinage of the term, presumably early in the nineteenth century, work was self-motivated, certainly for artisans, merchants, and farmers. The modern connotation of work as something that has to be done obligatorily to earn a living and thus opposed to play and pleasure was unknown in old times as for old-style artists and craftspersons today who work with pride in the works they produce, for whom work is a vocation.  A priest, if he takes a vacation, does not stop being a priest; but a lawyer away from her or his office on vacation apparently ceases his lawyerly work.  Anyone who keeps working while allegedly on vacation, unable to escape deploying all the modern means of communication to stay in touch with the office, is thought to be wasting a vacation time by neglecting the obligation to “take a break.”  This is not to say that old-time and old-style craftspersons did not have a break; breaks were interspersed in their day.  A potter does not necessarily stay at the wheel all day; a novelist does not necessarily sit to write all day.  On the other hand, any creative work basically has no scheduled vacation.  A writer walking down the street is likely to be rewriting in her or his mind a section of the work in progress; a composer slurping ramen noodle may be rolling in her or his mind a motif in the piece currently being composed. An architect, jostled in a crowded subway, could well be mentally redrawing an elevation.  A creative artist’s work continues while traveling, probably even more intensely in new environments as being abroad.  In creative efforts, work is play and vice versa; so, the notion of vacation understood in the contemporary office culture does not exist.  The idea of “paid vacation” is a modified bonus; paid as it is, it paradoxically makes vacations a part of office work away from the office.  Curiously, creative work, like vocation, is continually a vacation, while uncreative work, typically in office culture, is obligatorily a work even on vacation. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Last Sips are Always the Best

I enjoy coffee every morning at breakfast.  After finishing the fruits, customarily an apple sliced thin and covered with Greek yogurt, I take a few sips before starting the plate of bacon, egg, and toast, and they are piping hot and very good.  I have it in large white mug, the size of the French cafĂ© au lait bowl.  So, after cleaning up the plate, there are always a few sips left at the bottom of the mug, by then no longer hot. But those last sips are always the best.  Dark brown against the white walls of the mug, they are beautiful to the eye and, lukewarm, they are more acutely sensed by the taste bud.  This is one of those trifles in life that gives such a tremendous joy and there is nothing trifling about it.