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March 11, 2009

Somebody call Equity! The actors are leading an uprising!

"Stop! Stop! Don't play this scene. You know what happened last night. Stop the play."
--The Skin of Our Teeth, page 112

Thornton Wilder definitely does not try to make the audience forget they're watching a play in The Skin of Our Teeth. In fact, he kind of hits them over the head with that fact numerous times, just as they're about to get invested in the actual story of the play-within-the-play. This line is a great example of that; this is a very tense moment in which Henry is supposed to attack Mr. Antrobus, but Sabina immediately jumps into the middle of it and kills the illusion of the "story" of the play. She does the same thing in refusing to play the scene where she convinces Mr. Antrobus to leave his wife. However, the story of the play not only contains the story of the Antrobus family, but also the story of the actors attempting to enact the story of the Antrobus family. The purpose of substituting some of the most important moments of the play with moments in which the actors express that they're not able or don't want to perform the most important moments of the play is still a little unclear to me. You might think this would distance the audience from emotionally connecting to the play. But right from the beginning, the device of having the actors break character seems to be a way of inviting the audience in. They might be put off by the bizarreness of the play, but the fact that the actress playing Sabina is also frustrated with the bizarreness of the play kind of lets the audience accept the bizarreness a little more, I think. Similarly, I think the intention of replacing the climactic moment of Henry attacking his father with a scene where the actor playing Henry talking about how emotional the moment makes him could be to get the audience to consider the implications that moment might have for the real world instead of dismissing it as part of a bizarre play that doesn't relate to their lives at all.
I haven't seen or heard of any recent productions of this play, but I wonder how effective this technique would be in a contemporary production. The "actors" in the play don't speak like actors from 2009, so I think there might be more of an awareness of the fact that the actors are playing actors playing characters, which might just turn out to distance the audience even more from the play. It's always a tricky thing to have those different layers of reality, and I think if you're going to do it you need to have one layer of reality that's closer to the audience, or else they won't know which part of the story to invest in more. Does anyone else have an opinion on how this technique would play to contemporary audiences? As a theatre major, I'm totally geeking out over the whole subject.

Conformity can stand out too

"Sameness doesn't present us with metaphorical possibilities, whereas difference--from the average, the typical, the expected--is always rich with possibility."
--How to Read Literature Like a Professor, page 194

While I agree that difference is always rife with metaphorical possibilities, I'm not sure if I'd agree that sameness never can be metaphorical. If a character appears to dress and act exactly like all of the other characters in her or his environment, that tells you a lot about that character's need to fit in and feel like she or he belongs in a certain group. Conformity can sometimes actually be more disturbing than deviating from the norm, as evidenced by The Stepford Wives. I guess in extreme circumstances, conformity can almost become a kind of deformity, if all individuality is stripped away and people become like robots. There's a lot that can be said about being average or normal in a work of literature. Because "normal" is defined by the expectations of the society the character belongs to, so characters can in a way represent the society they are a part of. That seems pretty metaphorical to me. I've got The Bald Soprano on my mind because Jen brought it up on her blog, so I'll use it as an example here too. All of the characters in that play seem extremely bizarre to us, but in the world of that play they are behaving as if their nonsensical conversations were as normal as could be. The characters are blandly named Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Mr. and Mrs. Martin, Mary, and the Fire Captain, and none of them has any ostensible physical abnormality. The fact that they all appear to be conformists tells you a lot about the society Ionesco is depicting--a world devoid of all rational communication. The characters attempt to make sense using methods of communication that are accepted by the other characters in the play yet fail miserably in stringing together coherent thoughts. This is a very powerful way to use conformity. While deformity can certainly be used as a very effective metaphor for a character's inner characteristics or how that character fits into society, I think conformity can also be used to tell you the same things.

March 20, 2009

Road as a Distraction

"Every day they return to the same spot, hoping the unseen Godot will show up, but he never does, they never take the road, and the road never brings anything interesting their way. In some places writing something like that will get you a fifteen-yard penalty for improper use of a symbol."
--How to Read Literature Like a Professor, page 236

This quote interested me on a number of levels. First of all, I might argue that the road does bring something interesting their way, namely Pozzo, Lucky, and the Messengers. I don't know if Foster considers these characters interesting, but they certainly are something in a vast sea of nothing. I do recognize the wonderful irony of having a road that the main characters never travel on, but it is at least traveled. I'm not sure a two-act play can really sustain two hours of pure inaction, which is why this view of irony in the play is a little troublesome for me. Theatre practitioners are constantly looking for the action of the story, so just putting characters on a road and having them not do anything can be problematic. However, I definitely think there is action in Waiting for Godot--that's why it's a good play. Didi and Gogo are constantly wrestling over the decision to leave, but they constantly decide not to. The fact that there's still a hope they can leave creates the irony. We think the action is going to go forward in a straight line, but it ends up going in circles; our expectations are frustrated, and that's irony. It's not monotonous to watch them do this; sometimes the circles are more like ovals and seem to be going in a straight line for a second, then not.
I think all stories have to have action; it can be ironic to have a story with no action but it would probably make an awfully boring story. Where irony can come in is tricking the reader into thinking there will be one kind of througline of action and then giving them another one that they completely don't expect. It might seem that there is no action since it's not the one we expect, but we'll keep reading because there is constantly a tension between what we think might happen and what actually does.

March 21, 2009

The Real World Can Serve as Evidence Now??

"If the novel caused both the government and the nation-at-large to reevaluate federal irrigation subsidies for corporate growers, clearly it must have effectively criticized the inequity and corruption infusing California's water-appropriation schema."
--"Turning wine into water: Water as privileged signifier in The Grapes of Wrath.", pages 91-92

This article presents a really good example of presenting a counter-argument and addressing it in-depth, but some of Cassuto's reasoning in his refuting of the counter-argument seems a little sketchy to me. Worster claims that the novel failed to address the issue of distribution of water, and Cassuto refutes that by claiming that since the government reevaluated water distribution after the novel was published, the novel must have addressed the issue somehow. This feels a little like he's doing what we've often been told not to do: using evidence from the real world to support a claim about a fictional work. I'm not sure that Cassuto ever presents any concrete evidence that clearly links the publication of the novel with the government's changing water policies; he mentions there was debate about the novel in the government and that Eleanor Roosevelt endorsed it as being accurate, but doesn't go much farther than that. Certainly the novel could have influenced lawmakers, but there are numerous other factors that could have influenced them as well. The novel addresses the plight of migrant workers, but just because it could have helped cause the government to find solutions to address this plight does not mean the novel itself proposed a specific solution. If the novel failed to condemn "hydrological autocracy" and merely suggested that "putting the land in the hands of the migrants" would solve all the problems as Cassuto claims that Worster incorrectly asserts, government officials may have been motivated to act by the novel but seek out better solutions to the problem than the ones the novel presents. Just because it points out a problem that the government later attempted to solve does not mean it actually presented the solution the government came up with.
While I think it was an effective technique to refute Worster's argument by pointing out ways in which water acts as an "absent signifier" in the work itself, it seems weird backward reasoning to me to use actions of people in the real world after the novel came out to back up an assertion about something the author did in writing the novel. Novels often cause reactions that the author did not intend or foresee, so suggesting this reaction was somehow evidence of an author's conscious technique feels a little off to me.

Uh oh...I'm in trouble

"It has recently been suggested, by reputable researchers, that there may well be a link between certain disturbances and creative achievement and that artists are unusually susceptible to major depressions."
--Eight American Poets, page xxi

As I was reading this sentence, I couldn't help but feel a little uncomfortable. As an actor and a writer, I guess I'm what you might call an artist of sorts, and I don't particularly care for the idea of going into a major depression. Of course, they go on to say that mental illness is particularly prevalent among "gifted individuals," so as long as I'm a really bad artist, maybe I'm safe. It is disheartening to read in this introduction that the stereotype of the sensitive, tortured poet seemed to be kind of true for many of the poets in this book. Is there really a price to pay for being that talented? It does make sense that poets who are more introspective and confessional in their style might be a little bit more susceptible to depression than, say, novelists, who are able to live in the minds of characters far removed from themselves. As an actor, I know it can be hard to delve into really dark personal places; you really need to be careful to not take yourself to an emotional place that's going to rob you of all artistic control and might do real damage. But sometimes going through those difficult emotions in a performative context can be cathartic. Is it harder for poets to let go of these emotions because they aren't really airing them out in a concentrated performance? Poets agonize over the wording of their poems; they have to live with their art for a much longer concentrated period of time than actors do.
And what about poets who are not "confessional" in style and write much more about the world around them than the world inside? Are they less prone to depression? Is it really the introspective aspect of these poets' work that contributed to their afflictions? I know that each poet's situation is specific to her or his own personal life, but it is startling to see how prevalent mental suffering was in the poets we are reading.

Daddy, or Satan?

"If I've killed one man, I've killed two--/The vampire who said he was you/And drank my blood for a year,/Seven years, if you want to know."

I picked this quote because it's such an interesting contrast between the "bag full of God" in the second stanza. Throughout the poem, the speaker refers to her father in increasingly horrific terms, comparing him to a Nazi and a devil and now finally a vampire in the form of another man. The speaker really demonizes the father figure and portrays the way his early death haunted every last bit of her life, including her choice of husband. In putting a "stake in [his] fat black heart", she is able to get rid of the vampiric figure that was draining her life force away.
As I was reading this poem, I found it very hard to separate the poem from what I read about Sylvia Plath in the introduction. It seems pretty obvious that this poem would be about Sylvia Plath's father and her attempt to get rid of the haunting memory of him. That's why it's so interesting that the speaker of this poem really seems to despise her father; the introduction claims that Plath was very attached to her father. The loss of a loved one can have a tyrannical influence over a person's life, though. So although the Nazi references may be connected to Plath's father's German ancestry, I think ultimately these references are more metaphorical than anything else. But is this poem really about killing the memory of the speaker's father, or getting rid of the man in the speaker's life that reminds her of her father--her husband? It seems that the speaker equates the two and behaves as if they are actually the same person. "The vampire who said he was you" has a stake in his heart; even though he is not actually the father figure, the villagers dance and stamp on him, "[knowing] it was" the "you" that is "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard..." Well, a devil can come back and possess another person's soul. This poem is scarier than The Exorcist.

Reality vs. the Inner World

"What's madness but nobility of soul/At odds with circumstance?"
-- "In a Dark Time"

I find it hard to not connect these poems with the speaker's personal lives. With "Daddy" I couldn't help but connect the poem to Sylvia Plath's feelings about her own father, and with "In a Dark Time" I can't help but connect the poem to Theodore Roethke's battle with mental illness. I guess that's why they so often call these poets "confessional"; their personal lives very much inform their work. To be sure, there's much more to this poem than just a manic episode. I think everyone can relate on some level to feeling separated from themselves in some way or another. Everyone at some point must wrestle with their concept of identity. The speaker seems to be working out his sense of self against a backdrop of nature gone awry--"The day's on fire," the wall is "sweating", birds fly at night, and midnight comes "in broad day." This perfectly captures a feeling of losing one's bearings and not understanding the world around one. This is something anyone can feel, but like I said, I can't help connecting it to Roethke's personal battles with schizophrenia. That certainly is an illness that puts a person at odds with the surrounding world and causes them to become confused over what is reality. The fact that Roethke was able to tap into whatever personal feelings he had to so poetically capture this "dark time" elevates this from one person's experience to something more universal. A really bad day for anyone can seem to throw the entire natural world off-balance and call into question your sense of self.

March 26, 2009

Ralph Ellison needs some Crayola crayons!

"Or could it be, I was almost afraid to think, that this rich man was just the tiniest bit crazy? How could I tell him his fate>? He raised his head and our eyes met for an instant in the glass, then I lowered mine to the blazing white line that divided the highway."
--Invisible Man, page 44

Ellison's use of black and white imagery really caught my attention all throughout the novel. This novel, more than any other I've read, makes me realize how artful writers can be in using color to describe things. It seems like Ellison's use of actual colors on the color wheel is very sparse; only here and there did I pick on a blue or a gold. He has the narrator notice things primarily in black and white. This says a lot about his character and how deeply entrenched he is in this racist society. Because he is black, he can only define himself through his relationship to white people. His opportunities, and therefore his color scheme, are limited. I wonder if this story were being told by a white narrator, would there be a broader spectrum of color?
Certainly, the use of black and white can be highly symbolic. The use of the white line in the passage I mentioned above really highlights the tension between the narrator and Mr. Norton; Mr. Norton appears to be all about black culture and helping black people achieve, but there is a definite line that keeps him from fully embracing black people for who they are and not what he idealizes them as. He is unable to handle the grittiness of the ex-slave quarters and the intellectual black man he meets in the Golden Day.
The white line can also symbolize the narrator's willingness to follow the rules and behave how white people expect him. The more Mr. Norton tells the narrator about his duty to fulfill Mr. Norton's destiny, the more closely he adheres to the white line.
It will be interesting to take note of whether more colors are introduced as the narrator's perceptions about life and racial relations change.

About March 2009

This page contains all entries posted to MatthewHenderson in March 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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