Voices From the Past

To do the new edition of Something Wonderful Right Away, I had to have the text scanned and OCR’ed because I wrote the book before computers. So now I’m working my way, chapter-by-chapter, through the text to make corrections. It’s the closest reading of these chapters I’ve done since I was preparing the material for publication back in the Seventies.

This can’t help but excite a lot of feelings in me. For one thing, most of these people ended up staying in my life as friends, so the conversations are recordings of the beginnings of those friendships. They capture the connections made as we sparked each other to new thoughts and often made each other laugh. Occasionally, I find that I was acting in almost a therapist’s role because, as they talked to me, some of them began to articulate for the first time feelings about that part of their lives they had never really examined before. I can’t remember offhand who told me that he had never actually reflected much on his involvement in the early days of Second City, but the fact that it was going to be a book gave it a new value. “Wow, I was part of something significant enough that it’s the subject of a book!”

As part of the revision, at the end of each chapter (for anyone who doesn’t know the book, each chapter is an interview), I’m adding material about their life or work after the book came out. So far, each of those addenda includes the date of death. So I’m not only experiencing the illusion of them alive again, at the end of each conversation, I’m having to confront having lost someone. This is taking a toll I hadn’t anticipated.

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Second City and the President

I’m working on a new edition of Something Wonderful Right Away.  Here’s an excerpt of a new passage:
The satiric voices that first were heard at Second City once made mock from the sidelines.  Today, satiric comment from Second City alumni is often at the center of the public dialogue.  This is particularly evident in the relationship between alumni and the presidency.
The White House Correspondents Dinner was traditionally the occasion for gentle spoofing of the sitting president, but Stephen Colbert’s performance in front of George W. Bush at the 2006 edition was decidedly ungentle.  Under the guise of praising Bush, Colbert (who trained and worked at Second City in the early nineties) meticulously deconstructed the mendacity under Bush’s public show of amiability.  As Bush was known to go to great effort to shield himself from discouraging words, the routine made headlines, including widespread criticism from conservative pundits who attacked Colbert for ridiculing the president to his face.  Playwright Christopher Durang compared the performance to Hamlet presenting The Murder of Gonzalgo in front of Claudius.  Some years later, another Second City alum, Adam McKay, made a feature film called Vice that did a thorough demolition job on Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney.  The movie was nominated for an Oscar for best picture and McKay was nominated for his screenplay and direction.  Alum Steve Carrell (whom Colbert had once understudied at Second City) played former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
The president who followed Bush, Barack Obama, hailed from Chicago and he and his wife, Michelle, had been part of Second City’s audience.  One Second City performer, Keegan-Michael Key, made a specialty of playing Obama in sketches onstage and on TV.  As part of the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner, Key performed a routine with the president in which he played the Obama’s “anger translator,” articulating the irritation that Obama himself was famously too cool to express in public.  (Obama also did comic bits on TV with Colbert.)
These days, the New York Times deems Colbert’s political commentary sufficiently newsworthy as to report on it regularly.  Saturday Night Live, whose actors and writers frequently are replenished with Second City alumni, also regularly makes news with its attacks on the current administration.  Donald Trump has complained publicly about both Colbert and SNL, darkly suggesting that he might try to find some way of punishing them for being mean to him.
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On the Trail of Juano Hernandez

Since becoming a fan of Juano Hernandez through Intruder in the Dust and The Breaking Point, I have my DVR set to record anything he’s listed as appearing in. Which is how I ended up watching an oddball movie directed by Mark Robson and written by Don Mankiewicz called Trial. (No relation to The Trial or Kafka.)

It’s set in a Southern California town. A Mexican kid named Angel Sanchez is on trial for murder. A big-name attorney played by Arthur Kennedy hires a law professor with little trial experience played by Glenn Ford to take on courtroom duties while he (Kennedy) raises money to finance the defense. Ford begins to realize that Kennedy is really a Communist using the case as an excuse to bring in tons of money for the party’s purposes. He also realizes that Kennedy would rather Ford lose the case so that Angel can be a martyr to the cause to be further exploited for fund-raising.

This reminded me of the Scottsboro Boys case and the charge that was frequently leveled at the Communist Party for how that turned out. The NAACP was ready to bring Clarence Darrow in, but the Party made a successful bid to the Boys’ parents that they would be more effective, so the NAACP was sent packing. Of course, they weren’t effective at all and, after being convicted, the Boys spent years in prison for something that they didn’t do. I’m betting that this was an inspiration for the novel that Trial is based on.

Certainly, I enjoyed comparing it to the other stories about white lawyers concerned with cases involving race I’ve seen or read lately – To Kill a Mockingbird (both film and play) and Intruder in the Dust (film and book). In the film of Intruder, Juano Hernandez is the defendant. In Trial, in what was a notable piece of casting for the time, he played the judge. And much is made of him being a black judge. (I read somewhere that he was the first black judge portrayed in a studio feature.) Hernandez gets co-starring billing, but he’s certainly one of the leads. In fact, he’s the last person we see in the film. He is a commanding, articulate figure who doesn’t take any shit. One amusing scene has him in chambers with Glenn Ford’s character, referring to Ford as “boy” a couple of times. I can’t imagine this was unintentional.

Though a Communist is the villain, reference is also made to a state version of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the head of that organization is also referred to as a charlatan and a villain. Many of the people involved in the film were very public liberals at the time, so this was evidently meant to be viewed as a statement by anti-Communist liberals: “Just because we’re one the left doesn’t mean we’re red.”

It’s a clumsy movie and some of the plot developments are unpersuasive. (Nobody would be convicted of first degree murder on the evidence presented!) But the racial politics are interesting for the mid-fifties. Also unusual is Dorothy McGuire playing a sympathetic woman who is more sexually experienced and aggressive than women were in the standard studio fare of the time.

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“Mockingbird” — Stage and Screen

Kristine and I just watched the film version of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird a few days after seeing the play. The differences between the film and the stage play are instructive. In the film, the Finches’ housekeeper, Calpurnia, has maybe ten lines. In Sorkin’s play, she is one of the leading figures. Sorkin’s Calpurnia is more like the sharp, observent, simmering Calpurnia in Harper Lee’s other novel, Go Set a Watchman, which, ironically, Lee wrote before she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman got mostly mixed reviews, but I think it’s two-thirds of a very good book. (I felt it fell down in its last third.)
Often how a story is told, retold or adapted has to do with the perceived audience or the times. Last year I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and marveled at what a tough, uncompromising piece of work it is. The film version, though well done (directed by Elia Kazan), was softened considerably for the general public. In the original novel, Betty Smith didn’t hesitate to portray the poverty and ugliness of much of the Nolan family’s life. The movie is sentimental almost to the point of nostalgia. From what I can tell, the musical (which Smith helped write) is softer still.
So, something similar has happened to Mockingbird, though Sorkin obviously feels that the story for today had to be tougher than the film, and, for that matter, the novel. I have a few quibbles with lines that don’t sit right (I doubt Bob Ewell would say, “Don’t condescend to me,” or that people were talking about passive-aggression in the 1930s), but there are some canny expansions.
One striking thing I noticed is the differences in how Atticus comes to take Tom Robinson’s case. In the book, Atticus briefly says that Judge Taylor told him, “You’re it,” and assigned him to the defense. For the movie, Horton Foote wrote a scene in which the judge stops by the house and tells Atticus he wants him to take the case. Atticus barely hesitates before saying yes. In Sorkin’s version, the encounter is one of the play’s major scenes. The judge knows the case against Robinson is bullshit and he wants Atticus in there so that there is a chance that Robinson will be acquitted on the merits of the evidence (or lack of) and justice will be served through due process. Atticus resists the appointment, but the judge pretty much compels him to take it as a matter of honor. Atticus and the judge are clearly in league in Sorkin’s version. They may not be flaming liberals by contemporary standards, but they have political convictions that set them apart in that town in the 1930s.
I’ve written before about a novel (and a film) which preceded Mockingbird by more than a decade — William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust. Like Mockingbird, it’s about a white lawyer in a small Southern defending an innocent black man on a capital charge, and, like Mockingbird, much of it is related from the perspective of a child who idolizes the lawyer. But Faulkner’s version is tougher. Unlike Tom Robinson, who is a saintly, innocent figure, painfully courteous, Lucas Beauchamp is proud and will defer to nobody. He also doesn’t bother protesting his innocence to his white lawyer, Gavin Stevens. It is Stevens’s nephew whom Beauchamp trusts and collaborates with, and it is by the boy’s efforts (acting under instructions from Beauchamp) and the courage of an old white woman (obliquely related to Beauchamp’s late wife) that Beauchamp’s innocence is proved and the real guilty party uncovered. At the end, when Stevens asks Beauchamp why he didn’t tell him the truth about being innocent, the answer he gets is, “Would you have believed me?” Faulkner is saying that, despite Stevens’ undoubted decent sympathies, he’s still part of the problem. The hope lies in the fact that Stevens actually realizes this himself.  He awakens to some of his own prejudices.
I have no doubt that Lee knew Intruder in the Dust. At one point she made a comment about how her town was filling up with people like the Snopes family, and the Snopeses were characters from Faulkner. Whether consciously or not, I think Intruder influenced Mockingbird.

The filmmakers of Mockingbird had hoped to shoot it in Lee’s home town, Monroeville, Alabama, but the town had been so modernized in the years since the story was set that they had to settle for creating an idealized version in Hollywood. The film of Intruder in the Dust, however, was shot in Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner’s home town, on the locations Faulkner had envisioned as he was writing the book. (Faulkner acted as a location scout for the film, in fact, and was very pleased with the way it turned out.) The use of Oxford is one of the great assets of the film, because with the town came hundreds of the townspeople. Their faces during a mob scene are terrifyingly authentic.

But I’m straying from my original thought: that the film and stage adaptations of Mockingbird are the products of two different writers, Horton Foote and Aaron Sorkin, and the differences speak not just to their differences as dramatists but also to the audiences they expected to engage.  And those differences tell us a little something about changes in the audience in the intervening half century or so.
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An Antidote to Trumpery

With the daily assault on decency and intellectual coherence coming out of the White House, and the spectacles of crowds with red caps sitting on top of heads filled with confusion, fear and hostility, it was a relief to pick up a book that offers a more positive view of America today.

I started paying attention to James and Deborah Fallows’s reports from smaller cities in the pages of The Atlantic and on that magazine’s website several years ago. Every now and then they would share the news that on a local level people on either side of the party divide could act in a friendly, rational way and jointly address the problems of their communities. James is a pilot and owns a single-engine prop plane. He and his wife Deborah have spent years clocking (they estimate) about 100,000 miles visiting lots of places most of us will never get around to. (I think I’ve visited two they visited – Pittsburgh, the largest of the towns they spent time in, and Greenville, South Carolina. The rest are names on a map to me.) Their book, Our Towns, draws from and expands on these reports.

This is the book I gave to depressed friends at Christmas. Without being sappy, it suggests that the civil war the press reports on daily is overstated. It also suggests that people who call themselves conservatives on a national level can collaborate with liberals and behave in the best progressive tradition when dealing with the problems of their friends and neighbors.

There once was a guy named Kohlberg. Let me look him up. Hold on. OK. Lawrence Kohlberg. (I included a passage about him in one of my plays, Stay Till Morning.) Kohlberg said that human beings evolve morally much in the way Jean Piaget said they do in how they do cognitively. I’m being very reductive (and there has been a lot of debate over Kohlberg, most way above my head), but Kohlberg’s idea was that you can measure somebody’s moral evolution by how much they are concerned for the welfare of people remote from them. Most people can muster empathy for people whose suffering they personally witness. The more ethically evolved people, in Kohlberg’s view, are those who care about justice for people they will never meet. So most people can muster some kind of feeling for people in their school or neighborhood or town (though they are likely to be most likely to have empathy for people who resemble themselves). When they start caring for people outside their town or region and of different ehnicities, they move up some notches. When they start caring about people of different nationalities and heritages, they move up some more. And I am not remotely doing justice to this, but it’s worth checking out some of the summaries of what Kohlberg came up with.

Simplistically then, people tend to have more generous impulses towards people they see as people rather than dots in a remote landscape. So those who vote conservatively on a national level (and may vote the party line on a state and local level) will nevertheless often band together with those they would brand liberals when it comes to local initiatives. The mayor of Greenville, SC is a Republican, Knox H. White, but most people calling themselves progressives would probably be pleased with the town. (I certainly was the two times I visited it.) The Fallowses are evidently liberals, but some of their most enthusiastic passages describe Greenville. The Fallowses also have an theory that the more craft breweries there are in a town, the healthier the body politic is likely to be. I’ll leave it to you to check their reasoning out for yourself.

The Fallowses don’t get into Kohlberg, but I think his ideas explain a lot of the good news in their good book.

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Rejected by the O’Neill

I have heard from a number of friends that that have received word that they will not advance to the next level of consideration at the O’Neill. It may surprise some that, even though I wrote the book about the O’Neill — cleverly titled The O’Neill — I have never had a play produced there. Some have been moved to claim that “the game is rigged.” Here are my thoughts to those who are disappointed:

The O’Neill has always been intensively competitive. But it is also one of the few places where you get a fair chance even if you don’t have an agent or an MFA from an “approved” school. This is the place where David Henry Hwang, August Wilson, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Lopezes, Wendy Wasserstein, and countless others first got their shots. That’s a pretty amazing history. After 50 years (more), people will look at it and assume that it’s the establishment. And indeed it has lived long enough to have traditions and a community. But it also has opened up more doors for more people than just about any theater organization I know.

It also had a trigger effect. It became a model for countless other groups and organizations.

Including Sundance. I had a conversation with Robert Redford for the book I wrote. I mentioned how many non-New York, non-traditional voices broke through at the O’Neill. He said that he started Sundance in frank imitation of the O’Neill so as to open up film to a wider range of voices than old Hollywood was paying attention to. And that made such a difference to the independent film movement.

And, of course, Sundance itself has been widely imitated.

Anything that lasts long enough becomes the establishment. Steppenwolf is now the establishment. Second City is now the establishment. The Actors Studio is now the establishment. The Royal Court in London is now the establishment. All these outfits that started off in the margins are now the establishment. And it’s true that a rigidity sets in when you have that much history.

And this prompts a reaction that is also necessary and healthy. Other people get pissed off at these “establishment” organizations and respond by starting new groups and initiatives.

The O’Neill is not as easy to get into as it was in its first years when it flew on a shoestring and when one very generous guy quietly opened his checkbook and made up the deficit each year to keep it going. Thousands instead of dozens or hundreds of writers now apply. If you don’t like the odds, hey, the odds now are lousy.

So, take inspiration by creating new institutions and ways of building things.

I have friends who came out of Brown University with nothing in their pockets and a desire to do huge, ridiculous classics. They managed to scrape together a small sum of money and persuaded the Shaw estate to let them do an experimental version of Saint Joan with only four actors. They were brilliant and brave and within a few years they had national reputations as the Bedlam Theatre. Their Saint Joan won awards and went on to playing major venues around the country. They did Saint Joan with four actors because they had to build something cheap, and they took their poverty and made it an asset. (The Fiasco Company, also started by Brown alumni, have done something similar. Their pocket-sized Merrily We Roll Along is about to open off-Broadway. Their six-actor Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of the best Shakespeares I’ve ever seen.)

I have said it before, but playwrights have got to stop allowing stereotypes to cast us as passive creatures waiting like flowers to be picked and put into expensive vases by producers with fat wallets. I’m delighted when someone in the establishment comes to me with an offer, but I am not going to get bogged down by the undoubted injustice of being ignored by the Manhattan Theatre Club, Playwrights Horizons, the Public Theatre, the Roundabout, MCC and all the rest of the managements that don’t have any interest in me. If they won’t give me a shot, I’ll figure out how to do something with three actors on three stools and make it good. (My last show was two people, two chairs and a lecturn. It went from the NY Fringe and a $5000 budget–most raised on Indiegogo–to a large, more elaborate off-Broadway production and two sold-out runs at Barrington Stage.)

Let me point as an inspirational example to one of the people who inspires me ever–Charlayne Woodard. She built her first solo show with nothing and opened it in a tiny space in LA to an audience smaller than the people who sit around your table on Thanksgiving. The quality of her work and her tenacity made her a force that could not be resisted.

I do think some parts of the game are rigged. I am pissed that people with MFAs from prestige universities get access that good writers without degrees don’t. (As I say, the O’Neill is a place where the degree doesn’t mean anything as it’s open submissions and read blind.) But there are strategies around this. I’ve discussed these strategies before and will undoubtedly do so again.

I will add one thing: if you aren’t a member of the Dramatists Guild and using the resources and the information there, you’re holding yourself back. You may think of the Guild as another part of the establishment, but the playwrights who run it are constantly championing the work of newer, younger people and fighting to keep the less powerful from being ripped off or bullied. Join.

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In Dialogue

One of the differences between a blog post and an essay is that an essay is expected to be shapely and to move to some resonant conclusion. Occasionally a blog post will end resonantly, but mostly I find blogging is where I stir the kettle a little.

I’ve been thinking about dialogue lately. Not dialogue like what I write for a play, but dialogue in the sense that two or more voices seem to be either responding to each other or in a dynamic relationship with each other.

I’ve long been interested, for instance, in the dialogue between American and British playwrights. I have a theory that British playwrights picked up a certain amount of emotional turmoil in American plays and produced works which then turned around and inspired new experiments and fields of exploration for American writers. (This isn’t a phenomenon only of American and British writers, of course.) I believe, for instance, that John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was, either consciously or unconsciously, a response to Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I think you could run the plays in rep with the same four actors in the leads. Osborne takes Williams’s dynamic and labors to make the Stanley figure sympathetic. Does he succeed? A matter of opinion. (I think he and Tony Richardson were more successful in their film version in which Stanley actually seems to give a shit about justice for someone else.) But Osborne’s play ultimately played Broadway and so influenced American writers.

Anger also opened the door for a lot of other writers. When I interviewed David Hare for my book What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing, Hare got animated when I mentioned Osborne, saying that Osborne doesn’t get enough credit for the impact his work at the Royal Court had on the writers who came after. Hare, of course, was one of those writers, and one can list dozens of others who were influenced by his example (including Shelagh Delaney, David Storey and Trevor Griffths). Their plays, too, came over to New York and awoke many American writers to new thematic and technical possibilities. The first time I saw a David Mamet play was the opening night of American Buffalo in Chicago at the St. Nicholas Theater; I came out saying, “Wow, that’s really good American Pinter.” (Pinter and Mamet became friends and Pinter ended up directing some Mamet.) And then Tony Kushner wrote Angels in America and re-inspired some Brits. And so on and on and on. As it should be.

I think articles can be in dialogue, too. Whether intentionally or not, The New Yorker through its site and in its pages has recently published profiles of both Heidi Schreck (author/star of What the Constitution Means to Me) and Joyce Maynard (memoirist and novelist). Reading them one after the other is a stimulating experience. I recommend it.

Oh, speaking of The New Yorker, I notice that their anthology The Fifties is on sale for a discounted $4.99 for Kindle.  I wolfed it down a couple of years ago and came out of it with a more sophisticated view of that easily-caricatured decade.

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