A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the August 21, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Of all the dramatists of Japan, Monzaemon Chikamatsu is widely rA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the August 21, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Of all the dramatists of Japan, Monzaemon Chikamatsu is widely regarded as the greatest; his work on a par with that of Shakespeare, Sophocles or Miller. Writing with no foreign influences during a cultural flowering at the turn of the 18th century, Chikamatsu has bequeathed us a startlingly modern tragedy infused with the mores of his time and country.
Originally produced as a joruri or puppet play in 1721 before being adapted for kabuki performances with live actors, “The Love Suicides at Amijima” relates the doomed relationship of Koharu, a 19-year-old prostitute and Jihei Kamiya, a paper merchant with two children.
Married to his cousin and childhood sweetheart, Osan, Jihei finds himself caught between two loves. On the one hand, he cares about his children and desperately needs his wife. Though her father deeply disapproves of his son-in-law’s philandering ways, Jihei clings to Osan, unwilling to abandon her to crushing fate.
On the other hand, Jihei has spent 29 months in an intense affair with Koharu, swearing that he will find a way to ransom her from the houses of ill repute that virtually own her. But, despite his wife’s frugality, his business is on the brink of insolvency.
The lovers’ solution is to pact suicide.
As the play opens, an arrogant rival merchant named Tohei has determined to outwit Jihei and ransom Koharu first. The young woman, unaware that Jihei has followed her to a “date,” confides tearfully to her samurai client that she wants neither to be with Tohei nor to kill herself with her lover. After a violent confrontation between the Samurai, Jihei and Tohei (who has also tracked Koharu down), the samurai reveals himself to be Magoemon, Jihei’s older brother.
Ashamed and angry at Koharu’s betrayal, Jihei rejects her vehemently as a conniving wench and throws back at her the 29 love letters she has sent him — one for each month of their relationship.
Ten days later, Jihei is moping about his home when his mother-in-law/aunt and brother come around, suspicious that the rumors circulating about Koharu’s impending ransom must have something to do with him. Osan defends her husband, affirming that he has definitively broken up with the prostitute, but the couple realizes that Tohei must finally have made his move.
Jihei is furious, ostensibly because Tohei will now publicly ridicule Jihei and damage his honor among merchants. Osan reveals to him that she begged Koharu in a letter to feign disinterest in Jihei so that he would turn away from suicide. Because this ransom by a man she doesn’t love will lead to Koharu’s suicide, Osan urges her husband to take their meager savings and rescue the girl. He is distraught at how this arrangement will marginalize his wife, but he agrees.
Their strange plan is interrupted by the arrival of Osan’s father, who sees confirmed for him all of his daughter’s sacrifices and humiliations. He drags her away, insisting Jihei file for divorce.
Abandoning his children, Jihei manages to get his beloved away from the brothel. After crossing many bridges and working up their courage, the two stop in Amijima, at the Daicho Temple, where in brutal and poetic fashion they carry out their fatal vow.
It is interesting to note that the events in these three acts take place over ten days in the tenth month, called kannazuki (month of no gods) because it is when the Shinto deities turn away from earth to meet in heaven. The implications are clear.
Blending coarse humor, poetic narrative and realistic dialogue in a way that transcends the artifice of both puppetry and opera, underscoring the empty tragedy of life itself, “The Love Suicides at Amijima” lingers in the mind like Jihei’s corpse, swinging at the end of his lover’s sash on a cold November morning....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 27, 2015 edition of The Monitor
I still remember the first time I read Medea, arguably the greateA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the March 27, 2015 edition of The Monitor
I still remember the first time I read Medea, arguably the greatest work by Euripides, that cutting edge Greek dramaturge whose psychologically complex, agnostic, pacifist and arguably feminist writing confused the dickens out of his countrymen. My first reaction was, “Hey, I know this story … Grandma Garza used to tell me it when I was little. Medea is la Llorona!”
Clearly the truth is more complex, but the parallels are obvious, as is the implicit criticism of the roles society forces women into.
The play was first performed in 431 BCE in a competition against Sophocles and Euphorion (son of Aeschylus). Medea didn’t win, but its flouting of the norms of tragedy at the time left a mark in the minds and heart of those in attendance. Its impact has gradually grown down the millennia, with modern critics and writers finding great power in the story (as with Chicano playwright Luís Alfaro’s recent adaptation Mojada).
Set a few years after the retrieval of the Golden Fleece, the play opens with Medea’s discovery that her lover Jason plans to marry Glauce, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. Medea, a fierce woman from the coast of the Black Sea, was key in Jason’s victories and successes, and has given him two sons. No wonder she rages at this betrayal.
Creon shows up, informing Medea that he is exiling her from Corinth. Wheels already spinning in her mind, she begs for one day to get her affairs in order and the king agrees. Jason then comes around, making a weak attempt at explaining his actions: Glauce’s a princess and Medea’s just a barbarian woman. She can still be his lover, of course. Medea scoffs at this cruel offer and tells him to do whatever he wants, but to get ready for the consequences.
Medea then puts her plan into action. Smearing poison inside a lovely dress and coronet, she feigns repentance and forgiveness, convincing Jason to give the items to his new bride as a gift so that Glauce will get her father to rescind the decree of exile. Glauce puts them on and dies; her father clutches her corpse close, poisoning himself as well.
It is at this point that Medea realizes she must go further to avenge herself against Jason, cutting the ties between them forever in such a way that he will be devastated.
She decides to kill her sons.
Jason, learning of the deaths of Creon and Glauce, rushes to confront Medea, only to discover the murder of his children. In a scene that must have blown Greeks’ minds, Medea appears above the stage in the chariot of sun-god Helios (her grandfather) to claim the bodies of the boys and take them with her as she leaves Jason to his devastation.
Structured in a series of two-person scenes that pit the downtrodden Medea against members of the patriarchy whom she deftly maneuvers like pawns, this essential tragedy is one of the first texts to grapple with the issues of marginalized women and the lengths to which they often must go to reclaim their voice and autonomy. Harrowing and uncomfortable, Medea is nonetheless essential reading....more
After the 2011 HBO production of his play The Sunset Limited and last year’s Hollywood film of his script The Counselor, Cormac McCarthy’s work as a pAfter the 2011 HBO production of his play The Sunset Limited and last year’s Hollywood film of his script The Counselor, Cormac McCarthy’s work as a playwright began to intrigue me. Known more for his description-laden prose, McCarthy (arguably one of the most important American authors of the late 20th century) doesn’t at first blush seem like the kind of guy who could pare his style down enough for the stage.
Clearly, though, he is fascinated by drama. He was likely inspired by director Richard Pearce, who approached him in 1974 to write the script for an episode of the PBS series Visions. The resulting two-hour episode, which aired in 1977, secured an Emmy nomination for McCarthy.
The only other work in this genre he has produced is the 1995 play The Stonemason. Set in Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1970s, this five-act tragedy centers on the Telfairs, a family of stonemasons. The protagonist in Ben, who has abandoned his college studies of psychology to apprentice himself to Papaw, his grandfather, who even at the age of 101 continues to practice “the trade” with the younger man.
The two live in the house of Ben’s father, who runs the family stonemasonry business. With them reside Ben’s wife, mother and sister, single mom to Soldier, a troubled teen. While the plot nominally follows various problems that threaten to tear the family apart, the core of the play is the relationship between grandfather and grandson.
While many critics focus on the unusual monologues given by Ben while the actor’s double carries out a sort of dumbshow, I was drawn more to the interactions between Ben and Papaw. The older man shares a unique vision of the world predicated on his fealty to the craft. Stonemasons, differently than other stone workers, pull stone directly from the ground where they work and set those undressed stones, whole and unhewn, using mortar when needed, but seeking to use gravity and physics ("the warp of the world") to hold masonry in place.
Papaw implies that this is the true will of God and that human attempts to chisel the world into other shapes are doomed to fail, being effaced by time and tragedy (a major theme of all of McCarthy's work). The blows to the Telfairs arise from their betrayals of the family trade and from Ben's insistence on trying to control and reshape the lives of his loved ones. Tellingly, though a fine stone mason, Ben violates the journeyman code that insists a man complete the work that can be done during the course of a normal day, leaving for the morrow the work that remains. Arrogantly or anxiously, he wants to get things done as quickly as possible.
McCarthy's novels are replete with spot-on, terse dialogue as well as odd philosophical pseudo-speeches, so it's no surprise that the play excels in those areas. Some of the secondary characters (Soldier and Ben's father) are too one-dimensional for their fates to have the impact needed, however, and the relationship between Ben and his wife feels jarringly out of sync. However, though it doesn't approach the impact of other portraits of working-class African-Americans (like A Raisin in the Sun), the ideas in The Stonemason make it well worth reading....more
The translation's of journeyman quality, in my opinion, but this is a strong play by one of ancient Greece's most modern sensibilities. I've always beThe translation's of journeyman quality, in my opinion, but this is a strong play by one of ancient Greece's most modern sensibilities. I've always been moved by Andromache's story, and this adds another piece to the puzzle of her plight....more
A TOP SHELF review, originally published in the October 9, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Sometimes called the “Gothic Shakespeare,” Johann Wolfgang GoethA TOP SHELF review, originally published in the October 9, 2015 edition of The Monitor
Sometimes called the “Gothic Shakespeare,” Johann Wolfgang Goethe looms large over German and world literature. Born in 1749, Goethe lived a breathtakingly ambitious and stellar life, learning multiple languages, practicing law, serving as a statesman, receiving a noble title, carrying out scientific research and writing some of the most enduring literary pieces in nearly every major genre.
Arguably his most influential work was “Faust, Part One,” a closet tragedy (i.e., one not meant to be actually performed on stage) published in 1808 after three decades of intermittent writing (an early draft of the play, known as the “Urfaust,” was discovered in the late 19th century).
Based on the story of the itinerant alchemist known in English as John Faustus, who reputedly made a deal with Satan to wield dark magic, “Faust, Part One” centers on the scholar Heinrich Faust, a learned man whose studies have left him hollow and searching for something transcendent beyond the pages of his books.
The first impulse of Faust is to seek the answer in something spiritual, something magical. But Mephistopheles has made a wager with God along the lines of what’s found in the book of Job: he’ll bend this wise man to his will, earning his soul. Now, Faust has realized that an afterlife means nothing if he cannot feel anything in this life. As a result, when the Devil appears to tempt him, the scholar makes a deal: If the sovereign of the damned will do everything Faust commands on earth, he will serve him for all eternity in hell. The only concession made is that if something Mephistopheles gives him pleases the scholar enough, he will be killed in that instant to preserve its memory forever.
Then begins a descent into depravity that rivals any ever portrayed.
Eventually the whims of Faust lead him to desire a maiden named Gretchen. However, her demonic seduction drives her to poison her mother to be with the man she’s obsessed with and then drown their illegitimate child. Imprisoned for murder, she comes to her senses and refuses to escape with the aid of Faust and Mephistopheles. Accepting her punishment, she is declared redeemed by heaven.
Written in timeless verse (well translated by both Kauffman and Luke), “Faust, Part One” is definitely an example of Sturm und Drung — Storm and Drive — a Romantic literary movement in which individual subjectivity and emotion were highly valued to balance the extreme rationalism of the Enlightenment.
Scientific learning, Goethe demonstrates, must be weighed in the context of the human heart, used for good or ill. Dispassionate and logical reason does not truly exist — for women and men, it always (d)evolves into (meta)physical concerns....more
OMG!!! ROFLMAO!!! Well, that's what my students' reaction to reading Plautus' famous play of mistaken identity (the one from which all others are stolOMG!!! ROFLMAO!!! Well, that's what my students' reaction to reading Plautus' famous play of mistaken identity (the one from which all others are stolen, the ur-slapstick, if you will). You really need to read this guy's stuff. It's a bit risque, but it will have you in stitches. Early Roman comedy... better than any Eddie Murphy film out there....more