(briefly) on Night, Mother

Night, Mother is a play written by Marsha Norman in 1983. It deals with suicide. Jessie and her mother Thelma (who in the play is referred to as Mama) have a strained relationship. But it is strained only because of their circumstances. Jessie is an epileptic and she also suffers from extended bouts of depression for which she has no received any treatment. She has a son who is now an adult, but ultimately a disappointment, as it doesn’t seem he has amounted to anything. Mama is a woman who instead of seeing things the way they are, prefers to look at life the way that she wants to see it. She is an idealist in a much less than ideal situation. Jessie has decided to end her own life, and she tells her mother flat out what she plans on doing and why. Reading this play is tense and emotional, especially for anyone who has dealt with depression. The subject of depression, not to mention suicide is extremely touchy, but Jessie decides to tell her mother of her plans while she does her mother’s nails. Her mother is receptive to Jessie’s behavior because it seems as if she is actually in a good mood for once despite her cryptic confession. At the very end of the play, Jessie locks herself in her room, supposedly to perform the deed that she admitted she would complete before the next morning, and we hear a gunshot. Then, the play is over. The biggest question in this play is now one: Did Jessie really kill herself or not?

Certainly we heard the gunshot, and we have her confession, her conviction that she will have killed herself. However, we do not see a  body. We do not see any blood. We do not see Mama walking into the room and bursting into a crazed emotional state. We see nothing. The play is simply over. Perhaps that is symbolic enough, with the ending of Jessie’s life, so ends the play. If you are an optimist, which I certainly am not, you could argue that perhaps she suffered an epileptic fit and fired the gun by accident. You could argue that maybe this was all a farce and that she only wanted to make a point, or that she was merely crying for help desperately for the treatment for her depression that she never received. Maybe she fired the gun into the air or out the window so that Mama would for once see things the way they are instead of living in her peachy-keen fantasy. I guess one can never really know. The argument could go on forever, and to me, this is what makes the play great. At the end of it, you care about Jessie because you have learned all her struggles, and you cannot help but to feel sorry for her. We as readers want to root for her. We hope that she could have pulled through, that certainly if she sought treatment, it would be better than that sort of ultimate escapism. 

I loved this play. It was on the short side, and it read very fluidly. I am intrigued by the contemporary subject matter, and I can definitely see why it is a Pulitzer Prize winner. It makes you wonder what if. 

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Sam Shepard vs. “The American Dream”

Sam Shepard, born November 5th, 1945, in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, is one of the US’s most well known playwrights and actors. His father was a farmer and his mother was a teacher. As a teenager, Shepard went to Duarte High School and worked as a farm hand in order to support his mother and brother after their own farm went under due to his father’s alcoholism. In college Shepard studied agriculture, but soon dropped out and decided to runaway with an acting company called The Bishop’s Company. It is here that his interest in writing dark plays centered around broken families stems from. He wrote three plays considered to be a family trilogy: Buried Child, True West, and The Curse of the Starving Class. All three of these plays stand in stark contrasting opposition to what the perception of ideal American Life is supposed to be like. 

Curse of the Starving Class, published in 1976 is considered the first of this trilogy. It tells the story of the Tate family: Ella (the mother), Weston (the father and a drunk), Emma (daughter) and Wesley (son). They live on a farm that is failing, and Wesley is the only one who strives to keep it running when everyone else seems to be giving up hope. His father, as mentioned is a drunk, and we can already see great similarities to Shepard’s own life.

True West, published in 1980, is the third in this series. It tells the story of two brothers Lee and Austin who it seems have always been at odds: Lee, the drifter/thief and Austin the straight edge screen writer. The two reunite after several years of being apart and the story unfolds. Austin is housesitting for his mother who is vacationing in Alaska, and doing some research for his new screenplay, when Lee shows up, back from the desert. The jealousy between these two siblings is not obvious at first, but as the play goes on we see Lee trying to get in on his brother’s project, and later we see Austin wanting to leave his cookie-cutter life and join Lee in the desert. When Lee tries to leave, after deciding that Austin’s lifestyle doesn’t quite suit him, Austin strangles him with a telephone chord. Shepard uses foreshadowing in order to predict this murder attempt when Lee tells Austin: “You go down to L.A. Police Department there and ask them what kinda people Kill each other the most. Who do you think they’d say?… Family people. Brothers. Brothers-in-law. Cousins. Real American type people” (23-24). Shepard’s dialogue actually reflects the prevalence of violence between siblings in our current society- these incidents are noted among the most common types of violent domestic crimes (Kreinert 331).

Buried Child was originally published and produced in 1978 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco with the direction of Robert Woodruff. In the same year, the play made its New York City premiere at the Theater for the New City. In 1979, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Shepard, whose own life was very tumultuous, having an alcoholic veteran father likely suffering from PTSD, as we can see, has a tendency of writing plays that reflect that. This one was of particular interest to me, not only because it won the Pulitzer but also because it seems to portray the biggest dysfunction yet: a dysfunction that, like in all three of these plays, serves as an obstacle to the family’s prosperity and acquisition of the American dream.

“Buried Child” is a three-act play with 6 focal characters: Vince, Shelly, Tilden, Dodge, Halie and Bradley. Dodge and Halie are married and have two children, Tilden and Bradley (who is the eldest, and also an amputee). Vince is Tilden’s son, and Shelly is his girlfriend from LA. The secret of this family, which is not revealed in detail until the very end in Act 3, is that Tilden and his mother, Halie, had an incestuous relationship together which resulted in the birth of a baby boy. They all tried pretending that the baby was Dodge’s, but Dodge knew that it was not his, as he had not slept with his wife in years. Fueled by anger and jealousy, Dodge drowned the child and buried it in the field behind the house. Now having to keep this secret and live with the embarrassment, this is when things fell apart for the family. Tilden literally went insane with grief and guilt, Halie became obsessed with going to church perhaps to find salvation (it is also hinted at that she and Father Dewis have some sort of flirtatious relationship on the side), and Dodge gave up his duties tending the farm choosing instead of wallow in his own misery on the couch drinking whiskey and smoking packs of cigarettes. Their farm was now barren and ultimately fruitless.  

Vince left his family six years prior, and returns to visit with Shelly. Upon their arrival to the farmhouse, which they find in poor conditions, nobody recognizes him, and Halie is out with Dewis. Immediately, Shelly is doubtful that this is actually Vince’s family. Who could blame her? After much useless probing, Vince leaves to go get Dodge more whiskey and leaves Shelly alone with his dysfunctional family. Considering that there is a haggard and crass alcoholic on the couch, a clearly mentally disturbed man who does nothing but bring in crops from outside, and an angry amputee in the house, all of who Shelly has absolutely no relation to whatsoever, it’s not at all credible that this LA girl would actually stay in the house. Nonetheless, she does stay because she realizes that there is something being covered up by this family and she simply must find out what it is. It is important in theater to remember that a performance is not necessarily supposed to be realistic. Shelly’s character, though not at all realistic, is imperative to the story because she is the one that brings out the final confession from Dodge, which then leads to the resolution. It is important for me to tell you all this upfront because as a first time reader/viewer of the play, I found it rather frustrating because I didn’t like the way it flowed, but I suppose that this is unanimous in the representation of the theme, and critic Susan Abbotson made this clear to me when she said: “The disjunction in Buried Child seems to increase as the play progresses, with Act 3 almost dissolving into chaos, because that is the nature of life.”

In America during the 1970’s when this play was written, there was so much going on socially and economically. One could say it was chaos. To name a few things, the Cold War was coming to an end, President Nixon resigned after the Watergate scandal, and the oil crisis left the economy in a sudden and terrible recession. As a result there was something going on psychologically with Americans. According to Spark, Erstling and Boehnlein (The American Journal of Psychotherapy), the “social consciousness movement” with its distrust of the “system” stressed cosmic societal concerns. Despite [an emphasis] on community, social consciousness was inevitably replaced by self-involvement and the desire to get away. Taking all this into consideration along with the “American dream”, it makes sense why a man like Dodge (or Weston Tate) would have moved his family to the Midwest in order to raise a farm. A farm would have made them self-reliant and prosperous. Being self-made after all, IS the American dream. Picking up and leaving is also a reflection on Shepard’s own life, as he was a military brat and he and his family moved from base to base in his early childhood before settling onto their farm. Finally at age 19, right in the middle of all the aforementioned, Shepard made his way to New York City to pursue theater with only a few months of acting experience under his belt.  

The plays are supposed to be relatable. I for one find it hard to relate, but Shepard writes in such a manner that it brings lightness and humor to his dark subject matter (he accomplishes this in True West and Curse of the Starving Class as well). There has to be humor or else one couldn’t get past how dark this trilogy is. As morose and macabre a play as Buried Child is, it still managed to end on a hopeful note which is important. In the last scene, Tilden comes into the house carrying the muddy skeletal remains of his deceased child and brings it upstairs to Halie. With the truth revealed it is as if all the family’s troubles have been lifted. Now there is corn in the fields again, everyone remembers who Vince is, and Halie closes the play by saying:         

Good hard rain. Takes everything straight down deep to the roots. The rest     takes care of itself. You can’t force a thing to grow. You can’t interfere with it. It’s all hidden. Unseen. You just gotta wait ‘ill it pops up out of the ground. Tiny little shoot. Tiny little white shoot. All hairy and fragile. Strong though. Strong enough to crack the earth even. It’s a miracle, Dodge. I’ve never seen a crop like this in my whole life. Maybe it’s the sun. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the sun.

One cannot ignore that Sam Shepard has a talent for writing racy plays, filled with violence and very other touchy and morose subjects. It is obvious that he puts a lot of his personal life into his work, as we can see the recurring theme of an alcoholic father, or a son who needs to support his mother as well as a disconnect between brothers. We know that Sam Shepard’s upbringing was not ideal, and that for him the “American Dream” isn’t quite real, but we must thank him for being so honest with us about it because at the end of all his plays we are still left with hope, and despite the macabre, perhaps hope is his message to us all in a time where the American Dream seems all too unreal.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

 Bone, Larry Earl. “Buried Child & Seduced & Suicide in B Flat (Book Review).” Library Journal 104, no. 20 (November 15, 1979): 2480. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 26, 2013).

 

 Hooti, Noorbakhsh, and Samaneh Shooshtarian. “A Postmodernist Reading of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child.” Canadian Social Science 7, no. 1 (February 28, 2011): 76-89. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 29, 2013).

 

 Krienert, Jessie L. and Jeffrey A. Walsh. “My Brother’s Keeper: A Contemporary Examination of Reported Sibling Violence Using National Level Data, 2000-2005.” Journal of Family Violence. 26.5. (2011): 331-342. Print.

 

 Opipari, Benjamin. 2010. “Shhhhhhame: Silencing the Family Secret in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child.” Style 44, no. 1/2: 123-138. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 26, 2013).

 

 Shepard, Sam. “Buried Child.” American Theatre 13, no. 7 (September 1996): 27. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 26, 2013).

 

 Shepard, Sam. “The Curse of the Starving Class” Sam Shepard: Seven Plays.

 

Intro. Richard Gilman. Toronto; New York: Bantam Books, 1984. 62-114. Print.

 

 Shepard, Sam. “True West.” Sam Shepard: Seven Plays.

 

Intro. Richard Gilman. Toronto; New York: Bantam Books, 1984. 1-59. Print.

 

 Sparr, Landy F., and Susan S. Erstling. “Sam Shepard and the dysfunctional American family: Therapeutic perspectives.” American Journal Of Psychotherapy 44, no. 4 (October 1990): 563. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed November 26, 2013).

 

 “Buried Child.” Buried Child. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 November 2013. <http://www.theatredatabase.com/20th_century/buried_child.html&gt;.

 

The Art of OULIPO

ImageI recently was shown the art of OULIPO which is  short for the French phrase: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated: “workshop of potential literature”. What does this mean? It’s basically a form of writing using various forms of constraint, and it is encouraged for the writer to have fun. Here are a few examples of ones the OULIPO that I decided to try my hand at, but keep in mind that there are many different types of OULIPO (the type of OULIPO is underlined):

Alphabetic Africa

 Anaconda brushes carefully, discretely, even fluidly, gaining horrifically intense jubilation, knowing, lingering, moving noiselessly, only practicing quiet recluse so to uncoil viciously, wounding xenophobic young zebra.

Definitional Literature

“IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”-Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

 “It is a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like, in every instance or place without exception perceived or understood as fact or truth; apprehended clearly and with certainty, that a solitary, sole or lone adult male person pertaining to the species homo sapiens in actual holding or occupancy, either with or without rights of ownership of a satisfactory in quality, quantity, or degree,position in life as determined by wealth must be in need, craving, wishing, demanding, or desiring , of a married woman.”

 Redondance poétique

Sonnet—To SciencebyEdgar Allan Poe

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!

Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,

   Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?

How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,

   Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering

To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,

   Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,

   And driven the Hamadryad from the wood

To seek a shelter in some happier star?

   Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,

The Elfin from the green grass, and from me

The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

Sonet—To Science by Edgar Allen Poe

 Thou art!

With thy peering eyes.

Upon the  poet’s heart,

Dull realities?

Deem thee wise?

In his wandering,

In the bejeweled skies

With an undaunted wing?

From her car,

From the wood,

In some happier star?

From her flood,

And from me,

Beneath the tamarind tree.

(briefly) on True West

True West by Sam Shepherd is a play about two brothers, Lee and Austin, who are reunited after several years spent leading completely different and separate lives. Like most of Shepherds works, the play’s themes totally break the stereotypical perception of American Family norms/The American Dream. For example in Buried Child he writes about a baby born out of incest which is then murdered by it’s grandfather/stepfather, and how this affects each family member. Although this play does not have incest, it does have it’s fair share of sibling rivalry juxtaposing the older Lee who is a drifter and thief with Austin who is a straight edge screen writer working on his next script, and of there is murder.

true-west-1W By the end of the play you can see a clear role reversal between the two brothers, classifying both Lee and Austin as dynamic characters, which is always interesting.  great use of foreshadowing should keep you hooked in if you’re quick enough to catch it. My favorite instance of foreshadowing was when Lee reminds Austin that murders are more common within families, after Austin tells him that he could never kill him because he was his brother. Again, this all ties together with Shepherd’s breaking away from the classic “all American family”, which is to say that sometimes, the bonds within a family are not as tight as one would expect.

(briefly) on A Doll’s House

ImageFred Arsenault and Gretchen Hall in Old Globe’s A Doll’s House

In  Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, we are introduced to a woman named Nora who is married and has three children with her newly promoted Banker husband. Her days are spent by spending her husband’s money on things that they both need, and on things that they don’t. Her husband, Torvald reminds her all the time about her frivolity with money. He gives her a series of childlike nicknames such as “my little skylark” or “my squirrel”. All in all it seems like a normal everyday family.

As the play progresses you learn that Nora is no saint. She has committed the crime of forgery on official bank documents so that she may be granted a loan that she later used to go on a trip to Italy. Her husband Torvald has no idea, and she would like to keep it this way. Krogstad, is the employee at the bank that officiated the loan knowing that Nora forged her father’s signature on her documents. Years later, Krogstad is getting fired from the very bank that Nora’s husband is a banker at, and he comes to her for help convincing her husband not to fire him. When Nora tells him that she cannot seem to convince her husband to keep him, Krogstad reveals that he has written a letter detailing all of Nora’s actions and that he plans to use it as blackmail not only to keep his job, but to attain a promotion.

Desperation on Nora’s behalf is what fuels the rest of the play’s action, and as it turns out, everything works out in Nora’s favor. How lucky. At the end of the play something very unexpected happened, and perhaps this is what gives the play its real “staying power”. Nora leaves. This play was written and originally performed in the year 1879. Its unexpected ending threw audiences into an uproar because it was unheard of that a woman would up and leave her family because she needed to find herself. There was blatant lack of catharsis in this play for any of the characters, and as an audience, it seems that people were not quite ready for this. Nowadays, people are more open to this idea. 

On a personal level, I did not enjoy this play. It reads to me like a soap opera. I thought that the story is rather unoriginal; blackmail is certainly not a new concept and neither is that of a secret admirer revealing his true feelings (which is something else that happens in the play). Of course, I was a little shocked, as many first-time readers are, when Nora abandons her family, but for me, this is the only thing that saves the play. It completely flips the script on the perception of Nora’s character. To be honest, I felt that tone of the play was very male chauvinistic UNTIL Nora leaves. That event offers a shock value even for today’s modern standards. Despite this play being 134 years old, the concept of a mother leaving her children is still toe-curlingly distasteful to most people.