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Canadian and American audiences are ready for some dramatic transcendence.

That was the hopeful theme that emerged from a debate at the Ottawa International Writers Festival last weekend where I was moderating a conversation about whether theatre matters between two successfully serious playwrights determined that it does.

One was Montreal’s David Gow, whose work ranges from his much-produced issue play Cherry Docs, about a Jewish lawyer forced to defend a neo-Nazi, to more psychological work such as his recent Sea’s Niece, about a woman’s mental breakdown.

The other was Carla Seaquist, a writer from Washington, D.C., who has recently moved to Washington state and whose drama covers a similar span of social, political and personal issues.

Her most recent play is The Washington-Sarajevo Talks, in which an American writer named Carla carries on a series of telephone conversations with a Bosnian radio journalist who is under bombardment.

Now, she’s rethinking the theme of the prodigal, in a play that will pit a bad-boy film director in the Quentin Tarantino mould against his social-worker brother and so examine the American exaltation of the outlaw.

Seaquist is deeply critical of her own society and its theatre, decrying a rush to entertainment in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

“Right at the moment American theatre is beside the point,” she said, citing the season of comedies, musicals and revivals that followed in 2002-03.

Writing in The Christian Science Monitor, Seaquist has called for a version of the so-called new normal that would feature less of the edge and more of the core in American behaviour. She defines the edge as the extremes permissible in a pampered, self-absorbed society, from road rage to the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal to the violence-made-comic of a Tarantino movie. The core is the kind of behaviour that appeared on Sept. 11, true grief and real heroism.

She sees America the superpower as a tragic hero struggling to emerge from narcissism and, recalling the social catharsis the ancient Greeks achieved through their tragedies, she and Gow debated whether theatre could play a civil role in drawing audiences out of themselves. Of course, when it comes to reminding us of our shared humanity, theatre has a huge advantage over film and television because actors and audience are physically present in the same room.

At a safe Canadian distance from Sept. 11, Gow was very cautious in ascribing great powers to tragedy, suggesting it might be an exhausted form.

He recalled that the nationalistic Canadian theatre in the 1970s had assigned itself a social role, but he felt audiences had grown tired of that tone, and turned to lighter American and British fare. Now, like Seaquist, he thought they were hungry for something new but wondered what shape it would take.

Responding to a question from the audience about where the classics might fit in the debate, he noted our inability to understand the Greek tragedies because we insist on emotional identification with the characters. It’s not as though we can sit through Medea, in which the heroine kills her own children, thinking to ourselves “Gee, I’ve been having some trouble with the kids,” he said, to much laughter. In an age of irony and cynicism, we cannot suspend disbelief long enough in the face of a Medea to experience catharsis, he said.

Both he and Seaquist are seeking new ways of reaching audiences, hinting at some hybrid that would re-establish the life-changing connection that Gow recalled Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman made back in the 1950s, when its performances were reported to have reduced middle-aged, middle-American men to tears. Seaquist pointed to the success of the new American play Omnium-Gatherum, in which a group of racially diverse characters debate global events, as an encouraging sign. It’s the first play to directly address Sept. 11 and it allows audiences to laugh, she said, arguing that real, deep laughter can only emerge from tragedy.

For his own part, Gow is working on a new play entitled Stream that’s a satirical futuristic comedy investigating our often-visceral connection with our beloved computers. And Seaquist thinks that in her play about the prodigal son, the social worker’s wife may emerge as the key character who can find a way out of the stalemate between bad boy and do-gooder.

She summed up our debate with a story about a neighbour whose wife had just given birth to a baby with a birth defect. After some quiet reflection in the hospital room, he announced, “Once we get past the self pity, we’ll be okay.”

Review of If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence, and Spirit, by  Brenda Ueland (Graywolf Press).  The following is an imagined interview with Brenda Ueland (1891-1985), a writer and teacher, written by Carla Seaquist upon reading the above title, first published in 1938 and now republished:

Miss Ueland, T.S. Eliot said that writing in the 20th century is “a raid on the inarticulate.”

Writing is simply putting one’s thoughts on paper.  That is all there is to it.  I know what I say is true, because it is true to me and therefore I say it freely and you must have it.

You’re as emphatic as my English teacher Miss Saari, but she had the advantage of imparting codified Rules of Grammar (the exceptions to which gave her “the pip”—your term).  But Rules of Writing?  Are there any? Instead of manuals, the great writers send us bulletins from the front.  You know, Eudora Welty’s “What we know about writing the novel is the novel.”  Not that you provide rules so much as a set of cheers, itself very useful.

Be careless, reckless!  Be a lion, be a pirate, when you write!

But, your book lacks organization: You set out your ducks, promising “More later,” but don’t assemble them; chapter headings don’t always deliver; your summary introduces new material.

I wouldn’t think of planning the book before I write it.  You write, and plan it afterwards.

But what really sticks are your claims.  Among other things, you promise the Nobel by noon!

I said “in ten years.”

B-b-but, you can’t say that!  It undercuts your book’s good points.

Which are?

“Writing is not a performance but a generosity.”  Lovely.  And: “Art must be truly felt and cannot be willed.”  And Van Gogh’s idea of working from “very deep, serious affection.”

And?

“Work freely and rollickingly as though…talking to a friend who loves you.”  And: “Keep a slovenly, headlong, impulsive, honest diary.”  I also admire your exaltation of the Imagination, taking Blake’s “Imagination is the Divine Body in Every Man” as scripture.  And this: “Inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time.”

What else?

Deflecting “fussy-mussy criticism”—I love it—and “that American pastime known as kidding,” from parents, older brothers (“the greatest sneerers of all”), teachers, husbands.  And your advice to writing mothers.

Yes.  If you would shut your door against the children for an hour a day and say: “Mother is working on her five-act tragedy in blank verse!” you would be surprised how they would respect you.

However, you skimp on the topic of acquiring a voice.

If you speak or write from yourself you cannot help being original.

Yes, well, that’s this century’s tough nut: locating the self, so often found to be mute or a ventriloquist.  You devote just two paragraphs to it.

I myself seem to be so many different people, sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, a murderer, a whiner, a mother, a simpering lady, an old rip, a minister, a burglar, a lion, a weasel.

Could you elaborate?

The only way to find your true self is by recklessness and freedom.  If you feel like a murderer…write like one. “Violent Passions emit the Real, Good and Perfect Tones,” said Blake.

About Blake’s elevation of Enthusiasm over Reason: Not that you debunk Reason entirely, but I do think we could use more Reason these days.

“Mere Enthusiasm is the All in All,” said Blake.  I must tell you this often.

Somebody told Ollie North often enough.

Who?

Sorry.  About your biography: Miss Ueland, you’re a veritable exclamation point in an age of ellipses.  Let’s see, daughter of feminists….

I was born with a birth defect: No herd instinct!

You lived in the Village in its bohemian days, during which time you introduced bobbed hair?

I can prove it.  I told [the barber] to cut my hair all off…“like Lord Byron’s—as if a high wind were blowing from the rear.”

You had three husbands, a child, a hundred-plus affairs.

But never with a married man unless he brought a note from his wife.

You published essays, columns, an autobiography titled “Me” (whose tone is more questioning, less bromidic than “If You Want to Write”).  In reading your work I sense that, for you, the life came first?

With the Greeks, I think the purpose of life…is “the tendence of the soul.”

Entailing, as discussed in your essay On Making Choices,” formulating a “Life Conception.”  Interesting: You say if Hamlet had done so….

The answer would have come immediately: Don’t kill Claudius.  Or your mother.  Be kinder to Ophelia.  Don’t fake madness.  Intelligently plan the overthrow of Claudius and establish a good administration.

The good life, then, over the good story, a priority I applaud.  Your collected essays might be titled “If You Want to Live”.  About story, though: Your book may not appeal to writers of “just” fiction (your modifier), as you don’t discuss character, narrator, point-of-view.

The only way to become a better writer is to become a better person.

You know what, Miss U.?  Past the bombast, you’re really quite a boost.

You see I am so afraid you will decide that you are stupid and….

And you know what else?

What, dearie?

The real value of books like yours is mixing it up in the margins with the author, right?

Precisely!  Another gooseberry?

Carla Seaquistwho has published in The Christian Science Monitor, is working on a play and a novel.

 

Depleted by minimalism?  Freaked for our future by the literary Brat Pack?  Yearning for another feisty female voice?

Meet Lucille Odom, 17, narrator of Josephine Humphreys’ second novel, Rich in Love, and direct descendant of Eudora Welty’s narrator in Why I Live at the P.O.  A maximalist, Lucille is filled not with anomie but with love—for Charleston, her house, even shifting the car from reverse to first, “a moment of grace between backward and forward.”  Romantic love has yet to hit, but “Do not think I didn’t know what love was….It had been accumulating silently over the years like equity in a house.  I was rich in love.”  Not the usual shrugging adolescent then, whom Lucille herself cannot abide: “People my age were murder.”

But never mind peers, what compels Lucille is the universe.  Setting her apart is a “hardly noticeable” harelip (though “Does ‘hardly noticeable’ mean ‘noticeable’ or ‘not noticeable’?”), but setting her above is a finely tuned vigilance: “Let the world do its worst, Lucille Odom was ready.”  For its part the world is doing just that.  A Latinist, she cites the battle of Herculaneum; surveying history, she sees “men in packs making messes”; monitoring Charleston’s naval base, she watches submarines sneak out “like Mafia Cadillacs.”  Clearly, something dire is afoot—a prospect paralyzing most “heroes” of contemporary fiction but animating Lucille: “Beauty doubled and tripled around me.  The place was doomed.”  Biking past the mall she sees shopping as “an indicator of human trust in the future,” exclaiming, “Look at them swarming into the Garden Centre, coming out with flats of two-toned petunias and soaker-hoses!”

Precocious?  No; as D.H. Lawrence noted, “Man has his excess always on his hands,” and Lucille has a dose.

Vigilant though she is, Lucille is blindsided by the sudden exit of her mother, Helen, the act mobilizing the novel’s story.  Reviewing the past, Lucille had failed to connect the dots: her newly retired father trailing Helen as she vacuums; her own expectations of Helen as chauffeur-laundress; Helen’s discontent with bequeathing rather than using a lore ranging from Walt Whitman to Supreme Court decisions to Indian health care.  Thus, when Helen calls in, Lucille’s first question to her is, “Well, is this something feminist…or is it something real?”  Understanding is within Lucille’s reach, though.  “Probably every woman has a singing self,” she thinks.  But what about Helen?  When Lucille sees Helen again—a meeting forced by Black friend Rhody who acknowledges Lucille’s talent for observation but insists she move—Helen reacts to her tearful daughter with the off-key remark, “It didn’t occur to me that you would be hurt.”  Hello?

Meanwhile, what can Lucille do, “stupid, seventeen, powerless,” but rewrite Helen’s farewell note for more feeling, cook for her father, and provide commentary?  Pop, a fey mix of demolitions expert and innocent, lies in bed like “an odalisque,” fending off despair with pre-Helen memories, taking up finally (to Lucille’s chagrin) with Vera Oxendine, the barbershop’s stylist.  And sister Rae, leaving a Washington job to “fix” things at home, shows up married, pregnant, and depressed—no help at all.  Lucille’s comment:

I don’t know why so many women do not foresee the future….[It] hits them, and they say, Oh! A baby!  Oh! A divorce!  They have no foresight whatsoever, and get into situations they could easily have avoided with a little thought, a little observation, a little contraception.

It is enough to make Lucille “quit loving…the way you can go down to a bank and draw out your life’s savings.”  But not if you are “rich in love.”

Out of this chaos Humphreys presents a sympathetic male: new brother-in-law Billy, a historian.  At first a threat, he is soon Lucille’s tutor: “Not only did I pass with all A’s, but I found myself walking around with an overview.”  But even better, in a priceless scene, he connects with her: “You come across strong as Fort Sumter…but then half of your sentences start out with ‘I love.’  You have a lot of love in you.”  Well!  Lucille is in love (“That was the me.  I had been recognized”), but that cannot be expressed to Billy, so sometime-boyfriend Wayne, next on the dock, is the surprised beneficiary.  Initially secret love for Billy suffices (“No wear-and-tear”), but soon enough she is stifling “inappropriate” remarks that would reveal everything, like “Don’t wear that shirt,” comments one makes “only to a loved one.”

With experience Lucille may ditch the notion that love manipulates, along with the one that marriage confines.  Certainly, she has given the subject due thought.  Now to focus on the other half of Freud’s love-and-work formula for happiness: work.  Because, attenzione: Given her “excess,” Lucille will either find the cure for AIDS or become the crank in Accounting.  And, crucially, she must address something else: her literal formative experience.  Lucille survived her mother’s misfired abortion: her legacy is a lost twin and the harelip.  This, coupled with her mother’s beauty, is emotional dynamite that the novel, while noting “that searching nozzle,” only skims.

But no matter.  Humphreys has created what a reviving Pop Odom went looking for: a “permanent” book.  The Odoms are real, not Southern gothics; the humor is on-point, not hit-and-run.  The story surges.  And there is the splendid Lucille, who lives and, unlike the fictional representatives of the prevailing slackjaw chic, cares.  Can that spirit hold as she matures?  Her evaluation of Huck Finn suggests transformation:

If you are a girl, you say to yourself, this kid has a long way to go.  He is so happy with his Jim, and his raft, and his old river…Boys have that extended phase of innocence.  I do not think girls have it at all.  Imagine Becky Thatcher writing that book and you have an altogether different concept.  You have something darker.

Coraggio, Lucille.  And tell it.

Carla Seaquist has published in The Christian Science Monitor, Washington Post, and other publications.

Michael Malone’s comic novel is about a young retiring drama professor finally drop-kicked into action by a playwright who’s a boor to his nearest and dearest but “the nation’s Chekhov” to the anonymous audience.  It is a rollicking take on the conflict of Art vs. Life: Which has priority?  What price art?  What constitutes living?  Foolscap bursts with event, vivid characters, literary and theatrical asides, tight dialogue, high humor—all of which, while it amuses, also brings to mind Henrik Ibsen, but more later.

Taking an alternate route from his show-business parents—Lorraine Page was the Luster Shampoo Girl, Benny Ryan achieved fame with his “Do the Duck”—Theo Ryan teaches Renaissance drama at Cavendish University, “the fastest growing college in the South.”  Trouble is, there’s no drama in Theo’s life.  Gloomy about the breakup of his three-year affair, he’s gloomier still about his life.  Compared to “bad boy” playwright Joshua “Ford” Rexford, whose biography he is writing, Theo at 35 feels “trapped in the starting gate,” “with ecstasy, marriage, blood, bliss, all untasted,” while Ford, that “unslakable gulper of life” with his drunken binges, foul mouth, and 16 “large-hearted” plays, is about to marry Wife No. Five!  Theo needs a nudge (though, if he looks like “the young Gary Cooper,” one wonders why he hasn’t been nudged plenty).

Enter Ford, who has “retired” to a nearby mountaintop; actually, run away is more like it—from producers who want their advance back, his psychiatrist who wants him committed, the police who want him for shooting his fourth (now ex-) wife.  While Ford uses this sojourn to carouse, not-work on another play, and fall in love with Rhodora Potts, a country western singer gritty as “a rural Barbara Stanwyck,” Theo treats it as a research opportunity, quizzing Ford about his World War II experiences, no two versions of which are alike.  This has Theo thinking it might be easier to write Ford’s life after Ford returns to his Maker, about whom the author quips:

that melodramatist God, that reckless, unruly creator of improbable characters like Ford Rexford, God obviously had no respect for the unities…could care less about the orderly progression of rising action, complication, crisis, reversal, resolution.  God didn’t write well-made plays.

Speaking of plays, it so happens that Theo himself has written a play—about Sir Walter Raligh’s last hours before execution, titled Foolscap—and, uh, would Ford read it?  To their mutual surprise, Ford finds the play “damn good” and supervises a rewrite. It’s when Ford urges Theo to move to New York to move his play and Theo demurs—he’s got classes, he’s promised his publisher a draft of Ford’s biography—that Ford drop-kicks him: “Oh fuck me…Stop writing my life, and go live your own.”  And then, Ford decamps for England, taking the only copy of Theo’s play and fleeing Rhodora.  Theo gives chase, and, during a 250-page pursuit, retrieves his play, only to concoct an elaborate scheme to pass it off as Raleigh’s own.

This implausible act raises a major “Yes, but”: Theo not only commits fraud (which could have ruined his new friend and noted Raleigh scholar Dame Winifred Throckmorton) but also commits a second by finishing Ford’s last play when Ford is killed (a revelation this reviewer regrets).  For one who scrupled against romancing his grad students, two such egregious acts strain credulity; moreover, Theo’s “moral unease” Malone only skims.

Okay, it’s a comic novel; sack scruples, the romp’s the thing.  Trying to roll with it though, I kept wincing at the mass of suffering caused by Ford.  Not only has Ford wasted four wives (one with a cocaine habit who stabbed him, the one he shot back), but his two sons have renounced him forever.  And there is Ford’s own suffering, which his biographer misses but Father Mabyn, who met Ford in Cornwall, nails: “[Ford] is a very unhappy man.  Almost in despair…for all of his marvelous love of life.”  Days later, Ford is killed (or kills himself) speeding to Stratford-on-Avon.  In a tale about the relationship of Art to life, the destruction caused by an artist’s “marvelous love of life” becomes, even in a comic novel, material.  Granted, comedy’s roots are in tragedy, but here those roots burst through, turning the Trollopian proceedings Waughian.  Not my idea of fun.

Ford himself admits doubt, while alive, about his behavior’s toll:

I’ve gotten rich and famous acting up, wild and moody, hard to handle.  America demands that kind of adolescent assholery from its serious artists, and ambitious boy that I am, not to mention authentically out of control, I gave it to them…Hell, I don’t know.

In death he confirms it: In a throat-catching scene, Ford appears to Theo as the Ghost (shades of Hamlet).  Responding to Theo’s angry “You trashed everybody who loved you,” Ford says, “Don’t rub it in…What I never quite got straight was: Art’s no excuse for life.”

Which brings me to Ibsen: In his last play, the tragedy When We Dead Awaken, the aged, famous sculptor Ruben encounters Irena, the model he loved but cast aside once he’d used her.  To Irena’s bitter summary “The work of art first, and flesh and blood second,” Rubek, finally recognizing, cries, “How blind I was then—when I set the dead clay image above the joy of living—and of loving!”  Ford, meet Rubek.  Rhodora, after Ford ditched her, has her own recognition: “He don’t know finishing…he just knows quittin’.”

Indeed, one hopes Malone, also a playwright, will doff the “fools-cap” and write a play with Theo and Ford-as-Ghost engaging the Art/Life conflict head on, with Theo asking Ford questions such as “How could the man who’d written Preacher Boy—a play that made fathers and sons all over the world weep to reconcile—have so irrevocably abandoned his own father and so alienated his own sons?”—questions that Theo earlier deep-sixed as “impolitic” to ask, a reticence weakening him both as central character and biographer.

Theo’s flaws aside, the pleasure of Malone’s fluid storytelling are many.  Befitting a theater-based novel, Malone creates characters through their words.  Most expressive are Theo’s colleague, Jorvel Wakefield, an African-Americanist (“I don’t do deconstruction, boy.  I do demolition,  I blow up canons”); the aforementioned Dame Winifred (“Facts are cattle.  Theory a bird”); and Sir Walter Raleigh himself (“What is our life? a play of passion”).  Litterateurs will enjoy the literary commentary, as when Theo, who hankers for meaning and purpose, rejects “Plato’s notion of the artist-as-divine-moron”: “Was it conceivable that Michelangelo didn’t have a clue as to what David was going to end up looking like?”

And finally, playwrights will benefit from Ford’s playwriting advice, such as: “You throw the hook into the next scene, you pull through it; you don’t push, you pull…You’re not just cruising around hoping you’ll bump into the fucking road.”  And this, which Ford applied to his art but not, sadly, to his life: “The end must be in the beginning.  Look for it there.”

Carla Seaquist is a playwright living in Washington, D.C.