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.