Thursday, July 31, 2008


Been reading some plays, because The Sportswriter was for a while too unbearable, and I didn't want to commit to something long that might end up being the same...

Fool for Love by Sam Shepard, Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shepard & Patti Smith : Cowboy Mouth doesn’t do much more than revel in its own coolness, but still manages to be pretty good. It’s fun to read as a document from some bad bad times in early 70s NYC, and I certainly know what a “rock-and-roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth” is all about (I agree that Bob Dylan isn’t one—too ambiguous—and Mick Jagger isn’t either—lips too big). Funny that Sam Shepard was flirting with the idea of becoming a rock star, when Patti Smith would be the one who ended up filling that role. Fool for Love was written over a decade later, and despite some similarities is much more polished. It’s supposed to be performed “relentlessly without a break,” which makes me want to see it performed, as it is hard to sustain that energy in my mind (lazing in bed). I did the next best thing and watched Robert Altman’s 1985 film version, which departs from the play only in the long, ponderous spaces inserted between the bursts of dialogue. That makes the story possibly more languid, romantic, haunted, but it also stretches it too thin. The characters aren’t complex in a way that demands that the camera linger on their motionless faces for long minutes, and their verbal sparring is diluted. Some of it is pretty expert, but I still don’t know how it would look on a stage.

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen : Two young people fall in love before learning that they share a father. That was the story of Fool for Love, and it’s the story of this one too. Was Sam Shepard reading a lot of Ibsen in the 1980s, or were both of these guys just really concerned with incest? Whatever the case, this is a nicely constructed play, and those “ghosts” (could a title be more evocative?) are the same burden as the dead men Holgrave speaks about in The House of the Seven Gables (though Ibsen has much more bile in him than Hawthorne). Ibsen was apparently deep into philosophy when writing his major plays, but he always seems to favor the specifics of a life over generalities (“Don’t let us talk in such general terms. Suppose we say: ‘Ought Oswald to love and honor Mr. Alving?’”), which as a philistine I appreciate.

The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov : I've long supposed I could never want to die (if I may so conceitedly ruminate), because there will always be one more song I want to hear or one more story I want to be told. It’s a shaky claim on life, one that can’t sustain nations or maybe even most people, but to the extent that this is a hopeful play, the central hope is that the next song or the next story will reveal some crucial meaning. Olga says it best: “The music is so gay, so joyous, it seems as if just a little more and we shall know why we live, why we suffer.” I don’t know if this is a tragedy full of comedy or a comedy full of tragedy (it’s classified a “drama”), but it’s so full of Chekhov’s apparently reliable warmth and humanity that one can’t help but feel that the gloom is never oppressive. It’s another one that would be good to see on the stage, in particular because overlapping action and dialogue don’t read as well as they play, and because it is hard to get a sense of the long swaths of time that pass both during acts and between them (how clever that the play gives the impression of a complete day even as the years go by). I’ve never thought of Robert Altman (still on my mind) as a realist and/or naturalist, but he would have been a good one to film or stage these (long ago Russian) lives being lived. (I’ve never encountered Ibsen’s name without Chekhov also being mentioned, which is why I read them in tandem.)


Anonymous said...

The film version of Fool for Love definitely betrays its stage origins, which always takes me out of a movie for some reason. Still, directed by Altman, it is enjoyable enough (much like another of his filmed plays, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean). And I have to say, Sam Shepard and Kim Basinger (the latter, pre-visible on-screen anxiety) are very sexy in it--even with the incest ick factor.

Geoff said...

Again: I've never noticed Kim Basinger's anxiety, but I will keep an eye out for it in the future.