One-Minute Book Reviews

July 28, 2010

Donald Margulies’s Play ‘Collected Stories’ – A Poet in His Youth, Again

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:37 pm
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A Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright explores the relationship between a writing teacher and a student who forges her own career

Collected Stories: Revised Edition. By Donald Margulies. Dramatists Play Service, 68 pp., $8.95, paper.

By Janice Harayda

Who owns the story of an adult’s life? Donald Margulies explores the moral and psychological implications of the question in Collected Stories, which had a brief run on Broadway earlier this year. Margulies doesn’t parse legal issues in this play about a 55-year-old New York writing teacher, Ruth Steiner, and her evolving relationship with a young student, Lisa Morrison, who forges her own career.

Collected Stories instead follows the intersecting emotional arcs of a mentor and her protégée as the story builds toward an act the older woman sees as a betrayal. Lisa urges her teacher to talk about an affair she had years earlier with the poet Delmore Schwartz, then uses what she learns for her own purposes. Ruth sees her student’s appropriation as a form of theft and psychic annihilation. She tells Lisa: “You wanted to obliterate me.” Lisa insists she didn’t: “I wanted to honor you.”

Who is right? The play leans toward Ruth but has little new to say about the age-old dance of transference and countertransference between a mentor and protégée. As in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Dinner With Friends, Margulies paints his characters’ needs with a broad brush. But he’s a skilled craftsman: He seems to have removed every needless word with the literary equivalent of turpentine, and his play is well-paced and structured. And the question “Who owns the story of your life?” has gained provocative and slippery dimensions in the age of Facebook and text messages. High school and college students might have hours of lively arguments about this play even as their elders prefer to dust-off their Vintage paperback editions of Poets in Their Youth.

Best line: Ruth: “Are you going to survive this tutorial, or are you going to require oxygen?”

Worst line: Ruth on Delmore Schwartz: “He was only 44 but there was something ancient about him. He seemed to possess so much wisdom …”

You may also want to read: Jonathan Yardley’s review of Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir (Vintage, 1983), Eileen Simpson’s memoir of her husband, John Berryman, and his circle, including Delmore Schwartz.

Read a review of the 2010 Broadway production of Collected Stories in the Wall Street Journal.

You can order Collected Stories online though Dramatists Play Service.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 25, 2009

‘Death Takes a Holiday’ – A Play Asks, ‘What If for Three Days Nobody Died?

Filed under: Classics,Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:07 pm
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Broadway came before Brad.

In the play that inspired Meet Joe Black, Death learns the power of love

Death Takes a Holiday: A Comedy in Three Acts. By Alberto Casella. Rewritten for the American Stage by Walter Ferris. Samuel French, 151 pp., $7.50, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Like Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday is one of those supernatural comedies of the 1930s and 1940s that lifted spirits lowered by the Depression and World War II. Whether the play would have the same effect in the age of swine flu and Afghanistan, I have no idea (though the producers of Meet Joe Black, a 1998 adaptation that starred Brad Pitt, apparently thought it would provide a welcome diversion from the Clinton sex scandals).

But in some ways Death Takes a Holiday has lost little of its appeal since it opened on Broadway two months after the stock market crash of 1929. Weary of “always being misunderstood,” Death suspends his activities for three days and takes on a human form to find out why people fear him. He conducts his experiment by dropping in on the castle of an Italian duke and, after gaining the nobleman’s consent, passing himself off to its residents as the visiting Prince Sirki. The project goes awry when Death falls in love and sees the flaw in his gambit.

“I gave myself life, not knowing the force that is in life, nor the force that is in love,” he laments.

Death’s ardor is returned by a young woman who must decide, as the end of his stay nears, whether love is stronger than death. And if answer seems obvious, Alberto Casella invests it with more suspense and interest than you might expect. Unlike Blithe Spirit, Death Takes a Holiday isn’t mainly about glorious repartee – it has heart and a seriousness of purpose. It is the unusual play about death that is funny and entertaining but doesn’t trivialize its subject and has an ageless message.

Early on, the as-yet-undisguised Death explains to Duke Lambert why he must don the garb of a prince:

“I’ve found that very few mortals can bear to face life as it really is. It seems to them stark and forbidding, like the outlines of my face, until Illusion softens it with her rosy lamp.”

Death has clearly learned a lesson that eluded the many of the leaders of companies that lately have ranged from Enron to AIG – that the real, however frightening, has a beauty that illusion can’t match.

Best line: Quoted above: “few mortals can bear to face life as it really is.”

Worst line: Major Whitread, a soldier in a medal-covered uniform Foreign Legion uniform, tells Death/Prince Sirki (also called “Shadow”): “I’ve been awfully anxious to meet you, sir.” The line isn’t bad but suggests one of the contrivances of the play: A legionnaire turns up, seemingly out-of-the-blue, to offer the perspective of someone who has seen death at close range.

Published: 1924 (first Italian production), 1929 (first Broadway production).

Furthermore: Death Takes a Holiday is available from the Samuel French online store. The Broadway play inspired a 1934 movie with the same title and the remake Meet Joe Black, which I haven’t seen.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 1, 2008

A Few Comments on Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons’ on Broadway and in Print

It’s remarkable how a well-staged Broadway production can transcend the defects of a play. Last weekend I saw All My Sons in previews at the Schoenfeld Theatre, and the time flew by.

You hardly noticed how prosaic Arthur Miller’s writing can be because the production had so much going for it, including brisk direction by Simon McBurney and a glossy cast: John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and Katie Holmes.

After I got home, it seemed to me that All My Sons stands up to rereading both better and worse than some of the other plays that appeared in decade after World War II. It holds up better partly because Miller is dealing here with issues that have fresh relevance in the age of Haliburton and Enron: the evils of war profiteering and the moral duty of individuals to resist the soulless influence of American business. It holds up worse because Miller can use language as blunt instrument instead of a precision tool (as in Linda Loman’s famous defense of her husband, Willy: “ … attention must be paid”). That liability is perhaps more noticeable today than it was before videos and DVDs expanded the availability of more elegantly written plays from Hamlet to A Streetcar Named Desire.

I wondered if others shared my view, so I picked up Arthur Miller (Chelsea House, 148 pp., $35), part of the “Bloom’s BioCritiques” series edited and introduced by the distinguished critic Harold Bloom. (The volume on Miller in the “Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations” series is instead shown above.) Bloom says:

“Miller is by no means a bad writer, but he is scarcely an eloquent master of the language.”

Exactly. The appeal Miller’s plays — which remains high — comes from virtues other than unparalleled phrase-turning, including their craftsmanship, moral courage and passionate exploration of the intersection of social and psychological forces in American lives.

A few comments on the Sept. 26 preview: Kate Holmes (Ann Deever) is easy on the eyes and, given that producers must be strafing her with scripts for romantic comedies, has made a statement about how she wants to be perceived by taking on this role. John Lithgow (Joe Keller) gives an energetic performance in a tough role that requires him to undergo a transformation that, as Miller wrote it, isn’t fully believable. Patrick Wilson (Chris Keller) grows into his part. None of those actors can touch Dianne Wiest (Kate Keller), whose portrayal of a mother unable to accept the death of her son in World War II must be one of the best recent portrayals of mental illness in any medium.

All My Sons officially opens Oct. 16 on Broadway. You can read about that production and buy tickets at www.allmysonsonbroadway.com. You’ll find more on Arthur Miller (1915-2005) at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Miller.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept books from editors, publishers, authors or agents. It also does not accept free tickets to plays mentioned on the site.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 22, 2008

A Few Words on ‘Hamlet’ — Were Your English Teachers Right When They Told You That the Prince of Denmark Was a Man of Inaction?

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:22 pm
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A lot of people may be returning to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy now that Oprah has selected the Hamlet-influenced The Story of Edgar Sawtelle for her book club. And I may say more about that play closer to the date of the discussion of David Wroblewski’s novel. For now, I’ll mention one of the most perceptive scholarly comments I’ve read about the play: Many of us learned in school that Hamlet is “a man of inaction,” defined by his hesitations, but you could make a strong case that the opposite is true.

After becoming suspicious that his uncle killed his father in order to marry his mother, Hamlet vows revenge and devotes himself to achieving it. When traveling players arrive at Elsinore castle, he arranges quickly for them to put on a play that will confirm his beliefs, giving us the line: “…the play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Hamlet certainly deliberates, as in the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in which he ponders whether it’s better to live or die when we don’t know what death will bring. But it might be more accurate to describe the Prince of Denmark as contemplative, meditative, or ruminative, words that describe his thoughts, rather than as a man of “inaction,” which describes his behavior.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 20, 2008

The Real Mrs. Kipling — Beyond Kim Cattrall in ‘My Boy Jack’

Filed under: Classics,News,Plays,TV — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:41 am
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Kim Cattrall of Sex and the City plays Rudyard Kipling’s American wife in My Boy Jack, a televised version of a play about the writer and his vulnerable son, tonight on PBS. Who was Carrie Kipling?

V. S. Pritchett wrote in a review of Angus Wilson’s biography, The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling, which appears in Pritchett’s Compete Collected Essays:

“She was certainly very domineering – and like many dominant people was liable to hysteria which her prisoner was called upon to calm. She was certainly, once more, a stern mother-figure. He was incompetent with money. She managed his financial affairs, his contracts, his correspondence. She is said to have opened all his letters and to have dictated the replies. Her daughter said she cut her husband off from stimulating intellectual company and indeed she was out of her depth in it. But she fiercely protected his privacy and stood between him and the plague of visitors who descend like vultures on famous men; if Kipling was cut off from his coevals, he was cut off chiefly by his wealth: his friends were the successful and important. She was suspicious by nature, particularly of women, and seems to have felt many people were really after his money. But Kipling appeared to enjoy her rule, for he had been used to an excessive reliance on his parents, even in middle life. Visitors noticed that Rudyard and his Carrie enjoyed the same harsh jokes.

“She probably enjoyed hearing that the female of the species was more deadly than the male. Possibly he would not have married her unless he had loved her charming brother first and more spontaneously — he responded most to family affection — and one must remember that he and Carrie had the tragic bond of the loss of their two children and that she nursed her misogynist through his serious breakdowns and his hysterical, baseless, but harrowing dread of cancer. No; brought up in a tough school, Kipling found a tough wife.”

My Boy Jack is a Masterpiece (formerly Masterpiece Theater) production www.pbs.org written by David Haig and based on his play. It also stars Haig as Rudyard Kipling, Daniel Radcliffe as his son and Jack, shown with Cattrall in a PBS photo.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 26, 2008

A Review of the 2008 Newbery Medal Winner, Laura Amy Schlitz’s ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!': Voices from a Medieval Village’

A prize-winning collection of linked monologues and dialogues in prose and poetry by characters, between 10 and 15 years old, who live on bankrupt English manor in the time of the Crusades

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Ilustrated by Robert Byrd. Candlewick, 85 pp., $15.95. Ages 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

This is a refreshingly subversive book. Perhaps only a school librarian like Laura Amy Schlitz could have found a way not just to publish but to win a Newbery Medal for a book that defies almost every fashion in American education.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! is about children like the destitute Barbary, who knows that a lord’s daughter will someday give birth “and squat in the straw, / and scream with the pain / and pray for her life / same as me.” It’s about girls like the crippled Constance, who makes a pilgrimage to a site associated with Saint Winifred, who was decapitated after she fought a man who tried to “seize” (read: rape) her. (Her head miraculously reattached itself her body.) And it’s about boys like the miller’s son Otho, who plans to cheat his customers the way his father does because: “There’s no use in looking back, / for here’s the truth I’ve found: / It’s hunger, want, and wickedness / that makes the world go ’round.”

This book is, in other words, about everday life in the Middle Ages, as described in 19 linked monologues and two dialogues by characters between the ages of 10 and 15. All of the speakers live on or near an English manor that, in 1255, has been bankrupted by the Crusades. So it isn’t surprising that their talk often turns to God, Jesus, the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, Hell, Judgment Day and saints who died gruesome deaths. Their lives are so brutal that for some, this world has nothing on the next.

To help children make sense of all of it, Schlitz adds background in marginal notes and pages of explanatory text that can get a bit breezy. Why did people go on Crusades? Partly because the pope said that killing people was “a religious duty”: “Ordinary people could escape the tedium of their everyday lives, see the world, kill Muslims, and go to heaven in the bargain.” Schlitz almost makes it sound as though you could get frequent flyer miles for it. In a post-9/11 world, you can’t get much less fashionable than talking about killing Muslims, in a tone that borders on flip, in book intended for use in schools.

The monologues tend to work better than the interleaved explanatory pages, but it’s unclear why some characters speak in prose and others in poetry. The verse forms range from bouncy dactyls to stately heroic couplets, which helps to keep the speeches from becoming monotonous. But some of Schlitz’s poetry is hard enough to scan that it may defeat many students and even teachers. This book would have benefited from a few notes on the verse forms and on the obvious parallels with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Even so, it’s a worthy Newbery winner. Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! offers a fascinating view of the Middle Ages from which many adults may learn as much as children. Schlitz’s characters tell exciting stories of falconry, boar-hunting and other pursuits that offer more realistic view of medieval life than fairy tales about demure princesses. And although the Newbery judges aren’t supposed to consider the artwork, it can’t have hurt that this book has such appealing watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations by Robert Byrd, who found inspiration in an illuminated poem from 13th-century Germany.

Best line: A lament by Lowdy, the daughter of a varlet (a man who looked after the animals owned by the lord of the manor): “Fleas in the pottage bowl, / Fleas in the bread, / Bloodsucking fleas / In the blankets of our beds …” Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! has many good lines, but these stand out because they are written in dactylic meter, which is much less common in children’s books than iambic or anapestic.

Worst line: Schlitz writes about the Children’s Crusade as though its existence were an established fact: “In 1212, a French shepherd boy had a vision that the Holy Land could be recovered by innocent children. Thirty to forty thousand children from France and Germany set off to Palestine, believing that God would favor their cause because of their faith, love, and poverty. They believed that when they reached the Mediterranean, it would part, like the Red Sea. They were mistaken. Most of them starved, froze to death, or were sold into slavery.” Many scholars question whether this crusade occurred or, if it did, whether it attracted “thirty to forty thousand” children. Schlitz gives no source for this information beyond a general bibliography that lists only one book that deals primarily with the Crusades.

Published: August 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! won the 2008 John Newbery Medal from the American Library Association, given to the most distinguished work of American literature for children www.ala.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/newberymedal/newberymedal.htm .
Schlitz also wrote an excellent neo-Gothic novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/. Robert Byrd’s site is www.robertbyrdart.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. This site posts a new review of a book for children or teenagers every Saturday.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 4, 2007

The History Boys: Film vs. Play

Filed under: Movie Link,Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:11 am

A movie that softens the indictment of education found in the Broadway show

The History Boys: A play. By Alan Bennett. Faber and Faber/FSG, 109 pp., $13, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

A few months ago, I reviewed the script for the play The History Boys and suggested that book groups consider adopting the habit of a club I used to belong to that read a play aloud once year. If you missed the review, you can find it archived in the “Plays” category at right.

So I’ll just add a quick follow-up note now that I’ve seen the high-spirited movie version. Some film critics have described the play as admirably faithful to the Broadway production that won the 2006 Tony Award for best play. In most respects, they’re right.

But a small change in the movie dilutes a vital aspect of the play: The History Boys condemns the cult of novelty in education. This indictment was obvious in the stage version. The play opened with a flash forward that showed the new teacher, Irwin, taking his theories to an extreme by arguing years later for the abolition of the right to a trial by jury on the grounds that people would have more freedom without it. Playwright Alan Bennett is saying: This is where ideas like Irwin’s will get you in the end.

The movie drops that opening scene and lines elsewhere that underscore Bennett’s point. The omissions soften the views Irwin expressed in the Broadway show, though Stepen Campbell Moore plays him in both. So if you liked the movie, why not read the play, too? The film serves the play better than many adaptations. But it gives its audiences less credit than the play for being willing to listen to unpleasant truths. And who could be surprised by a dumbing-down – however slight – from Hollywood?

The following material comes from the original review of the play:
Best line: “Can you, for moment, imagine how dispiriting it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude? … What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.”

Worst line: The play has a brief scene in French that has delighted movie- and theatergoers. But if your book club is thinking of reading the play aloud, you need a member who can read and translate such lines as “Qui est la femme de chambre? … Moi, je suis la femme de chambre.”

Recommended if … you’d like to read a play that doesn’t include any iambic pentameter or require somebody to sing the line, “I just met a girl named Maria.”

Published: April 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 8, 2006

The Afterlife of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:46 pm

A Tony Award-winning play about the purpose of education that speaks to the age of No Child Left Behind

The History Boys. A Play by Alan Bennett. Faber and Faber/FSG, 109 pp., $13, paperback.

Once I was in a book group that, at one meeting a year, read a play aloud instead of discussing a book. This tradition had many virtues, not the least of which was that it meant that, at least once a year, everybody finished the assigned reading.

What play would you choose if you were going to read one aloud? You might consider The History Boys, Alan Bennett’s smart and timely satire of the cult of novelty in education. I saw and admired the Broadway production that won the 2006 Tony Award for best play. But you don’t need to have seen the stage version to enjoy the latest play from the author of The Madness of George III.

The History Boys has its roots in Bennett’s education in Leeds in the 1950s, but it takes place mostly in the present. And its themes are ripe for the age of the No Child Left Behind Act. What is the purpose of education? Is it to prepare students for tests or for life? These questions bob and weave through the classroom run by Douglas Hector, an an aging English teacher at an undistinguished British boarding school. Hector believes that tests are the enemy of education, and his sixth-form boys are happy to go along until a young teacher arrives to prepare them for their university entrance exams. The newcomer insists that to get into Oxford or Cambridge, the boys need an intellectual gimmick, such as a willingness to argue that “those who had been genuinely caught napping by the attack on Pearl Harbor were the Japanse and that the real culprit was President Roosevelt.” Anybody who thinks he can’t prevail probably hasn’t spent time lately on an American campus.

In some ways, The History Boys is about ideas more than people, especially in the second half, which builds toward an ending too dark for what has preceded it. This makes the play less poignant and cohesive than Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, set on similar ground decades earlier. But next to much of what has made it to Broadway recently, The History Boys shines. Its spirit never strays far from that of the lines by Walt Whitman that Hector quotes for his students: “The untold want by life and land n’er granted/Now Voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find.”

Best line: “Can you, for a moment, imagine how dispiriting it is to teach five centuries of masculine ineptitude? … What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.”

Worst line: The play has a brief, campy scene in French that delighted Broadway audiences but might defeat a book club that doesn’t have at least one member who translate such lines as, “Qui est la femme de chambre? … Moi, je suis la femme de chambre.”

Recommended if … you’d love to read a recent play that doesn’t require somebody to sing “Memories.”

Consider reading also: The Browning Version (Samuel French, 2000) by Terence Rattigan.

Published: April 2006

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


 

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