Friday, June 28, 2013

Metamorphoses in Atlanta: Theatrical Magic at Georgia Shakespeare

Psyche and Eros (photo from Georgia Shakespeare Festival promotional materials on line)
(Reflection on a production of Metamorphoses by Mary Zimmerman, based on the myths of Ovid. Directed by Richard Garner.  Scenic design by Kat Conley.)

Adapted by Mary Zimmerman from David R. Slavitt's translation of Ovid's two-thousand-year-old compendium of myths, this work tells familiar stories in ways that make them fresh and mysterious. 

The photo above captures one of many magical moments in Georgia Shakespeare Festival's production of Metamorphoses.  The figure of blindfolded Cupid is familiar to all of us; the story of his love for Psyche whom he forbade to see him is also familiar; but what does it mean?  To know that he is "Eros" or "love" (in the sense of soul's desire), and that her name means "soul" suggests some greeting-card sentiment along the lines, "Our souls need love".  But when we  see the story  in this lovely production, played in a pool where actors can wade or disappear, in water that can be inky black or dazzlingly reflective, performed by actors who move with solemn grace, more than our minds are engaged.   There's a logic in these myths, what Zimmerman calls "public dreams," that goes beyond logic.

The pool makes a versatile arena.  Actors emerge from the dark water, ply oars, float, splash with abandon, and disappear.   Designer Kat Conley backs the pool with a monolith that seems, by foreshortening, to loom larger than the stage.  It's a craggy cliff, or a temple, and doors in its face slide or swing to reveal gods who look down where mortals' lives are played out on land and sea.

It's part Ovid, part sketch comedy:  Apollo's son Phaeton is a preppy kid in sunglasses who just wants his dad to let him drive; the story of  Atalanta's foot race takes off on  Chariots of Fire with slo-mo clich├ęs and a parody of Vangelis's music; Bacchus is pimpin'; and the first thing Midas turns to gold is his cell phone.   When Zeus and Hermes wander the earth disguised as beggars, the world responds the way we Atlantans generally do when someone stands at an intersection with a cardboard sign, "Please help." 

The world of Ovid is remote, yet contemporary.  The title means "changes," but I come away thinking of the French adage, "The more things change, the more things stay the same."

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Odd Hours: Dean Koontz Keeps Reader Up Late

Reflection on Dean Koontz, Odd Thomas.  Bantam Books, Kindle Edition. First published 2003.

Note: I just learned of a movie adaptation of Odd Thomas .   Other news on the web explains that this film may never be seen. Other sites say that it's scheduled to open in Finland in August.  Dean Koontz is "whacked flat happy" about it.  Here's  a link to the trailer:

Skipping from the latest book of Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas series backwards to the first one, I’m officially hooked.   Near midnight, I wasn’t willing to sleep on the last gruesome image or anticipated danger, and I read straight to the end.  Is that a silly response to a book about ghosts and demons and premonitions? 
Odd World
A grown-up can pooh-pooh the paranormal and still leave room for it in the imagination.  Early in this novel, Odd passes through an ordinary door into a dark and chilly world.  It didn’t have to be a wardrobe for me to see that this series is like C. S. Lewis’s Narnia for a more contemporary, more grown-up audience, placing our ordinary planet at ground zero in a cosmic battle of good v. evil.

Through Odd, Koontz explicitly ties paranormal fantasy with something compatible to orthodox Christian faith:

Most people desperately desire to believe that they are part of a great mystery, that Creation is a work of grace and glory, not merely the result of random forces colliding. Yet each time that they are given but one reason to doubt, a worm in the apple of the heart makes them turn away from a thousand proofs of the miraculous... (Kindle edition: location 2179)

He’s got that right.  When I’m reading the Bible or a work of fiction, my mind inhabits two worlds simultaneously.  Why should it be hard to accept that a spiritual world intersects ours?   More to the point:  I want to believe that there’s a larger world framing this one. 

Besides, reality itself is pretty hard to believe.  Koontz grounds his novels in a fact that’s hard to accept:  While we can perceive beauty, affection, humor, and courage around us,  we must also confront the presence of sordid, malignant humans among us, and dark feelings in ourselves. 

Odd Pleasures
It’s not the supernatural element that makes me want to read.  I enjoy spending time with this character named Odd. 

The author presents these books as chapters in a memoir by a 20-ish-year-old young man whose gifts are frying foods and seeing spirits.  The love of his life is a girl named Bronwen “Stormy” Llewellyn, and their two characters are encapsulated in a brief argument.  He, with a premonition of danger, warns her to stay home.  She says she will, if he’ll stay with her.  He replies…

“We’ve been through this.  I can’t let people die if there’s a way to spare them.”

“And I’m not going to live even one day in a cage just because there’s a loose tiger….”

Feeling obligated to help where he can, Odd opens doors to uncertain danger and rushes through the fleeing mob towards the gunman.    Stormy’s attitude is another version of the same courage:  she won’t let caution paralyze her.  Their brands of courage are endearing and, I have to admit, motivational. 

Odd’s gratitude for Stormy’s loving him is a sweet core for a story haunted by Timothy McVeigh, Charles Manson, and Mohammed Atta.   Unlike other mass murderers in the bad guy’s files, none of these three killed alone.  They had “family” or “brotherhood.”  Their evil communities contrast to the surrogate family that grows up around Odd and envelops him in its arms at the memorable end of the novel.   Koontz has made Odd a virtual orphan, unloved by parents each wrapped up in delusions.  The father devotes himself to maintaining his ideas of youth and studliness.   The mother is a couple turns screwier than Blanche DuBois,  cordial to her son until he asks for help: she decrees that her home must be a problem-free zone.  But other characters love Odd: the 400-pound writing mentor, the fatherly police chief, and the motherly owner of the diner where Odd works.  Even the spirit of Elvis takes Odd’s hand in both of his own and expresses heartfelt sympathy silently (for spooks don’t speak, we’re told). 

Odd’s background makes him sensitive to others who feel unloved and unlovable.   Past midnight, Odd has traveled to a deserted brothel outside of town to dispose of a bad guy’s body, when he encounters the spirit of a young prostitute murdered on that spot some years before.   In Odd’s world, spirits hang around if they have unfinished business, or if they fear what awaits them in the next world.   He intuits her whole life:  unloved, homeless, seeking any kind of affection, she is ashamed of herself, afraid of punishment.  He assures her that she will find love in the next life.   She listens intently, and waits while he drives away, “coyotes resting on the ground at her feet, as if she were the goddess Diana between one hunt and another, mistress of the moon and all its creatures.”

It’s a scene of little consequence to the unfolding of the story, a lovely image and one of many incidental pleasures I’ve found now at both ends of Koontz’s series.  It’s time to dig into the volumes in the middle.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Is Sondheim's Music "Classical?"

Is Stephen Sondheim's music "classical?"  If I answer, "no," that's not to say that Sondheim's music is any less interesting, well-made, beautiful, or worthy.  It's just that Sondheim's priorities are not the same as those of a classical composer or of a discerning classical listener.  The answer does matter if we're going to hear Sondheim's music in concert halls for years to come.

I offer an insight delivered inadvertently by composer John Harbison whom I heard speak in a small Q & A session  a few years ago at Georgia Tech.  He told us how he visited the men’s room during intermission of the premiere performance of his opera Great Gatsby at the Met in 2000, and heard one  man say to another, “This opera would be better if the composer made a few cuts.”  Harbison laughed at this punchline, and explained what makes his critic’s idea so absurd: cutting music to suit the tastes of the audience would do irreparable harm to the “architecture” of the opera’s overall form.

Sondheim and Bernstein, mid-1970s 

For him, the abstract design of the music was more important than the storytelling.  There’s the strong separation line between a classical composer and Sondheim.  In the memoirs Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat, Sondheim frequently tells how he had to sacrifice his songs because they interrupted the story.    Sondheim’s music is not “classical” because his interests lie in the storytelling and the integrity of a theatrical production, not in the unity and overall design of his scores.  

That said, Sondheim does enjoy pointing out conscious choices he made to “unify” the music for a show.  He used the interval of major seconds for Anyone Can Whistle, and he laced Bernard Herrmann’s go-to chord and the Dies Irae throughout Sweeney Todd.  He worked tone clusters into Sunday in the Park with George to make a musical analog for Seurat’s clusters of color, and all songs from Into the Woods derive in melody or accompaniment from five notes in the same way that its entire story derives from five magic beans.  Unlike Harbison,  Sondheim does this more to stimulate his own puzzle-solving imagination than for any abstract purpose, as when the challenge of composing only in multiples of waltz time kept him interested in A Little Night Music before he learned to appreciate Hugh Wheeler’s script.

So why should West Side Story be considered differently from Night Music or Sweeney Todd?   Bernstein certainly wanted to think of his score as a unified whole, but Sondheim  pooh-poohs Bernstein’s claim that all of West Side Story is based on the interval of the augmented 4th.   True, it’s the interval of the Jets’ whistle, the first phrase of “Maria,” the vamp and first interval of “Something’s Coming,” the source of dissonance in the vamp for “Officer Krupke,” and the first interval in the accompaniment for “Cool," emphasized more in a twelve-tone fugue for the dance break.  But Sondheim reminds us that Bernstein took some of the score from his trunk of songs cut from other shows. 

In a blogpost on this question, composer-playwright Brian M. Rosen offers the idea that Bernstein wrote for more generalized characters and universal emotions, while Sondheim’s songs, to their credit, are inextricably linked to complex mixed emotions and thoughts of specific dramatic moments.  (See

Even more to the point, I think, is the fact that Sondheim’s music is strophic, verses repeating in some extension of the AABA form.    The songs develop on stage as the character's words lead from one idea to the next; the songs all build in intensity, but that's different from developing musically.  A classical audience would expect development through fragmentation and extension of the melody.  Could a classical audience appreciate the songs as they were written, with vocals and lyrics?  Out of context, the wonderfully specific words might just be puzzling.
For example, a concert dance suite from Pacific Overtures, recorded in the early 1980s, never warranted more than one listening:  just hearing the tune for “Welcome to Kanagawa” repeated was not interesting, any more than a straightforward orchestral rendition of all the verses to "Maria" would be.  Add the lyrics about Japanese prostitutes’ efforts to cater to American clients, and the reaction in a concert hall might be bewilderment.   

I’d suggest that Bernstein is on the list because he conducted orchestras in his own arrangement of a WSS dance suite.  He did develop his suite with a musical “architecture” in mind, and discerning how Bernstein picks up on something in one number to lead to the next, often using the augmented fourth as a pivot, is what keeps that suite fresh for me after decades of repeated hearings.   Some pop-orchestral arrangements of Sondheim by Don Sebesky, while pleasant,  don’t aim for that level of integration.  But symphony orchestras could play the overtures that Jonathan Tunick created for “A Sondheim Celebration” back in 1973, and overtures for Merrily We Roll Along and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Perhaps pianist Anthony De Mare’s commissioned pieces for  “Liaisons Project” -- Sondheim songs reimagined for solo piano by a couple dozen contemporary composers - will change Sondheim’s profile on classical programs. 

Of course, there’s this other elephant in the room, George Gershwin.  Sondheim loves Porgy and Bess enough to smudge the original score with his tears when he read over it at the Smithsonian.  The difference between a musical and an opera, according to him, has more to do with the expectations of the audience.   In an opera house, the audience cares more for the sound of the vocals; in a theatre, the audience wants to understand every word of the story. 

I recommend the websites that I found when looking into this question.

Brian M. Rosen, Music v Theatre  ( and a link he provided to composer Jeffrey Parola’s website ( )

Since drafting this article, I've written about the book How Sondheim Found His Sound by musicologist Steven Swayne. 

I've written about Sondheim frequently, reviewing productions of Assassins, Follies, Night Music, and others.  My best statement about him and his musicals may be found in a review of The Fantasticks

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

If Stephen King Taught 7th Grade

As writer of 50 world-wide bestselling books, Stephen King has more “street cred” than I in the eyes of 7th graders, but that’s okay: He and I agree all the way down the line.  When I teach writing, he’s got my back!  

Until King decided that writing was a full-time job, he was an English teacher.    If he were to teach 7th grade now, he’d have to re-learn to clean up his language.  He agrees with his mother that “profanity and vulgarity is the language of the ignorant and the verbally challenged “ (187), but he makes exceptions for “color and vitality,” for characters who would talk that way, and for himself.

Posted by Melissa Donovan,
He’d have students read a lot.  “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life,” keeping King occupied standing in lines, even at meals (148).  What a young writer reads does not matter.  “I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories.  [Yet every book] has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones” (145).  He does recommend hundreds of good writers, from whom to learn “style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling” (146), but he would not assign readings.  “If you don’t have time to read,”  he’d say, sternly, “you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that” (147).

He’d have students write all the time, and only fiction.  What he calls “informal essays” are “silly and insubstantial things” and “fluffery” that have no market in the “actual mall-and-filling-station world” (131).     That said, the postscript “On Living” is a gripping informal essay about the accident that nearly killed King halfway through writing this book, and about how writing helped him to recover.  

As for writing classes (231 ff.), he’d steer clear of students’ sharing their work, at least until the first drafts are complete.  He’d say to read more, write more, discuss less.

In his “toolbox” for writers, he places vocabulary first and grammar second; yet he would not teach either of these.  Reading and experience will do that (117).  “Use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful,” he advises (118).  As for grammar, he recognizes “one either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.  What Sophomore English does (or tries to do) is little more than naming of parts” (119).  But he does  offer these lessons:
  •  “Take any noun, put it with any verb, and you have a sentence.  It never fails.  Rocks explode.  Jane transmits.  Mountains float.”   The grammar of simple sentences is “the pole you grab to get your thoughts up on their feet and walking” (121)
  • Fragments are okay, for effect.  But know the rule before you break it.
  • "Timid" writers use passive voice and adverbs: avoid both.  Examples to laugh at:  My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun, amended to My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I’ll never forget it (124).  and, from one of his own stories, “You can’t be serious,” Bill said unbelievingly.  (128)
  • “I hate and mistrust pronouns,” he writes, “every one of them as slippery as a fly-by-night-personal-injury lawyer” (214).  Knock out all pronouns with unclear antecedents, he advises.
  • The paragraph, not the sentence, should be considered the “basic unit of writing – the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words” (134).   Topic sentence followed by support and description can’t be beat for explaining ideas and experiences.   In fiction, the rules are relaxed, but how the paragraphs look on a page can have an effect on the reader’s experience (129).
  • He models how to teach a fifty-minute class on just one page of one story (132), pointing out techniques of dialogue attribution, phonetically rendered language (“dunno”), use of the comma, the choice not to use an apostrophe in “lookin” and the flow and rhythm of the paragraphs (133).
Theme is a favorite topic for teachers,  but for King, theme is just one more tool in the writer’s toolbox.   “Theme” is simply a word for any patterns that we find in writing.  After he finished Carrie, for example, he noticed that blood figured importantly at the three key scenes of the story.  That’s when he thought of other ways to highlight this theme of “blood” in his novel, adding in references to Christ’s blood that washes away sin, blood that symbolizes guilt, and blood ties to family (it’s in the blood).  Theme helped him to complete The Stand when he realized that the good guys and the bad guys were all beginning to resemble each other as they resorted to violence, and that gave his second draft a clearer shape.  He did not, however, preach a sermon against violence.  He doesn’t want to teach a lesson, he says, but
What I want most of all is resonance, something that will linger for a little while in [the reader’s] mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf.  I’m looking for ways to do that without spoon-feeding the reader or selling my birthright for a plot of message.  Take all those messages and those morals and stick em where the sun don’t shine, all right?  I want resonance.  (214)
He likes story; he doesn’t use plot.  Some writers “plot” out their stories in advance, but King starts with a situation, a question of “what if?” and he gradually learns about the characters as he writes.  He likes to be surprised by his own endings  (164-169).

He’d insist on a balanced approach to description.  “Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted.  Overdescription buries him or her in details and images” (174).  He scorns description when it’s a “shortcut to character,” as in the hero’s sharply intelligent blue eyes (175).  Straight description is good, but figurative description is “one of the chief delights” of reading and writing:   “When it’s on target, a simile delights us in much the same way meeting an old friend in a crowd of strangers does” (178).

Other portions of the book relate to his own life, to publishing, and to editing.   A note on a rejection slip helps him to this day:  “Second draft = 1st Draft – 10%” (222).  He enriches his lessons with stories from his own writing, and he spices the pages with frequent references to favorite writers (Raymond Chandler stands out) and some bad fiction (Bridges of Madison County comes up more than once).

I’ve got enough here to support me with my own 7th graders this year.  Thanks, Mr. King.

(Reflections on Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner paperback, 2010.  Originally published in 2000)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Dean Koontz’s Uneven Odds

Dean Koontz, prolific writer of popular supernatural thrillers, is also a craftsman who cares about the quality of his writing.  Here, for example, is the first sentence of Odd Apocalypse:

Near sunset of my second full day as guest in Roseland, crossing the immense lawn between the main house and the eucalyptus grove, I halted and pivoted, warned by instinct.

With six phrases and two precise verbs Koontz has laid out the landscape, characterized the narrator as a guest with “instinct” given to exploring alone, and added tension to the atmosphere.  The easy flow of the sentence halts with the narrator.  We don’t have to wait even one more sentence for the supernatural mystery to begin:  A woman on a black stallion gallops silently through the narrator.  This writing is effective and efficient. 

Koontz’s affable narrator Odd Thomas allows the writer to keep a “buoyant” tone (Odd’s word for his own outlook) through a ghastly tale.  “In addition to being a pretty good short-order cook, I have an occasional prophetic dream,” Thomas explains, mixing normal with paranormal as if it’s no big deal.  The more we read, the more we like this unassuming guy.  He empathizes with others, and his disarming modesty often does disarm aggressors, (though not massive mutant pig people in Odd Apocalypse).  Unlike a cool Bourne or  Bond, this guy is reluctant to hurt anyone, and liable to muck things up.  Even hiding from flesh-eating beasts, Odd has to fight the urge to sneeze.    While he sees the world as “a war zone” where we will all lose everything we love and life itself, “Yet,” he concludes, “everywhere I look, I find great beauty in this battlefield, and grace and the promise of joy” (16).  Reluctant to experience pain but unafraid of death, Odd repeats a prayer that his grandmother taught him, “Spare me that I may serve” (OA 14), and boldly goes forward.  For the future readers of his "memoir," he politely bleeps out cuss words.   

Writing in the character of Odd, Koontz sometimes crosses a line where the reader stops believing in the story and wonders instead at the judgement of the story writer.  Would a 22 year-old dropout itinerant short-order cook draw analogies to the “welcome wagon” and office politics?   Would he quote Shakespeare, citing act and scene numbers?  Would he know Eliot, James, Twain, classic Hitchcock movies, 1920 architect Addison Mizner, Silence of the Lambs and The Love Bug?  These sound more like references that would come to the mind of a Baby Boomer who has had years to sample literature and pop culture, not a young man who has had a lot more on his mind.

Update:  Before I get to some things about the novels that have detracted from their effect, I want to report on what happened when I completed reading Deeply Odd a few hours after I posted this article.  The story drew me on, page by page.  As I finished, a storm was agitating trees outside my window more with each clap of thunder.  Then two cockroaches flew across my room and met on the wall above my bed.  Carrying around Koontz's world in my imagination, I went after those roaches as if they were life-threatening entities. Hero of my own narrative, Odd-like I sought an unlikely weapon-- a dirty dress shirt -- to snap at the creatures.   Destroyed one; hunted the other.  My heart rate elevated for the next hour, watching the storm, waiting up for roach number two.  All of which is to say, Koontz's imagination had pulled me in all the way.  That's great!

Koontz is not above introducing plot devices disguised as characters.  Most annoying is a pregnant teenager named Annamaria.    The pretext for Odd Apocalypse is Annamaria’s decree that she and Odd Thomas need to visit this resort “Roseland.”  How do homeless teens afford it?  We learn that she has some kind of charisma that convinces Roseland’s reluctant owner to accept her and Odd as guests.  Once she has brought Odd to this place, she sits in her room for the rest of the novel.  She serves Koontz both by knowing enough to direct Odd Thomas, and by her exasperating habit of speaking in coy oracles.  In Deeply Odd, she does even less, but does appear in a Salvation Army store just when Odd needs some salvation.  She vanishes, evidently able to project her presence from dozens of miles away. That’s a talent that might help Odd (and Koontz) out of a dead-end in the plot.

Annamaria is just one example of how Koontz plants many a deus with a useful machina to give Koontz options when he needs to rescue Odd from tight corners, and putting Odd in tight corners every couple of chapters is the rhythm that Koontz keeps up in his stories.  This creates some inconsistencies.  An egregious example is the ghostly woman on the stallion who warns Odd to flee monsters approaching over the hill.  That’s fine.  But then, why doesn’t she appear next time he’s in the same situation? 

Because I’ve started reading the series with the latest two installments, I wonder if I’ve caught Odd Thomas at just the point where a good series gets out of hand?   It happened to Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series, which started with a cast of characters who grew closer as they investigated murders in Richmond.  By the time I gave up on the series, the characters were so burdened with regrets and resentments that they just weren't fun anymore, and the plots were bloated with international conspiracies and robots. 

I understand that earlier Odd Thomas books put Odd in the role of a sort of ESP detective with dead clients.  That’s manageable and interesting.   Deeply Odd seems to be preparing ground for some kind of US civil war, as a rich old lady on the road with Odd introduces him to more quirky characters than Dorothy meets in The Wizard of Oz, all connected to an underground militia.  There’s a lot of talk about what the Government is doing, how even the Social Security Administration is arming. Yet Odd also disparages paranoid conspiracy theorists on TV and radio.

In Odd Thomas, Koontz is keeping balance between humor and horror.  Here’s hoping that he doesn’t lose that balance!

(Reflections on Odd Apocalypse and Deeply Odd, latest in a series by Dean Koontz.  Bantam Books.)
My reflection on the first book in the series:  "Odd Hours: Dean Koontz Keeps Reader Up Late."

"So How Did You Like Man of Steel?"

Some years ago, responding to the previous Superman movie, I wrote this:
Surely "Superman" is fast food for the emotions, with predictable thrills and predictable smiles, and with a guaranteed warm feeling generated by nostalgia? By the end of the movie, I was thinking otherwise: that these characters exist now independent of whoever tells their story. We all own them, and want to see moviemakers treat them with respect. (full article)
So, as a long-time Superman fan, I'm bound to be asked whether I liked this new movie.  Short answer: Yes! I've thought of little else since I saw it.   Long answer: 

The cast is fine.  Henry Cavill looks strong but always vulnerable, thanks to his hopeful smile and five or six eyebrows that furrow when his character doubts himself.   Amy Adams as "Lois Lane" embodies a character written this time to be all about her business, where earlier film incarnations focused on relationships.   Thanks to some clever writing, Superman and Lois work as a team in this one.  Other characters are mostly cameos, though "Perry White" gets his heroic moment, too.  Villainous General Zod gets elaborate back story here, and actor Michael Shannon makes him passionately self-righteous yet "haunted" by his conscience.

That conscience is Jor-El (Russell Crowe), one of four parents to baby "Kal-El" (a.k.a. Clark Kent, Superman).  The baby's birth is the first scene of the movie, and we keep picking up the thread of parents and son in flashbacks throughout the movie.   These mostly reflective scenes are welcome respite from the loud action scenes, and they tell the story of the adopted Clark who endures mockery while he gradually discovers amazing powers.  [Note:  Another blogger highlighted a moving scene in a primary school where young Clark flees the classroom and locks himself in the janitor's closet, overwhelmed by his super-senses.  "The world's too big," he tells his mother, who replies, "Then make it smaller." With teacher and class looking on, she tells Clark through the door to think of her voice as an island, and to swim towards it.  I agree with the blogger:  This was a highpoint of the movie.]  There's necessarily a repetitiveness to the scenes with the adopted father "Jonathan Kent" (Kevin Costner), adopted mother "Martha Kent" (Diane Lane) and Jor-El, as they tell their son about his destiny and responsibility, but they all felt right.   

Effects aren't so special, anymore, being pervasive.  The director Zack Snyder does his best to humanize the extended brawls in Smallville and Metropolis between Superman and a pack of Kryptonian fascist soldiers, male and female.   Imagine a barroom fight with smashing through mirrors, sliding on counters, smashing of furniture, and then extend it outward and speed it up to a blur.  But Superman saves a falling US airman, and asks, "Are you OK?" before the next Kryptonian tackles him.  At one point, Superman is floating, dazed, and the ground is above him -- so we get his disoriented perspective, before Zod tackles him.   An earlier sequence involves Superman against a giant machine that defends itself with swarms of metallic chips that coalesce into tendrils and claws -- again and again.  All of these action scenes are at once fantastic and, in the long run, tedious.

One great choice that the creators of this movie made was to keep the adult Clark Kent out of the picture.  Christopher Reeve playing "Clark Kent," got to show off his acting chops as he impersonated a "mild-mannered" bumbler with a secret.   In Man of Steel,  we see "Clark" early on, as a bearded, blue-collar drifter, working on fishing boat (and rescuing men on an exploded oil rig), busing tables at a New England truck stop, and serving as a civilian at a military outpost in Canada.  He helps people; he stands up to a bully but then walks away from the conflict.  So, for once, "Superman" is who he is, first, and the mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet doesn't come into the movie except in its final moments. 

I welcome the new series with a caveat.   Each new one has to "top" the last one, and that means non-stop banging and exploding. This movie was best when it stopped.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Wiman's Every Riven Thing by its Cover

(Reflections on Every Riven Thing, a collection of poems by Christian Wiman.  Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.  Cover design by Quemadura.)

English majors tell an urban legend about the doctoral candidate who explicated the word “soil” in Moby Dick for his thesis, and killed himself when a new edition corrected the typo to “sail.”  If the cover to Every Riven Thing turns out to have been designed without reference to poet or his text, well, I hope that I never find out. Meanwhile, I love the idea that the cover is a sort of Rosetta Stone for Wiman’s approach to both poetry and faith.

Not that Wiman needs translating: the first ten poems in the collection speak directly to the reader of Texas landscapes, neighbors, a dog, a diner, the subway.  They rhyme in unexpected places, play on double-meanings, build on repetition without being repetitive.  Like hors d’oeuvres at a banquet, each has flavor and texture worth savoring, and goes down easily.

Then come three poems in a row that were hard to swallow.  “This Mind of Dying” tripped me up with a grammatically ambiguous word in its opening lines:

God let me give you now this mind of dying
fevering me back
into consciousness of all I lack…(26)

How can “fever” be a transitive verb, and what subject “fevers” the persona back: God, or the surrender of “this mind of dying?”  A few lines later, the persona prays, “My God my grief forgive my grief….”  Is “God” the subject being asked asked to forgive grief?  Is grief an appositive, telling us that My God= my grief?  Or is “My God” an interjection?  OMG:  All three meanings make sense!  Certainly the poet strikes home with the idea, rhymed, that “language” can tame fear and transform “anguish.” 

Next in the collection come poems paired under the title “One Time” (27 ff), about two times:  dusk at “Canyon de Chelly, Arizona” and dawn at “2047 Grace Street.”  At the canyon, the persona sees ambiguous visions “under / dusk’s upflooding shadows” that may be footpaths or fissures, “ancient homes” or “random erosions.”  With absence of light pictured as a flood, the poet makes a positive of a negative. 

To play with opposite meanings is a key to his work, I think, reflected in two title pages and the cover:  all three give us the title in calligraphy, one white on black, one black on white, and one black on textured gray.  “To believe,” he writes in “Canyon” is to believe you have been torn/ from the abyss, yet stand waveringly on its rim.” 

The next poem begins “But,” as if to refute the poem about the canyon.  He says the “world” is often “refuge” from “sharp particulate instants” of God’s intrusion into our world.  “I say God and mean more,” he writes, “than the bright abyss that opens in that word,” and “world” is “less than the abstract oblivion of atoms” we know from science.  Lying in bed, listening to the breathing of the woman he loves, he gives “praise to the light that is not / yet, the dawn in which one bird believes…” (30). 

Dusk v. dawn, “more” v. “less,”  not the abyss but its edge, not dawn but a song begun in darkness, and only so much “clarity” as allowed by “artifice of words” and “distance as …eyes impose”:  Ambiguity of grammar and opposites in imagery also seem, with Wiman, to be an analogy for how God is to be perceived.  I’m reminded of John Donne’s use of paradox to express his sense of God’s action in his life.

I look forward to reading more. 

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Still Kicking

(Reflections on Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, produced by Atlanta's Shakespeare Tavern Theatre. I saw the show May 31.)

In 1967, Tom Stoppard made his name with a play that he might've called Waiting for Hamlet.   To blend two iconic masterpieces in a short sketch on Monty Python would've been memorable; to develop the conceit through three acts took nerve and ingenuity.  Is it only an extended gag? What value does Stoppard add to the sources by Beckett and Shakespeare? 

Laughter helps the existential despair go down.  In a way, he does a service by creating Waiting for Godot lite.  We see two men in a featureless in-between landscape chatting, and we know that this is a take-off of Beckett's more stringent play, yet it's still an image for all our lives passed "in between," just passing time. When an acting troupe arrives, followed by courtiers and Hamlet himself, we are reassured to be in a place we recognize, and we get to chuckle at all the quotes we know.

Shakespeare reinforces Beckett.  Stoppard helps us to see Hamlet as an existentialist anti-hero ahead of his time.  In Shakespeare,  King Claudius and courtiers go about the business of managing Hamlet, sure of themselves and their purposes.  But Hamlet has lost faith in all certainties.  When love, honor, loyalty, friendship,  faith -- not to mention traditions of royal succession and motherhood -- have all been undermined by Claudius, Hamlet has to question if they were ever real.  Stoppard's play takes place mostly in gaps between crucial scenes of Hamlet, but he leaves intact Hamlet's public antics and "wild and whirling words." 

All the world really is a stage, but who's watching?  Beckett's play plays meta-theatricality to the hilt, as when Vladimir and Estragon look out at the audience and remark that they can't exit that way.  Shakespeare layers meta- on meta- in the "mousetrap" scene, when his audience watches actors pretending to be an audience of courtiers watching a troupe of actors pretending to be courtiers.  Hamlet meditates on what it is to be an actor, and he disparages his own ambivalence in comparison to the commitment of the actor who can summon tears for imaginary "Hecuba."  But from the very first sentence of Stoppard's script -- "There is an art to the building up of suspense" -- we are constantly asked to think about how our lives are improvised plays, and how we look to others for our cues.  What if no one's watching?   Stoppard gives the lead Player a remarkable speech, imagining for us what it was like for his actors to be in the middle of a play, only to realize that their audience had abandoned them.   If only to set up that image, both ridiculous and appalling, this play is necessary.

Pre-Post-Modernism.  Stoppard wrote R&G twelve years before a philosopher named Lyotard was first to analyze "post-modernism" as a philosophical stance towards life.  A summary of Lyotard's article seems to describe both form and content in R & G are Dead:

[F]or Lyotard, the de-realization of the world means the disintegration of narrative elements into “clouds” of linguistic combinations and collisions among innumerable, heterogeneous language games. Furthermore, within each game the subject moves from position to position, now as sender, now as addressee, now as referent, and so on. The loss of a continuous meta-narrative therefore breaks the subject into heterogeneous moments of subjectivity that do not cohere into an identity. But as Lyotard points out, while the combinations we experience are not necessarily stable or communicable, we learn to move with a certain nimbleness among them.  (Aylesworth, Gary, "Postmodernism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL =

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try and fail to construct a continuous narrative of their own lives:  "What is the first thing you remember?"  Their identities are not fixed; neither of them seems to be sure who's Rosencrantz. But they do play word games.  At one point, they volley questions by the rules of tennis, with faults for repetition, rhetoric, and non-sequitur.  Nothing beats Stoppard's dialogue there for "nimbleness." 

So, Bravo, Stoppard and Atlanta Shakespeare's Tavern.   I'm grateful to Atlanta's Shakespeare Tavern for reviving this play, and for doing it in rep this summer with Hamlet.   It seems such an obvious thing to do, yet the only other actors to do this, so far as I've heard, were my own drama students at St. Andrew's Episcopal High School in Jackson, MS, back in 1986-1987.

In performance last week in Atlanta, actor Jonathan Horne, untidy and uninhibited among staid courtiers, seemed to be the bull in the china shop, or the madman at the tea party.   This was, I think, Stoppard's vision:  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two clowns (think Laurel and Hardy, or contemporary with the play, Rowan and Martin) who wake up in the middle of a serious tragedy, menaced by the antic Dane. That worked well, until director Jeff McKerley ramped up stage business. For the sake of belly laughs, the royal couple coupled between their lines, and Ophelia injected a heavy dose of Valley Girl into her lines.   This mugging got laughs, but at a cost:  Rowan and Martin were the least interesting characters on "Laugh-In" ; but Rowan and Martin at Elsinore?  That would have been remarkable.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Updike's God Between the Lines: Roger's Version

Penguin Australia's edition, cover
In John Updike’s novel Roger’s Version, an evangelical computer programmer named Dale Kohler looks for God’s hand in the intelligent design of the universe.   His lover Esther, who has never cared about God, begins to ask about God during a lull in one of their acrobatic trysts. Esther’s husband Roger Lambert, who narrates this updated version of The Scarlet Letter, once preached, but now works the “quality control” end of the “religion business,” no longer in “distribution”(66).  If God’s existence were a proven fact, he wouldn’t be interested, explaining,  “Facts are inert, impersonal….  A God Who is a mere fact will just sit there on the table with all the other facts:  we can take Him or leave Him” (235).  Roger himself is “inert” and “impersonal” when the novel begins.  The fact that he becomes deeply involved in the world around him is a clearer demonstration of God’s hand than Dale ever gets from his computations.

Analyzing his own reactions to Dale, Roger finds strong negatives, such as “physical repugnance,” and “envy of [Dale’s] faith,” but also “a grateful inkling that [Dale] was injecting a new element into my life, my stale and studious arrangements”(95).  Except to invite Dale to Thanksgiving, everything Roger does in the first half of the book is done after considerable urging by someone else.   It’s Dale who connects Roger to his estranged niece Verna, a sluttish teenaged mother in the projects.  While Roger feels concern for Verna and for her infant daughter Paula, who bears her mother’s rage, his feeble response is to hand over some spare cash.  It’s Dale’s initiative to get Verna to study for a GED, drawing Roger in as English tutor. 

Roger also feels for Dale “an odd and sinister empathy.”  This echoes Hawthorne’s observation near the end of The Scarlet Letter that Roger Chillingworth’s hatred is not far different from love, manifested alike in constant awareness of its object.  Roger Lambert elaborates:

[Dale] kept inviting my mind out of its tracks to follow him on his own paths through the city.  He had mentioned, for instance, that he worked weekends in a lumberyard, and I had merely to think of this fact and the holy smell of fresh-cut spruce was in my nostrils, and the rough-smooth weight of newly planed and end-stained two-by-fours was thrusting against my palms, with a palpable threat of splinters (95).

As in this short example, Roger puts more energy and imagination in his vicarious accounts of Dale’s experiences than he puts into his own life.  These include a walk from the neighborhood of college professors to the blighted neighborhood around the projects, and a midnight panorama of the city viewed from a floor high up in the university “Cube,” its computer building. 

Other strong scenes read like play scripts from the actors’ points of view, as Updike gives us elliptical repartee with the subtext filled in and the dramatic buildup of the scene highlighted as expertly as any director could make it.  These scenes are the fraught Thanksgiving Dinner, laced with hints that Esther and Dale are seducing each other; a questioning of Dale about his thesis by a panel of distinctive, if not distinguished, Divinity School faculty;  and a cocktail party at which Dale meets his match. 

It’s that strong empathy – expressed in miraculously acute prose -- that gives the book its strength to move and amuse us, and it seems by the end to have given Roger some motivation and courage to act on behalf of others.   Families are reconstituted; caring for the baby Paula helps even Roger’s forlorn pre-teen son to mature. 

And more change is coming:  Esther is pregnant, though Roger, I, and all the critics I’ve read have missed this point.  My friend Susan Rouse picked up on the hints:  Esther declined to use birth control with Dale, claiming to be too old, and Roger notices that she’s having trouble sleeping, she’s restless, and she’s gaining after years of strict weight-watching.

For those of us who love Updike’s work, we know that this is the second of three “versions” of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.  Pastor Dimmesdale’s version came first ( “Dimmesdale” translated to "Marshfield," serial womanizing pastor in A Month Of Sundays), and the wife’s version last (S.).  So this is aptly called Roger’s version.

But the title may also suggest Gospel, good news for modern man,  a theology professor’s allusion to the Bible’s Revised Standard Version.  A Latin scholar like Roger might acknowledge the relevance of the etymology of vers, “to turn.”  This is the story of a cold, self-absorbed theologian whose life turns outward, just a little, through engagement with others.  The whole story is wrapped inside a debate about whether, or how, God is involved in our world.  The answer, in the end, is gospel, good news, relatively speaking.

(Reflections on Roger’s Version by John Updike, Ballantine paperback edition, 1986.)

Note: Interested in Updike and God?  Check out my mash up of Updike writings with the Book of Common Prayer: