2020 Theater Herstory

2020 SCRIPT ANALYSIS @ William Esper Studio
208 W 37th St (between 7th and 8th Avenues)
Monday, Wednesdays 6:30 Tuesdays 2:00

A course focusing on historically significant plays written by women in the 20th century, as a way to study all centuries of theater history. This is a separate course — taking the Fall Theater History is not a requirement.

TEXTS TO READ FOR CLASS
Listen to Me by Gertrude Stein (Jan 14) / Machinal by Sophie Treadwell (Jan 21)/ Trifles by Susan Glaspell (Jan 28) / The Purple Flower by Marita Bonner  (Feb 4)/ Happy End by Kurt Weill, Elisabeth Hauptmann, and Bertolt Brecht (Feb 11) The Women by Clare Booth Luce (Feb 18)/ Cloud Nine by Caryl Churchill (Feb 25) / Funnyhouse of a Negro by Adrienne Kennedy (March 3)

WEEK 7 : The End of the World  (as we know it)

Caryl Churchill  (born 1938)

The conclusion of Churchill’s Cloud Nine, 1978 :

CLIVE:  You are not that sort of woman, Betty. I can’t believe you are. I can’t feel the same about you as I did. And Africa is to be Communist I suppose. I used to be proud to be British. There was a high ideal. I came out onto the verandah and looked at the stars. CLIVE goes

BETTY from Act One comes. BETTY and BETTY embrace.

From earlier in Cloud Nine, Act 2

BETTY: I used to think Clive was the one who liked sex. But then I found I missed it. I used to touch myself when I was very little, I thought I’d invented something wonderful. I used to do it to go to sleep with or to cheer myself up, and one day it was raining and I was under the kitchen table, and my mother saw me with my hand under my dress rubbing away, and she dragged me out so quickly I hit my head and it bled and I was sick, and nothing was said, and I never did it again till this year. I thought if Clive wasn’t looking at me there wasn’t a person there. And one night in bed in my flat I was so frightened I started touching myself. I thought my hand might go through into space. I touched my face, it was there, my arm, my breast, and my hand went down where I thought it shouldn’t, and I thought well there is somebody there. It felt very sweet, it was a feeling from very long ago, it was very soft, just barely touching, and I felt myself gathering together more and more and I felt angry with Clive and angry with my mother and I went on and on defying them, and there was this vast feeling growing in me and all round me and they couldn’t stop me and no one could stop me and I was there and coming and coming. Afterwards I thought I’d betrayed Clive. My mother would kill me. But I felt triumphant because I was a separate person from them. And I cried because I didn’t want to be. But I don’t cry about it any more. Sometimes I do it three times in one night and it really is great fun.

also Cloud Nine, Act 2:

VICTORIA Innin, Innana, Nana, Nut, Anat, Anahita, Istar, Isis.
LIN I can’t remember all that.
VICTORIA Lin! Innin, Innana, Nana, Nut, Anat, Anahita, Istar, Isis. Goddess of many names, oldest of the old, who walked in chaos and created life, hear us calling you back through time, before Jehovah, before Christ, before men drove you out and burnt your temples, hear us, Lady, give us back what we were, give us the history we haven’t had, make us the women we can’t be.

LIN and EDWARD join in and continue the chant under Victoria’s speech:
Innin, Innana, Nana, Nut, Anat, Anahita, Istar, Isis.

WEEK 6 : Comedy of Manners

Aphra Behn  (1640 – 1689) / Clare Boothe Luce (1903 – 1987)

17th century portrait of Aphra Behn.
1940 portrait of Clare Boothe Luce by Gerald Brockhurst.

From Aphra Behn’s The Rover, 1677:

HELLENA:. Come, prithee be not sad. We’ll outwit twenty
brothers if you’ll be ruled by me. Come, put off this dull humor with your clothes, and assume one as gay and as fantastic as the dress my cousin Valeria and I have provided, and let’s ramble. – 

From Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women, 1936:

EDITH. My dear, who could stand the life we lead without a sense of humor? …
I’m the only happy woman you know. Why? I don’t ask Phelps or any man to understand me. How could he? I’m a woman. (Pulls down her corset.) And I don’t try to un­derstand them. They’re just animals. Who am I to quarrel with the way God made them? I’ve got security. And I say: “What the hell?” And let nature take its course—it’s going to, anyway.

From Noel Coward’s Private Lives, 1930:

ELYOT [striding up and down the room dramatically]: What does it all mean, that’s what I ask myself in my ceaseless quest for ultimate truth. Dear God, what does it all mean?
AMANDA: Don’t laugh at me, I’m serious.
ELYOT [seriously]: You mustn’t be serious, my dear one; it’s just what they want.
AMANDA: Who’s they?
ELYOT: All the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable. Laugh at them. Be flippant. Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths. Flippancy brings out the acid in there damned sweetness and light.
AMANDA: If I laugh at everything, I must laugh at us too.
ELYOT: Certainly you must. We’re figures of fun all right.
AMANDA: How long will it last, this ludicrous, overbearing love of ours?
ELYOT: Who knows?
AMANDA: Shall we always want to bicker and fight?
ELYOT: No, that desire will fade, along with our passion.
AMANDA: Oh dear, shall we like that?
ELYOT: It all depends on how well we’ve played.
AMANDA: What happens if one of us dies? Does the one that’s left still laugh?
ELYOT: Yes, yes, with all his might.

 

.

WEEK 5 : Worker

Elisabeth Hauptmann (1897-1973)

1927 Berlin. Hauptmann far right at the typewriter. From the left: Paul Samson-Körner, Bertolt Brecht (standing), Edmund Meisel, Hans Hermann Borchard, Hannes Küpper.

Hauptmann began collaborating with Bertolt Brecht in 1924.  He was so busy at the time his editor arranged for Hauptmann to be his secretary.  She was a member of the Communist Party; she believed in communal work . She’s the person who gave Brecht a reading list of essential Marxist texts to read. As Paula Hansenn, the author of “Brecht’s Silent Collaborator” puts it in “Exile in Letters” an essay about Hauptmann and another member of Brecht’s commune, Margarete Steffin:  “socially progressive thought regarding class did not necessarily afford the same to matters of gender, and in essence relegated women to auxiliary—that is, noncentral, nonautonomous —roles. ”

Hauptmann was listed as a co-author of The Threepenny Opera (1928). It’s now estimated she wrote about 80% of the text.  Without taking any credit, Hauptmann wrote at least half of Brecht’s MahagonnySongspiel (1927), including  famous lyrics in English. She contributed significantly, again without credit, to Brecht’s signature works: Mother Courage (1939) and The Good Soul of Setzuan (1941), and other texts.  The only play for which Brecht gave her top billing was the flop musical comedy Happy End (1929).

What did she write? What did Brecht write? It’s difficult to say. Notice, though, that in Mahagonny, and Happy End a  woman dominates a group of men.  Hauptmann was, for a while, Brecht’s lover, along with other women, who she knew about. In Mahagonny there is this exchange, between a man and woman who have just made love. “They are seated on two chairs some distance from one another. He is smoking, she is putting on make-up.”

[They are watching two cranes fly side by side]

JIM: Do you know what time they have spent together?
JENNY: A short time.
JIM: And when they will veer asunder?
JENNY: Soon.

WEEK 4 : Shaman

Marita Bonner (1899-1971)

The theatrical vision of Marita Bonner’s plays overruns efforts to interpret her writing as metaphor or a function of social activism or a symptom of her biography.

She was born part into a middle-class African-American family in Boston. At school she  excelled at German, music, and writing, graduating from Radcliffe in 1922.  She wrote essays, short stories, and three plays, then, in 1941, gave up being published.. She was an English teacher in the Chicago school system from the early 1940s until she retired in 1963. She was discouraged from writing the kind of plays she wrote.

From The Purple Flower (1928):

SETTING: The stage is divided horizontally into two sections, upper and lower, by a thin board. The main action takes place on the upper stage. The light is never quite clear on the lower stage; but it is bright enough for you to perceive that sometimes the action that takes place on the upper stage is duplicated on the lower. Sometimes the actors on the upper stage get too vociferous—too violent— and they crack through the boards and they lie twisted and curled in mounds. There are any number of mounds there, all twisted and broken. You look at them and you are not quite sure whether you see something or nothing; but you see by a curve that there might lie a human body. There is thrust out a white hand—a yellow one—one brown—a black. The Skin-of-Civilization must be very thin. A thought can drop you through it.

From  Exit: An illusion (1929):

BUDDY. You’re ready—where’s your friend? Can’t go without him!

DOT. He’s here! (She points.) There he is.

(And close behind Buddy you see a man standing. He is half in the shadow. All you can see is a dark overcoat, a dark felt hat. You cannot see his face for his back is turned. You wonder how he came there. You wonder if perhaps he has not been there all the while.)

***
Bonner’s writing for the stage channels an awareness of the otherworld.
In this way her plays continue the ancient tradition of shamanic ritual.

Shamans have an explicit job, which is to travel to the world of spirits including the spirits of the dead. Then shamans return to this world and report what they have witnessed. The words shamans use to tell their stories evoke the vision and experience for others in the tribe, allowing the listeners to visit the otherworld as they envision it for themselves. 

Each aspect of this has its form and ritual. The journey to the otherworld is enacted symbolically. A shaman may climb a ladder, climb a tree, eat a mushroom, spin in a circle, or sniff gases that come out of the earth. These ceremonies are meant to achieve ecstasy (literally the removal of the soul from the body). The trip across to the other side is accompanied by a drum beat, usually beaten by the shaman himself or herself. A trance is achieved as the body is suspended—the soul is free, in flight. Sometimes the spirit is thought to ride on the back of a goose, or on a reindeer that can gallop to heaven—which may be the explanation for the antlers in the engraving. Then coming down the ladder or out of a trance, the shaman returns and relates the vision he or she has seen on the other side. 

Sometimes the vision is passed on in song or chanted rhythmically, sometimes (but rarely) the words are written down. The shaman’s recitation after the return is never private; it always has an audience, for its purpose is to communicate a vision, not just pass on words. 

The spirits of Bonner’s otherworld are those of history (The Purple Flowers’ “twisted and broken” human bodies) and, as Death is described in Exit: “You wonder if perhaps he has not been there all the while.”

The rituals and practices of shamans are at the root of the great traditions of Asian classical theater in, among other places, Japan and China.

 

WEEK 3 : Naturalism

Susan Glaspell (1876-1948)

Glaspell, 1917 with her husband George Cram Cook

Glaspell’s play, Trifles, written in 1916, undermines Naturalism.

What actors should do, according to Stanislavsky, is provide the stimulus for that empathy. Actors might also provide the stimulus for scrutiny, not just empathy. Some people believe all art, including the theater, has a moral imperative to improve the world. In this way of thinking, the theater should train the audience to sit in judgement of what is happening onstage and in judgement of the world outside the theater.

This invitation for the audience to scrutinize the stage, defines that genre called Naturalism, easily confused with Realism. You can think of the relationship of Naturalism to Realism the way a grapefruit would seem to be the same as a grape—but isn’t. “Naturalism in the Theatre,” the subject and title of an 1881 essay by the French novelist Emile Zola, addresses the human impulse to detail outer forms for moral and political reasons specifically to focus on overlooked or deliberately ignored parts of society, especially those poor and outcast as if misery and squalor were somehow more real than splendor and happiness. Some of Ibsen’s plays were claimed as Naturalism—though Ibsen famously said, “Zola descends to the gutter to bathe in it while I descend there to cleanse it!”

What Zola had in mind was more impersonal: a play could be a photograph of the gutter. As a photograph was thought to do, a play could fix attention to a reality that was too fleeting to be noticed in life, or too confusing in its details, or so nasty someone encountering such unpleasantness would immediately look away.  Fixed onstage, as in a photograph, the audience could study a slice of life in detail.  The image of the slice was taken from what a scientist would study under a microscope. An aesthetic of realistic detail gained momentum separately from Zola’s intentions.

Below by Alicia Rodriguez from “Susan Glaspell, Zola, and Naturalism in American Drama”  https://losdiasmascortos.wordpress.com

Naturalism states that the author, or the ideal author, should be a mere channel which communicates facts and realities to the spectator, without indulging him or herself in any “moral” judgment or sentimental sympathy with the characters. Nor “inventing” any facts to entertain, or morally educate the spectator. A story could start at any given point and stop at any point, with no necessity of the traditional start-developing-end structure. The author should just lay the raw facts at the feet of the public for them to extract their own conclusions. This is a refreshing idea when compared to the standard formulas of melodrama, but I find an important objection to this notion and it is that, even when just “presenting” the facts, these have to be chosen, selected.

Whatever the reason for the selection, the author is continually filtering which facts will be presented to the audience and which will not, and in doing this selection he is positioning himself. It is in this sense that critiques have  been made to Naturalism regarding the tendency to choose always the same type of sad, tragic-end stories with a political purpose.

Whatever the reason, this “scientific” author Zola talks about is simply an illusion. Even in photography, the most “neutral” and “scientific” of all arts for its faithfulness of depiction, there is always the look of the author. Just at placing a glass between us and reality distorts it, so, even if the “plot” could be eliminated, the look of the author could not.

I will now analyze this idea in relation to Suasan Glaspell’s play Trifles.

This seems to be at first sight a play which fits quite well the innovative standards of Naturalism and specifically the idea of “lack of a plot” (in the traditional sense) Zola talks about. From the formal point of view, just on being a one act play, it breaks from the traditional structure of a certain number of acts working presentation, developing, and end of a play. Right from the first stage directions, we get immersed in a story we know has already began. These stage directions, more than presenting the story, work arousing questions in the mind of the public. Why is the kitchen so untidy? Why does one of the women seem afraid of stepping in? We, as public, know that we have missed some part of the story. In this sense Glaspell would also be in the line of Jean Jullien’s quotation “A play is a slice of life put onstage with art.”

But if Glaspell was deliberately being Naturalistic, or non-traditional in the structure of her play, as time passes and the play progresses, we start to suspect that maybe she is at the same time criticizing with it.

There are clearly two different groups of people telling a story in Trifles, and Glaspell, as author, decides right from the start which side she is on. We have the men, who are looking around the house for physical evidences of the central event of the play, which is a murder — and we have the women, who are there almost incidentally, to pick up some things from the house and just sit there waiting while the men are doing their job. If the author strictly stuck to Naturalism, she would have taken the audience upstairs with the men in their inquiry for evidences and would have told their story instead of the women’s. But she does not so, she stays in the kitchen and presents the audience not the story of the “facts” but the story of the feelings, of the points of view, and in short, of subjectivity.

We have an author who is, apparently presenting a Naturalistic play, and at the same she is an author who is telling a story far more based on empathy, feelings and subjectivity than in scientific facts. This apparent allegiance to the Naturalistic principles for their later violation could be interpreted as a critique of Naturalism itself, for Glaspell is clearly driving the sympathies of the audience towards the female feelings and perceptions, which are precisely the opposite of Naturalistic principles. In this sense, Glaspell would be using Zola’s, or Naturalism’s arms to turn them against themselves.

WEEK 2 : Expressionism

Sophie Treadwell (1885-1970)

Treadwell, 1917 auto tour of America, childhood friend Esther Barney at the wheel

Sophie Treadwell’s play, Machinal, written in 1928, is a virtuoso Expressionist play.

Expressionism carries forward the Romantic ideal that an artist’s impulse creates its own forms. Expressionism does not subdue creativity to balance or harmonize. An Expressionist artist avoids idealization, especially the idealization of forms that classic art enjoys. Expressionism willfully escapes the discipline that demands the submission of content to form, avoiding, too, the disciplines of realism and believability.

Expressionist artists and writers had a hunch that beneath a thin veneer of civilization the people of the then new twentieth century were still as ever savage, ruthless, passionate, impulsive, and pleasure-loving in all ways, including sexually, without concern for consequences. Improved machinery didn’t so much mask, ironically, as accelerate a return to savagery by making life more exciting, dangerous, exhilarating—and crueler.

***

Machinal is a definitively American Expressionist play, publicized as based on a true-crime story about a famous adulterous murderess. It’s much more than that. Treadwell enhanced the vocabulary of Expressionism with psychological nuance: a central character whose first word is “No.”  Machinal made a splash when it opened on Broadway in 1928. Treadwell lived for another forty-two years and shifted to social criticism.

In America, several playwrights toyed with Expressionism in the 1920s before they abandoned it. In Eugene O’Neill’s Expressionist play The Emperor Jones (1920) a black ex-convict named Brutus Jones is running to escape the rebellious subjects of his self-created Caribbean empire. As he flees, he tears off his splendid Emperor’s uniform and his shining spurred boots. Out in the jungle he tosses away his pants and, wrapped in a loincloth, howls in the wilderness. O’Neill’s Expressionist play The Hairy Ape (1922) shows that below the shining deck of an ocean liner working men shovel coal as if they were the greasy cogs of a machine. When Yank, the ship’s stevedore, arrives in New York, the city reduces him to the status of a gorilla in the zoo.

Elmer Rice’s Expressionist play, The Adding Machine (1923), shows the trial, execution, and afterlife of Mr. Zero, an accountant replaced by the machine of the title. Tellingly, six years after The Adding Machine, Elmer Rice wrote the hyper-realistic Street Scene (1929)—a play that won a Pulitzer Prize for its depiction of slum life in details similar to Gorky’s Lower Depths (1902).

After the collapse of the American economy in October 1929, Expressionist plays were no longer appreciated by American audiences looking for reassurance. As a style, Expressionism continued on in American film, thanks to German cinematographers who fled to Hollywood. In America, Expressionist shadows and the reversion to feral behavior in Expressionist plays was channeled to film noir.

***

Treadwell tips her hat to Elmer Rice with the first lines of Machinal, episode 1:

ADDING CLERK (in the monotonous voice of his monotonous
thoughts; at his adding machine)
. 2490, 28, 76, 123, 36842, 1,
1/4, 37, 804, 23 1/2, 982.
FILING CLERK (in the same wayat his filing desk).Accounts-A. BondsB. ContractsC. DataD. EarningsE.

Episode 2 of The Adding Machine begins:

(DAISY reads aloud figures from a pile of slips which lie before her. As she reads the figures,  ZERO enters them upon a large square sheet of ruled paper which lies before him.)

DAISY:  (Reading aloud): Three ninety-eight. Forty-two cents. A dollar fifty. A dollar fifty. A dollar twenty-five. Two dollars. Thirty-nine cents. Twenty-seven fifty.

WEEK 1 : Poetry OF the theater

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
Stein(front)and Toklas, November 7, 1934, en route to Chicago to attend a performance of  Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts. The fetishes in their hands, presents from Carl Van Vechten, who took the photo, are little bearded men on a base of rabbit’s foot, made by Hopi Indians. 

Gertrude Stein assembled words as a sculptor or collage artist for the pleasure of the assembling and the pleasure in beholding the assemblage. Her practice was to recite aloud, and what she spoke was written down by her companion, Alice B. Toklas. In this way Stein created what she called “geographies or plays,” by which she meant landscapes of language through which performers and audiences might move, as if touring.

Stein created a cult of personality for herself as a lesbian sphinx. This had its uses, but it has also obscured the depths of her achievement as a writer and a thinker. Stein anticipates performance art, the music of Philip Glass, the theater of Robert Wilson, the rhythm of hip-hop, and the irony of Andy Warhol.

Stein’s repetitions—she preferred the term insistence—resemble thought itself and when spoken aloud turn musical. It was natural she would write opera librettos—Four Saints in Three Acts for the American composer Virgil Thomas and the libretto for Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, which Stein completed even after the intended composer dropped the project. She poured out words like an oracle while Alice faithfully transcribed them. Stein’s facility can be exhausting, yet what she wrote is often effervescent. Here’s a speech from Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights with the original punctuation. One must read it aloud to make sense of it, which should tell you something about Stein’s dramatic writing. 

SCENE II 

I am I and my name is Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel, and then oh then I could yes I could I could begin to cry but why why could I begin to cry. 

And I am I and I am here and how do I know how wild the wild world is how wild the wild woods are the wood they call the woods the poor man’s overcoat but do they cover me and if they do how wild they are wild and wild and wild they are, how do I know how wild woods are when I have never ever seen a wood before. 

I wish (she whispered) I knew why woods are wild why animals are wild why I am I, why I can cry, I wish I wish I knew, I wish oh how I wish I knew. Once I am in I will never be through the woods are there and I am here and am I here or am I there, oh where oh where is here oh where oh where is there and animals wild animals are everywhere. 

She sits down. 

[DK NOTE: Yes, the heroine is lost in the woods! Might you read the stage directions as part of the text? Yes, you might. Does the lack of punctuation allow you to create your own interpretation? Yes, it does. ]

Excerpts from Plays, a lecture by Gertrude Stein, 1934:

And so one day all of a sudden I began to write Plays.

I remember very well the first one I wrote. I called it “What Happened, a Play,” it is in Geography and Plays as are all the plays I wrote at that time. I think and always have thought that if you write a play you ought to announce that it is a play and that is what I did. “What Happened. A Play.”

I had just come home from a pleasant dinner party and I realized then as anybody can know that something is always happening.

Something is always happening, anybody knows a quantity of stories of people’s lives that are always happening, there are always plenty for the newspapers and there are always plenty in private life. Everybody knows so many stories and what is the use of telling another story. What is the use of telling a story since there are so many and everybody knows so many and tells so many. In the country it is perfectly extraordinary how many complicated dramas go on all the time. And everybody knows them, so why tell another one. There is always a story going on.

So naturally what I wanted to do in my play was what everybody did not always know nor always tell. By everybody I do of course include myself by always I do of course include myself.

And so I wrote What Happened, A Play.

Then I wrote Ladies Voices and then I wrote a Curtain Raiser. I did this last because I wanted still more to tell what could be told if one did not tell anything.
……
I came to think that since each one is that one and that there are a number of them each one being that one, the only way to express this thing each one being that one and there being a number of them knowing each other was in a play. And so I began to write these plays. And the idea in “What Happened, a Play” was to express this without telling what happened, in short to make a play the essence of what happened. I tried to do this with the first series of plays that I wrote.

***
The landscape has its formation and as after all a play has to have formation and be in relation one thing to the other thing and as the story is not the thing as anyone is always telling something then the landscape not moving but being always in relation, the trees to the hills the hills to the fields the trees to each other any piece of it to any sky and then any detail to any other detail, the story is only of importance if you like to tell or like to hear a story but the relation is there anyway. And of that relation I wanted to make a play and I did, a great number of plays.

The full text of Plays, a lecture by Gertrude Stein

Daniil Kharms/ Даниил Хармс (1905-1942)

Unlike the mysteries of Gertrude Stein’s writing, the short plays of the Russian hooligan Daniil Kharms speak for themselves. Here is the first of “Four illustrations on how a new idea dumbfounds a man that was not ready for it” written in the late 1920s, translated by Alina Constantinescu.

The Writer: I am a writer!
The Reader: And I think you are crap!

(The Writer stands there for a few minutes shocked by this new idea, falls dead. He is carried away.)  

[Curtain]

In 1926 Kharms founded the OBERIU, or Union of Real Art collective, unintentionally the last of the avant-garde Russian artists’ groups. The OBERIU staged what we would now call Happenings: non-logical, non-linear, non-verbal, yet still somehow voiced, theatrical events, not always in theaters, sometimes on a roof or in the street. By the early 1930s, whatever previous experiments had been going on in Russia had reached a conclusion, at least for those in power. Socialist Realism, which upheld easily understandable role models and positive images, often of previously oppressed members of society, advanced the revolution. According to Socialist Realism, social, political, and economic forces explained behavior. Anything else that might confuse an audience was not only bad taste, or poor craft, but was counter-revolutionary and a bad example to be curtailed—and erased from Soviet history—before anyone else got confused, or worse, followed along in error. 

Jean Cocteau (1889–1964)

Jean Cocteau wrote about “Poetry OF the theater, rather than Poetry IN the theater”  in his introduction to “Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel” (The Eiffel Tower Wedding), a theatrical event Cocteau devised for a 1921 performance in Paris by the Ballets Suédois (the Swedish Ballet).

Sunday vacuity, human beastliness, ready-made expressions, disassociation of ideas from flesh and bone, the ferocity of childhood, the miraculous poetry of daily life: these are my play…  ”  Jean Cocteau, translated by Dudley Fitts]

Poetry OF the theater is something elegant rather than eloquent, misshapen rather than misspoken. Poetry OF the theater could be a swinging door, a flickering light, an awkward gesture, an oversized costume, gaps in speech, or breaks in cause and effect between events.

To review what was discussed in Theater History Fall 2019