Asphodel notes

4 The Mirror of Long AgoThe flower called asphodel is waxy and pale. The leaves are gray. It was named by the ancient Greeks, and grew, so the Iliad has it,  in the meadow of the underworld where dead souls linger.  Asphodel is also the name of an ante-bellum plantation house near Jackson, Louisiana, built in the 1820s and set on fire during the Civil War. What survived turned to ruins presided over by a pair of sisters, the Misses Smith, who lived at Asphodel without ever leaving it for forty years. When Eudora Welty set a story in ruins called Asphodel she was thinking of all these asphodels and more. She was thinking of the ruins of Windsor, the name given to a field where twenty-two Corinthian columns stand forty feet tall a ninety- minute drive northeast from where Welty lived in Jackson, Mississippi.

Welty went to picnics at the ruins of Windsor. She photographed herself there as a shadow on the road leading up to the columns. In Welty’s story, there are six columns, not twenty-two and they’re Doric, not Corinthian, that is to say they’re capped simply with a circle and a square, rather than with the curling acanthus leaves that top Corinthian columns.

Welty simplified the ruin, reduced it to its essence: a dream of the ancient past that lingers in the present, in her own words “a tender dream and an unconscious celebration.”  Her plot, a displacement of an ancient Greek myth, shares that dream and celebration. The virgin Persephone brought against her will to the underworld to reign over the dead – the ancient Greeks pictured Persephone crowned with asphodels –  shadows the story of the imperious Miss Sabina  told by three Mississippi spinsters with Greek names: Cora, the Greek word for maiden; Phoebe, which means shining and pure; and Irene, which means in Greek, peace.

Welty’s Asphodel, like the ruins of Windsor, sits just off the Natchez Trace, the old Indian trail, now a highway that runs from Nashville to the Mississippi river town famous for good times. The eight short stories in Welty’s 1943 collection The Wide Net, which included “Asphodel,” are all set along the Trace, as was her first novel, The Robber Bridegroom, written in 1942. In 1944 Harper’s Bazaar published an essay by Welty titled “Some Notes on River Country” revealing the root of her flower: her explorations of the Trace on foot, by car, and in books, through history and legend, superstition and fact, past vine-covered tree-trunks, flower-filled meadows, fishing villages and ghost towns and towering columns.

This had been the territory of the Natchez Indians. By 1736, according to historians, the Natchez were extinct: conquered by the Choctaw. From admiring Frenchmen we know the Natchez women were strong and powerful and proud.  If we choose to we can think that Miss Sabina, or Persephone, might fit in among them. If we choose we can see the shadows of the Natchez women mingled with the shadows of Miss Sabina and Persephone, like a photograph of multiple exposures.

In the stage adaptation titled “Asphodel (Some Notes on River Country)” all the words are Welty’s. The story is framed by the essay as if it was divided up between the Asphodel spinsters. The music composed to accompany the story is by Paul Hacker, a Choctaw/Cherokee native Oklahoman.  For a Choctaw, the songs of the Natchez are as ghostly as Greek ruins in Mississippi, the same sort of  “a tender dream.”

Behind the performers are projections of  a dozen photos by Louisiana’s Clarence John Laughlin. Born in 1905, he died in 1985. The titles Laughlin gave these twelve photographs form a parallel story in the order that they are displayed:  “Toppled Glory,” “The First Appearance of the Fire Demon,” “The Enigma,” “The Mirror of Long Ago,” “ The Mistreated Nymph,” “ Temple to a Misplaced Past,” “The Mourning Oaks,” “Arboreal Skeleton,” “Deathly Forest,” and “Elegy for the Old South.” That last is a collage of images assembled by Laughlin onto “Toppled Glory.” The subjects are mostly the details of ruined plantations from Laughlin’s book Ghosts Along the Mississippi, first published in 1948. “The Mistreated Nymph” is on a building in Chicago. The photograph titled “The Mirror of Long Ago” is a fantasia of images from Parlange Plantation in southeastern Louisiana. According to the Historic New Orleans Collection, which holds ten thousand Laughlin photographs: “Parlange Plantation was founded by the Marquis Vincent deTernant, fleeing the Revolution in France. This is a composite print from two negatives of the interior of the house, showing Julie de Ternant, the tragic granddaughter of the old Marquis, who is said to have gone mad on her wedding night.”

Laughlin had no intent to illustrate Welty’s fiction, and she was certainly not dramatizing his silver gelatin prints. His photos and her story run parallel to each other because Welty and Laughlin walked through the same landscape. Each of them took pictures at the ruins of Windsor. Their visions diverge. In Laughlin’s photograph the vine-smothered tops of the columns seem to reach up and dissolve into clouds. We are led by Laughlin to think of disintegration and, ultimately, the mystery of death and his photograph’s title “The Enigma.” Welty’s photograph of Windsor includes a path, and a person. She has given the towering ruins a human scale and found a way to approach them – and to subtly include herself. Asphodel, the title of her story, is associated with death, yet Welty looked at ruins and imagined, for our consideration, life.

Gas was rationed in Mississippi during World War Two, when Welty was driving to the Natchez Trace. Yet it was essential she go there. Her close friend, John Robinson, was serving overseas in the U.S. Air Force. The news from the front was not encouraging. Her two older brothers were of age to be drafted. At a time of doubt for what might happen next in her life, and what might happen next to her family, to her friends, and to her country, she found relief and hope, even in a ghost town where, as her essay puts it  “A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out.

”The Mirror of the Past” photograph by Clarence John Laughlin, courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection.

Ah, Wilderness ! Samara, Russia 2005

Eugene O’Neill’s story re-located to a family of Russian emigres in Brooklyn.

Ah, Wilderness ! in Samara, Russia
Written in 1932, set in 1906 by O’Neill, set in its Russian production in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach. The play was performed in Russian and English: the emigre adults spoke Russian, their American-born children spoke English.

The middle son is, as in the original text, in love with poetry and love itself.
Ah, Wilderness! kiss
Ah, Wilderness ! is O’Neill’s only comedy. In Russia his work has been known since the 30’s.  The production was dedicated to the memory of Lyuba Nikolayevana Filimonovna.

A Fire Was in My Head New York, New Orleans 2005

Eudora Welty’s story “Music from Spain” set to music inspired by Andres Segovia.

Performed by actress Brenda Currin and pianist Philip Fortenberry, A Fire Was in My Head invites short haunting compositions by Mompou and Bach, and Spanish classics, such as the well-known Leyenda by Albeniz and the passionate Orientale by Enrique Granados, to share the stage with the 1947 novelty song “Open the Door, Richard” and a Mississippi blues treatment a la Blind Boy Fuller of “Rocks in My Bed Number Two.” Below, set to Bach.

The adaptation by David Kaplan was commissioned by the Eudora Welty Society and the Faulkner Society. It was shown as a work-in-progress at the American Literature Association Conference in San Francisco and at the Appalachian Arts Festival in Boone, North Carolina. In April 2005 A Fire Was in My Head received definitive performances at historic Kaufman Hall at the 92nd St Y in New York City followed later that week with a performance at Tulane’s Deep South Humanities Center in New Orleans. It has since performed in Atlanta, Las Vegas, College Station, and Venice, Italy.

The photos here are captured from the DVD archival recording made at the 92nd St Y.


Asphodel (with Notes from River Country)

The 92nd St Y

A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out.
– from Some Notes on River Country by Eudora Welty

March 11 premiere at the  Poetry Center at the 92nd St Y in New York City, adapted from Eudora Welty’s short story “Asphodel” in which three gossips, amidst the ruined Greek columns of a plantation, enjoy a funeral picnic. Original music by Choctaw flute master Paul Hacker. Adapted and directed by  David Kaplan. Still shot at top from the archival recording. (left to right: Brenda Currin, Olympia Dukakis, Estelle Parsons.

June 6, 2015  Olympia Dukakis, Brenda Currin,  and Sybil Child performed Asphodel at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi.

Notes on the program

The Chalky White Substance : Tennessee Suite Provincetown, New Orleans, Sewanee, Dublin Ireland 2007-2014

Two short plays by Tennessee Williams pair autobiography & science-fiction.

Tennessee Suite begins with The Traveling Companion, a late self-portrait by Tennessee Williams in which a famous author (Vieux) checks into a Manhattan hotel room with only one bed accompanied by a much younger man (Beau) who may or may not be hustling.  [Photo above by Ride Hamilton. Jeremy Lawrence as Vieux at the Herman-Grima House in New Orleans, 2014]. The Chalky White Substance follows: Williams’ fantasia of trust and betrayal in which an older man (Mark) and younger (Luke), both hooded, scheme for survival in a landscape devastated by nuclear war. Photo below by Earl Perry. Jeremy Lawrence and Ben Berry in The Chalky White Substance at the 2007 Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival.

The Dog Enchanted by the Divine View Boston, Provincetown 2008 Columbus MS 2009

Tennessee Williams’ first version of The Rose Tattoo

Dog Enchanted Sophia Piel
Tennessee Williams worked up his full-length plays by writing short versions first. His ease and excellence at devising one-acts was such he wrote over seventy of them — and we discover more every year. Some of these short plays resemble painter’s sketches intended as preparation for a larger canvas. Some sketches are rough, some are finished works in themselves.

The Dog Enchanted by the Divine View was discovered at the Ransom Center in Austin, Texas by Canadian scholar Brian Parker. On the first page of the manuscript, Williams typed “A 1-act sketch from which ‘The Rose Tattoo’ derived.” Parker dates it to the spring of 1948, when Williams was visiting Italy and Sicily. Several titles are given. The Italian version Il Cane Incantato della Divina Costiera seems to be a phrase Williams overheard, found catchy, and translated himself with creative misunderstanding.

Dog Enchanted introduces the central characters who appear in The Rose Tattoo and sets up the premise of the action. A truck driver courts a juicy Sicilian widow who takes in sewing in a Gulf of Mexico shrimping village. Offstage, the widow’s 15 year-old daughter is on her own first date. Single sentences (“a woman can’t live in a grave” and “I love my husband with all my heart” contain clusters of meaning that, in the full-length version, Williams will unpack into lyrical outpourings of impassioned romanticism.

Nancy Casarro and Larry Coen created the roles. Photos by Sophia Piel.



Ten Blocks on the Camino Real Paysandú, Uruguay 2012

An outdoor production in the Paysandú marketplace, in 2012.

Above: Pavlo Coll as Kilroy

Raul Rodriguez and his Taller de Teatro de Paysandú, Uruguay are quite special: a small company with a circle of students, led by a Russian-trained director and teacher. In practical terms that means the ensemble has the technique to work with with a combination of intermittent realism and Brecht’s ideas of story-telling, ideal for Williams’ Ten Blocks on the Camino Real – the short first version of the better known Camino Real.

Ten Blocks was designed to be performed outdoors in marketplaces and premiered November 4 at the Biennial International Theater Festival in Paysandú. Posters of the characters hang from a backdrop with credits.

The set before the audience arrives: 7 chairs, 2 tables. The blue furniture is for the Seven Seas Hotel, the pink for the House of the Gypsy, the unpainted furniture seats the Player of the Blue Guitar and lifts up the hotel owner.

The play is performed in the Spanish spoken in Uruguay, which is softened by Portuguese. Doubles lls are pronounced sh as in shadow. The word for rain, lluvia, pronounced yuvia in Mexico is, in Uruguay, called shuvia.

Below: Ilse Olivera as the Gypsy, Pavlo Col as KiloryMany of the props were children’s toys: balls, cards, a toy pistol. Don Quixote was the player of the blue guitar astride his guitar like a horse, wearing a triangular paper hat.


See also the 2016 production in Ghana which built on these ideas.

A Tennessee Williams Songbook

Songs chosen by Tennessee WIlliams to be sung in his plays as counterpoint to his dialog.

Performed by Alison Fraser. Orchestrations by Alison Leyton-Brown. Photos by Ride Hamilton.

In a play written by Tennessee William,  music is the sound of paradise drifting in from around the corner, across the alley, from the room next door, the promise of love and happiness just out of reach, leading us on to believe in the possibility of love and harmony somewhere, if not where we are, listening in circumstances far removed from love or happiness.

Playing Episodes

Playing EpisodesPart Two, Five Approaches to Acting SeriesPlaying Episodes, Part Two in the Five Approaches to Acting Series by David Kaplan is the second part in the series.

An episode is something that happens onstage that the audience understands separately from the whole of the play: Romeo reveals himself to Juliet, the Gentleman Caller breaks Laura’s heart, Didi and Gogo wait for Godot.

Using an episodic approach a performer works to make each episode clear to the audience. All elements of a performance: actors, text, music, props, costumes, lights, décor, contribute to an episode as would the parts of a machine. Using an episodic approach, actors in rehearsals and performances create roles in a working ensemble, rather than emphasizing the illusion of a “realistic” character. Working to polish episodes, actors assign headlines that answer the questions What happens? To whom? — while questions of What do I want? and How do I feel? are left deliberately unanswered so as to involve the audience. Contradictions in motivation and action are kept in a dynamic opposition, unresolved by any simple-minded “super-objective.” The effect on stage is simple, direct, moving, and engaging.

Episodic techniques developed in early twentieth century Russia and Germany, based on the study of Shakespeare’s texts and other non-realistic plays. Playing episodes became the international silent film technique and is still the basis of most film work. Onstage today an episodic approach is especially useful for Shakespeare, Brecht and Sam Shepard, but essential for any actor working on realistic plays — Chekhov, Ibsen, and Williams, for example — in which a mass of individual “objectives” can obscure the events and significance of the play.

Playing Episodes, Part Two in the Five Approaches to Acting Series includes a useful explanation of terms, instruction in applying techniques in rehearsal and performance, practical classroom exercises, detailed script analysis, the history and theory behind the approach, as well as inspiring examples to be seen on film.

All five of David Kaplan’s approaches to acting are available together with an additional part that deals with comparing, choosing and combing the different approaches in his The Collected Series: Five Approaches to Acting. This is an excellent acting textbook that deals with theory and practice for both beginning and seasoned actors.  More information →