Category Archives: Writing

WAYNE ALLENSWORTH’S AMERICAN SHOWDOWN: THE AUTHOR OF ‘FIELD OF BLOOD’ ON MODERN WESTERNS, FRONTIER SITUATIONS, AND THE BEST BOOKS AND FILMS IN THE GENRE—INCLUDING HIS OWN ·

Wayne Allensworth worked as an analyst for the Foreign Broadcast Information Service from 1991 to 2002.  He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 1998.  He is a Corresponding Editor of Chronicles magazine.  His short story, Man of the West, was nominated for a Western Writers of America Spur award. He has contributed to the following collections: Exploring American History (Marshall Cavendish, 2008); Peace in the Promised Land: A Realist Scenario (Chronicles Books, 2006); Immigration and the American Identity (Chronicles Books, 2008); and Russian Nationalism and the National Reassertion of Russia, edited by Marlene Laruelle (Johns Hopkins University). He lives in Ft. Worth, Texas.

Wayne Allensworth saddles up with SV’s Bob Shuman to talk about writing the epic, the poetic, and the tragic in a two-part interview—Part 2 will be published 4/25.   Read the prologue to FIELD OF BLOOD at the end of this post.

Wayne, tell us about your new book—would it be fair to call it a “Western”?

 The themes and setting make Field of Blood what some might call a “modern Western.” I think of the book as taking place in an imagined present— a small Texas town is transformed as the American Southwest gradually melds with Mexico.  America is merging with Latin America, with all the dislocations, conflicts, and moral dilemmas that arise out of a clash of cultures.  We aren’t quite there yet, but are headed in that direction at a rapid pace. If the elite of both countries had their way, that’s where we would be now. That was my starting point.

I tried to imagine what that would look like. It’s very much a frontier situation.  The rule of law is breaking down where the old America is passing away, the globalized world bringing with it chaos and disorientation.  The corruption and frenzied violence of today’s Mexico are crossing the border.  That’s what’s coming. You might say that the drug cartels and their accomplices are a criminal counterpart to trans-national corporations, both out to take advantage of the erosion of borders and national institutions.  They share an interest in dissolving boundaries, doing away with the old institutions, and exploiting the situation for profit, no matter what the cost to ordinary people. 

My characters are struggling with the new reality and their own sense of identity, as well as a sense of loss.  I tried to get at the surrealism of globalization, and the bizarre situations it creates.  America is being forcibly merged with Latin America, but it doesn’t stop there, not for us or them. It’s really an anti-human and anti-humane world, one without reference points, that benefits the most ruthless among us the most.

In this setting, I set up a situation that forces people to take sides in a way that is especially pronounced on a frontier.  It’s the kind of dilemma that leads to an inevitable showdown. That’s very much like a traditional Western, but in a modern, or post-modern, setting.

How did you become interested in Westerns–and what is it about them that made you want to write them?

My grandfather told me stories about the Old West when I was a boy.  I heard stories about Quanah Parker, the range wars, about his meeting Frank James, and seeing Geronimo.  Westerns are uniquely American, they are elemental, dealing with fundamental issues—survival, identity, loyalty—and they are about us, about our people and how we came to be what and who we are.

I read Westerns my grandfather would pass along to me after he had read them, books by writers like Louis L’Amour, Ernest Haycox, Jack Schaefer, and Alan LeMay.  Later on in life, I read Larry McMurtry, Charles Portis, and Cormac McCarthy.  McMurtry wrote his great epic Western, Lonesome Dove, in an urbanized, technological era when Westerns had fallen out of fashion.  I think he revived the Western.  McCarthy wrote his masterpiece, Blood Meridian, as a metaphysical Western, one that drew on authors like Melville and Conrad, but the violence and stylistics of the novel were from a later period. McCarthy took the Western to places it hadn’t been before.  You might call some of these books “modern Westerns,” books like McMurtry’s Horseman Pass By, McCarthy’s border trilogy, and his No Country for Old Men.  Modern Westerns, especially, have an elegiac quality about them; they are stories chronicling the passing of an era, the passing of the old America, its values and way of life.  But that sense of something dying out, that something we’ll miss, the good and the bad, is part of a lot of Westerns.

Westerns were once a very important genre in America cinema, and movie Westerns and Western books drew on each other. It was a two-way street, the books, dating back to the dime novels of the 19th century, to the authors I’ve mentioned.  They provided much of the raw material for movie Westerns, and the films provided a lot of the imagery used in subsequent Western stories. The great movie Westerns, films like StagecoachRed RiverShaneHigh NoonThe Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, gave the genre its stock of characters and themes, and the imagery of a mythical West.  Directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks set the standard for movie Westerns and made them art. Movie stars like John Wayne and Gary Cooper became the face of American Westerns. John Wayne, in particular, became a symbol of the American Western.  Clint Eastwood took up Wayne’s mantle to a certain degree. He was in Westerns on TV and in the movies, and, together with director Don Siegel, made modern Westerns like Coogan’s Bluff and, some would say, Dirty Harry, which I’ve heard called an “urban Western.” 

I think films like Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country and his best movie, The Wild Bunch, drew on the somber tone and texture of elegiac Westerns.  The Wild Bunch took Western films into some of the places Cormac McCarthy would take the literary Western.  Peckinpah made modern Westerns like Junior Bonner and The Getaway, while films based on McMurtry’s books, Hud and The Last Picture Show, contrasted the Old West with the new one, the ideal of the West as we like to think of it, and the realities of modern life.  That kind of movie is still with us—just look at the success of Hell or High Water.

Thank you so much.  Looking forward to next week.

Read the prologue to FIELD OF BLOOD: Field of Blood Prologue

Read Part II of this interview: http://stagevoices.com/2017/04/26/wayne-allensworths-american-showdown-ii-the-author-of-field-of-blood-on-the-epic-russian-intelligence-western-assumptions-and-asking-his-characters-to-make-hard-choices/

Wayne Allensworth photo (c) 2017 by Elizabeth Allensworth Merino.  All rights reserved.

(c) 2017 by Wayne Allensworth (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved. 

SAM SHEPARD: ‘TINY MAN’ (FICTION) ·

Sam Shepard

(from the New Yorker, 12/5)

Early morning: They deliver my father’s corpse in the trunk of a ’49 Mercury coupe, dew still heavy on the taillights. His body is wrapped up tight in see-through plastic, head to toe. Flesh-colored rubber bands bind it at the neck, waist, and ankles — mummy style. He’s become very small in the course of things — maybe eight inches tall. In fact, I’m holding him now, in the palm of my hand. I ask them for permission to unwrap his tiny head, just to make sure he’s truly dead. They allow me to do this. They all stand aside, hands clasped behind their tailored backs, heads bowed in a kind of ashamed mourning, but not something you would question them on. It’s smart to keep on their good side. Besides, they seem quite polite and stoic now.

(Read more)

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/12/05/tiny-man

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MICHAEL FEINGOLD: VACANCIES FOR THEATRE VISIONARIES (PART II) ·

Michael_feingold_2013_obie_awards

(Feingold’s article appeared on Theatermania, 9/16.)

Once upon a time, a young actor met an older playwright. That story might have many possible outcomes, but on this particular occasion, its results were extraordinary. The young actor's name was James Houghton, and he was cast in a play by Romulus Linney, at a grungy off-off-Broadway theater. Like many before him, he found Linney's playwriting of great interest, and wondered why this distinguished writer, with productions on Broadway and in other notable venues to his credit, had so little public recognition that he was still working in a do-it-yourself showcase mode, focusing his own lights and folding his own programs.

But unlike those who had previously pondered that cultural question, Jim Houghton decided to do something about it. He scraped up some money — his actress wife had just done a dishwashing-detergent commercial, which helped — and put on, not a single production, but a season of plays by Romulus Linney, in, improbably, a Japanese calligraphy center on Bond Street. Some critics came, who knew the value of Linney's plays from previous encounters; I was one. A small public came. A reputation was launched. And suddenly there was a company, named Signature Theatre, which had a newly established tradition: to celebrate a different American playwright each year, by presenting a full season of his or her works, old and new. Traditions can be born very quickly, especially if everyone thinks they're a great idea.

http://www.theatermania.com/new-york-city-theater/news/michael-feingold-on-james-houghton-legacy_78391.html

Photo: Michael Feingold/Village Voice

SHELAGH DELANEY: ‘A TASTE OF HONEY’ (EXTENDED TO OCT. 30–REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

When Shelagh Delaney was 18, in 1958, she wrote A Taste Honey, now running at the Pearl Theatre, extended until October 30.  The play, an act of adolescent rebellion, integrates disparate issues and themes, from mothers to race; men to sex and motherhood to gays and abortion; from Shakespeare (“he said everything, didn’t he?) to theatre and movies (“mauling and muttering, can’t hear what they’re saying half the time. . . . ”). She had failed her 11-plus exams four times and spent her Saturdays at the movies, where she may have seen films like the ones mentioned or referred to in her play:  I was a Teenage WerewolfThe Ten Commandments, The Wizard of Oz, and Desire Under the Elms.  When the legendary director Joan Littlewood, who championed English working-class plays and Brechtian technique, read this “slice of life” (in a positive review, Harold Clurman used that descriptor), she said, “Delaney knows what she is angry about”—which was probably everything. But she is also comparing the author to John Osborne and the angry young men of British theatre.  Graham Green weighed in on this count, too, saying that A Taste of Honey has “all the freshness of Mr. Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and a greater maturity.”

“A northern [English] sense of humor, lack of sentimentality, and robust approach” is how actress Lesley Sharp, who starred in the play in 2014, extemporizes on A Taste of Honey.  Professor Nadine Holdsworth, from the University of Warwick, calls the language: “quick, sharp, witty banter.”  When looking at footage or photos of Delaney, during this period, she seems knowing and well-mannered but slightly mischievous, too, impatient, or “restless,” as she would probably describe herself. She’s a large-eyed, soft-voiced perfect storm for a director like Austin Pendleton, who leads the current New York production of A Taste of Honey, because, on the page, she’s all sass and spunk and her lines move so fast. She forces Pendleton to keep up with her in his staging, the opinionated eighteen-year-old whose memory is like the NSA, and the actor’s director, with a penchant for British theatre.  They both win.

Delaney did not often allow her first play to be produced (she died in 2011) and her daughter had never seen a staged version until she was an adult. This may have helped the unsentimental drama become sentimentalized over the years, after having been a play in the UK and the U.S., a movie, and fodder for a musical standard:  Tony Richardson directed the New York production, as well as the classic, Bafta-winning film (for the movie, its screenplay, and the actresses), and he co-wrote the hit song, from which he never recouped royalties (he did not share credit; Bobby Scot and Ric Marlow did).  Many artists have recorded A Taste of Honey, including The Beatles, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, and Herb Alpert (who uses a quick tempo similar to the one heard at the Pearl, where the tune is played onstage by a Beat Trilby-wearing jazz trio who remain on stage (they are guitarist Phil Faconti, trumpeter Max Boiko, with mute, and bassist Walter Stinson.  The lyrics to the song probably do not allude to Jo’s point of view, in ways that other popular songs, based on British dramatic material, did during the sixties and seventies, such as “Somewhere My Love” (Dr. Zhivago), “It Was a Good Time” (Ryan’s Daughter), or Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Too Beautiful to Last” (Nicholas and Alexandra).  The repeated line in the song, “I will return,” comes from and refers to the sailor who leaves Jo, the eighteen-year-old girl, and the young man on the boat is an enduring image from the film. The misty longing is momentary, though, and there is no serious consideration of his coming back—or for Jo to run after him.

The Brechtian impulse was lost as the play transitioned to New York and the screen, too. Richardson felt that Littlewood’s “policy of mixing working-class drama with pub vitality and vaudeville songs” did not integrate well in A Taste of Honey—he thought they made the play seem “coarse and forcedly jolly.”  He also believed that film could only be a realistic medium. The black-and-white film that emerged, despite its lower-class milieu, is an example of Free Style Cinema, and is expertly photographed by its founder, Walter Lassally, with “a minimum of equipment, real locations, and a natural, unmade-up look.” Casting became immediately critical.  Rita Tushingham won the part of Jo, playing against the formidable Dora Bryan, and she was the right age; Joan Plowright, who starred in the role on Broadway, and won a Tony Award for it, was a world-renowned actress—but was thirty-one years old.  No need to feel bad for Plowright, though. Interestingly, Austin Pendleton, would write a comedy about her, Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles, Kenneth Tynan, and Vivian Leigh, set while A Taste of Honey was entering popular culture.  The play is Orson’s Shadow (2003). Welcome to the 1960s.

Delaney had written about what would matter to Americans during that decade, even though there wasn’t much chance to salvage Jo’s life in Manchester (Harry Feiner’s scenic design, at the Pearl, shows the roofs of the tenements in the city, as well as the dirty interior the two women inhabit).  Some might compare A Taste of Honey to another Broadway show, which premiered in 1959, also set along the fringes of show business, with a domineering mother and her new boyfriend, as well as a daughter who runs off with a young man. A Taste of Honey, however, is no Gypsy, even though it prefigures the Kander and Ebb musical (such as Cabaret), because Jo will never be able to beat the English social system. In fact, Delaney barely could get out herself and remained a Marxist.  Not that one producer didn’t try to fix the play’s structure, which actually is a problem with the work.  According to Tony Richardson, in his autobiography The Long-Distance Runner, Darryl Zanuck “was interested in me directing it . . . on one condition: ‘a happy ending’.  It has a happy ending—Jo is happy waiting for her baby to be born.” Zanuck: “That’s the point—the baby’s gotta die, and Mother and girl go off to a better life.”  Richardson said no, thank you.

Jo is encased in her class, and her happy ending would be a dubious one in The United States.  She does realize that there might be more elsewhere, but she makes fun of the book about her namesake when she says that her guide on having a baby sounds like Little Women.   Delaney also may be making a reference to A Member of the Wedding when she talks about going on her mother’s honeymoon: “Can’t I come with you?” Delaney regains her senses against the pipe dream of becoming an artist, like Louisa May Alcott or Carson McCullers.  She doesn’t allow the flower bulbs she has kept to blossom, and she won’t let Jo go to school to become an artist.  The audience sees the similarities between the mother, a “semi-whore” and daughter, and both are cynical (a quality of those who live in Salford, according to Delaney) and fatalistic: “Don’t think.  It doesn’t do you any good.”

  Taste

At the Pearl, Rachel Botchan, as Helen, is ready to dance, and Delaney provides her with asides, direct addresses to the audience, and songs.  When she retakes her rooms at the end of the play, however, she has become a destroyer and, we see how her daughter deserves to hate her.  Botchan deploys dainty savagery–and, even for those who know the play, this can seem unexpected. Impressive also is Rebekah Brockman, who gives us Jo’s poignant side, which would be expected.  However, despite the weight of the milieu, she allows Delaney’s wicked humor to come through in a way that lets theatregoers laugh out loud.  Brockman plays a scene with her gay roommate, Geoffrey (John Evans Reese, who does not rely on stereotypes), which centers on the idea that Jo’s father may have been unintelligent.  This is funny, suddenly, and it also shows how Delaney looks at issues from many angles, typically working from many tentative points of view. Bradford Cover plays Helen’s younger lover, a small-time Romeo ready to fly at a moment’s notice, a thin man starting a pot belly.  Jimmy, the sailor, is played by Ade Otukoya, who, at one point, is placed downstage center and seated, the action spinning around him.  He allows us to see what young love is—he may not be faithful, or truthful, but no one can say that Jo should not have become involved with him.

Both

Alan Brien, writing in The Spectator, in the ‘50s, saw in A Taste of Honey “an adolescent contempt for logic or form or practicability upon a stage.” What he didn’t see was the challenge of putting a young woman’s gritty aesthetic on the stage, one that can make a very good contemporary play like Bachelorette, by Leslye Headland, recently seen at Walkerspace, in a good production, seem much more degenerate than A Taste of Honey (which is actually something Headland might agree with). Of course, the plays present two different worlds—postwar Britain and present-day, corporatized America, but many of the issues are the same, if not universal, and the feminism that Jo needed, seems to have been let down or erroneously redirected, if it is judged by Headland’s work. The screwed up, narcissistic young wedding-party crashers in Bachelorette are takers; Jo is a giver: “Blessings light upon you. If I had half a crown a day, I’d gladly give it to you.” This does not mean that Jo is naïve, which is how the women in Bachelorette might size her up. Actually, she is clear about her own mind. Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey in two weeks, in 1958, because she was angered by the insidious lives of those portrayed in drawing room comedies, specifically one by Terence Rattigan. She felt she could do better. May contemporary theatre find a Shelagh Delaney to do better for us and may her kind of anger continue to force the issue.

Highly Recommended.

Visit the Pearl Theatre at: http://www.pearltheatre.org/

© 2016 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

Photos from the Pearl Theatre production.

Press: John Wyszniewski and Rachael Shearer at Blake Zidell & Associates.

MARGARET ATWOOD ON REWRITING SHAKESPEARE’S ‘TEMPEST’ ·

(Atwood’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/24.)

Whenever people ask me that inevitable question, “Who’s your favourite author?” I always say “Shakespeare”. There are some good reasons for that. First, so much of what we know about plots, characters, the stage, fairies and inventive swearwords comes from Shakespeare. Second, if you name a living author the other living authors will be mad at you because it isn’t them, but Shakespeare is conveniently dead.

Third, Shakespeare refuses to be boxed in. Not only do we know very little about what he really thought, felt and believed, but the plays themselves are elusive. Just when you think you’ve got a meaning nailed down, your interpretation melts like jelly and you’re left scratching your head. Maybe he’s deep, very deep. Or maybe he didn’t have a continuity editor. And Shakespeare will never turn up on a talkshow and be asked to explain himself, the lucky devil.

Shakespeare is infinitely interpretable. We’ve had a fascist Richard III, we’ve had a Canadian First Nations Macbeth, we’ve had a Tempest with a female Prospero called Prospera, starring Helen Mirren. In the 18th century they had a Tempestopera, which used only a third of Shakespeare’s original text. Caliban had a sister called Sycorax, Miranda had a sister called Dorinda, and there was an extra young man so Dorinda would have someone to marry.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/24/margaret-atwood-rewriting-shakespeare-tempest-hagseed

LYN GARDNER GOES TO EDINBURGH FEST: THE PERILS OF BEING THEATRE’S NEXT BIG THING ·

 

(Gardner’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/2.)

Theatre’s obsession with the new is magnified during the Edinburgh fringe. But as well as hunting out fresh talent, we need to ensure that artist development schemes support sustainable careers

A wall of flyers at the Edinburgh fringe. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

This week, hundreds of young companies and artists head to the Edinburgh fringe, full of excitement and hope. Many will be graduate companies emerging from the cocoon of college with their first piece of work; some will be returning for a second or third time, hoping that against the odds and in spite of spiralling costs this will be the year that puts them on the radar and helps them make those all-important industry contacts.

For the fringe in August is where the industry comes looking for new talent. A substantial number of theatres across the UK will have teams scouring the fringe looking for what they hope will be the next big thing. I know of one who will have at least 30 people coming and going over the festival’s duration.

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2016/aug/02/the-perils-of-being-theatres-next-big-thing-artist-development

JAMES GRAHAM: ‘A STRONG EXIT’ (HIS NEW PLAY ON BREXIT) ·

(Graham’s play appeared in the Guardian, 7/18.)

In a new play written for the Guardian, the award-winning writer of political smashes This House and The Vote goes inside the Brexit bunker as its sweaty-palmed task force prepare to trigger Article 50

Dramatis Personae

Minister for Brexit Male, 40s, Tory MP

Permanent Secretary Female, 50s, from the Cabinet Office

Dale Special adviser, 30s

Erica Special adviser, 30s

Whitehall, London, 2016. Night time.

The offices of the hastily established Ministry for Brexit. A large map of Europe on the back wall. A screen showing global market activity.

The newly appointed Minister for Brexit is greeting his team of young-ish Spads, Erica and Dale, alongside the department’s new Permanent Secretary.

Minister (looking around) Christ, why are we in this mess?

Dale It’s what people voted for.

https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2016/jul/18/a-strong-exit-a-new-play-by-james-graham-brexit

JANET MALCOLM: ON TRANSLATION ·

(Malcolm’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 6/23.)

In Anna Karenina, the day after the fateful ball, resolved to forget Vronsky and resume her peaceful life with her son and husband (“my life will go on in the old way, all nice and as usual”), Anna settles herself in her compartment in the overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, and takes out an uncut English novel, probably one by Trollope judging from references to fox hunting and Parliament. Tolstoy, of course, says nothing about a translation—educated Russians knew English as well as French. In contrast, very few educated English speakers have read the Russian classics in the original and, until recent years, they have largely depended on two translations, one by the Englishwoman Constance Garnett and the other by the English couple Louise and Aylmer Maude, made respectively in 1901 and 1912. The distinguished Slavic scholar and teacher Gary Saul Morson once wrote about the former:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/06/23/socks-translating-anna-karenina/

MICHAEL FEINGOLD: THE CRUCIBLE’S HISTORICAL MELTING POT ·

 

(Feingold’s article appeared on Theatermania, 4/22.)

"God's icy wind" does indeed blow onstage at one point in Ivo van Hove's new production of The Crucible, as predicted in the well-known speech that closes the play's Act 2. A wolf briefly roams the stage (actually it's a well-trained Tamaskan, a new breed with a lupine look), as wolves roamed Salem's roads in 1692. A girl levitates, as "bewitched" girls ostensibly did in Salem (and as Rwandan girls apparently did in the events dramatized last year in Katori Hall's Our Lady of Kibeho). Whatever one thinks of van Hove's direction (of which this is not a review), it evokes, undeniably, the source material in which Arthur Miller's familiar play is steeped. That grounding inevitably makes me think about the parallels between the Salem village witchcraft trials and the anti-Communist witch hunts of Miller's own time, both ancient events that still resonate today.

http://www.theatermania.com/new-york-city-theater/news/the-crucibles-historical-melting-pot_76743.html

ENDA WALSH: ‘THE NEXT ONE’: READ HIS NEW SHORT PLAY, HERE, NOW! ·

(Walsh’s play appeared in the Irish Times, 4/2.)

bare concrete room – the walls, floor and ceiling – all grey. A large rectangular window, without a curtain, is on the stage left wall. Facing this, against the stage right wall, is a row of three blue plastic chairs. High, and in the centre of the back wall, is a large LED number-display screen with the number 2986 showing. On the floor, in the corner, is a television showing a silent 10-second section of The Ray D’Arcy Show in which D’Arcy is introducing something. It’s stuck in a loop. But before all of that we’re in the darkness. A strong incessant music fades up. With it a flat light slowly shines through the window. A Young Woman, in her late 20s, sits in one of the chairs, holding a ticket and staring over at the television. After 30 seconds the music cuts. She talks to herself –

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/stage/the-next-one-a-new-play-by-enda-walsh-1.2595141