Sure. I think I saw that in high school. Think it was the school play in my freshman year or something. Generally pleasant production. Can’t remember a specific thing about it.
Okay. Forgettable then. I can’t imagine this new version being watchable, not even at The Almeida. It would have to be amazing.
But alas. So indelibly is Our Town associated in my mind with clichéd canonical American ‘taught texts’, school bells, homeroom, locker combos, and am dram, that it would need to be a damn fine overhaul for this play to impress in 2014. It would have to be like Tim Burton directing ‘The Pit and The Pendulum’, or Jim Jarmusch’s A Separate Peace or David Lynch’s The Scarlet Letter (actually that could really work) or Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby and no one wants that.
But this, David Cromer’s production of this American classic is something else entirely. As it turns out, it’s a bit more like Peter Brook directing… well… Thornton Wilder. And it works incredibly well.
Cromer’s touch on this gentle and slow-burning story is well-judged, subtle, and in the end, devastatingly masterful, the director himself taking the role of the narrator and of the ‘stage manager’ in this very postmodern work that plays freely with the dividing line between audience and actor. You can hear the crisp sycamore leaves crackling in the wind in Cromer’s nasally Chicagoan drawl when he addresses us directly, striding the parapet of the practically nonexistent fourth wall. An expatriate theatregoer in Islington will feel a warm sense of autumnal nostalgia for the homeland. Their British counterparts will feel the same transatlantic warmth drifting round them.
Cromer’s production has had a successful run and rave reviews in several cities back in America and we can see why, but clearly the decision for each actor to play their characters in very strong regional British accents is fascinating and ingenious. It universalizes the chronicling of provincial life in this play and somehow internalizes the existential yearning that each character endures. We imagine instead of this being a small town in New Hampshire that it is a small town in Wales, or England, or Scotland, that in fact these characters are everyman figures struggling to escape small town, everywhere.
The set is minimalist, as Wilder seems to have intended, but Cromer doesn’t even bother with the ‘half light’ specified in the original script, setting up the stage as though the actors are still in dress rehearsal. Characters enact their intimate confrontations with self and others amidst the audience, sometimes with members of that same audience participating.
Although this play is at its strongest with the ensemble working together, slicing apart a cross section of their community for us, Laura Ellsworthy’s portrayal of the young, naïve, and surprisingly complex character of Emily has such depth and evokes such a sense of sympathy that it would be hard hearted viewer who does not feel deeply moved by the time the lights go up.
Perhaps in the same way that George Bernard Shaw opined that youth is wasted on the young, Wilder is wasted on the high schools of America. Cromer has done for me what no teacher managed to do in four years of high school. He’s made me interested in Wilder again.
Our Town is in The Almeida until Sat 29 November. Bookings here. It’s awesome and worth it.
Catching Fire, the second instalment in The Hunger Games franchise comes out on DVD and blu ray here in the UK today and I can’t seem to help admitting to what amounts to a cardinal sin in the world of English teachers: I like the film better than the book. I know. I’m breaking my own rules and perhaps incensing the old guard of bookworms everywhere, which is why I feel compelled to justify myself.
But first, allow me to say, I’m a big fan of The Hunger Games books. The series had been popular with my students for years. In fact, I only read it on the suggestion of one of my favourite students who insisted that I borrow her copy of the book (Don’t fool yourselves. Teachers have favourites. Anyone who says they don’t is lying). It took me a while to fold myself into the texture and rhythm of the book’s prose, but once I did, I was hooked.
I have to admit, it’s partly because I harbour a secret and perhaps flawed belief that Katniss Everdeen is a Pennsylvanian. Don’t disabuse me of my illusions. Pennsylvania has one of the largest anthracite coal regions in the world. It’s perfectly plausible that a dystopian authoritarian state would reopen those unsafe mines if they considered the workforce disposable. Yes, certainly part of what propelled me forward in my reading of the books was my emotional investment in a heroine with whom I shared a stately, if distant and adopted heritage.
However much I try to get away from it though, there is an undercurrent of doubt. Not just about the fact that Katniss may in fact really be a (gasp) Virginian, but also about the overall quality of Collins’ writing. Yes, the story was brilliant, but a feeling kept niggling away at me that I was reading a very well written story by one of my high school students who wanted desperately to impress with all the right vocabulary and all the subtlety of a rhinoceros with a word processor.
Here’s why, in three simple points:
1. Teeny bopper romance. Squeal. Hashtag. #Squeal. #Lesigh.
I know that Suzanne Collins obviously has her target audience: teenagers. But most teenagers — and I know this from working with them for over a decade — don’t want to be talked down to and can tell when it’s happening before you even start talking. Or writing. So while I’m hooked by the wonderfully dark, if slightly implausible, Shirley Jackson-esque, dystopian aspects of Panem, I also find Katniss’ “teenage moments” for a story that deals with such grownup things as death and sacrifice, an oppressive dominant force as the state, to be jarring at best, queasy at worst.
We get dragged through over two hundred pages of visceral savagery… between children! And then, narratologically, to what do we return? To Katniss’ torn inner conflict as to which way her heart is drawn. We’re back in Twilight territory, which is really quite disappointing because I thought we’d somehow got past vampires and here was a love triangle sucking the lifeblood out of the story. Are you on Team Gale or Team Peeta?
Instead of the philosophical distance we might expect from an adult Katniss looking back on the most traumatic period of her life, we get an immature consideration, the pubescent cliches drip out of the page like so many insecurities dribbling from the mentally squalid adolescent’s mind. “He stops to gather wild flowers for me. When he presents them, I work hard to look pleased. Because he can’t know (they) only remind me of… Gale.”
Pass. The. Bucket.
And the last page, dripping thick with angst, “already, the boy with the bread is slipping away from me.”
And yet, the film weaves none of this well worn and trampled upon rug of teenage plots before us. The film is a fine, thoroughly adult balance of found footage, and eerily slick, funhouse future, twisted and gleefully glutted on an excess of ecstatic neo-Roman Empire type violence.
2. Good Grief. Talk about unreliable narrators, Charlie Brown. Katniss, honey, get. over yourself.
I mean, one minute, she’s the poor girl from the wrong district with no illusions about her own worth in the universe and a jaded outlook on her situation. The next minute, she’s swaggering through the pages like the Beyoncé of district tributes. After she and her co-tribute, Peeta, and the other sacrificial lambs from the other districts are paraded around for the masses in the capital, she proudly exclaims, “every head is turned our way,” “I can’t suppress my excitement,” and finally, “we’ve outshone them all.” I can hardly tell whether she’s getting ready to kill or on X Factor and while I’m sure that’s part of Collins’ point, the triumphant tone is really hard to take.
At least give us some sense of peril. Some sense of danger, as Jennifer Lawrence gives us with such intensity in her portrayal of Katniss. I know she’s everywhere and everyone loves her, but, since I don’t compliment film and tv actors as a rule, so therefore it must mean something, so I will say, part of what is so very gripping about the film is the way the performances, Lawrence’s in particular, drag you into the center of the emotional maelstrom at the heart of the protagonist’s struggle, much more effectively in fact, than the book.
3. Subtlety has left the building. Repeat. Subtlety has left the building.
Every once in a while, when I was an eager eyed youth in the suburbs of New Jersey and then the rural backwaters of Penn’s Woods, there was at least one among us who would ask the teacher, if we were required to maintain a perfect standard of English in all our writing and composition at all times, why were we reading writers like Mark Twain, who used grammatically incorrect colloquialisms, F Scott Fitzgerald, who experimented with sentence fragments at times and a conversational tone of a confidant with Nick Carraway, William Fauklner, whose sentences seemed to spiral on interminably into the clouds of narrative (talk about run-ons). How come we had to meet a standard of English that these ‘great writers’ didn’t seem to exemplify themselves?
The teacher’s reply was no more inventive, lamentably, than the explanation that I’ve often given to my own students. “Well, if you sat Mr Dickens or Ms O’Connor down here right now and asked them to write me a grammatically correct sentence, do you think for a minute they wouldn’t know how to do it? Of course they would.” Yup. That was usually about it. I don’t know. If you said something with an authoritative enough tone and you’re standing behind a desk, sometimes the effect is mysteriously subdued. It’s a pity most of the time, they didn’t say, “James Joyce knows the rules. He’s intentionally said screw the rules. Let’s see how much fun we can have with language and revolutionise storytelling in the process.”
I’m not convinced that Suzanne Collins knows the rules, even if you had her in front of you and you could ask her. Let’s take a simile for instance. In Catching Fire, when her sister reminds her of Rue, the young girl from district 11 that she befriended, she mentally exclaims, “Bam! It’s like someone actually hits me in the chest. No one has of course, but the pain is so real I take a step back.” Oh Suzanne. We know no one’s really hit Katniss. That’s the beauty of figurative language. You can subtly drop things onto a page that will powerfully haunt the reader. But oh no, you have to go out of your way to make us feel like idiots and drain any real power from each and every sentence. All I can be thankful for is that she didn’t say, “It’s like someone literally hits me in the chest.” There’s nearly nothing worse than confusing the figurative for the literal.
And a when a powerful simile or metaphor wouldn’t be out of place, you choose the blandness of superlative description. As the train pulls into district 11 on the victors’ tour, Katniss can smell “an excellent meal being prepared.” Excellent? Excellent? Not savoury, or beautifully seasoned, or tantalising, not mouthwatering in a mildly pavlovian way? That’s like saying a meal that’s just above very good, but a little unmemorable, or at least I’m not going to start with a distinct memory associated with a flavour first, that might tell the reader something real and concrete and give them an actual sense of scene. In President Snow’s mansion, on the buffet tables, “everything you can think of, and things you never dreamed of, lie in wait.” Isn’t that profound? Everything I can think of? I can think of a lot, but what I want to see is what the texture of this world, what the fabric of this moment is all about, but retreating into vagaries like “everything you can think of” just sounds a bit like, “Oh, just use your imagination. I don’t know quite what to tell you.”
Given that I sped right through the books at a breakneck pace, stopping for only for meals and occasionally to answer students’ questions, it can’t have been all bad. The story is genuinely compelling, which is what held me, but it amazes me that we can bring ourselves to overlook these niggling doubts in favour of a good yarn. The power of narrative.
Whereas, in the films — so far anyway — I find none of these faults. A thoroughly enthralling and at the same time, thought-provoking piece of visual narrative.
By all means, read the book, engage with the text. Get to know what the movie misses, but bear in mind, for a taut, well told story, for once, hard as it is to say, the film is significantly better. Order, watch, enjoy. May the odds be ever in your favor.
And on an entirely different note…
It’s St Paddy’s day, gentle folk. One way to celebrate traditionally is to attend a Ceili, a traditional Irish session of music and dancing, which is just what we did on Friday night, to benefit truly magnificent organisation called Street Child World Cup. Check out the video of what it’s all about here and see what more you can do to help drive the serpent scourge of poverty and malnutrition from countries taking part. Quite a catchy song too! Enjoy.
I went to see the spine-chilling tale The Turn of the Screw Tuesday night in The Almeida Theatre in Islington, my review of which appears on The Hackney Hive soon to be followed by an interview with the famed director Lindsay Posner. It’s a deliciously indulgent and penetratingly haunting tale about a young governess trying to protect her charges from the corrupt influence of phantoms from the past. I could go into an interpretation that sees this as an analogy for the American condition, but like jokes, some figurative comparisons just write themselves.
But seeing The Turn of the Screw led me to thinking about Henry James, a man with whom I’ve always felt a bit of a kinship since he is American-born, but lived for so long in Merry Old England, like myself, negotiating the foggy obscurities of being a stranger in a strange land, always living as though his soul is split in half, a condition that seems perfectly reflected in the dense and difficult resistance a reader encounters in the language of say The Beast in the Jungle or Daisy Miller, the latter featuring an American character trying to find herself ‘on the continent’ and ending up doing the opposite.
But funnily enough, it took leaving America to appreciate American culture. It was only after I left, and especially after I started teaching in Ireland, that I started to appreciate the genius of Arthur Miller, Mark Twain, and Emily Dickinson to name but a few.
What has intrigued me for years though is the number of writers who’ve gone a bit further than their “tour of the continent”; those writers who, like James, left their homeland to find their own sense of belonging and in so doing carved out for themselves a new literary identity. Not to put too fine a pretentious point on it. Here are three of my favo(u)rites. A by no means exhaustive list, but certainly some good ones to start looking at writers who’ve traveled to find home.
1. Edgar Allan Poe
What do you mean Poe doesn’t count? He went to school in Chelsea and then got gritty and spent 3 years in Stoke Newington right here in Hackney, East London. It’s no wonder his writing is permeated with gloom and shadow. He had some easy material growing up in the gloom and shadow first in Irvine Scotland and then down here in the famed London fog living through the tumultuous “year without a summer”. Sure, he was only a child, but these were surely his formative years.
Besides, it’s easy to underestimate Poe, as a staple of the school curriculum of most American schools, the assumption is that he’s kid’s stuff — high class pulp. But see past that for a second and you’ll see the Derridians and Barthesians who have done so much to revive him are right: his work is all about the obscure nature of existence and the horror of uncertainty. What is more expatriate than that?
What’s a real pity is that so many seem to miss his bleak sense of humo(u)r. How could he have been doing anything but messing with his readers and seeing just how far we could go with monkeys for murderers and the gleeful insanity of Dr Feather and Professor Tarr? For that wonderful mix of bleakness and surreal wit that centres on expatriate concerns of travel, survival and negotiating the cultural other, I would start with Poe’s only published attempt at a novel, the incomplete but wonderful Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.
2. James Baldwin
Black in the 1940s in America, gay, and deeply disturbed by the political environment of his native country, James Baldwin was assuredly a writer destined to find his voice abroad. That he did, giving voice to that displaced condition that situates an intellectual in a lonely place in their own country and yet yearning to feel a sense of home. For that, he had to join the cultural radicalism of Paris’ Left Bank, where Baldwin would remain resident for most of his life, writing about that recurring sense of disorientation that all of us as expats feel. You have to admire a man who can capture this condition so perfectly in a phrase like, “the earth tilts, he is thrown forward on his face in darkness, his journey begins,” which is, by the by, from Giovanni’s Room, a novel depicting that thing that has ensnared so many of us and rooted us down in foreign climes, a romantic relationship abroad. For aesthetic beauty and a deep sense of pathos, it is a compelling read.
3. Bill Bryson
On a lighter note, I don’t think any bookshelf should want for a volume or several of Bill Bryson’s witty words; nor, in fact are there many expat bookshelves that do, such is the joy one feels on curling up with Notes from a Small Island, The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid, or The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-town America. Bryson is one of two writers (the other is David Sedaris, another great American humo(u)rist, on the darker side of things) whose writing has actually made me snort aloud on public transport, such is the power of his convulsion-inducing sense of the comic. He ranks up with H.L. Mencken for incisive delivery that illuminates the ridiculous in things we have taken for granted, from American diets and walking habits to the inability of provincial middle England to keep its streets clean, nothing is safe, nor should it be. It takes a man who has lived outside his native land for a number of years to highlight its faults and foibles to his fellow Americans and he does it with style.
I could of course have included countless others in this list. Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth moves my soul, but I can’t quite stomach her politics. Amy Lowell’s poetry, especially pieces that concern her travels abroad, renews the world-weary spirit. But I decided arbitrarily to stick to prose. And then there are non-Americans who have given us their perspective on our country, Joseph O’Connor (brother of Sinead) in his side-splitting The Secret Life of the Irish Male, Dickens’ scathing American Notes, which lost him the Downton audience of his day, and Orwell’s irony-laced accounts, not of America, but of Europe in Down and Out in Paris and London, and Homage to Catalonia, in which he fought in The Spanish Civil War and remarked that his life was saved many times by the merits of Spanish marksmanship.
But as Levar Burton used to say, you don’t have to take my word for it. I’m forgetting, ignoring, or unaware of countless others that help us to identify our own sense of wandering through this kaleidoscopic mass of confusion that is cultural displacement. But I see great value in any author that is able to bring us out of our day-to-day existences and grant us a sense of the wider world.
I was ready to like Leonardo DiCaprio as the eponymous protagonist in this upcoming adaptation directed by Baz Luhrmann. I had forgiven them both for Romeo and Juliet and had come to accept that cinematic effort in all its smoking guns glory as a useful and exciting way to introduce teenagers to one of the most difficult stories Shakespeare has to offer in terms of engagement and narrative.
I thought Carey Mulligan would work as the beautiful, thoughtless and morally bereft Daisy Buchanan, and I actually thought Toby Maguire was perfect for Nick Carraway, the deceptively innocent looking young man from the Midwest who comes out to New York to make a living and resist the city corrupting his soul while he hypocritically claims the moral high ground.
Nor am I so close-minded as to think that a non-American director can’t handle an American story. Sam Mendes did too good a job with American Beauty for anyone to think that.
Apprehensive though my English teacher’s heart was about this sublime story being given the Hollywood treatment again, I had been convinced by various parties and was ready to believe that it could be done with style and still convey some sense of the aesthetic wonder that is Fitzgerald’s prose.
And then I saw the trailer.
It left me with something nameless beyond apprehension, something approaching dread. How can you tell a quintessentially ‘Jazz Age’ story without jazz? What this trailer appears to do is take Gatsby out of the roaring 20s, and place him firmly in the twentyteens (that seems all right, doesn’t it?) not so much roaring as swaggering with his trousers around his knees and his bling firmly on show, dressed to impress.
Which is not to say I have a problem with the presence of hip hop or even Jack White’s cover of U2’s ‘Love is Blind’. I can actually see the parallels and the reasoning perfectly. The song that was chosen for the trailer, ‘No Church in the Wild’ by Jay-Z and Kanye West, seems to ‘teach the lesson’ of Gatsby, dropping lines like, ‘When we die the money we can’t keep,’ but it also talks about ‘the girl in all leopard… rubbing the wood like Kiki Shepherd,’ not quite the flapper dresses, feather boas and the Charleston of the roaring 20s.
But still, I can see the temptation. In all honesty, there is a lot of rap that is about acquiring material wealth and flaunting it as a kind of two fingers to an oppressive state and rigid class structure that has made it all but impossible to acquire such wealth or any sort of social mobility. And Gatsby is a man who makes his fortune dishonestly but for what seem like the right reasons, holding a quixotic candle for years to one day impress Daisy in the same way Pip one day would like to be ‘good enough’ for Stella. So the excess, the decadence, and the emptiness is all there. And I can see that.
But why then does it need to be updated? Why take away the joie de vivre of jazz that ultimately evokes the hollowness of the glitz and glitter indulged in by these characters, especially when that loud whizz bang blare of apparent life and unthinking esprit serves to heighten the depths of pathos at the end?
It’s not as though it’s a story that’s completely alien to us. The young and the restless of a generation get carried away speculating with money they either don’t have or that doesn’t exist or will never come back from bad loans but no one heeds the warnings because everybody’s having fun. No one wants to hear about it because everybody’s too busy spending money and partying. The desolation when the party stops is stark and unbearable. Sound familiar anyone?
Those of us who have been in education or in theatre or just appreciators of beautifully composed language know that translation is an occasional but lamentable necessity and that something is always lost. Will what appears to be one long F Scott Fitzgerald inspired music video manage to convey the existential longing in lines like ‘Men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars…’ and the subsequent tragedy, or will this story be a narrative with the life-blood cruelly drawn out of it? Will this, in the more modern sense of the word be, simply a tragedy?