What I’ve Been Reading, September 2017

March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell – March is a trilogy of graphic novels co-written by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell, detailing Lewis’s involvement in the African-American civil rights movement, up to the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Powell’s art is gorgeous and expressive. It captures the weight of small interpersonal moments as well as enormous, historical turning points. To borrow a word from Martin Luther King, it dramatizes the movement in a way that is visceral and inspiring.

For the most part, the books do a good job of interweaving narrative and history—partly because John Lewis’s personal narrative is so wrapped up in the historical events of that time. The mixing of scene and summary is effective, not bogging the reader down in prose, nor abandoning the reader without any through-line to grasp onto. Book two may be the weak link of the trilogy, with long sections of historical events in which Lewis didn’t personally play any part. These passages feel a bit dry and distant, without the narrative thrust or intriguing insights that Lewis offers in the other sections. However, I only really noticed this in book two, because the fact is, John Lewis truly was involved in so many important events at the time.

And that’s what’s terrific about these books—they aren’t just a third-person, documentarian presentation of history—they’re the story of a man who was at the heart of the movement, and who ended up straddling the lines of multiple factions within it. What I found most fascinating was not just the external conflict against people like Alabama Governor George Wallace or Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, but the internal conflict of the civil rights movement. Lewis was one of the earliest members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and over the course of the books, we see it change, growing much larger, becoming more impatient, and we see Lewis pushed further and further out of it. There’s also the internal conflict of the Democratic and Republican parties, as they struggle to reconstruct their agendas around the civil rights movement, and make massive shifts toward becoming the parties we see today.Read More »

Recommendation Dump September 2017

Oh, Hello On Broadway — Oh, Hello is a comedy act created by Nick Kroll and John Mulaney—two comedians who are terrific on their own, and dynamite together. Kroll plays the child-like Gil Faizon, and Mulaney plays the near-psychotic George St. Geegland—two seventy-something New Yorkers who are tantalizingly delusional, pretentious, and mean-spirited. The two have a terrific dynamic that doesn’t smack of the usual straight-man funny-man schtick, since they’re both ludicrous caricatures of elderly Upper West Side residents. Mulaney and Kroll have been refining these characters for over a decade, on Kroll Show, on podcasts, at live shows, and countless other places. Don’t take my word for it—you can watch them on youtube here here here and here, and actually a bunch more places if you like, but those are just a primer.

So, the show itself. The show is part stand-up routine, part parody, and part variety show. The conceit is that Gil and George are performing one of the many plays that George has written, though there is constant fourth-wall breaking throughout, including a long opening segment in which the two introduce themselves, and send-up various Broadway tropes. The play within the play is essentially autobiographical for George and Gil, although the characters in it are much more successful versions of themselves. In the middle of the show is a segment where, embedded as a prank show within the play-within-the-play, the two interview some celebrity—during the run of the show, it was a different person each night, but for the Netflix special it’s Steve Martin. It’s a nice little breather in the middle of the non-stop barrage of jokes and gaffes, where Kroll and Mulaney get to exercise their (practiced) improv chops, and the audience gets to see a different person making jokes on stage.Read More »

Food Waste: Part 2 – Consumption and Solutions

Here’s the second, concluding part of my notes on food waste.

During Consumption

When thinking about food waste, it’s easy to just peg it to the value of the food. This past year was the first time I really had to buy my own groceries. Multiple times, I messed up and didn’t store food properly, or bought too much of it and didn’t eat it fast enough before it got moldy. So when I was throwing away half a bag of green-splotched bagels, my thought was, crap, that’s like two bucks just gone. However when I realize that the faucet has been running all day, I think, crap, that’s a waste of water and energy for water treatment, because I’ve internalized that as the framework to understand water usage. Food waste isn’t a problem because of the dollar value, it’s a bunch of energy expended for no reason at all. So, to throw another analogy at you, it’s not like buying a sword in a video game, and then losing that sword when you die, and having to buy it again. It’s like buying a sword in a video game, and then losing it when you die, and then having all of the assets and coding for that sword deleted from the game, so that the developer has to redesign it and release a patch so you can buy the sword again. I don’t participate in the production of food, so it didn’t hit home to me all the labor that I was throwing in the trash with those bagels—I only knew the value of it as a consumer.

It shouldn’t be surprising that in developed countries, about 30-40% of food waste occurs at the consumption level, which is everything from household meals to restaurants. In restaurants, there are the same problems as at supermarkets re: over-stocking and expiration dates. In households, most cases of food waste can be broken down into a few categories, as outlined in a study of 14 lower-middle income Brazillian families: “(1) excessive purchasing, (2) over-preparation, (3) caring for a pet, (4) avoidance of leftovers and (5) inappropriate food conservation. Several subcategories were also found, including impulse buying, lack of planning and preference for large packages.” So let’s break these down.

“Excessive purchasing” is exactly what it sounds like—buying more food than is need, and more food than can be consumed before it goes bad. Ironically, this over-purchasing is often the result of buying in bulk in an effort to save money, or taking advantage of sales or BOGO bargains even when the family already has enough of the product at home. So the savings may be negated by the amount of food wasted. Excessive purchasing is also linked to unplanned shopping excursions—going to the store without a list, as “Only two of the 14 families studied prepare shopping lists.” In a 2012 study on national shopping trends in the US, the Hartman Group found that 69% of women make a list before shopping at a grocery store, and only 52% of men do the same.Read More »

Food Waste: Part 1 – Production and Retail

And now, the synthesis of some notes I took on food waste while doing research for a story I’m writing.

Intro.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines food waste as “uneaten food and food preparation wastes from residences and commercial establishments such as grocery stores, restaurants, and produce stands, institutional cafeterias and kitchens, and industrial sources like employee lunchrooms.” Food waste can occur all throughout the life cycle of a food product, from before the harvest all the way to the dining room table. With the waste that happens at all these different stages taken into account, the percentage of wastage in the US is a pretty big chunk of overall food production. A 2009 study published in PLOS ONE estimates that 40% of food produced in America is wasted, and a 2014 report from the USDA Economic Research Service pegs the number at 31%. In terms of calories, that’s either 1,400 calories per person per day, or 1,249 calories per person per day, respectively.

Obviously, this is a problem. Food production is the dynamo that powers all of human civilization. If that dynamo is inefficient and losing 1.3 billion tons of fuel per year, that’s a problem. If that dynamo is inefficient and losing 1.3 billion blah blah blah, and all of those 1.3 billion tons of fuel took additional fuel and water usage to produce, that’s a really big problem.

To put it another way, the situation isn’t as simple as walking to the store, and taking a wrong turn, and wasting an hour of time being lost before you make it to the store. The situation is driving a gas guzzler/steam engine beast of a vehicle, and taking a wrong turn, and wasting an hour of time and of gas and water and whatever else powers this thing you’re driving before making it to the store. Sustainable farming practices are kind of another kettle of fish, but it’s important to note here that a wasted potato is not just a wasted potato. It’s also a waste of all the resources that went into making that potato, which, depending on what point of the process the potato is wasted at, could be pretty hefty. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that, for the year of 2011, the carbon footprint of global food loss—the amount of energy put into food that ended up wasted—was 4.4 GtCO2, “or about 8% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions [EC, JRC/PBL, 2012 Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research, version 4.2]. This means that the contribution of food wastage emissions to global warming is almost equivalent (87%) to global road transport emissions [IPCC, 2014 Fifth Assessment Report. Chapter 8: Transportation].”

How do we arrive at such an enormous amount of wastage? That’s what most of this two-part series of posts will address.Read More »

New Publications: 19, and 19

19stories-c-1

These aren’t really new—but the format is! Now you can get all the plays I’ve published this past year, or all the short stories I’ve published this past year, in one collection. The plan is to do this every year, with the titles corresponding to my age when I published the stories. Like a Complete Works series, but being put together contemporaneously.

19; A collection of short stories includes “Just Dig,” “The War on Hormones,” “De.mocra.cy,” “Grumbles,” “Boom Town,” and “Calamcity,” as well as all the afterwords I wrote for those stories. As always, you can get it on Smashwords and Amazon.

19plays-c-319; A collection of plays contains Beach Realty of Sandcastle IsleHe Molested KidsMonastery, and We’ll Tell Happy Stories, and the afterwords I wrote for those stories. Available on Smashwords and Amazon.

Play Time: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a classic contemporary play by Tom Stoppard, which follows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters, courtiers in Hamlet, as they are called to the palace to find out what’s wrong with the Prince, and then sent to deliver a message to the king of England. As they are led from one task to another, they catch glimpses of the great Shakespearean tragedy unfolding around them, and wonder at what is going on.

The play explores time in two ways, both of which are fundamentally tied into the medium of theatre—theatrical fatalism, and the conflict between finite time and eternal time.

Now . . . And Now . . . And Now . . .

Life and theatre are eternal and finite.

Life is eternal (or appears so), because it is impossible for a person to really grasp the fact that they have an end, the way they can grasp that a day or a season has an end. As Rosencrantz puts it, “Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on for ever. … And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all.” (71-72)

And life is finite because people are born and they die.

Theatre is eternal because every play can be performed an infinite number of times. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is about two characters invented by a writer that died dozens of generations ago, and the play is still being performed (in fact, it’s currently being revived at the theatre at which it premiered exactly fifty years ago.) It’s also a very immediate medium, not something you can put down and stop like a book. The play is continuing, going from one line to the next, without end. And, especially in a play like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which languishes in long scenes of dialogue and moments of silence, this can give the impression that the thing is boundless. “One is, after all, having [a future] all the time . . . now . . . and now . . . and now . . .” (70).

And theatre is finite because, some exceptions aside, most plays last just a few hours or less.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern addresses this dissonant experience, the simultaneous feeling that we are immortal and knowledge that we are not, both through dialogue and through the form of the play. Of course, it being a play alone emphasizes the themes discussed by the characters, but there are some other formalistic aspects peculiar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that reinforce the concept. To start, there’s the title—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s a quote from one of the last lines of Hamlet, and as a title it seems paradoxical. For the majority of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not dead. Those final lines are another formal quirk to the play, and to Hamlet as well, because they’re recursive. The ambassador from England tells Horatio that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,” (Hamlet 5.2.371) and Horatio, surrounded by the corpses of the royal family, tells the ambassador that he will “speak to the yet unknowing world / how these things came about” (5.2.380-381). The end of the play could be the beginning, and the whole thing could circle around on itself endlessly as Horatio tells the story over and over again—but the title, which comes from that same scene, declares how finite these characters are.Read More »

Play Time: An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley

An Inspector Calls is the most famous of J.B. Priestley’s time plays, as well as one of his best-known works in general. The play contains elements of all the other plays, starting with the setting—similar to that of Time and the Conways—of the estate of an upper-class family, the Birlings, in 1912. Unlike Time and the Conways, this play takes place entirely over the course of one night. A police inspector shows up to ask some questions about Mr. Birling’s interactions with a young woman who has just committed suicide—a former employee of Mr. Birling. It soon becomes apparent that all of the Birlings, as well as Gerald Croft, the fiancé of Sheila Birling, had some negative impact on this girl that lead to her demise, which Inspector Goole will extract from them and bring to light. In this way, the play is similar to Dangerous Corner, in the way that every character shares some blame in this girl’s death, and Inspector Goole is piece-by-piece constructing a timeline of events that leads to her suicide. The big “trick” (to use one of Priestley’s words in describing these plays) in An Inspector Calls is that the girl, Eva Smith, has not yet died, until the very end of the play, when the Birlings receive a call from the police station, informing them that Eva Smith has been found dead, and the real police inspector has been sent to question them.

Time and the Conways

Aside from this little trick at the end, the time discontinuity is mostly felt by the audience. Put it this way—the whole play is like the third act of Time and the Conways, in which the audience knows exactly what has happened in the future of the characters, but the characters don’t. There’s even a moment in which Mr. Birling bloviates optimistically about the prosperous future they will all live in. It’s different from the moment where Madge does the same in Time and the Conways though, because Mr. Birling’s is a capitalist dream of the future, in which “the interests of Capital—are properly protected,” (6) and everyone will “have forgotten all these Capital versus Labour agitations and all these silly little war scares.” (7) Birling’s optimism reaches its pinnacle of absurdity (from the audience’s perspective) when he mentions the Titanic—the “unsinkable, absolutely unsinkable” ship which seems to embody the pompous optimism of the pre-war period, as well as the promise of industrialism. This ship was a modern marvel, one of whose features was its inability to fail, that almost instantly failed catastrophically.Read More »

Happy Birthday to the Blog!

Four years ago, I wrote the first post of this blog. And then a few weeks later I stopped writing blog posts. Almost two years ago, I restarted this blog, and it’s been going strong (more or less) ever since. So I want to take this anniversary to discuss the past and future of this blog.

The Past

This blog started out (or re-started out) with a very explicit purpose: I wanted to have a place for new readers to land if they’d read me somewhere else, and a place to announce new publications to old readers. A “platform.” And just as importantly, I wanted to get in the habit of writing posts. I wanted to get good at regularly producing content, so that by the time that I actually started pulling in lots of readers, I wouldn’t “be fumbling around with weird disorganized posts like this one, or slacking off and going through long hiatuses.”

Mission accomplished! For the past seven months, I have been publishing one post a week, with the only exception being the week of January 30 – February 5. And, with over a hundred posts published on this site, I’d say I have a platform. It’s a multicolored, wildly erratic platform, with topics ranging from political analysis to theatre to uhhhhh this?, but a platform nonetheless.

So, now that I have achieved this, and this is the new status quo, what is the future of the blog?

The Future

First, something that’s already happened: the blog’s URL is now just “francisbass.com”! Yay! “francisbass.wordpress.com” still redirects to here, but if you have it bookmarked maybe change it anyway, just in case? Anyway, that’s fun.

Second, and more importantly, I definitely want to continue posting every week—specifically every Friday, because that’s the day of the week I’ve been posting on for the past four months. I like blogs / youtube channels / webcomics that update regularly, and I like the way doing this forces me to steadily add to this growing body of work that is the blog as a whole. However, I might have to have occasional hiatuses. I’ve had posts queued up all this summer, but now I’m quickly approaching the end of that queue. I have ideas for other stuff to write for the blog, which I’ll get to in a moment, but it’s pretty involved, meaning that it may take awhile to produce—and I’m heading into a heck of a year, in which I’ll be kept very busy with college, especially Spring of 2018. So rather than slowly squeeze out posts at irregular intervals, if I can’t update weekly I’ll just go on a planned hiatus, which I’ll make sure to announce on this site in some way—probably with a planned date of return as well. Because I appreciate regularity. Be the change you want to see in content creators, right?

Now, here’s the thing about posting weekly, regardless of whether I’m busy or not: the reason I’ve been able to do it for the past six months is that I’ve been putting out two very long series of posts—the Rereading ASOUE series, and the Play Time series. Writing these longer series is a lot easier than writing several stand alone posts, because writing a series, it’s easy to develop a specific format and style that can be used in every post, instead of having to figure that stuff out fresh, as I do with each one-off post. So that’s essentially how I plan to run the blog from here on out, writing multi-part series of posts. Still, I don’t want the blog to be totally overtaken by one topic for months at a time, or to eschew one-off topics that can’t be stretched into whole series, so I’ll try and throw a couple stand-alone posts into the middle of the series as well (as I’ve been trying to do, with some success, these past seven months.)

As for the actual content of those series, I have a few different things I’m mucking about with, which I’m still not certain have enough substance or are interesting enough to make into a series—but one thing I know for sure will be going up on this blog is La Guerra del Paraguay! It’s a Spanish translation of an excerpt of a work written in Portuguese, Um Estadista do Império, and I am currently translating the Spanish excerpt (which is book-length in its own right) into English. The excerpt covers the Paraguayan War, mostly through the lens of the Brazilian parliamentarians and diplomats. I plan to post my translation chapter-by-chapter on this blog, and publish a version of it with translations of appendix material and footnotes as well—though I’ve been working on it all summer, and only just now got to the point where I can start writing the english translation, so who knows when that’ll be. Hopefully starting this fall.

So, that’s the state of the blog, 2017. If there’s any type of post you’d like to see more of, or some preference for frequency of posts you have, or if you think this type of post where I’m just writing about the blog itself is boring, leave me a comment. I feel like it’d be nice to have one of these types of self-reflective posts every year, or maybe ever two years like the Olypmics, but who knows. Here’s to finding out!

Play Time: I Have Been Here Before by J.B. Priestley

I Have Been Here Before is the third of J.B. Prietsley’s time plays, written the same year as Time and the Conways. The play explores P.D. Ouspensky’s theory of eternal recurrence, that everyone lives their life over and over again, and déjà vu and precognitive dreams are the result of remembering past lives. Unlike Time and the Conways or Dangerous Corner, Priestley doesn’t develop this idea through any formalistic techniques. The acts occur in chronological order, and it all takes place in the same timeline. The fact that it’s a work of theatre is in itself a formalistic technique, which I’ll discuss in a moment, but otherwise Priestley’s pretty straightforward, and presents the theory in a science fictional style.

The story unfolds over the weekend before Whitsuntide, a week-long holiday celebrated after Pentecost in parts of England. Three interconnected groups meet in the Black Bull Inn: Sam and Sally, father and daughter and the managers of the inn. Mr. Farrant, a teacher at the boarding school which Sally’s son attends. And Mr. and Mrs. Ormund, Mr. Ormund being one of the governors and funders of Mr. Farrant’s boarding school. Ouspensky’s theory comes in with Dr. Görtler, an exiled German scientist who seems to know exactly what everyone is going to do before they do it. The major conflict of the play, which ends up affecting everyone because of how entangled their lives are, is an affair between Janet Ormund and Mr. Farrant. Dr. Görtler attempts to defuse the situation by explaining a dream he had, in which he met Janet at a later time in her life, and learned that she and Mr. Farrant had run off together, causing Mr. Ormund to commit suicide, and the boarding school to collapse. This play seems the most hopeful of the three time plays I’ve so far read, because Dr. Görtler explains that everyone actually is capable of making small changes in their lives—their existence is not circular, they “move along a spiral track … [They] must set out each time on the same road but along that road [they] have a choice of adventures.” (264) Görtler convinces Ormund to let his wife divorce him and start a life with Farrant, and to not kill himself, and so, Ormund escapes the memories of self-destruction in past lives which have always haunted him.Read More »

Game Review: Burrito Bison; Launcha Libre

Originally this was going to be part of a recommendation dump post, but as I wrote about this game, I realized I just have a lot to say about it. Enough to be a post in itself. So, here we go:

Burrito Bison: Launcha Libre is a launcher game from Juicy Beast. You play as a luchador who’s fighting various candy-people (primarily gummy bears) and trying to get a recipe book? I think? It’s been awhile since I’ve watched that opening cutscene, but it hasn’t been any time at all since I last played this game. I’ve been playing it, off and on, for about three months. It’s been my go-to game when I want to listen to music or a podcast or just totally zone-out.

The perfect, addictive core of this game is one that Juicy Beast had been doing a great job with since the first Burrito Bison game (Launcha Libre is the third in a series, and the first two are considerably smaller in scale, but still a lot of fun)—the balance between player input and the flow of the game. If the game relied too much on player input, or relied on more complex player input, it wouldn’t really be a launcher game, and it would be impossible to zone out to it. If the game eschewed player input too much, it would be a lot like most bad launcher games, with too much relying on variance and some lucky bounces to get you far. Some launcher games you can look away from and really not change the experience. Some launcher games it feels like you’re better off not using any of your power-ups or controls, and just hoping to land on a bomb or a bouncy mushroom or whatever it is that will keep you in the air. Burrito Bison is right at the crest of this wave, riding it perfectly, just between falling forward into boredom or falling backward into over-taxation of the brain.

pricklypear-BB
Burrito Bison riding a popped Prickly Pair

Read More »

Play Time: Time and the Conways by J.B. Priestley

Time and the Conways is the second of J.B. Priestley’s Time Plays—six plays (the first being Dangerous Corner) dealing with different theories of time, and how time is experienced. This play focuses on the Conways, a wealthy family living in a prosperous suburb of the fictitious manufacturing town Newlingham, and their declining fortunes between 1919 and 1937. The first act takes place during Kay Conway’s twenty-first birthday in 1919. Aside from Mrs. Conway, the Conways are all in their early twenties or younger, and have their whole lives ahead of them. The boys of the family have just returned from war. Mrs. Conway, the widowed mother of all of them, owns lots of valuable real estate in Newlingham. The future appears bright.

The second act jumps ahead twenty years to the present when the play was written—1937. Most of the Conways have scattered from Newlingham and fallen out of touch with one another, but they are reconvening (coincidentally on Kay’s fortieth birthday) to discuss Mrs. Conway’s finances, which have significantly deteriorated to the point of near bankruptcy. Everyone is disillusioned with their lives, where they ended up, and this point is driven home with Act III, which returns to that birthday party in 1919. We see the Conways interacting with the family friends that will end up being their spouses, and expressing their desires for the future—all of which, we know from the second act, will not come to pass.

Future

Priestley basically analyzed his play for me:

“KAY: But, Alan, we can’t be anything but what we are now.
“ALAN: No . . . it’s hard to explain . . . suddenly like this . . . there’s a book I’ll lend you—read it in the train. But the point is, now, at this moment, or any moment, we’re only a cross-section of our real selves. What we really are is the whole stretch of ourselves, all our time, and when we come to the end of this life, all those selves, all our time, will be us—the real you, the real me.” (177)

The book that Alan, the oldest of the Conways, is going to lend Kay is almost certainly J.W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time. Priestley was continually interested in Dunne’s theory of time, exploring it in plays and essays throughout his career. An Experiment with Time posits exactly what Alan explains to Kay, with the additional claim that in dreams, our consciousness is able to experience the whole stretch of our existence, delivering precognitive visions of the future. Kay has this experience in Act III, apparently seeing some vision of Act II while Mrs. Conway is talking about how wonderful the future will be for the Conways. Of course, this is also the experience of the audience, throughout all of Act III. Having just come from the grim, shabby household of 1937, the jubilance of all the characters in 1919 rings false and discordant.Read More »

New Publication: Play Time, and Smashwords Sale

EDIT: A PREVIOUS VERSION OF THE PICTURE FOR THIS POST SAID MY ALL MY EBOOKS WOULD BE 75% OFF. PICTURE HAS BEEN UPDATED TO THE CORRECT DISCOUNT, 25% OFF.

If you’ve been reading my Play Time posts, you can now get all of them—plus the next four which won’t all be online until a month from now—in one convenient place, on Smashwords or Amazon. And if you haven’t been reading them, here’s what they’re all about:

playtime-c-2-alt4-NOTEfavoriteThis past spring semester I needed to fulfill my university honors requirements, so I “contracted” a creative writing class focused on time, by designing an additional curriculum of nine plays that I would read and respond to—all of them dealing with time in some way. Thus, Play Time—nine essays analyzing specific plays, pulling apart the ways the playwrights are using the medium of theatre to manipulate or comment on or distort or theorize about time. The idea wasn’t so much to definitively state What X Play is About, but more to point out what I find interesting in each play, and figure out how the artist—or how theatre as a medium—achieved it.

And if you get Play Time on Smashwords, you’ll get it for 25% off! For the month of July I’m participating in the Smashwords Northern Summer/Southern Winter sale, so all my ebooks there are 25% off, and Beach Realty of Sandcastle Isle and “Calamcity” are 50% off. Because those two pieces are about beaches, and Florida, and summer, and it’s summer in Florida right now. So, you can have some cheap beach reading, or some escapist reading if you’re in the southern hemisphere and you need to remember what sunshine is like.

 

Play Time: Dangerous Corner by J.B. Priestley

Dangerous Corner is a 1932 play by British writer J.B. Priestley, about a dinner party attended by the directors of a publishing firm and their wives. Pretty soon the audience learns that one of the directors, Martin, recently committed suicide, and was suspected of embezzling money from the company. A few moments later, one of the guests, Olwen, makes an offhand remark about recognizing a cigarette box—a cigarette box that she shouldn’t have any memory of, because it was originally Martin’s, and it was mailed to him the day he died. Olwen’s remark is like a single loose thread in a sweater, and once Robert, one of the directors and the brother of Martin, pulls at it, the sweater begins to unravel, spooling out a series of interconnected secrets that every last character has been hiding, all wrapped up in the death of Martin and the embezzled money. In the final act of the play, Robert, in a drunken craze, retrieves a revolver, the lights go down on the stage, and we hear a shot and a woman’s scream. When the lights come up, we are back at the beginning of the play, with the female characters having just listened to the last scene of a murder mystery radio play. The play progresses as it originally did, only this time, when Olwen remarks on recognizing the cigarette box, it goes unnoticed, as one of the directors succeeds in tuning in to a channel on the radio—something he had failed to do in the first iteration of the timeline.

Priestley presents time in a very concrete, mechanical way, as a series of events with causes and effects, and with specific choices directly affecting the chain of events. This if clear, of course, in the final scene in which the audience sees the entire course of the play altered by one instance, but it’s also clear throughout all the revelations that form the meat of the show. The characters are constantly trying to figure out who is to blame for Martin’s death—who is the person at the root of all of it?—and with each secret revealed, the blame shifts, and the timeline that the characters are constructing reorganizes itself to place a different person as the catalyst for all the events. The conflict and tension of Dangerous Corner comes from these clashing timelines that each character holds, and the only way to resolve the tension is by filling in the gaps with more information from other characters. Of course, each contribution to this communal timeline only opens up more questions, and reveals new gaps that have to be filled. Ultimately, the timeline can never be perfect because at the heart of it is Martin—someone whose understanding of the chain of events has disappeared from the world with his death. Olwen herself describes the problem of clashing realities when she’s talking about the radio play:

“The point is, I think—there’s truth and truth. … the real truth—that is, every single little thing, with nothing missing at all, wouldn’t be dangerous. … But what most people mean by truth, what that man meant in the wireless play, is only half the real truth. It doesn’t tell you all that went on inside everybody.” (5)

Indeed, the biggest gap in the story, the hole that will never be filled, is “all that went on inside” Martin. It seems like everyone had a different relationship with him, and characters will often assert something along the lines of, “you didn’t know him as I did.” When Robert is convinced that Martin killed himself because Martin believed that Robert stole the money, and Martin was shaken by his older brother’s misconduct, Robert explains, “But neither of you knew him as I did.” (37) When Freda, Robert’s wife, learns that Martin attempted to assault Olwen, she moans that “he wasn’t like that really. If you’d known him as I’d known him—before.” (42) Although the characters are intending to invoke authority when they say this, as if they are experts on who Martin is, Priestley’s precise phrasing points to the reality of the situation. You didn’t know him as I did. Not a definitive “I knew him,” or “I knew him best,” but rather a distinguishing between the different ways that different characters understood Martin, understood his experiences, composited his history.Read More »

Play Time: Top Girls by Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls centers on Marlene, an agent at the London-based Top Girls employment agency, who has just been promoted to manager. The action of the play occurs in three main spaces: the Top Girls agency, where the audience sees the tensions Marlene and her female colleagues are facing in a male-dominated world; the home of Marlene’s sister Joyce and Marlene’s illegitimate child that Joyce has raised as her own, where the audience sees Marlene’s lower-class roots and her rejection and contempt for them; and, the opening scene taking up more than a third of the play, a celebratory luncheon attended by historical female figures—some fictional, some real, some a combination of both—advising Marlene on her success and relating their own stories of achievement and challenges in patriarchal societies.

While there is no dramatic this-leads-to-that connection between these different spaces, they are all in conversation with one another, and in productions of the play all of the actors for the historical figures are double cast as other characters throughout the rest of the play. This thematic dialogue between the different spaces is what ties the play together into a cohesive exploration of female empowerment, and the self-destructive nature of empowerment through capitalistic, patriarchal means. It’s also, in itself, a theatrical way to represent how past and present overlap, echo, and argue—both the past of Marlene’s personal life, and the past of the entirety of history.

Interruptions and Continuations

The first scene of the play does an excellent job of dramatizing the conversation of history, with five historical figures converging in the present moment. Rather than a normal, back-and-forth conversation, the characters talk around one another. Instead of one character telling a story about an illness they had, and another saying “I had something like that too—how long did it last for you?” the dialogue runs more like:

“ISABELLA: But even though my spine was agony I managed very well.
“MARLENE: Wonderful.
“NIJO: Once I was ill for four months lying alone at an inn. Nobody to offer a horse to Buddha. I had to live for myself, and I did live.
“ISABELLA: Of course you did. It was far worse returning to Tobermory. I always felt dull when I was stationary. / That’s why I would never stay anywhere.
“NIJO: Yes, that’s it exactly. New sights. The shrine by the sea. The goddess had vowed to save all living things. / She would even save the fishes. I was full of hope.
“JOAN: I had thought the Pope would know everything.” (24-25)

Read More »

Free Fiction: The Forgotten Coast

This was originally a writing exercise for my Foundations of Creative Writing class. I revised it a few times for that class, and I’ve toyed around with posting it here. Now, with the publication of “Calamcity,” I can leverage it into a promotional tool for that novelette, so it’s like I’ve got to publish it now, right? So, here it is:

The Forgotten Coast

I finally went on one of those kitschy submarine tours around the sunken wreckage of Pensacola and PCB and the Forgotten Coast. Hurricane Erica wrecked the shop, so I’d been sitting around waiting for the insurance company to get back to me, to see whether I was finally down the drain after circling it so long—and I saw an an ad with a coupon code for the Forgotten Coast tour. A few years ago, Jesse had really wanted to go on it, just before her, Ed, and their kids moved inland, but I’d been sick. Not sick enough to not go, but I’d played it up like I was. I always knew that I could go to the coast whenever I wanted, so I never felt any urgent pressure to do so. It was all flooded already, a few years’ more sea-level rise wouldn’t change that. And the ruin-porn aspect of it chafed at me. I didn’t want to sit in a sub with a bunch of inlanders gazing in awe at my ravaged childhood like it was a disaster movie.

But I saw this ad with a coupon code, and I was doing nothing, and I had this strange feeling like maybe, with the shop in shambles, I would finally be moving inland like my family and friends had done years and years ago, and maybe this one stupid coupon was meant to be my last chance to see the coast—so I bought the discounted ticket. I took a bus down from Tallahassee to Milton, now a coastal town. It was mostly tourists getting onto the sub (I could tell by their clean, uncorrupted northern English and pale skin) and a handful of local kids with red-brown tans. At least, they looked like kids to me. Teens, early twenties, late twenties—kids.Read More »

New Publications: “Calamcity,” and “De.mocra.cy” Audiobook

We’re well into summer now, so I’ve just published a summery novelette about a topic that I just can’t leave alone: climate change in Florida. A couple years ago, I posted two pieces of research on beach nourishment—that research was done for this story.

Minolta DSC“Calamcity” is set in a not too distant future, when beach erosion has accelerated dramatically due to rising sea levels and increased hurricane activity—but a new breed of bioengineered living shorelines appears to be a perfect solution to hold sand in place. To oversee a test-run of this technique, Joseph Lopez joins his brother Steve on Cape Dodd, a Floridian beach that has been battling erosion for years under Steve’s management. Joseph just wants to bring back the large, stable, sunny beaches of his youth, and provide a nice vacation house for his aging parents. But as Joseph and Steve find, Cape Dodd is in for a rough summer of constant hurricanes and mysterious mass die-offs of the living shoreline.

You can get “Calamcity” on Smashwords or Amazon.

Also, I’ve just released the audiobook for “De.mocra.cy,” a short story about symbolic protest, gangs, and regulation in a democratically run MMO. The audiobook is written and performed by me, so if you enjoyed my production of The Absolute at Large, you should enjoy the performance of this story. The audiobook is available for digital download on CDBaby, on Audible and iTunes. You can listen to a sample of the audiobook in the video below. And you can listen to some outtakes and moments of silliness from the recording session in the video below the video below.

Play Time: Strange Interlude by Eugene O’Neill

Strange Interlude covers a span of about twenty-five years in the lives of Nina Reeds and her three lovesick admirers—Charles Marsden, Edmund Darrell, and Sam Evans. At the beginning of the play, Nina is heartbroken over the death of the love of her life, Gordon Shaw, in World War I. Throughout the rest of the play, she is attempting to fill in the gaps left by Gordon with Marsden, Darrell, and Evans. There are plenty of twists across the nine acts of this five-hour play, but the most notable feature is the internal monologue device. Characters frequently stop to deliver their thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness style—not in a Shakespearean manner, where the actors seem to be taking the audience into their confidence, but more like the playwright has slowed down the action and opened up the mind of a character to show the audience their thought process.

This play deals with time in two ways—in micro and in macro. The micro is the internal monologues, which take individual, fleeting moments and expand them into sometimes multiple minutes of speech. The macro is the enormous scale of the play itself, which covers over two decades, comprises nine acts, and is typically presented with a dinner break in between acts five and six. The tension between these two levels of time is the tension, and dissonance, experienced by everyone—the brief, minute, immediate nature of the present set against the enormous backdrop of a person’s life.

Micro

O’Neill achieves this sense of immediacy in a few ways. First, the obvious, through the monologues. While there’s no indication of whether or not the rest of the scene freezes or slows down when a character’s internal monologue begins, it certainly seems to slow down. The monologues are full of ellipses and rambling sentences, questions and repeated ideas. The effect of this slow, languorous pace to the interior of the characters is that when the actual dialogue of the scene resumes, it feels rapid and instant, unrestrained.Read More »

Play Time: Not I, Footfalls, and Rockaby by Samuel Beckett

For this project, I wanted to read some short plays at some point, as short plays can get away with doing deviant formalistic things that longer plays can’t. I chose these three plays by Samuel Beckett because they are sometimes collected together, or performed together, and with good reason. While each play was written separately, all of them overlap in their treatments of time and memory.

Not I

Not I is a monologue performed by “Mouth.” When staged, the actor playing Mouth wears black make-up over her face, and the lighting is as isolated as possible to just the mouth. The effect is of a disembodied mouth, floating in darkness, rapidly reciting sentence fragments which tell a story of a woman—presumably the owner of the mouth—who has lived a solitary, bleak life, and who has scarcely spoken throughout all of it. The title comes from the repeated refrain of Mouth: “what? … who? … no! … she!”—denying that what she is describing happened to her.

The play explores the disjuncture between experience and retelling, with the speaker being an extreme case of someone whose speech has become drastically separated from her experience of the world. The whole play, Mouth is trying to make sense of the woman’s life, constantly asking questions, constantly doubling back, always unsure, and always careening forward to dig up some other scrap of memory. The way Mouth bolts through fragmented sentences puts in mind a person searching through a library for a book, and reading aloud titles and last names of authors as they go.

The speech is not just an attempt to retell what has happened in this woman’s life for the sake of the audience—it is an attempt to make sense of it for herself. Almost all her life she has been speechless, unable or unwilling to connect her experiences with linguistic structure, and so Not I is an attempt to do so. It is a demonstration of the difficulties of manifesting a life verbally, of making sense of events through retelling, and of the disconnect between the person who lived an experience and the person telling it (even if they are one and the same.)Read More »

Play Time: We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, between the Years 1884-1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury

This past semester I needed to fulfill my honors requirements by completing 3 s.h. of honors credit. I wasn’t in any honors classes, so I did this by contracting a creative writing class focused on time, by designing an additional curriculum of nine plays that I would read and respond to—all of them dealing with time in some way. Thus, Play Time—nine essays analyzing specific plays, pulling apart the way the playwrights are using the medium of theatre to manipulate or comment on or distort or theorize about time. The idea isn’t so much to definitively state What X Play is About, but more to point out what I find interesting in the play, and figure out how the artist—or how theatre as a medium—achieved it. This first post is on We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, between the Years 1884-1915 by Jackie Sibblies Drury, and I promise I will only use the abbreviation of that title from here on out.

We Are Proud to Present is a play about six actors putting together a theatrical presentation detailing the history of Namibia as a German colony, and the genocide of the Herero people. The play is as much focused on the conquest, exploitation, and extermination of the peoples of Namibia as it is on how the actors are portraying it, how they are trying to relate to it, how theatre operates as a medium, and how to tell the history of a people who were almost completely wiped out. 

Processtation

The play (that is, the theatrical work written by Drury) portrays this presentation (that is, the theatrical work performed by the characters in the play) from start to finish in chronological order, though it switches back and forth between “The Presentation” and “The Process” (7). Each scene is labeled as one of the two. “The Presentation” is an actual performance of the presentation, and “The Process” is a rehearsal of it (presumably early on in the production.) So while the audience (that is, an actual real world audience) is seeing the presentation about the Herero of Namibia from start to finish, they are also seeing the actors themselves in two different moments in time. This structure accomplishes a few things.

First, it’s an efficient way to show both the creation of the show and the show itself. The play could’ve been divided into two acts, the first The Process and the second The Presentation, but by interweaving the two into one continuous action, Drury can avoid repetition, and just show the most important pieces of each strand.

Second, it makes it very clear how The Process is being expressed in The Presentation. For example, at one point during rehearsal, the actors are doing an exercise, and Actor 3 is acting as Actor 6’s grandma:

“(ACTOR 3 smacks ACTOR 4 with his prop on each “Tell.”)
“ACTOR 3 (as Grandma): Tell me that you didn’t eat that cornbread. …
“Tell me that you didn’t eat that corner piece of cornbread.
“I don’t need you to Tell me that you ate that corner piece of cornbread.
“I can Tell the corner piece is missing so Tell me that you ate it.
“Tell me.
“Tell me.” (58)

Later on, during the actual performance, the audience sees how the actors have repurposed this theatrical device for a completely different scene, with completely different implications:

“(ANOTHER WHITE MAN lands blows on BLACK MAN on each “Tell.”)
“ANOTHER WHITE MAN: Tell the man you broke the law …
“Tell the man you were gonna kill me.
“I don’t need you to Tell me that you were gonna kill me.
“I can Tell you wanted to kill me, so Tell the man.
“Tell him.
“Tell him.” (102)

There are echoes, recurrences, like this all throughout the play, and by presenting the rehearsal and the performance in such close proximity Drury examines how the most contentious, the most bizarre, or the most seemingly useless ideas generated during rehearsal are reshaped, retooled, and evolved to express something in the presentation.Read More »

Rereading A Series of Unfortunate Events: The End

When I was a kid, I loved A Series of Unfortunate Events, and now I’ve reread all thirteen books. This final post is about The End, book 13. This post will contain spoilers for The End and probably other books preceding it, so if you don’t want plot information given away, then to paraphrase Lemony Snicket, “I would drop this [review] at once, so THE END does not finish you.”

The_End
Cover courtesy of HarperCollins

Finally, we arrive at The End. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are at sea with Count Olaf, and a massive storm shipwrecks them on an island. Pretty soon they encounter the inhabitants of the island, an easygoing colony of castaways, lead by the “facilitator” Ishmael. Count Olaf is forbidden from entering the colony, and while the colony is undoubtedly dull and unambitious, it seems the Baudelaires have finally found a place where they can be safe. Of course, it turns out the island is full of as many mysteries and confusing conflicts as the world the Baudelaires left behind, and the siblings come to realize that they can never really escape these issues.

The End is also the end. (Surprise.) It is Book the Last, and it knows it. Where The Penultimate Peril felt climactic in terms of surface-level story elements—bringing together characters from all throughout the series, putting the Baudelaires in the middle of a direct conflict between the two factions of VFD—The End feels climactic in terms of theme. The book is exploding with meaningful imagery, literary and biblical allusions, thematic discourse, and symbolic scenes. I’m only going to talk about some of them though, the ones that interest me, but there’s all sorts of overlap, so hopefully I’ll be able to cover all the main threads by doing this.

STTTTTTUUUUUUUUUUFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF!

“What’s the deal with all this super specific junk in the general store?”—that’s the note I made when this motif first cropped up in The Hostile Hospital. In the opening of that book, the Baudelaires are in a general store waiting for a telegram, and multiple times Handler lists out in hyper-specific detail the items surrounding them, none of which seem to fit with each other:

“They were surrounded by nylon rope, floor wax, soup bowls, window curtains, wooden rocking horses, top hats, fyber-optic cable, pink lipstick, dried apricots, magnifying glasses, black umbrellas, slender paintbrushes, French horns, and each other, but as the Baudelaire orphans sat and waited for a reply to their telegram, they only felt more and more alone.” (18-19)

Is this a comment on materialism? Something about greed maybe? I had a hunch about what it could be, but Handler didn’t distinctly make the connection, so I just continued to note the motif whenever it popped up. In The Grim Grotto, when the Baudelaires are in the grotto, they each list out all the worthless items they’ve found while searching for the Sugar Bowl. Again, it’s hard to tell if Handler is just having fun or actually doing something.Read More »