What I’ve Been Reading, March 2017

Plays and comics! I’ve been reading a bunch of plays and comics lately. I’m in a playwriting class, and I’m reading a bunch of plays for a project for another class, and the comics I’m reading because they’re light and I really can’t squeeze in too much extra reading given all the Lemony Snicket books I’m reading, not to mention short stories and essays and poems for another class—anyway, here are some of the plays and comics that have really been stand-out terrific, and worth writing about:

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee – This is a play about a man who is cheating on his wife with a goat.

Hahaha, lololol, such fun.

Really, the brilliance of this play is that it is both as ridiculous as that description and as real as the chair I’m seated in (I’m seated in a chair of the real variety, by the way.) And the super-brilliance of the play is the fact that it doesn’t just violently switch tracks between isn’t-this-absurd-you’re-in-love-with-a-goat and what-are-the-real-and-tragic-implications-of-doing-such-a-thing, it runs the two modes simultaneously. I was constantly bursting out laughing and constantly taking sharp inhales throughout reading this play. I reacted to it in the same way I react to horribly-absurd/absurdly-horrible real world events. I have to laugh at the absurdity, but I can’t get away from the horrible reality of it because it’s something that actually happened, in the world I live in.

Albee’s great accomplishment here is that he never lets the audience put distance between themselves and the work. The characters continually make choices, adopt lines of conversation, that ring so true that you can’t just think, well it’s just a silly play.

And the play was written by Edward Albee, so it’s crackling with his wit and dynamic character interactions.

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 – It’s just as fantastic as the title makes it out to be. The play follows 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 alternates between a performance of this presentation, and a rehearsal/development session as the actors are putting it together. Although the play does deal with, in earnest, the conquest, exploitation, and extermination of the peoples of Namibia, it’s more focused on how the actors are portraying this, 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.

The play is incredibly engaging, especially the scenes of rehearsal. It’s fascinating to see these actors improvising, improvising badly, arguing with one another, striving to get a handle on the story, and striving to relate to this history. In the script, the performance and the rehearsal are labeled “Presentation” and “Process” respectively, and “process” is a terrific word for it. It isn’t just practicing lines, and it isn’t really careful planning, outlining, and choreographing either. It’s a tumultuous, interpersonal struggle to take a piece of history—from which the most concrete sources are letters by German soldiers—and present it in a way that is truthful. Conflicts arise over whether it is possible for 21st-century Americans to relate to this story, over how to make it the story of the Herero rather than the Herero as seen by the Germans, and over how to tell the story of a people who didn’t have written records, and whose oral traditions were disrupted and practically silenced by genocide. I love plays where I can’t figure out where I stand in an argument, and this is certainly one of those plays.

And, like The Goat, the play combines this heavier matter with comedy. The actor-actor conflicts are painfully realistic and piercingly hilarious, and even the stage directions convey a vibrant, snarky attitude. For example: “(The worst improv ever. ACTOR 1 and ACTOR 3 build a fire … ACTOR 1 is not a great improv partner.)” And then, a few lines later: “(This isn’t working. Can we stop?)”

This is my favorite thing I’ve read in a while. I highly recommend it, especially if you’re involved in theatre in any capacity, or any other form of storytelling.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel – Fun Home is “A Family Tragicomic”—more specifically, it’s a graphic memoir centering on Alison Bechdel’s father, Bruce Bechdel, his early death (likely a suicide), and parts of her childhood. The plot’s centering device is the short span of time in college in which all of the following happened: Bechdel came out to her parents, she learned that her father was gay, her mom decided to divorce him, and her father died. Everything else in the book spirals backward through the past from these events, through literature and philosophy, through childhood memories and diary entries, through family history and secrets revealed decades later. There’s a lot to unpack here, so here I go.

The book focuses mostly on the moments that tie directly back into the series of events described above. In this way, the book feels closer to a documentary than a prose memoir—there is a very exacting focus, and the shortness of the book (around two hundred pages, but still a comic) necessitates that everything on the page has to really count—and it does. Every panel of Fun Home feels very precisely observed and composed, reconstructed from memory or rendered accurately from photographs. Many panels are text, redrawn by Bechdel whether they were originally typed or handwritten, and they heighten the sense of reality—as well as the sense that this is someone going back through their memories, and trying to work things out for themselves.

The book is also, indirectly, about literature. Alison’s father is an english teacher, and the two end up bonding over reading. As well, Alison’s coming out is precipitated by her devouring dozens of books, both fiction and non-fiction, on homosexuality and lesbianism. Bechdel constantly alludes to literary works, using them as framing devices, as a way to contextualize characters or narrative arcs. Sometimes the reference is unrelated except by metaphor, but sometimes it is critically intertwined with the story—for example, the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, which were some of Bruce Bechdel’s favorites—or The Taming of the Shrew, in which Bechdel’s mother played the lead. Alison’s father even invites this kind of comparison between personal reality and literature himself, as he seems constantly fixated on identifying with characters—in letters to Alison’s mother when he was in the army, he wrote of how much Fitzgerald reminded him of himself in The Far Side of Paradise, of how “The Sensible Thing,” a short story by Fitzgerald, “was written for you and I now, today.” (63) Years later, Alison has the same experience, to a more dramatic effect, identifying with the stories of gay people in Word is Out, and discovering who she is through that book. Fun Home speaks to this ability of fiction to help us make sense of the world.

It also is a book in itself, and is quite aware of that—quite aware of the structures it is building, the narratives it is weaving to try and bring to the surface some enlightening story. One of my favorite quotes from Fun Home was, “The juxtaposition of the last days of childhood with those of Nixon and the end of that larger, national innocence may seem trite. But it was only one of many heavy-handed plot devices to befall my family during those strange, hot months.” (155) There’s a constant tension between the documentary style of meticulously recreated documents and photographs, and the fact that it is all artificial—drawings of real life, with imperfect translations, being shaped by a narrator.

The book moves at a slow, deliberate pace, layering in all this literary mirroring, doubling back to recall pertinent moments of the past, circling around forward to examine some piece of information revealed years after her father’s death, slowly drawing out a portrait of a very conflicted person. What works so well about this book is that Bruce doesn’t feel like some fully fleshed out character in a novel, nor does he feel like an exaggerated or simplified archetype—he feels like a person, and a very private person who it is impossible to really know. Fun Home presents a thorough portrait of him, but, of course, there are big holes in it just as there are for Alison—holes that have to be filled with conjecture, or with literary allusion.

The more I let this book sit with me, the more I love it. It’s certainly a book I’m going to reread multiple times.

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel – Although the idea is that Fun Home is about Bechdel’s father, and Are You My Mother? is about her mother, Are You My Mother is really about a lot of things. Unlike Fun Home, there is no centering moment in Alison’s life that the book keeps returning to. It engages in the same kind of thorough working and reworking of events, though without one unifying direction. Each chapter pursues a different course of thinking, referencing child psychologist Donald Winnicott or Virginia Woolf or Alice Miller to draw some conclusions about Bechdel’s relationship with her mother.

Really, the book feels like a very large appendix to Fun Home—a large part of the memoir actually focuses on Alison writing Fun Home, and her anxiety over how her mother will perceive it. And while Bechdel’s mother is certainly a large figure in Are You My Mother, the book is as much about her as it is about Bechdel herself, psychoanalysis, childhood psychology, and the difficulty of taking memories and interpreting them, working them into narrative arcs.

I enjoyed the book a lot, though I haven’t been left thinking about it and mulling it over as much as I did Fun Home. If you enjoyed Fun Home though, you should definitely read it.

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