What I’ve Been Reading, November 2017

I’ve been reading all kinds of Toni Morrison and all kinds of mystery books, because those are the two English classes I’m in this semester. So you can expect more Morrison and more mystery in the next What I’ve Been Reading post—but that’s actually What I‘ll Be Reading. Let’s get into the ‘ve Been.

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley — This was one of the books in my Mystery/Detective Fiction class, and one of my two favorites that we’ve read so far. My other favorite is Big Little Lies, which I’ll discuss below—the two are sort of tied. Devil in a Blue Dress is Mosley’s first Easy Rawlins mystery, and damn if it doesn’t make me want to read the rest of them. In this book, Easy isn’t yet a PI—he’s just a working-class African-American man who’s moved to Los Angeles in the Second Great Migration, after serving in World War II. A day after being fired from his job, a man approaches him offering money for him to find Daphne Monet, a white woman who often visits black jazz clubs. After some reluctance, Easy takes the job—and spends the remainder of the book trying to work his way out of the dangerous web he’s put himself in.

It doesn’t really have the precision and clarity of a detective story, mainly because at various points Easy doesn’t give a shit about solving any kind of mystery. It’s more like what would happen if an ordinary person wandered into the middle of a hard-boiled detective world, bumping into various rackets and intrigues, but not doggedly pursuing any hidden truth. Easy does end up solving some mysteries, and does so well enough that by the end he decides to become a professional PI, but the plot of the book is really about him trying to survive. To that end, it’s a great book. Well-paced, fun characters painted in many different shades of sinister, and a first-person narrator with lots of attitude.Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Chapter III, The Abolition of Privateering

Note: This chapter is hardly relevant to the Paraguayan War, but it’s incredibly short, so why not translate it? It’s so short in fact, I also translated the footnote included with it. I don’t normally include translated footnotes in this online version of the book, but I figured I’d do so for some of the shorter chapters that would be just a few paragraphs without them. Maybe you can get an idea of what the footnotes-and-all version of the book is like from this. To be clear: The “Footnotes” are from Nabuco, the original author. “Translator’s Notes” are my own.

In the time of the Paraná ministry Brazil adhered to the four principles of maritime law proclaimed in the Congress of Paris of 1856 (1)—namely, abolition of privateering; inviolability of enemy merchandise under a neutral flag, except contraband of war; inviolability of neutral merchandise even under an enemy flag; and requirement that a blockade be effective to be respected (2).

Congrès_de_Paris,_1856
1856 Épinal print of European sovereigns at the Treaty of Paris.

Brazil’s adherence was harshly derided as entailing the abandonment of the only resource at our disposal in case of a war with any naval power, but it is true that the principles sanctioned in the Congress of Paris mainly benefited weak nations without armadas. That same behavior of the United States was only a diplomatic strategy to obtain what they wanted: complete immunity of private property on the sea (3) (i).

The foreign policy of the ministry also touches on the issue, or better said, as we will see further on, the various issues of the trafficking of Africans, a constant motive for the English legation for interference. (5)

Footnotes

i. In the congressional session of 1857 (15 June) Paranhos defended his ministry’s act in this manner: “The United States did not adhere to the new maxims approved by the Congress of Paris, because they wanted to take the principle of inviolability of non-offensive property to its logical conclusion, and (in the same way that privateering was abolished) for the safety of property belonging to one of the belligerents to stay guaranteed against enemy ships at sea. The United States did not maintain that privateering was a strategy to which one could resort in the current state of civilization, nor did they deny that it could seem a kind of organized and legal piracy … According to the signatory powers of the Paris Declaration, the four principles should be considered inseparable. A partial adherence is unacceptable; one must accept all or none; the power that doesn’t accept this accord will remain excepted from its application. (Doctor Nabuco: “Seconded.”) So that if we had not accepted it, in case of a war in which any of the powers that signed the treaty of 30 March 1856, or any of those that later adopted those same principles, took part, Brazilian merchandise would be easy prey under an enemy flag, and enemy merchandise would not be protected by the Brazilian flag. Now, should we sacrifice peacetime advantages to an expedient in war? Would this be an agreeable policy for the Empire, which in all its foreign relations, as a rule, practices justice and moderation? (Senhor Jacintho de Mendonça: “And it doesn’t even have any standing as a convenience to the Empire. The history of the war in the South could tell you that.” (4) Senhor J. Otaviano: “Seconded.”)
“Would such conduct suit the Empire that has a navy still very reduced and whose exports are made almost totally through foreign ships? I believe not … Senhores, steamships have reduced the services that privateers can lend down to a very little thing, and the nations that have a great maritime force also have a large merchant marine; if they wish to take advantage of that resource, they will surely surpass those nations of lesser naval power.”

Translator’s Notes

1. A post-Crimean-War meeting of European powers.
2. Here’s the full text of the provisions, courtesy of the International Committee of the Red Cross: “1. Privateering is, and remains, abolished; 2. The neutral flag covers enemy’s goods, with the exception of contraband of war; 3. Neutral goods, with the exception of contraband of war, are not liable to capture under enemy’s flag; 4. Blockades, in order to be binding, must be effective, that is to say, maintained by a force sufficient really to prevent access to the coast of the enemy.”
3. The US wanted all non-military merchandise to be protected during wartime, even enemy goods under an enemy flag, and they proposed this as a provision at the Congress of Paris. The provision was rejected, so the US did not formally adhere to the declaration, because it did not go far enough.
4. “War in the South” likely refers to the Cisplatine War, a war Brazil fought against Argentina and the nascent state of Uruguay. During this conflict, Argentinian privateers wreaked havoc on Brazilian merchant ships.
5. We will not see this later on. Nabuco here refers to the next section of Um Estadista do Imperio, titled “Trafficking and Slavery,” which was not included in the excerpt La Guerra del Paraguay, because it has nothing to do with the war. There will be later discussion of slavery in this book, as it relates to the Paraguayan War, but not about its relation to trafficking or the Paraná ministry.

The War of Paraguay: Chapter II, Montevideo

Note: This chapter deals with an incident which occurred in the aftermath of the Uruguayan Civil War, which I just wrote a whole supplementary post about. I recommend reading it before reading this chapter, if you have not already.

The situation in the Eastern State at the end of 1853 also appeared full of difficulties. In February 1854 the Uruguayan government requested the Empire’s intervention, invoking the 12 October 1851 treaty of alliance (1). Not without much hesitation, our government decided to send to Montevideo a division under the command of General Francisco Félix. No unpleasant event, fortunately, resulted from the presence of that Brazilian force in our neighbor’s capital; but in August 1855 the republic again entered a period of crisis, seeing the president, General Flores, forced to abandon the capital, where immediately a de facto government was formed (2). In this way, the danger of a civil war arose, in which we could see ourselves entangled, along with the Argentine Republic and Buenos Aires. Through all the time of the Paraná ministry the Argentine Republic was divided into two governments: that of the Confederation, whose capital was Paraná, under the presidency of Urquiza, which the thirteen provinces obeyed; and that of Buenos Aires, reduced to the province of Buenos Aires.

Brazil did what was most prudent, given the circumstances: Limpo de Abreu, who shortly before had left the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was sent to the Plata on a special mission. But before arriving at his destination, the rift—the cause of his departure—was fixed, General Flores having resigned from the presidency, and having been replaced by Bustamente, president of the senate, in accordance with the Constitution.

To this episode Nabuco (3) refers in the following congratulatory message to his colleague from Foreign Affairs: “Y.E., deign to accept my congratulations for the agreeable solution that before your arrival had had the political contention that caused your appointment. Fortune not only accompanies you, but it precedes Y.E.’s steps.”

The following paragraph from an intimate letter to Boa-Vista proves completely the sincerity of the Empire’s politics and the selfless thoughts that animated it. “The policy that we pursued in the Eastern State was not one of balance, but rather one of observation. It was fit, senhor barón, to judge whether the casus fæderis, or cause to comply with our obligation to lend aid to the legitimate government, had arrived; it was fit to know from which part the beginnings of stability would be; it was fit that we would not, beguiled by sympathy, identify ourselves with a foreign party, going along with it—to the detriment of Brazilian relations—in its fortune and adversity, or imposing its will upon the Republic; it was fit to not have the ambitions of the Blancos nor those of the Colorados, a rivalry that was born and appeared after the victory (4); it was fit that Brazil’s intervention was not seen as an imposition, as complicity in the revolutionary movement, as partiality in favor of the Colorados, but rather as a necessity, a desire of all, Blancos and Colorados, as a principle of security for Brazil itself and for the Eastern State. Time, and only time, will show the true character of Brazil’s conduct. Time already vindicates us, and you vindicate us when you say: ‘It is essential that Brazil not be at the mercy of the ambitious of Uruguay.’”

Translator’s Notes

1. Refers to the treaty ending the Uruguayan Civil War, which granted Brazil the right to intervene in future conflicts in the country. In 1854, there was conflict brewing within the Colorado party.
2. This refers to the Rebelión de los Conservadores, a revolt against the Colorado president Venancio Flores by dissidents within his own party.
3. That is, José Tomás Nabuco Jr., the father of Joaquim Nabuco, and a Brazilian politician.
4. The two major political parties that emerged from the Uruguayan Civil War.

The War of Paraguay: Supplement 1, The Uruguayan Civil War

Next week’s chapter will deal somewhat with the aftermath of the Uruguayan Civil War, a conflict in Uruguay which lasted from 1838 to 1851, and which eventually pulled in Brazil. So, this post should provide the background information necessary to make sense of that chapter.

The War in Uruguay

Fructuoso_Rivera.jpg
Portrait of Fructuoso Rivera by Baldassare Verazzi

In July 1836, the forces of Fructuoso Rivera clashed with those of Manuel Oribe at the Battle of Carpintería. To distinguish themselves, the two sides wore divisas, colored bands of fabric. Oribe’s were white, blanco, Rivera’s red, colorado. With this clash, and the ensuing war, the two political parties that would dominate Uruguay for the remainder of the century were formed. The nation had experienced frequent rebellions and insurrections by caudillos—military leaders with spheres of influence in different parts of the country—but the caudillos were quickly being absorbed by these two groups.

Let’s rewind a few years. Rivera, one such caudillo, was the first constitutional president of Uruguay. His presidency was plagued with insurrections, especially by the old revolutionary Juan Lavalleja. (Actually, Lavalleja, Rivera, and Oribe were all old revolutionaries, who had fought first Spain and later Brazil to secure Uruguay’s independence.) Fearing that Lavalleja would win the presidential election of 1835, Rivera decided not to run, instead throwing his full support behind Manuel Oribe. Oribe won the election, but before Rivera left office, Rivera assigned himself the position of Commander General of the Interior.

Oribe inherited a depleted treasury and a corrupt bureaucracy, which he appointed a commission to investigate. Oribe also dismissed Rivera as Commander General after Rivera had decided to lend military support to the Riograndense Republic, a newly independent state formed from the Brazilian province of Rio Grande do Sul. Oribe, not wanting to anger the Empire of Brazil, replaced Rivera with his brother, Ignacio Oribe. Naturally, this did not sit well with Rivera—nor did Oribe’s pardoning of old supporters of Juan Lavalleja. In 1836, Rivera launched a revolution, whose first major battle was the Battle of Carpintería.Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Chapter the First, Pedro Ferreira’s Mission

Strategic_Situation_1865
Map of the Río de la Plata region, from George Thompson’s 1869 book The War in Paraguay

A delicate task in the Río de la Plata was fitted to the Paraná ministry (1), the task of guaranteeing the results of the Battle of Caseros (2), and of the ministry of 29 September’s policies (3). Of Uruguay, whose independence we had contributed to saving, of the Argentine Confederation, and of Buenos Aires, whom we had helped liberate from an overwhelming tyranny, we only wanted to be good and loyal neighbors (4); but it was no easy matter, to live in peace with any of them, since the so-called balance of the Plata threatened at every moment to unite them all against us. Peace could only be the fruit of a continuous vigilance and a consummate prudence. And even so, it was in an instant threatened.

López I (5) had given the Brazilian minister Leal his cards (6), accusing him in a note of “being dedicated to scheming and imposture in contempt of the Supreme Government of the State,” and of raising atrocious calumnies against him. With this note arose an issue from which war between both countries could come, and if events had proceeded in another way it is certain that war would have developed.

In demand of reparations for the offense done by the president of Paraguay to the Brazilian minister, the government of Brazil sent to Asunción (7) a fleet lead by Commander Pedro Ferreira, who was made plenipotentiary. At the Paraguayan government’s command, the fleet stopped at the mouth of the Paraguay River (8), Ferreira advancing on the steamer Amazonas, which ran aground before arriving at Asunción. Then began a singular correspondence between the Brazilian envoy and the Paraguayan government, which wound up with Fereira agreeing to board smaller steamers to escape the Amazonas. Such bad beginnings seemed to herald the failure of the mission.

Commander Ferreira’s behavior was quite criticized then, but it seems likely that abstaining from forcing the Paraguay River, at López’s order, was the most prudent and discrete resolution that he could adopt. “Our negotiator and admiral’s instructions,” wrote Paranhos (9) shortly after, “authorized him, in certain cases, to proceed in an energetic and military manner. If this wasn’t so, he would not have shown such determination to justify, with so much deliberation, the conduct that he observed from Tres Bocas … Denied the reparations, and with it the passage of his ships to Mato Grosso, not only was he authorized to force the way, he had orders to do it, and to send two or three of the ships that comprised his expedition to the Brazilian waters of alto Paraguay, and, in this way, await new orders from the imperial government.”

Fragata_a_Vapor_Amazonas
The steamship Amazonas, circa 1880

Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Foreword

EDIT: A previous version of this post described the Paraguayan War as the deadliest war in Latin American history. That is not the case, as the Mexican revolution almost certainly claimed more lives. The Paraguayan War is, however, the deadliest inter-state war in Latin American history—in the history, in fact, of the entire western hemisphere.

39E.jpg
Watercolor by José Ignacio Garmendia, depicting Paraguayan soldiers ambushed while pillaging the allied camp’s commissary in the Second Battle of Tuyutí

I’m very excited to write that tomorrow, I will post the first chapter of The War of Paraguay. Before I do, I want to establish what exactly this thing is, what you should know before reading it, why I think its cool, and what my ultimate plans with it are. But before any of that,

Francis, what’s up with the title?

The title is a near literal translation of the Spanish, La guerra del Paraguay. It should be translated as The Paraguayan War, because that’s the English name for the war—and that’s how I translate it whenever it appears in the text. But for the title, I’m using The War of Paraguay because there is already a book titled The Paraguayan War, and there could well be more books with that title. I don’t think its that important since the title isn’t even the original author’s invention, as I’ll explain right now:

What is this book?

This book is an excerpt from Joaquim Nabuco’s Um estadista do Imperio (A Statesman of the Empire), which is a massive work chronicling the political scene in the Empire of Brazil, from 1813 to 1878 (pretty much the whole life of the Empire), with a special focus on Nabuco’s father, the eponymous estadista, José Nabuco. This excerpt is not a contiguous section of the book—it is pieced together from a few different “books” within Um estadista, which together describe the political, diplomatic, and military events surrounding the Paraguayan War. Each of these books contains multiple chapters, and nothing has been cut from them in the excerpting process, aside from a few footnotes. So each chapter, each book of chapters, is whole, although some of the books have gaps in between them, where Nabuco’s original work had more chapters on matters unrelated to the war.Read More »

New Publication: A Clash at Grozny Airfield

Remember almost exactly two years ago when I wrote a post about Chechnya, based on my research for a story? Well, that story is now available on Smashwords and Amazon!

cover-5In Grozny, the first ever all-robot military unit fights an integrated army of humans and robots. The clash is viewed by five American travelers in an airport café—a veteran, a journalist, two young sisters, and a barista—as the events unfold on TV. Each traveler has a different connection to the distant battle, and they all watch with more and more rapt attention as the integrated forces close in.

Also included is a brief afterword about how I came to choose the setting of the story and write that Chechnya post, and the meaning of the acronym ITF.

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 »

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 plays. Available on Smashwords and Amazon.

Play Time: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »