New Publications: 20, and 20

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Just as I did last year, here are two collections of all the plays I published in the past year, and all the short stories I published in the last year. I’m now less enamored of the idea of this being a “complete works” series, for various reasons which I explain in the forewords of these anthologies. Mainly, what does “complete” even mean? Regardless, these collections really do have all the pieces I self-published while I was 20, and all the afterwords I published with them. And I will continue this series, because I like having a cheap way for people to buy my stuff—the collections just might always not be annual, or they might not always be “complete.”

20stories-c-120; Two plays and a monologue contains Suggest the EmpireChimaera Cries ON STREAM!!!!!, and Tallahassee Ca. 2045—including a brands new afterword for Chimaera Cries ON STREAM!!!!!! You can get it on Smashwords or Amazon.

20; A collection of short stories contains “A Clash at Grozny Airfield,” “The Wisdom-Goddess Star,” “Beneath Them,” and “ChannelCon ’30.” You can get it on Smashwords or Amazon.

Ten Years Writing: In Sum

As of a month or so ago, I’ve been writing seriously for ten years, so I’m taking a moment to reflect with two posts looking back on those years. My purpose with these pieces is to escape my myopic focus on the present, and appreciate how far I’ve come. So my first post was a “cartographic description” of the past decade, trying to capture all that progress in a (relatively) short space. Today’s post will be even more contained, as I try to quantify all the progress I’ve made by adding it all up, looking at it all in sum.

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Most of my fiction writing from the past ten years. Lots of this is multiple drafts, but also a few manuscripts that I don’t have in Tallahassee are missing, so the photo gives an accurate impression overall, I’d say. This was posed, by the way—I don’t just keep a precarious stack of writing in my room at all times.

So let’s look at everything superimposed on everything. Let’s look at the totals that I’ve kept meticulous records of (another sign of progress is that I’ve gotten less obsessive about constantly updating these things, and now only do it when I get around to it.)

In total, in the past ten years, I’ve written 6.5 novel-length works, none of them fully edited, one of them in the process of revision right now.

I’ve written twenty theatrical works: two full-length plays, eleven one acts, and seven short plays.

I’ve written thirty-nine short prose works: two (or four) novellas, eleven (or nine) novelettes, and twenty-six short stories. (The line between novella and novelette changes depending on who you ask.)

In all, I’ve written around 1,138,940 words of fiction. I’ve also written 144,820 words of blog posts (not counting the translations, or this post), which includes two short collections of essays. And I’ve written 64,790 words of unfinished fiction—that is, works that I didn’t even finish the first draft of, and which I do not think I will ever finish. (For this reason I counted the 0.5 of a novel in the former group, because I still intend to finish it.)

In all, I’ve received 193 rejections—mostly for short fiction, sometimes for plays. I’ve received four acceptances, one from Kzine, one from Playworks, two from fanzines (which I don’t really submit to anymore.) I also have one weird response that I don’t know how to categorize right now. We’ll see what comes of it.

I’m not exactly sure how many productions of my plays there have been. Two? I think? Plus a script-in-hand production and a student-directed one? IDK. A number that could fit on one hand in any case, all for the same play, The Trial of Adbot 579.

I’ve made $281.41 from my writing, about $210 from Adbot, and all in the past four years.

It’s interesting that the more I look at these numbers, the more I get used to them, and the more they don’t seem that impressive. My brain is somehow normalizing them, and now expects me to do better in the next decade. I mean, I probably will “do better”—write more, make more money, get more rejections—but maybe the lesson here is that these numbers are useful to glance at, but not to stare at. Unsure.

Hopefully these numbers give a good idea of the work-to-success ratio in the early years of being a writer (slightly skewed by the fact that they were also my early years of being a human.) And hopefully they provide some transparency, showing the enormous submerged section of the iceberg, rather than the tip that is so easy to focus on. I know that personally, it’s easy for me to see a writer (particularly if they’re around my age) who’s successful, and then get in my head wondering what I’m doing wrong, why I’m not as successful as them. In those situations, I find it useful to remind myself that everyone has taken a different path in writing, giving them certain skills, advantages, and areas of weakness. Weirdly, telling myself that someone else has worked harder for something than me actually makes me feel more secure about my own capabilities, and more empowered to achieve success.

And, if these numbers themselves don’t provide enough of an image of the iceberg, you can always read my first “Ten Years Writing” post, which is nothing if not a proverbial humongous, unwieldy mass of submerged ice.

Ten Years Writing: A Cartographic Description

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Map for We’ll Tell Happy Stories (2016).

I’ve been writing for ten years now, and writing about that has proven to be quite the challenge. I’ve taken several cracks at writing this post, but I think this is the way to go—this, and another much much shorter post I’ll put up next week.

The reason this is so difficult is that it’s hard to describe what ten years of writing looks like in a post. It’s difficult to reduce it into something snappy, sharp, clear, because it isn’t. But that’s exactly why I want to write this post. In the day-to-day or week-to-week of writing, it’s easy to lose track of progress. It’s easy for me to believe that I’m not getting anywhere, that I’m not getting closer to any of my goals, that the story I’m outlining right now is actually worse than the story I wrote a month ago. Because as I move forward, my goals do too. For years I was eagerly awaiting the day when I would’ve written 1,000,000 words of fiction. I obsessively kept track of the word count of everything I wrote, updating the figures to reflect the latest revisions as I made them. But by the time 1,000,000 words neared, I’d become more focused on being able to write lots of distinct short works, rather than just lots of words in general.

Likewise, my idea of when I started writing is kind of nebulous. I’ve really been writing all my life, but when asked I usually say that I started at eleven. I say that because at eleven (actually a few months before I turned eleven) I started writing the first novel that I actually completed, and eleven is the age when I started writing regularly, usually about once or twice a week. I’ve stuck with this idea, because at a certain point I just had to stick with something, and recognize that if I let myself constantly redefine when I began my  r e a l   w r i t i ng,  I’d eventually be saying, “Now 2018, that’s when I reeeeally started writing.”

Zooming out helps me appreciate the progress that’s been made. Looking at all the fruits of my ten years of labor together, and looking at how many phases I’ve gone through, how many times I felt like I was plateauing and unable to improve my writing, when every single time I managed to get better, it helps break me out of the rut of the present. It can also be useful, in the rarer moments when I need humbling, to remember all the times I thought I pretty much understood writing, and how there was always much more to learn.

I also enjoy reading other writers describe their careers. Although everyone is different, it does provide the closest thing to a map that you can get for a writing career, which is a career without one specific Way to Do It.

So here we go. A cartographic description of the landscape of my first ten years as a writer. It’s worth noting: my first ten years coincide with my teenage years, so your mileage may vary if you’ve started writing later in life (that’s to say, you will probably do better than me, because you’ll be starting out better read than eleven-year-old me. Writing is a sport for all ages!) Also worth noting that I haven’t had to work a job in all this time, except a few part-time summer jobs, though I have been in middle and high school and college, which takes up a fair chunk of time. So factor that into your reckoning, map-readers.Read More »

An Imperialist Writing Policy — How

Now that I’ve explained what an “imperialist writing policy” is, and why it might be useful, here’s how to actually do it.

Compiling Your Curriculum

So you’ve got some reason for enacting an imperialist writing policy—what do you fill it with? What are your imperial holdings? As I said, with Suggest the Empire I initially began with plays I was already aware of—Shakespearean histories. However, Stuff Happens I only learned about by doing some research, looking up contemporary history plays. After finding these materials, I just continued with my life, and kept on the look-out for any books or shows or movies or podcasts that seemed like they could be useful, adding them to my curriculum as I found them.

I’d recommend the same—start with works that you are already aware of, or that you have already been wanting to read. If you have enough, great! If you don’t, it’s time to do some research. This is essentially how I determined what plays to read for Play Time (which was a literal curriculum, since it was an Honors project.) I started by looking at some plays dealing with time which I already wanted to read—We Are Proud to Present …, Strange InterludeTop Girls, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—then did some research. I pretty quickly found out about J.B. Priestly’s time plays, and stumbled upon a review of a few short Beckett plays staged together because of their similar treatments of time. The internet is an incredible thing.

If this seems overwhelming, start with Wikipedia. Look at the external links on the article, look at the references. Look up what resources your local library has, or, if you’re a college student, check out your university library. Find people who are experts in whatever you need to immerse yourself in, and see what they’ve written. See what they recommend. If you personally know anyone who has some experience with the topic, ask them to give you some recommendations—or, if they’re willing to give you their time, ask them questions about the topic and make note of the answers. Sift through your personal library, see if there are any old books you forgot you even had that might be useful (this is exactly how Top Girls made it onto the list for Play Time.) And if you’re really hitting a wall, just start reading whatever you have found. More likely than not (and especially if its non-fiction) that work will lead you to other works. You’ll start to get a sense of what the foundational texts in the field are, which authors keep coming up again and again, which authors have written stuff very similar to (and therefore very useful for) what you’re planning to write.Read More »

An Imperialist Writing Policy — What and Why

A year and a half ago I returned home for the summer break knowing that, whatever else I worked on for the next few months, by the end of the summer I wanted to have finished the rough draft of Suggest the Empire. At that point I’d already been wanting to write this play for a year or two, though I’d previously put it off because I knew it would be massive, strange, and demanding in multiple ways. How did I know this? Well here’s my short description for the play:

A history play about an invented history, exploring the theatrical nature of nationalism and empire.

So yeah. Massive strange demanding. And I had never read or seen a history play (in the Shakespearean sense of the term) back then at the beginning of summer 2016, so I decided that would be a top priority. I determined to read seven of Shakespeare’s histories—Richard IIIRichard IIHenry IV parts 1 & 2, Henry V, and Julius Caesar—before beginning to write the play. I also added Stuff Happens by David Hare to my reading list, a history play about the lead up to the Iraq War. These were the works that I felt I had to read before beginning work on STE. Obviously I planned to write other stuff in the mean time, but I wouldn’t start Suggest the Empire until I’d finished those eight plays.

As I progressed into the summer I came across more and more works which I thought could in some way inform the writing of STE—youtube channels like Historia Civilis, documentaries like Secrets of Great British Castles, movies like Waterloo, games like Mount and Blade and Reigns—which I’d add to the list. Some of these I’d already been meaning to get around to, others I stumbled upon and decided to look into because of STE, and others I was already engaged with anyway, just by happenstance—the greatest example being The Absolute at Large. Just by luck, that very summer I was recording an audiobook of The Absolute at Large, a satirical novel which is heavily critical of nationalism and fanaticism. I came to think of this body of plays, movies, books, tv shows, and whatever else, as the product of an imperialist writing policy. I was not solely consuming, and working on, Suggest the Empire, though almost everything I consumed and worked on fed back to that play in some way.

SuggesttheEmpire-c-2The result was that, when it finally came time to write Suggest the Empire, it was a breeze. Over the past months I’d become fluent in the language of empire, of nationalism, of history, of historical drama, and I had no trouble plotting out the story or sketching out the world, or, as I actually wrote the thing, sprinkling in realistic military, cultural, or political details. I’m incredibly proud of Suggest the Empire, and you can now buy the play! Ha ha you fool, I tricked you, this is all just an ad, ho-ho I got you!

Just kidding. If you have no interest in reading Suggest the Empire (which you can get on Smashwords or Amazon, or read the first act of free) this post, and the “How” post which will be up next week, should still be useful to any writer (or creator of any kind, I suppose) who wants to design their own imperialist writing policy. This isn’t the Only Way, or the Correct Way, to prepare for a piece of writing, but it is a method that I’ve found useful, which may prove useful for others. Alternately, if you’ve just read, or plan on reading, Suggest the Empire, these two posts should be a good look into my process in preparing for that play. I talk about it some in the afterword, among other things, but here I’ll be breaking down just that specific, preliminary part of creating the play.Read More »

New Publications: 19, and 19

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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 »

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)

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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 »

No Longer Than

In a few days I’m going to self publish the short story “De.mocra.cy,” and writing the afterword for it brought me back to an interesting revelation I had after editing it. I hate limitations in writing, and will do everything to work around, nullify, or flat out ignore them.

This may seem oppositional to the idea that limits are good for writing, though it isn’t entirely. The limitations which I hate are artificial ones—ones which exist beyond the world of the story. In this post I hope to clarify that distinction, explain what drove me to this realization, and tangentially promote that upcoming short story. Although maybe this will actually make the story seem less appealing, who knows.

Before I talk about my experience with that piece though, I’ll go all the way back to my experience in the fourth and fifth grade. Because at that time, I already knew that I hated limits. I wasn’t much of a writer then—at least, I didn’t write regularly, though I did enjoy it a lot. I was always happy to have creative writing assignments in school, because I loved imagining strange worlds and interesting characters. What I didn’t love was that these assignments had to be a maximum of five pages double-spaced (I think—it may have actually been shorter.) That’s about a thousand words, which is about two thirds the length of this post. And while that’s a fine amount of work for most nine- to ten-year-olds, for me it was awful. I always found myself pushing up against the max length, and ending the stories abruptly. That length is just not congruent with the way my imagination works. Over the past six years I’ve written twenty-six short stories, and only one of them was under that length.

But that’s not so bad. A few bizarre, goofy short stories truncated—it’s no big loss, and it was no big frustration to me. What was worse was the max length for plays in high school.Read More »

Learning from Shakespeare’s Histories

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Falstaff and his Page by Adolf Schrödte

In preparation for writing a historical play (not based on real history, but a play with banners and kings and armies) I’ve been reading a few of Shakespeare’s histories—namely, Richard IIHenry IV part 1Henry IV part 2Henry V, and Julius Caesar.

Now, I’m not taking any classes on Shakespeare, nor have I ever taken any classes exclusively focused on Shakespeare. This post doesn’t come from a well-informed scholarly background, or from someone intimately familiar with the discourse surrounding Shakespeare. I’m just some guy who likes reading and writing and watching plays. With that said, this is what I’ve learned.Read More »

That’d Make a Great Play

I think you can turn any idea into a play, and any idea into a piece of prose. However, there are some ideas that just suit one form or the other better, and since I enjoy writing both, I never try to make an idea that’s best for a short story into a play, or visa versa. I can’t really say what makes an idea excellent material for prose, because there’s so much flexibility in style and scope with prose fiction—however, plays are much more limited. So it really is special when I have an idea for a story, or find inspiration in some piece of news, and think, Man, that’d make a great play. So, when I’m considering how to develop an idea, these are the biggest characteristics that make me think it’d be a good candidate for a work of theatre.

Restricted Setting

This is probably the most obvious one. Because theaters have limited budgets, and limited stage space, most plays take place in one or a few locations. Of course there are exceptions, like every Shakespeare play, but most plays feature just one or two settings. This is something that sets prose and plays apart. There is a clear limitation on the story which is communicated to the audience. The characters can’t get around one another—they can’t solve their problems somewhere else. Everything is going to have to go down on stage, and that creates tension. Even if a prose story is all set in one place, there’s no feeling of suspense over the knowledge that it’s going to be finished in that space—because it isn’t necessarily going to be finished in that space. There are no inherent limits to the form, so the characters can go anywhere they want to, and it takes more work for the author to establish restrictions. With plays, the restrictions are instantly clear.Read More »