Thursday, January 27, 2011

Terence, this is stupid stuff -

This is the only poem I ever loved so much that I had to memorize it. It's from A.E. Housman's Shropshire Lad. It was written in 1896. Terence was Housman's nickname for himself. It starts with his friends making fun of him for "the verse you make, it gives a chap the belly-ache". They suggest instead of these "melancholy, mad" poems, they dance. Or maybe get drunk. Terence sees the virture in getting drunk (like the last poem) "Malt does more than Milton can to justify God's ways to man". But Terence thinks it futile. From 15-43 below, Housman sums up everything there is to know about drinking. Well, drinking beer. He especially kills it with the most devastating couplet ever to sum up a hangover in the history of the English language: "The world, it was the old world yet. I was I, my things were wet."

Terence then decides to defend his poetry, his sad stories. Sad stories, he says, help the listener when they are sad: "It should do good to heart and head when your soul is in my soul's stead". The way an immunization injects a live virus into your body so your body can learn to kill it, sad stories inject pain into your heart, so your heart can learn to survive when it has its own pain. Housman, to make this point, tells the tale of Mithridates. Read it below.

‘TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make, 5
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ’tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow. 10
Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.’

Why, if ’tis dancing you would be, 15
There’s brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse, 20
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot 25
To see the world as the world’s not.
And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past:
The mischief is that ’twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where, 30
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I’ve lain, 35
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet, 40
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure 45
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
’Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale: 50
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head 55
When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast, 60
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more, 65
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat; 70
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told. 75
Mithridates, he died old.

Be Drunk

Be Drunk

You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it--it's the
only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks
your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually
drunk.
But on what?Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be
drunk.
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of
a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again,
drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave,
the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything
that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is
singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and
wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you:"It is time to be
drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be
continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish."

Charles Baudelaire

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Pittsburgh, Tullvanea

Finally a chance to write. It not an optimal situation. I am in Owain’s room, Liberty is on my left on the floor in her mattress. A couple night ago she decided she didn’t want to sleep in her crib and she’s so nice about everything we’re just going with it, even today when she moved out of the single bed in her room to the floor of Owain's room. AND I had to double pinky swear to Owain that I would read him extra Harry Potter tomorrow in exchange for me working while he was falling asleep tonight. Owain can extract concessions like a pro. He learned from the master. I say that as a joke, but actually one thing I think about a lot is the fact that genetically speaking your children are much more about their grandparents than they are about you. DNA combines in ways that make this true that I don’t really understand, but I often think about it looking at my children. I think about their four grandparents.

Owain was singing these lullabies to her until just a second ago. He has this place, the spelling I do not have exactly, but it is an imaginary country called Tullvanea. Tullvanea has an arts scene and Owain is really active in it and is always ready to tell us a Tullvanean joke or sing Liberty a Tullvanean lullaby. Or, make, God help us, this Tullvanean delicacy called Rippa Juice, which is cocoa and Ribena in a wine glass. These are of mixed merit. For instance, Liberty just tried to bring the lullaby performance to close with a hearty “Yay, Owing” and a few claps. When he kept singing she smiled at him but put her hands over her ears. She is very good at communicating what she wants in a nice way. Anyway, in Tullvanea, it is a crime to smoke cigarettes and a crime to not listen to your children. Tullvanea is his way of telling me how he wants the world to be. I had the exact same game I played but with Jill Leibowitz in the eighth grade, we would talk on the phone for hours role-playing that we were in this parallel life where everything was exactly how we wanted it to be. It took place in a city glamorous to us, but not too impossibly glamorous like Paris or New York. We were happy with Pittsburgh. Yes, my imaginary world was Pittsburgh.

But I did my work on the core of the play today, something became clear to me that is theatrical and tough. I have to tell you, I am experiencing a lot of joy with this play and it's a nice fucking change of pace for me after a decade. I feel like I have found my voice, a great theatrical subject, an incredibly supportive creative partner. I have a husband who just put down his guitar -which he just picked up after our long day - to go upstairs and be a Tullvanean DJ so I could go downstairs and work for a little while in peace. I must be crazy but I think that after a decade of watching plays and reading plays, I have earned the right to call myself a playwright. I had so much fun writing and rewriting the sitcom, right?, and that didn't go anywhere. But that was my first sitcom and this is my fourth attempt at a full-length play after a decent collection of shorts. So maybe it's not so crazy. Or maybe the whole problem is that I worry too much about what is and is not crazy. In the end it is a useless distinction.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mystical Revelations concerning Hamlet and life in Cambridgeshire

So apropos of my last post, I really should be working on this play with a view to getting it into the Verity Bargate in March. I just have these small issues like marriage, parenting and employment to deal with. Ha ha ha ha ha. And i am trying to finish Anna Karenina, a book I always wanted to read and the subject of book club on Thursday night - two reading night's time. Luckily, work is neither busy nor demanding. Oh, no, sorry, work IS busy and demanding.

But I have been in touch with some people from Skadden recently. Fucking Skadden. And people think Mormonism is a dangerous cult. And an ex-Skadden survivor said I should mention something my son said to me the other day. We were talking about this book where a child nearly dies and his pastor father interprets what the child reports about the afterlife. Jesus has blue eyes, is one of the spoilers the kid blurts out. Actually, the heaven this kid described sucks, no place I would want to go, seriously harps and shit. (There were some cool things about Seraphim and Cherubim and Angels to be fair.) So I described this book to Owain and he listened and then patiently and confidently explained to me that God wasn't black or white or male or female or young or old or blue eyed or brown eyed. He is bigger than all that stuff.

And I was startled by the clarity of his answer so I asked who he learned that from and he said he learned it from me. Which was a relief, because I must be doing something right (Cue Julie Andrews in Sound of Music: I must have done something good.)

That's not even the most interesting thing Owain has said to me by a longshot. I always use my friend Teresa's Spanish saying at our house when I am pressed into service as a human search engine to run around the house to find socks and pom bears and Blackberries: Look with your eyes and not with your mouth.

So I told him to look with his eyes and not with his mouth for a ball he needed to retrieve one summer's night when he had been playing in his pyjamas with us and Liberty in the grass. And he said, "You know,"
And then he giggled.

"You know, the baby animals tell me (a vividly imagined retinue of miniature animals who are invisible and follow him around sometimes) that I should look with my HEART and not with my EYES. Because when you look with your heart, you see that everyone is the same, so everything is really confusing and funny. REALLY funny." And then he laughed.

That is my favorite one. He did not get the information from me. I am excited that at the heart of the truth of the universe there's some funny slapstick going on. This segueways nicely into Hamlet, which I saw at the National about ten days ago, what was dubbed the funny Hamlet. And Rory Kinnear finds a lot of jokes in that script and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Hamlet have some great site gags going themselves.


I loved every second of it. What I wasn't sure about was the through-line, the trope, the meme. It is a chalked smiley face with the label villain underneath. Hamlet turns a column into a blackboard to write it when he rants about the King. He later makes it into a t-shirt for the players and hands them out at the play. From there on in, everyone except the King at one time or another wears the t-shirt, labelling themselves, perhaps, as the villain of the moment. Ophelia dies wearing one, for surely her death sets Hamlet over the edge, and to his sanity, her act of suicide is villainous indeed.

In life I have found I whiplash in my own consideration from being the hero to being the villain and back. Certainly it is very hard to tell how other people see it. But Shakespeare, he saw it, and he showed it by creating narratives where people are constantly switching between being kings and being villains, murderers, sometimes within the same sentence.

What this smiley face tells me now, though, ten days after I saw the play is interesting. (Cue JD closing voice-over on Scrubs:) In the end, there is a chalk smiley face on a wall and that smiley face describes every one of us (for we are all the same) and underneath we can write hero or we can write villain. Hamlet wanted to write hero but people were not heroes to him, and he had to write villain and then had to live out his own t-shirt slogan. Even though, you know, he was a sweet, sweet prince.

The production at the National was just perfect. The King was Putin in appearance and mannerisms and the castle had a vaguely Eurotrashy gaudiness like new Russians in Surrey that I enjoyed. I really felt such a genuine thrill at hearing Polonius exhort his mixed race north London family "To thine own self be true". I was most moved by Hamlet's grasp on the players to try to move the king to shame and self-knowledge. He watches one of the players perform a piece (done so beautifully) about Hecuba, an queen of ancient Greece (driven insane by viewing the corpses of her children)(I know, ick.). And the player weeps. Hamlet says:


O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wanned,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing,
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.


What is Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba? They are each other, right? Well, at least according to my son's imaginary friends. That is the magic of the play, of any play, ah, dear me, I have the motive and the cue for passion myself. I need to get to work. And my mandate is also something that came from Hamlet :

the purpose of playing, whose
end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the
mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own
image, and the very age and body of the time his form and
pressure.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Happy New Year

I feel like this is going to be a big year for me, it's been ten years - cue Jeremy Piven in Grosse Point Blank: Ten years. Ten Years! TEN YEARS! TEN YEARS! Ten Years! Pause. Ten years.

Ten years ago, 2001, was the year. It was the year of my life that everything went down and everything that has happened to me in this DECADE is a consequence of that year. The bipolar diagnosis, Skadden inexplicably dumping me, Dan Goldberg sending me an e-mail telling me I should marry Rhys, showing Rhys my bipolar diagnosis and him still being game, winning the Ten Minute Play competition and thinking I was ready to move to London and be a playwright.

Ready to be a playwright. That would be exactly like a London playwright watching a trial in DC District court and saying, hey, you know what, this looks even more fun than writing plays! I'm in! And the playwright moves to DC and expects to instantly be a trial lawyer. Cue Syndrome in The Incredibles after monologuing about life trampling on his fondest dreams: HA! ha! Ha ha HA HA! Ha!

So in 2001 my life changed completely. I was so scared of the change at the time. I was so terrified by it all that I suppressed it, and hid from myself the fact that it was happening. Like at my wedding when my body distracted me with pneumonia and a hacking death cough. Sad in retrospect. It was like my subconscious wanted me to make this change so badly that finally it had to just feed my conscious mind a line of bullshit to get it to shut up. Cue Cassie in Chorus Line: (tenderly) What I did for love. I was so in love. Love: a powerful trick pulled by your subconscious mind.

Ten years on and perhaps I am ready to celebrate what happened that year, and ready to carefully consider what is worth celebrating. It did lead to the life I have now, a life I did not cry about upon returning to Cambridge from Florida this year. It did result in my family. I didn't see it coming at all, my conscious mind being somewhat of an outlier, but my subconscious, my unconscious, saw everything, recreated the ancient stories out of DNA and found my family for me.

I did know that there would be a time when I would look back and say, well, you moved to London to be a playwright. Did you succeed or fail? I used to say this to myself, a cursed, horrible mantra when I first moved to London. Truly I am a bitch, trying to goad myself into art this way. Luckily, I found I had a lot to learn, and learn I have. I have had some positive responses along the way. I am working on a new play now that is kind of scary in a very good way. I want this to be a happy new year.