Monday, October 27, 2014

When the Frost in on the Punkin

At a gathering last weekend, where we read poetry and plays, I chose to read James Whitcomb Riley's "When the Frost is on the Punkin" -- a poem I grew up with, being a Hoosier like Riley, and speaking the dialect in which he wrote it.  I'm not sure the exact date when it was written but it's pushing 100 years ago.  Growing up in a very rural area I knew what he refers to but I asked the group sitting in a very modern home on a misty lake if they knew what a "shock" is. Educated guesses approached it but no one knew corn shocks were once common in the fields as shocks of wheat were. I explained that I remember my father cutting the corn stalks after the ears had been harvested, and standing them in shocks until the field was cut and they could be taken to the barn.

They became "fodder", something else my city-bred contemporaries did not know -- food for cows and pigs in the winter as was hay.  Nor did they have a picture of the corn's dried tassels of which Riley writes.  Sometimes I think my memories contain a complete mechanical revolution. I have been working on a poem that says so. Maybe I'll post it tomorrow. For now here  are the first two of the four stanzas of the poem.

When the Frost is on the Punkin

By James Whitcomb Riley
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin’ turkey-cock,
And the clackin’ of the guineys, and the cluckin’ of the hens,
And the rooster’s hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it’s then’s the times a feller is a-feelin’ at his best,
With the risin’ sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here—
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;
But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Skylight, David Hare

No one writes dialog in English better than an English writer.  I just saw Skylight by David Hare, one England's very best playwrights who perhaps writes dialog even better than Tom Stoppard  (who after all is not a native English speaker -- but brilliant all the same). This was a National Theatre Live showing, not a simulcast but a live performance with Esther Freud as the intermission ineterviewer talking to David Hare about this reprise of hin 1996 play. 

This is a love story, of its own sort, one of the few plays Hare has written with just three people on stage in an intimate drama.  He has written much that is historic and politica. This play is political too but mainly personal. The dialog is brilliantly delivered (as directed by Stephen Daldry).  Bill Nighy plays the one time lover, whose wife has died and who is ready to reignite a love affairs with a woman who walked away and totally changed her way of life. The man is a selfish shit as is said many times, not only by his ex-lover but by his son who visits also. Bill Nighy played the same role in the first production in 1996.  He is a brilliant actor; it was a wonderful performance (and he wore a magnificently elegant bespoke suit and coat), but I couldn't help thinking he must have been so much more appropriately cast 18 years ago. He is well into his 70s and emaciated. I couldn't help thinking if they were reprising a play with a woman in such a role she wouldn't stand a chance of being recast 18 years later.  Men can get away with being sexy at that age but not women.  

Carrie Mulligan was wonderful. Although I enjoyed all the brilliant repartee, I was not truly satisfied with the ending. Feminist that i am, I nevertheless did not want her to cling to her high minded teacherly vocation, and I wanted her to be more truly loving of Nighy's very flawed (often insufferable - although enormously clever) persona.  But that's my feeling. I guess I still believe "amour omni vincit". It was a wonderful production and brilliantly acted.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Great season beginning

Never could I have imagined when I moved to Cape Cod I could enjoy so many first rate performances -- opera, theatre, dance as are on the agenda for this season at the local art movie house, the Dennis Cinema -- all live, simulcasts.  I skipped the fall's first Met Opera simulcast, Verdi's MacBeth, but went to today's Nozzi de Figaro (Mozart). I was aware that the dated form of farce would be tiresome but I went because I realized, although I've heard it often on radio broadcasts, I had not seen it on stage since I was 17. It was the first opera I ever saw and that was way back when I was in Cincinnati for  my first summer of office temping, and went to the outdoor opera at the Cincinnati zoo.  Of course there was no such thing a subtitles at the time and, although I read the plot, I didn't understand anything but the sight jokes and Mozart's brilliant arias. Today's broadcast had good subtitles, the usual intermission features, a cast of mostly non-American singers I had never heard of although all had Met-level voices and James Levine was conducting his 75th Nozzi de Figaro.  

The future holds eight more operas of which I will probably go to five, certainly to the Meistersinger von Nurnberg (Wagner) which I have wanted to see ever since I first heard it back in my teen years of listening to the Saturday broadcasts. 

Besides the Met simulcasts, there well be, for the first time here, four ballets from the Bolshoi that Rachel and I look forward to with excitement. And the list of National Theatre Live broadcasts starts this coming Thursday with Skylight by David Hyde - a play new to me. I skipped their Streetcar Named Desire and will skip the Mice and Men -- fine plays but far too familiar to see again unless some major star were in them.  Add to this stunning array of things to see, the high level of art films at the same theater, the weekly foreign film series at the college and the documentary series I've been attending.  So who needs a TV?  Not me. All of that rounds out my reading in a very nice way. Plus we have here on Cape Cod a very respectable symphony orchestra and occasionally fine theatre at the Cotuit Center for the Arts.  All of these are affordable as such really are not in New York City. Oh, and sometimes there are fairly good art shows both here and in Boston.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reading a variety of authors

Philosophically I want to prefer books written by women.  But, from childhood, I found the conversations of men more interesting than that of women.  Not that, in childhood, any family conversation was very interesting to me: women about garden, cooking and canning, men about crops and weather but occasionally about politics. Ours was not a story telling family; really, I found most family conversation uninteresting.

Studying literature, of course, most of the writers were men, probably 99% of them. Then came Feminism and books by women that told me about the world I lived in.  Mostly nonfiction but I found some wonderful women writing fiction too, Doris Lessing, Iris Murdock, Eudora Welty, Mary Lee Settle, not so many as there were men.  But things have changed and now women seem to take up about half the space on the new books tables.  A good thing.

In the past couple of weeks I've read two novels by women, Tracy Chevalier's Virgin Blue and Anita Desai's Zigzag. Strangely their essential plot line is the same: aimless mate in a foreign country where husband/wife are deep into their own career so the aimless one begins researching his/her family's connection to the area only to find unpleasant facts. Strange to hit upon the same plot in a random way!  At the same time I've picked up a fat book containing six of Jim Harrison'a Brown Dog (title story) novellas. I had read the first Brown Dog story and never forgot it's strongest image, a drowned and frozen Indian deep in Lake Superior.

It bothers me a little that the two books by well respected women with wonderful adjectives on the book's jackets, are frail and superficially imagined compared to Jim Harrison's extremely rich details of the life. B.D. may be part Chippewa, certainly has an affinity with various Natives.  Of course Harrison is twice the age of each of the women, he's honed his craft much longer.  But the truth is he's not only a far better writer, his world is far more interesting. While I can imagine myself in the Provence or Yucatan of the women's books, I find myself transported to the forests and small towns of the UP. And I believe B.D. as a person (one I would actually not like if I met him even though he has various redeeming qualities). Through Harrison's writing I enter a world.  Through the women's writing, I see characters who are familiar with some historical background that is interesting, their psychology is superficial, I don't care about them much as people.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Sea Inside, best foreign film (Spain) 2004

Okay, so I'm years behind whether I'm reading books or watching foreign films.  They've stood the test of time and I'm catching up.  Yesterday's foreign film at the college was The Sea Inside,  to me a near perfect movie. The subject was serious and explored with humanity, depth and variety, emotional and moral as American movies almost never do -- as if American audiences can't handle really looking at a serious subject.  And the subject was a serious as possible: Ramon broke his neck at age 23, has been a paraplegic taken care of by his truly loving and sincere family ever since. It's been over 20 years, he doesn't want to go on living but he cannot commit suicide without help. They, for moral reasons and out of love for him, will not/cannot help him.

This is rural Spain. Old morals are strong, the Catholic church is strong, but so is the family.  In an American film the family would be messed up, dysfunctional. Not here, they are strong, they have given up much, but they are not resentful, somewhat unhappy, of course. But this is their brother/son, uncle.  He manages to find a woman lawyer who will take his case to court, she herself is ill and knows her time is limited. A rather simple neighbor woman falls for him, possibly out of her own need (a thread not explored), no one takes her very seriously. The story is simply told, the actors are all superb, especially Javier Barden as Ramon. The simply young woman is the one who comes to love him enough to understand that helping him die is the most loving thing she can do.  It's enormously touching. Each character is a good and  strong person in his or her own way.  Such people DO exist -- almost never in our modern hyped-up movie and story telling. A few movie makers and writers see the world as a harsh but compassionate place.  Bless them!

Monday, October 13, 2014

The White Tiger, Man Booker Prize Winner

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga won the Man Booker Prize in 2008.  Adiga attended Columbia and Oxford and has written for various newspapers. His story is about Balram Halwai, a young man from the sweet making caste whose father escaped sweet making to be a rickshaw puller -- a physically more difficult job.  He saw to it that his youngest son, learned to read and write.  Baltram does not intend to stay in the small village and be hungry all his life. He manages to become a driver for a member of the family that owns the property of the town, mean greedy men who live off the work of the town's few families.

Balram drives for the American-educated one in the family, a sort of softie married to an American woman who is not a Hindu. They move to Delhi, the better for his boss to deliver the bribes that are demanded by those who want to collect taxes from the family.  Balram understands what is going on and that he is meant to remain poor the rest of his life and to be totally subserviant to his master, live in a cockroach infested little room and come running when called, keep the car spotless and take the rap when the master's drunken wife kills a beggar child while driving wildly one night.

Balram's insight is stated:  “See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of? Losing weight and looking like the poor.”

Balram finally kills his master, and knows that he can escape with a suitcase of money meant to pay off bribes, because millions of  poor men like himself look exactly alike to the authorities.  He uses the money to become an "entrepreneur". While the story is unrelenting, the  prose is fluid and easy to read, never preaching, never whining. Fiction, of course, but with such a grasp of the truth of the underclasses one can only think of the billion people in India, what degradation still exists. And that we know bribery is pervasive almost everywhere.  (What else are the campaign donations by America's big corporations?)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Some messages are still to hard to swallow

I wrote a sort of manifesto poem when Peter offered the poetry class a prompt form a favorite poet of his (wouldn't you know, I saw his book yesterday and today forgot his name?). It was "I did/not follow the script". How could I resist? I didn't. The poem may not be a good one in poetic terms but it tells the story and ends with the lesson learned.  The story was discussed in class with recognition. No one actually remarked on the lesson -- I think they did not get it.  Truly revolutionary feminism is not in style, certainly not among our senior citizenry, which is the make up of the class, male and female.
But it seems to me the only way to end these horrible wars is for the women to be more active than those in Lysistrata -- to indeed kill the warrior when he returns victorious.

In parental exasperation my mother declared
“You’ll marry Kenny Craigmile
and be a farmer’s wife.”
In adolescent rage, I ran to my room --
I had learned not to make a scene --
I wrote in my diary, She understands
Nothing, Nothing! NOTHING!!!

Nor did I. I moved farther and farther away
From her and from Kenny Craigmile
But the script of gender, caste, education
Was strongly writ in the 1950s USA:
I succumbed, in my own way, to mating,
nesting, a little social climbing.

Educating myself beyond college courses
I discovered The Feminine Mystique,
Then wrote my first important script,
The End of the Teflon-Coated Life.
I struggled to write strong scripts –
to learn to make scenes; but I could not
Write scenes like men did. For them scenes
Came naturally loud, violent, profame
Or clever, contrived, intellectualized.

My heroine became Clytemnestra who,
Unlike patient, prevaricating Penelope,
Worked with her lover to ruled Mycenae
Well. She killed filicide Agamemnon
When he returned victorious from Troy.
She has been reviled these many millennia.
Men wrote the scripts about war and women.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

33 Variations, Moises Kaufmann at Cotuit Center for the Arts

This is a still from the Broadway production of 33 Variation, a pay by Moises Kaufman.  On B'way it starred Jane Fonda (in photo) as the musicologist studying Beethoven's composition of 33 Variations on a little theme by Diabelli (known as the Diabella Variations).  The story parallels Katherine's discoveries in a Bonn archive with Beethoven's composition while at the same time parallels between her increasing disability due to ALS and Beethoven's final illness are drawn (too obviously for my taste).  I saw it Sunday afternoon at the Cotuit Center for the Arts where I was delighted to discover that it's artistic director, David Keuhn was trained as a classical pianist as a young man but chose a more varied career than that of concert pianist. Throughout the production he played the appropriate variation for the subject being discussed.  I am less than enthralled with the modern day story of mother and daughter although adeptly handled, than I am with Beethoven's struggles with composition and his increasing deafness, his personal irrcrasability. The lead was a weak choice (but in a specific community as Cape Cod is, finding actors with the required skill is VERY  difficult) for the main character.  But overall the rest of the cast were fine as was set, costume and especially mostly astute direction. The tour de force scene was given to Beethoven and the pianist as he talked through his composition of variation 32 - a musical breakthrough. It was beautifully acted I almost had to sit on my hands not to applause as one does a grand aria in an opera -- it deserved bravos.  I talked to another music lover yesterday who said he DID applaud, and was chastized by a friend but was not apologetic for interrupting the flow of the play. And others joined him in applause. I wish I had done the same.  Some plays are written with set pieces just as operas are written with major arias. When briliantly acted (or sung) they deserve to be recognized.  

I don't like overly neat and obvious parallels and I'm saddened when I don't feel real passion in the heart of actors. I wish I could have seen Jane Fonda in this role, although I still wouldn't have been 
happy about the playwright's contrivance.