play thirteen: angels in america: a gay fantasia on national themes (part one: millennium approaches)

The HBO Angel. Emma Thompson, naturally.
The HBO Angel. Emma Thompson, naturally.

Author: Tony Kushner

Published: 1993 (Pulitzer Prize winner)

Synopsis: Three threads of American living gradually interweave in the cold new era of Reagan and in the face of the catastrophic AIDS crisis. Louis is confronted with his own cowardice as he abandons his lover Prior to struggle with his diagnosis of AIDS alone. Mormon couple Harper and Joe struggle with the constraints of their religion as sexuality and addiction collide. Roy Cohn, a New York arch-conservative lawyer responsible for the death of Ethel Rosenberg, refuses to submit to the label entailed by his deteriorating health.

What moved me: it is incredibly difficult to articulate a single element of this work that is not breathtaking. I think, though, Kushner’s note about the staging is worthy of reproduction here for the perfect framework it creates for the play.

“The play benefits from a pared-down style of representation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly (no blackouts!), employing the cast as well as stagehands – which makes for an actor-driven event, as this must be. The moments of magic – the appearance and disappearance of Mr Lies and the ghosts, the Book hallucination, and the ending – are to be fully realised, as bits of wonderful theatrical illusion – which means it’s OK if the wires show, and maybe it’s good that they do, but the magic should at the same time be thoroughly amazing.”

play twelve: our town

Emily's bright bright moon.
Emily’s bright bright moon.

Author: Thornton Wilder

Published: 1938

Synopsis: the stage-manager of ‘Our Town’ narrates the story of Grover’s Corners, a fictional sm(all)-American town, between 1901 and 1913. It tracks the growth, departures, and deaths of two neighbouring families through the slowly burgeoning relationship between high-school sweethearts George Gibbs and Emily Webb.

What moved me: Wilder’s prescience in terms of form. Stripping the face of illusion off his stage (removing set, curtain, and scenery) whilst also blending its crossover with reality (the Stage Manager is, after all, still a character within this play-world and is not the stage manager of the actual production) forced me to be hypersensitive to the gradual unfolding of time and how we may only demarcate it in retrospect. That is, time must be lived through before it may be analysed.

play six: homebody/kabul


Author: Tony Kushner

Published: 2002

Synopsis: I’ve struggled to wrestle this play into a fistful of lines and so give you Nancy Franklin’s take on it in her New Yorker article ‘Afghan Tales.’

What moved me: The Homebody holding the shopkeeper’s “ruined right hand.” The stage direction “So late at night it’s nearly dawn, but the sky is still black and wild with fierce stars.” The idea that all graves are empty, holding nothing but dust.

What I loved most was the messy cowardice of Milton Ceiling. Husband of The Homebody, he is dragged to Afghanistan by Priscilla (his daughter) to find his wife. He doesn’t want to find her though and he never leaves his hotel room. He is not brave and seems to dislike his offspring intensely. On an opium high he says:

“She’s a born digger, she was born with a spade in her hands. The little ghoul. Prowling the streets for her mother’s cadaver to drag home in her teeth, needing to see it, I suppose, see the underside of her own mother’s ribcage. […] (He starts to cry) My wife has died, horribly died, and I shall be alone with her when we are home and she with me, and I am all she has left, and we are neither of us what anyone wants.”

You can see that this dislike does not mean he does not love.

play four: buried child

Patti and Sam. So young. So fine.
Patti and Sam. So young. So fine.

Author: Sam Shepard

Published: 1978 (won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize)

Synopsis: Focused on the fragmentation of the Midwestern nuclear family that was central to the American dream. Vince returns to his family home to introduce girlfriend Shelley after a six-year absence. He finds a violently dysfunctional family who barely recognise him: his dying grandfather, the alcoholic Dodge; his mostly absent grandmother Halie; his father Tilden, whose mind seems to have stopped; his uncle Bradley, who chopped off his leg with a chainsaw. They are corkscrewed around a secret that slowly forces itself to the surface.

What moved me: the way Shepard stretches his imagery. Tilden enters the space with his arms full to brimming with ears of corn, and later with bushels of carrots; the way Halie enters the space “dressed completely in black, as though in mourning. Black handbag, hat with a veil, and pulling on elbow length gloves” and returns (ostensibly from the same outing) “wearing a bright yellow dress, no hat, white gloves and her arms are full of yellow roses.”

play two: a view from the bridge

The cinema that Catherine and Rudolpho visit to Eddie’s chagrin.

Playwright: Arthur Miller

Published: 1955

Synopsis: Mr Alfieri, a smalltime lawyer in an Italian-American neighbourhood near Brooklyn Bridge, narrates the tragedy of Eddie Carbone. A longshoreman married to Beatrice and guardian of orphaned niece Catherine, he houses Beatrice’s relatives Rodolpho and Marco who arrive as illegal immigrants. The steadily growing attraction between Rodolpho and Catherine rouses the deeply repressed desire that has seen Eddie keep his niece wrapped in cotton wool. To sabotage their impending marriage (and Rodolpho’s subsequent citizenship) he reports their presence to Immigration and is shunned by his community. His inability to acknowledge his need for Catherine results in his eventual death at the hands of an enraged Marco.

What moved me: the care of Miller’s stage directions.

[EDDIE is downstage, watching as she pours a spoonful of sugar into his cup, his face puffed with trouble, and the room dies.]

[She looks past the sobbing CATHERINE  at EDDIE, who in the presence of his wife, makes an awkward gesture of eroded command, indicating CATHERINE.]

[CATHERINE, sensing now an imperious demand, turns with some fear, with a discovery, to BEATRICE. She is at the edge of tears, as though a familiar world had shattered.]

[MARCO is face to face with EDDIE, a strained tension gripping his eyes and jaw, his neck stiff, the chair raised like a weapon over EDDIE’S head – and he transforms what might appear like a glare of warning into a smile of triumph, and EDDIE’s grin vanishes as he absorbs his look.]