Medieval Mystery, Folk, and Morality Plays – Introduction to

Not long after drama reappeared in the unlikely home of European churches, the church decided again it didn’t like theater. And so, the budding dramatic scene was kicked out into the harsh elements of the outdoors. So, they started having plays outdoors. Today we’ll learn about mystery plays, cycle plays, pageant wagons, and how medieval European theater moved from being a religious phenomenon to a secular one.

The other important medieval genre is the morality play, which Hildegarde of Bingen started. The most famous morality play is “Everyman,” which is still performed annually and often updated. Morality plays have one simple message: YOU GONNA DIE. So you’d better get your act together, because all that love and wealth and fun aren’t gonna follow you six feet under.

15 American Plays It’d Be Great to See Revived | The Village Voice

Everybody knows theater critics are useless. All year round, they occupy free seats, and in return they do nothing but complain, complain, complain. Why, you ask, can’t they do something useful for a change?

So I was complaining (as usual), a few weeks back (Voice, May 23), about having to review the same plays over and over, when the world, so I claimed, was “full of unperformed great plays” deserving revival. In response, I only got press releases announcing that next season, like the last one, would be full of familiar titles. Some of them worth seeing again, no doubt, but not exactly unperformed rarities likely to fill a desperate hunger in our collective theatrical soul. Why can’t our theater find at least a few less well-known plays that are worth a fresh look?

That drove me, shockingly, to do something useful: compile my list of plays we rarely or never see—plays we should be seeing, because they add some quality, which our theater currently lacks.

Sin (A Cardinal Deposed) (2004) by Michael Murphy. Not trying to raise religious hackles here. Murphy’s docudrama, premiered by the New Group, uses Cardinal Law’s depositions before the Boston courts to reveal the inner workings of a bureaucracy’s systematic cover-up of child abuse—something that has tragically spread as a matter of public concern, not only within world Catholicism, but in secular realms like Penn State and Horace Mann School. Murphy’s dramatic map of the Boston case remains a painful prototype of far too many instances revealed subsequently.

The Danube (1984) and The Conduct of Life (1985) by María Irene Fornés: Two full-evening works on very different topics, both still burning. The first, depicting star-crossed lovers forced to confront ecological disaster, now seems stunningly prophetic. The second deals with a government-employed military torturer and the women in his life. Granted, I don’t see TV stars lining up to play these scripts. But I wish they would.

Ready for the River (1991) by Neal Bell: Bell is one of my leading candidates for America’s most unreasonably neglected playwright (though PTP/NYC has just revived Monster, his excellent adaptation of Shelley’s Frankenstein). You can gauge his prescience, from the opening of this play’s harrowing, surreal journey—a farmer’s wife and daughter fleeing because he has just murdered the banker who came to foreclose on the family farm. Sounds dated, I suppose.

The Fabulous Miss Marie (1971) by Ed Bullins. First produced, memorably, at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre, Bullins’s sardonic study of L.A.’s affluent black couples, living to par-tay while sneering at civil rights marchers, uses vaudeville stylization and short, cogent scenes to treat its characters with a spicy mix of satirical malice and Chekhovian compassion.

In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969) by Tennessee Williams. A failing genius painter and his fearsomely unhappy wife, locked in Strindbergian love-hate, fuel this most challengingly dense of Williams’s texts. But anyone who saw Donald Madden and Anne Meacham play it Off-Broadway knows its riveting power.

Who’ll Save the Plowboy? (1962) by Frank D. Gilroy. Produced by the Phoenix Theatre, this play put Gilroy on the theatrical map; a few years later, The Subject Was Roses cemented his reputation. Harsher and bleaker than the later work, Plowboy won the 1962 Best Play Obie Award.

The Gingham Dog (1969) by Lanford Wilson. Signature Theatre has kindly announced Wilson’s masterpiece, The Mound Builders, for next season. But they, or somebody, should tackle this somberly moving four-hander, mapping the breakup of an interracial marriage, which got an unjustly sniffy reception at its first production.

Lagrima del Diablo (The Devil’s Tear) (1980) by Dan Owens. Political upheaval on a Caribbean island, naturally seasoned with a dash of vodoun, centering on a dictator, an exiled archbishop, and a mute girl with prophetic powers. Owens, a cunning, complex writer, was treated handsomely by the Negro Ensemble Company, but the press, as so often, had its mind elsewhere.

Boy on the Straight-Back Chair (1969) by Ronald Tavel. A Southwestern serial killer, a startling theatricalist form, and a style harshly mixing self-aware joking with mordant ruminations on American violence: Sounds like the playwright who invented the Ridiculous, doesn’t it? It needs doing as the American Place Theatre did it then, with lucid ferocity and no camp.

The Cocktail Hour (1988) by A.R. Gurney. New Gurney plays still crop up a few times a year, but New York really deserves another chance at this funniest and wisest of the gentlemanly playwright’s rueful reflections on his vanishing elite-WASP class. It requires a four-person cast as brilliant as the Off-Broadway original; consider yourselves challenged.

The Ceremony of Innocence (1967) by Ronald Ribman. You’re an American, your country’s mired in a meaningless war, what do you write about? If you’re Ronald Ribman—another leading candidate for the title of our most underrated playwright—you create a fierce drama about the medieval King Ethelred, who retreats to a monastery rather than wage war. Another American Place Theatre discovery that urgently deserves rediscovering.

The Credeaux Canvas (2001) by Keith Bunin. Art, love, forgery, and integrity, all wrapped in one taut, tidy package about a chameleonic painter whose businesslike buddy convinces him to fake an old-master canvas. Playwrights Horizons did splendidly by it, with the then-unknown Annie Parisse and Lee Pace as model and artist. Young wannabes, take note.

A Few Stout Individuals (2002) by John Guare. Everyone’s favorite theatrical fantasist spun this dizzying web of words for the Signature’s all-Guare season. The dying U.S. Grant, ruthless general and hapless President, struggles to make sense of his life, nursemaided by his would-be publisher, Mark Twain, and a host of Gilded Age figures low and high. I’d gladly take this exhilarating trip again.

Zero Positive (1988) by Harry Kondoleon. High on the list of writers one can’t forget, Kondoleon turned out maddeningly original plays that shed their light prismatically, in disorienting multicolored flashes. At least six of Kondoleon’s plays merit revival, but this one, set partly in an AIDS ward and given a troubled premiere at the Public Theater, manifestly leads the disorientation course

  • Sin (A Cardinal Deposed) (2004) by Michael Murphy.
  • The Danube (1984) and The Conduct of Life (1985) by María Irene Fornés
  • Ready for the River (1991) by Neal Bell
  • The Fabulous Miss Marie (1971) by Ed Bullins.
  • In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (1969) by Tennessee Williams.
  • Who’ll Save the Plowboy? (1962) by Frank D. Gilroy.
  • The Gingham Dog (1969) by Lanford Wilson.
  • Lagrima del Diablo (The Devil’s Tear) (1980) by Dan Owens.
  • Boy on the Straight-Back Chair (1969) by Ronald Tavel.
  • The Cocktail Hour (1988) by A.R. Gurney.
  • The Ceremony of Innocence (1967)
  • The Credeaux Canvas (2001) by Keith Bunin.
  • A Few Stout Individuals (2002) by John Guare.
  • Zero Positive (1988) by Harry Kondoleon.

MICHAEL FEINGOLD, JULY 4, 2012
https://www.villagevoice.com/2012/07/04/15-american-plays-itd-be-great-to-see-revived/

William S. Burroughs Talks With Tennessee Williams | The Village Voice

Although they were both born in St. Louis within three years of each other, William Burroughs did not meet Tennessee Williams until 1960, when they were briefly introduced at a table in the Cafe de Paris in Tangiers, by Paul and Jane Bowles. Burroughs had read and admired Williams’s short stories, and later in the ’60s Tennessee was known to quote at length from Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. But despite their mutual acquaintances (including the Bowleses and the painter Brion Gysin), they were not to meet again until 1975, at a gathering of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Their first conversation of any length took place at a party after a Burroughs reading at Notre Dame University earlier this year, and there they talked and carried on like old friends.

Tennessee’s new play, Vieux Carre, opens tonight on Broadway. Burroughs and I attended a preview two Saturdays ago. The next day we visited him at the Hotel Elysee, where he has maintained a spacious flat on the 12th floor for some time. It was late afternoon, and as I arrived, a few minutes after Burroughs, they were already seated at the opposite ends of a sofa. Tennessee seemed chipper; he got up to show us a pastel gouache he had just completed on his terrace that morning. Two bottles of wine arrived, and Burroughs and Williams resumed their talk.

James Grauerholz

Orpheus Holds His Own: William Burroughs Talks with Tennessee Williams May 16, 1977, https://www.villagevoice.com/2020/02/16/william-s-burroughs-talks-with-tennessee-williams/

In Praise of Self Pity

The tears shed by the audience at a Victorian melodrama come under the heading of a good cry. They might be called the poor man’s catharsis, and as such have a better claim to be the main objective of popular melodrama than its notorious moral pretensions. Besides referring to superficial emotion, the phrase “having a good cry” implies feeling sorry for oneself. The pity is self-pity. But, for all its notorious demerits, self-pity has its uses. E. M. Forster even says it is the only thing that makes bearable the feeling of growing old—in other words, that it is a weapon in the struggle for existence. Self-pity is a very present help in time of trouble, and all times are times of trouble.

Once we have seen that our modern antagonism to self-pity and sentiment goes far beyond the rational objections that may be found to them, we realize that even the natural objections are in some measure mere rationalization. Attacks on false emotion often mask a fear of emotion as such. Ours is, after all, a thin-lipped, thin-blooded culture. Consider how, in the past half-century, the prestige of dry irony has risen, while that of surging emotion has fallen. This is a cultural climate in which a minor writer like Jules Laforgue can rate higher than a major one like Victor Hugo. Or think of our changed attitude to death. Would any age but this receive the death of admired persons “with quiet understatement”? We may think that Mr. Auden pours his heart out in his good poem on the death of Yeats, but just compare Mr. Auden’s poem with the product of more old-fashioned culture, say, with Garcia Lorca’s “Lament for the Death of Ignacio Mejias”! Would even Lorca’s title be possible in English? Is lamenting something we can imagine ourselves doing? On the contrary we modernize the Greek tragedies by deleting all variants of “woe is me.” If Christ and Alexander the Great came back to life, we would teach them to restrain their tears.

Once I did see death done justice to. An Italian actor came on stage to announce the death of a colleague. He did indeed lament. He shook, he wept, he produced streams of passionate rhetoric, until the audience shook, and wept, and lamented with him. Now that is self-pity, certainly. One is not sorry for a corpse; one is sorry for oneself, deprived; and in the background is the fear of one’s own death. But so much the better for self-pity. The experience was had, not refused.

The Life of the Drama, Eric Bentley
amazon

What is the point of drama?

The point of writing about the extremes of human behaviour is not to discourage wickedness by pointing out the inevitability of it’s comeuppance: “Don’t do this at home'” is as misleading a description of what writing counsels “Go thou and do likewise.” The awful truth is that the response most great writing about wickedness provokes in us is neither “Yes please” nor “No thanks”, but “You too?” Richard III celebrates, nay, glorifies activities – brother-drowning, nephew-smothering, tyranny imposing – that have no redeeming social value at all. True, he gets his just deserts. But what the first half of the play does is to confront us with the fact that this appalling man is the most vivid, thrilling and inspiring person onstage. Eric Bentley points out that while tragedy does not reflect the audience’s actions (they have not committed murder),  it “reflects their souls, and in their souls they have committed murder.” By enabling us to imagine what it is like to see the world through other eyes (including through the eyes of the violent and the murderous), drama develops capacities without which we cannot live together in societies at all.

How Plays Work, David Edgar