2015 TBR Pile Challenge, Classics, Drama, Feminism, Giveaway, Giveaway Hop, Giveaways, Monthly Review, Play, Susan Glaspell

Thoughts: Trifles (1916) by Susan Glaspell

9780874406382Susan Glaspell’s Trifles (1916) is a one-act play that would ultimately inspire another of her works, a short story called “A Jury of Her Peers.” The story is loosely based on an actual event, the murder of John Hossack, which Glaspell reported on while working as a journalist in Des Moines, Iowa. Hossack’s wife was accused of killing her husband, but the wife denied it. Although she was convicted, that conviction was eventually appealed and overturned.

Glaspell is an essential early feminist writer, one who was directly influenced by the likes of Kate Chopin and Fanny Fern; alas, she is often overlooked in feminist literary studies. For those unfamiliar with Glaspell, this short one-act play (my copy was only 26 pages) is a great place to start. The play is funny but poignant. It is a brief, direct example of Glaspell’s primary concerns – the inequalities between women and men, and the culture’s preoccupation with gender roles (stereotypes). It is ultimately a harsh exposé on the patriarchy’s oppressive control over women’s lives.

As its title suggests, the “trifles” of this play are “women concerns,” which men look at as relatively nothing in comparison to “real” (that is male) problems. Glaspell’s approach, however, which sets-up two distinct narrative points of view, one female and one male, creates an interesting and often comic tension between the main characters – the men and their wives. The house which serves as the play’s setting functions as both a crime scene but also as a home, and the characters, depending on their sex and their “purpose” or “role,” will view the house as one or the other of these things (the men treat it as merely a crime scene, the women cannot detach the house from its function as the home of their friend and neighbor who has been accused of murder).

51aea1cdd79ba.preview-620What is most interesting about this play is how much of a wallop it really packs. It is deceptively simple, not just because it is short, but the language, scenery, dialogue, stage direction – everything about the play is designed to be easy. Everything, that is, except for its subject matter. A reader (or audience member) could easily lose herself in the comedy of the situation, in the banter between husbands and wives, or in the knowing looks passed between the ladies, but the reality of the play, the feminist charges being raised and the dark, despondent yet somehow liberating mood created by the plight of the play’s absent Mrs. Wright (pun intended?) creates a rich paradox impossible to ignore.

The final moral crisis, which the women must face together and alone, reveals much about the meaning of justice and the role of women in seeking or fulfilling that justice. Although it is the men who “own” the law (quite literally, as the two male characters represent the police force and the county law offices), it is the women who will determine Mrs. Wright’s fate.

Notable Quotes:

“I didn’t know as what his wife wanted made much difference to John.”

“Women are used to worrying over trifles.”

“She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively, when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls singing in the choir. But that–oh, that was thirty years ago.”

“I know how things can be–for women. I tell you, it’s queer . . . we live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things–it’s all just a different kind of the same thing.”

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2013 TBR Pile Challenge, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Drama, Expressionism, Gay Lit, Gender Studies, GLBT, Literature, Madness, Play, PTSD, Sexuality, Tennessee Williams, Tragedy

Thoughts: A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

12222A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 24

A Streetcar Named Desire is my first experience with Tennessee Williams.  Going into this work, I knew very little about it and I knew very little about the writer.  As it turns out, I may have just discovered a new favorite.  Williams was a semi-openly gay man (at the time of this publication – he did come out publicly in the 1970s) whose works, though certainly rife with queer elements, did not deal directly with gay characters or situations.  A Streetcar Named Desire, though, like The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is a perfect example of how Williams subverts heteronormative literary traditions in order to queer his text.  The play is about two sisters: Blanche, a mild, hypersensitive, and mentally disturbed/delusional middle-aged woman; and Stella, subordinate, sexual, and a symbol of the “New South.”  It is also about Stella’s husband, Stanley.  He is disturbingly sympathetic – an evil man who one can’t help but identify with.  Not since reading Lolita and encountering Mr. Humbert Humbert have I felt so simultaneously enthralled by and repulsed by a literary character.

Blanche, who has suffered two major traumas, comes to New Orleans to stay with her sister and brother-in-law for a short time, until she can get back on her feet.  It is soon discovered that these traumas have been the impetus for certain scandals which have forced Blanche out of her hometown and her career.  These secrets are revealed to Stanley through informants (he is a man of “connections” – likely due to his time in the Army and his lingering camaraderie with GI Vets), but Blanche continues to lie and tell stories right up to the end; the end being one of the most disturbing imaginable. Stanley, in all his pure heterosexuality and machismo is the source of the play’s sexual gaze.  This is a revelation for the time period and is in fact, ironically, one of the two major sources of queerness in the play.  Blanche and her history explain the second and more obvious queering.  The most interesting element of this play, and there are many, is that these two queer representations are battling each other for supremacy over the heteronormative element, which is to say – Stella.

What is particularly powerful and unique about the play, and I hear this is common for most of Williams’s plays, is that it is much more about language and character than it is about story (though that is there too, obviously).  The nature, the structure, of plays typically do not lend themselves well to story-through-language or through characterization, due to their sparseness; however, Williams tells quite a bit of his story in the stage direction, so it is easy to see why this play would be so difficult to stage successfully (and, to my knowledge, it has only been done perfectly well in one instance – with is that of the first staging, including Marlon Brando).  Williams comments on the changing nature of gender roles and sexual politics, post-World War II; he adeptly, brilliantly, exposes the new American male – the romantic but tragic and dangerous hero-come-home.  Women, who had taken up work and head-of-household positions were suddenly forced back into their homes, back into submission, and the power dynamics, social confusion, and family disruption this caused is clearly explored and sensitively, if shockingly, delivered.

He also comments on elements such as “New South versus Old South,” mental health, pederasty, post-traumatic stress disorder, class, race, gender, power, and control.  This short play packs a wallop – it is loaded with themes, yet so delicately crafted that the characters and their stories still manage to come first. While Tennessee Williams is largely considered to be a “New Realist” or “Expressionist,” and this certainly shows in the themes of this play and in its construction, I would argue that this play is a work of Modern Tragedy, particularly due to the absence of religion/morality and the inability of any character to gain redemption or find peace.  The film, though perfectly cast and lovingly produced, unfortunately changes the ending and one of the most important dialogic moments, which eliminates the modern and tragic elements of the play.  This is a great disappointment, as the play itself is perhaps perfect – which is simultaneously why it is one of the most often produced, most sought out by high-profile actors, and most disappointingly delivered.

This is one of the most moving, enjoyable, disturbing, and surprising works that I have read this year.  I am eager to read more from Tennessee Williams, hopefully in the very near future (I’m considering pursuing him as a project, after finishing with John Steinbeck).

Notable Quotes:

“They told me to take a street-car named Desire, and transfer to one called Cemeteries, and ride six blocks and get off at—Elysian Fields!”

“When I was sixteen, I made the discovery – love. All at once and much, much too completely.”

“What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved like a road through mountains.”

“I don’t want realism. I want magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth, I tell what ought to be the truth. And it that’s sinful, then let me be damned for it!”

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

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Book Review, British Literature, Classics, Comedy, Drama, Gender Studies, Homoeroticism, Homosocial Relationships, Pastoral, Play, Shakespeare

Thoughts: As You Like It by William Shakespeare

386383As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 14

I have been away from Shakespeare for far too long. I have taken two courses in Shakespeare, one in college and one in graduate school. In both cases, we spent the majority of the time studying his histories and tragedies (Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, Henry V, etc.), as well as the history of the period, his contemporaries (Marlowe, Jonson, Lily, Nashe, etc.) and some of the sonnets. In only one class did we read a comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I firmly believe we only read this one because a) the instructor felt it necessary to include at least one example of Shakespeare’s comedic work and b) the instructor was also interested in mythology. So, I went into this play not having read any Shakespeare in more than 4 years and having very little experience with his comedies, though I’ve read quite a bit of his oeuvre.

While it is impossible to know just how much of As You Like It is still in its original form (this play, like all his others, was changed multiple times to suit stage needs and audience feedback, prior to having been printed for the first time), it is clear that it was likely written around 1599 (near the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign) and that it fits into the genre of the pastoral, which is inspired by ancient Greek literature. As in other pastoral stories, this one includes high-ranking members of society who must flee from court and hide in the countryside, for fear of imprisonment or execution. They abandon their princely lives to become shepherds, farmers, shopkeepers, etc.

As the play begins, we learn that Sir Rowland de Bois has died and his power and property have passed on to his eldest son Oliver. Oliver is charged with taking care of his brother, Orlando, but the brothers are not friends and Oliver instead completely neglects Orlando, leaving him without education, without property, and without any training which might allow Orlando to advance in the world and make a life for himself. There is a wrestling match at court, which Oliver attempts to “fix” so that the master wrestler, Charles, will kill Orlando during the match – but Orlando wins and during the match catches the eye of the beautiful Rosalind (who is the daughter of Duke Senior, who has been usurped by his brother, Frederick). After the match, Orlando learns that he must flee for his safety, so he heads for the Forest of Ardenne, where Duke Senior happens to be hiding, and is soon followed there (unknowingly) by Rosalind and her bosom friend Celia, both of whom are disguised (Rosalind as a boy, Celia as a darker-skinned peasant).

fraynglobeUltimately, Duke Frederick orders Oliver to find Orlando and bring back Celia (Duke Frederick’s daughter), and threatens him with destruction and poverty if he fails. In the Forest of Ardenne, Orlando meets Rosalind as Ganymede (that name should ring some bells!), who says he will pretend to be Rosalind so that Orlando can practice courting her. This is some of the most elaborate gender-bending in literary history and is somewhat shocking to find in a 17th Century play. Rosalind will eventually become the mastermind of a community wedding, where four couples get married, after agreeing to her terms (given as Ganymede) the day before. There was a woman in love with Rosalind (as Ganymede) who agrees to marry another man, if Ganymede can convince her not to want to marry him (which he does by revealing himself to be a woman) and an agreement from her father, Duke Senior, that he will allow his daughter, Rosalind, to marry Orlando, if only they could find Rosalind (which, again, comes true after Ganymede takes off his disguise).

It gets even more complicated when we recall that, at the time, women’s roles would have been played by boys. So, here we have a boy playing Rosalind, who then – in the play- pretends to be a boy (so a boy playing a girl playing a boy), who then reveals himself to be a girl (all the while still a boy in real life). Talk about a sense of humor!

The primary theme of As You Like It seems to be the complexity of life and the tongue-in-cheek spoofing of conventional romances, where men are love slaves to their ladies and where love itself acts like a disease, disabling its sufferer. This play is littered with arguments, possibilities, choices, and dichotomies, all of which are presented as realities of life, without much (if any) preaching on Shakespeare’s part. There are plenty of binaries, but few didactic absolutes – it is as if Shakespeare is saying, “these are the many ways man and woman can live, the many choices they could make, and who are we to say which is right or wrong?”

My thoughts are all over the place on this one, because there is so much going on (within the play) and so much being said (by Shakespeare, through the play). That being said, the plot and story are surprisingly easy to follow, despite the play’s complexity. It is also highly entertaining and enjoyable because of the novelty of the story, for its time, and also because of its farcical nature and its ability to laugh at the ridiculousness of love, all the while being a love story. Enjoyable, interesting, thought-provoking, and funny. Classic Shakespeare.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School +

Interest: Gender Roles, Primogeniture, Patriarchy, History, Comedy/Drama, Identity, Homoeroticism, , Cross-dressing.

Symbols/Motifs: Ganymede, Poetry (Orlando), Cuckoldry; Exile, Artifice, Homoeroticism.

Dichotomies: City (Court) vs Country; Nature vs Fate; Realism vs. Romance; Old vs. Young; Noble Birth vs. Social Advancement; Reason vs. Foolishness.

Notable Quotes*:

“The more pity that fools may not speak wisely what wise men do foolishly.” (11)

“And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” (25)

“I shall ne’er be ware of mine own wit till I break my shins against it.” (33)

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” (44)

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (89)

*Page numbers correspond to the 2000 Pelican Shakespeare edition, ed. by Frances E. Dolan.

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Ancient Greece, Aristophanes, Classics, Drama, Play

Review: Lysistrata by Aristophanes

Lysistrata by Aristophanes
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 19

Plot/Story:
3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.
How did I miss this one?  It had been sitting on my shelf and “TBR” list for far too long.  Lysistrata is one of the original “dramadies” – a mixture of dramatic and comedic elements, though this one leans toward the comedic.  Still, some of the themes Aristophanes tackles, such as War, Power, and Gender are serious, and have severe implications. Fortunately, Aristophanes writes his main character, Lysistrata, and her gang of women to be witty, sarcastic, and rather crude – which is a lot of fun. The story itself is about a decision that the women of Greece make, to withhold sex from their husbands and lovers, until they finally write a peace treaty and put an end to all of the wars.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.
I sometimes have a difficult time analyzing characterization and character development in plays, because oftentimes the story itself is the character, and plays tend to be so short that there isn’t much time for any development.  What makes Aristophanes’ characters great, though, is that they are all distinguishable from one another, and they serve a purpose.  There is Lysistrata, the leader and “ideas” woman, driving the sexual battle. Then, there are those surrounding her – the beautiful girl-child who represents Peace, the right-hand warrior, who is hot-headed and ready to strike any man at the slightest provocation.  The men, too, are well drawn – fully engorged and all.  There is the husband who comes crawling to the women’s camp, in agony over his lack of “relief.”  Also, the captain of the men’s army, who stands toe-to-toe with Lysistrata as his men cower and run away.  So, though the story is short and moves quickly, there is still clarity of roles and purpose.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Let’s face it.  Aristophanes was a brilliant writer.  In general, he had a mastery of poetics and prose, so that his language flowed smoothly, his dialogue and description worked, and his scenes are set up in a way that is conducive to the plot (without ever being in the foreground – because, as happens with plays – the story and characters are and should be at the forefront).  He is also hilarious – his bawdy humor and tantalizing puns rival Ovid – I was at times reminded of Ovid’s The Art of Love which is, itself, a description of a type of sexual/gender battle.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

Aristophanes is really engaged in multiple conversations here, but all to the same end: communication.  He is clearly denouncing the senseless, continuous wars.  And he is addressing the issue of gender roles and subjectification of women.  I also think he is saying something about the art of humor itself – he is pointing out two very real problems of Greek culture and politics, but he does so by laughing at it.  Of course, this is the modus operandi of the greatest satirists – to call serious attention to problems by magnifying the problem to a grotesque and then making fun of it.  As with some of the other greats (Wilde, Vonnegut, Shakespeare), it works – perfectly.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult
Interest: Ancient Greece, Gender Roles, Gender Politics, Sexuality, Politics, War, Satire
Notable Quotes:
“It should not prejudice my voice that I’m not born a man, if I say something advantageous to the present situation. For I’m taxed too, and as a toll provide men for the nation.”
“When the soldier returns from the wars, even though he has white hair, he very soon finds a young wife. But a woman has only one summer; if she does not make hay while the sun shines, no one will afterwards have anything to say to her, and she spends her days consulting oracles that never send her a husband.”
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Book Review, Comedy, Creative Non-Fiction, Drama, Edward Albee, Fiction, Madness, Marriage, Play, Psychology, Sexuality

Review: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By Edward Albee
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD:  59

Plot/Story:

 4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, is intoxicating – literally.  With every turn of the page, the reader is taken deeper and deeper into the twisted mind of the play’s main characters, George and Martha.  This married couple, daughter of the College President and Professor of History, horribly stagnant in his career, bring a fresh young couple (the new Biology professor and his wife) over for drinks after a late faculty party at Martha’s father’s house.  If the scenes reflect the actualities of “behind the scenes” University leadership life, then perhaps college education should not be such an American ideal.   The examination of mental instability (i.e. sociopathic tendencies, narcissism, and schizophrenia) are riveting and terrifying all at once, particularly as the story unfolds and more and more truth is sucked out from the multitude of fictions.  The dangers of the enabler, to, and the perverse pleasure which can be gained from progressing another person’s instabilities and delusions is interesting and embarrassingly amusing.  The description for the play states that one of the greatest points for this drama is its dramatic revelation at the end, and I must agree- though I saw it coming from early on, many readers probably will not and, regardless of knowing or not knowing, the revelation and its subsequent impact on the small party is stunning.


 Characterization:

 4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

The two main characters, George and Martha, are brilliantly rendered.  As their mania unfolds, the reader twisted personality traits – their motivations, desires, and failings – all come to light, in such a loudly subtle way, seen seldom in any piece of writing.  Their son, too, and Martha’s father, though the reader never actually meets either of these characters, are so well described and recalled by George and Martha, it is almost as if they are active characters in the play – something Albee deserves immense credit for having achieved, as it adds an interesting sub-plot which advances the over-the-top major scenes quite nicely.   Also, the younger couple, Nick and Honey, is developed just as much as they need to be in order to allow George and Martha’s story unfolds.  They are there to serve a purpose, which is to allow George and Martha’s “games” to progress, their animosity to reach the boiling point, and the great truth (or lie) be revealed in the final pages.  It also allows the reader to contrast a simple, well-planned, and expected “romance” (Hope and Nick) with a ravenous, destructive, sickening lasting-passion (Martha and George).


Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

In a play or drama, the biggest indicator of great “prose” is really great dialogue, scene direction, and description.  This play in particular does not have much scene direction, though the points where Albee does make suggestions as far as stage placement, facial expression, etc. are so well-thought that the play almost requires nothing else (each director will be able to make this play his/her own, but with the direction Albee affords, it is almost certain that the most important moments will be executed in the right ways).   The character reactions and descriptions, too, are simply stated, but make all the difference; such as when Nick, after finally picking up on the nature of Martha and George’s disturbing tete-a-tete is directed to be: “Stretching . . . luxuriating . . . playing the game) – perfection.   What really progresses this play, though, is the interaction between the characters – the simple, flippant replies, the overly-dramatic reactions to the most mundane situations – Nick’s embarrassed replies; Honey’s confusion and naivety.  Each of the characters is completely “on point,” though the only one who really seems to develop at all is Nick – and this is fitting, because George indicates that Nick will, indeed, be the one to move forward, while the rest of them remain stagnant in their lives, relationships and, most notably, careers.  The most development, though, is not with characters – but with the story itself.  Still, it is the characters and their dealings with one another which allows this development to occur and to work.


Additional Elements:
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

One of the most interesting elements of this particular story is that it deals with characters that are completely mentally unstable and irrational – illogical in every way, but working in what one would assume to be one of the most sound, logical professions, higher education.  Who could be more staid and calm than a History professor?  Who could me more respectable and proper than a University President’s daughter?  Edward Albee grabs us from the start by putting these seemingly simple character types into a relationship which is highly volatile and unpredictable, in a setting which should be nothing but calm and moderate.  The inclusion of the two “new kids” on the collegiate block adds much in comparison – as if to say, with age and experience comes not wisdom, but insanity, so be warned!  Of course, Albee is not making generalizations about all Academicians, or all History professors, or all Biology professors’ wives; but, still, he does seem to be saying: “Dear reader, take another look – things are rarely what we expect them to be.”  The nature and art of psychological warfare is put under the microscope and outcome is extraordinary.  Watching Martha and Gorge go back-and-forth with their “games” is at times invigorating, at times exhausting, but always interesting and unbelievable (except that it seems entirely natural).  Sexuality, too, as well as alcoholism, politics, and science vs. society are all discussed as a part of the dialogue of this one evening, and these elements progress the story further into madness and resolution.


 

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  Adult

Interest: Psychology, Madness, Marriage, Sexuality, Schizophrenia, Sociopaths, Delusions, Academia

Notable Quotes:

“Martha, will you show her where we keep the, uh, euphemism?”

“Martha, in my mind, you are buried in cement right up to the neck. No, up to the nose — it’s much quieter.”

“I looked at you tonight and you weren’t there! Finally snapped! And– and I’m gonna howl it out! And I’m not gonna give a damn what I do, and I’m gonna make the biggest goddamn explosion you’ve ever heard!”

 

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