November 2007

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Last night I caught a production of four early O’Neill one-acts or sketches, followed by a late monologue. The whole thing took place at Metropolitan Playhouse, a downtown treasure chest for anyone interested in early American theater.

O’Neill, in fact, is a little late for these guys, whose previous productions include nineteenth-century works such as Mowatt’s Fashion, Dunlap’s Andre, Boucicault’s The Octoroon, Stone’s Metamora, Herne’s Margaret Fleming, or turn-of-the-century plays like Zangwill’s The Melting Pot and Fitch’s The City. The Metropolitan folks have long prided themselves on showcasing American theater before O’Neill. Last night what we saw was a bit like O’Neill before O’Neill.

The pieces we saw were “Before Breakfast” (1916), a one-woman monologue set in the margins of Greenwich Village bohemia; a Melvillean/Conradian sea-piece called “Ile” (1917), in which a monomaniacal whaleship captain pushes his men — and his wife, who’s along for the voyage — to the edge in his mad dash for 400 barrels; “The Movie Man” (1914), a satire on Hollywood’s investment in foreign war — in this case the Mexican revolution — in which a couple American filmmakers head south as embedded journalists of sorts in search of the perfect war footage (and a little sex on the side); “The Web” (1913), a tragicomic prostitute/gangster sketch set, presumably, on the Lower East Side, not far from where Stephen Crane’s Maggie would have lived; and “The Last Will and Testament of Silverdene Emblem O’Neill” (1940), a humorous and moving monologue on mortality spoken posthumously by O’Neill’s dog.

The texts for all of these and more are available online from the O’Neill eText Archive. Alex Roe, the Metropolitan’s Artistic Director (who pulled off a fantastic performance as “Blemie,” the dog, in the final monologue), wonders whether some of this material belonged to the trunk of plays O’Neill supposedly had with him when he first showed up in Provincetown.

The promotional material for the show had pegged “The Web” as the most “New York” of these plays, and it was easily the most energetic and rewarding. (Keri Serato, who played female roles in two of the other pieces as well, only fully came to life here, and delivered fantastically as the consumptive dame, and David Patrick Ford as a gangster on the run helped her push the role to its potential.) But I was pleasantly surprised by all the sideways glances at Village bohemia in “Before Breakfast.” As “Mrs. Rowland,” Sidney Forter gave a riveting performance — over half an hour spent talking to her husband, who’s supposedly shaving off stage, while she prepares his breakfast. He never answers, in spite of the fact that she moves from idle early morning chit-chat (between sneaking sips from a flask she keeps hidden) to a withering tongue-lashing for his failure to hold a job (a Harvard grad who’s knocked up the daughter of an Irish grocer, he’s slumming in the Village as a poet) and for his affair with a rich-girl fellow slummer who’s been duped by his poetic talk. In this sketch and in “The Web,” O’Neill takes potshots at wealthy New Yorkers with benevolent intentions, reformers who depend on vice for a sense of their own morality. Here the noble Harvard grad who’s heroically married the lower-class girl he impregnated lives a bohemian dream that begins to crumble on itself long before the action’s through.

I’ve seen half a dozen or so plays at the Metropolitan and always feel rewarded for having made it out. No one else does this kind of work. But last night was unique in at least one way: Usually I’m aware that the plays I’m watching — Stone’s Metamora, for instance — were designed for enormous nineteenth-century theater spaces, not the intimate 60-or-so seater you find at the Metropolitan. Last night’s material, though, was clearly written for  the “little” theaters of the early twentieth century downtown scene. They seemed perfectly suited to the space, which in several of the pieces came to feel as claustrophobic as a captain’s quarters in an ice-bound whaler or an LES tenement filled with TB, crying babies, and shouting neighbors. It’s unusual to feel transported to another age’s production plan — the sort of space where you set up a few tables and chairs, gather some like-minded folks together, and put on a play you’ve written for all your smartest friends.

“The Pioneer” (the name they’ve assigned to the five pieces together) plays at Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 East 4th Street (between A and B) until December 9. For more information click here.
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Over the years we’ve tinkered here and there with our syllabus for Writing New York, trying to fix little problems that have plagued us along the way.

One challenge I’d never expected when we planned this course originally is that the beloved unit I’d conceptualized as “from the Beats to the Punks” would run into a little roadblock: most of our students weren’t familiar (yet) with the music we assigned them to listen to: The Velvet Underground and Nico and Patti Smith’s Horses. We assign these albums in part to talk about what happens in the East Village from the late 60s to the mid 80s: a lot of folks who start out with ambitions to be poets — Tom Verlaine would fit in here too — wind up being rock stars instead. (When I lecture on this unit I also spend a lot of time on Highway 61 Revisited, but to this point we haven’t required them to listen to it in advance of lecture. That may change this year.) A related problem: many of our TAs haven’t really had prior experience with the Velvets or Patti, which means the discussions they lead on the album have been uneven at times.

Thumbnail image for joeharvard.jpgWhat to do? How to prepare them in advance — beyond simply asking them to listen to a record many of them have never listened to before? Our attempted solution for the coming semester is to have them buy the 33 1/3 series’ volume devoted to The Velvet Underground and Nico, by Boston music scene veteran Joe Harvard. Like many titles in this brilliantly conceived series, Harvard’s volume is part personal essay, part criticism, part history. Plus it will take them through the album track by track once it provides adequate background. It should work well for us, I think, because it both contextualizes the Velvets in the world of the late-60s East Side scene and demonstrates how just about everything that followed, in terms of rock and roll at least, was authorized by the Velvets. (A related argument I like to make is that the Velvets were authorized in part by Highway 61, but that’s a story too complicated to get into here.)

From Harvard’s introductory section, in which he explains how he came to the Velvets rather late — in the late 1980s — after having been involved in Boston’s punk scene from 1977 on:

    My musical life had, in fact, been thoroughly infused with, surrounded by and enriched because of the Velvet Underground. I just never knew it. Bowie, Iggy, the New York Dolls, most key Boston and New York underground bands–all had been so strongly influenced that discovering the Velvet Underground’s records was like meeting someone’s parents. Suddenly, a whole lot of things started to make sense. Little idiosyncrasies, unique mannerisms you find attractive in little Junior — here, their source is laid bare, revealed as hereditary after just a few minutes with Mom and Pop. Listening to the Velvet Underground I could hear bits and pieces of the aural landscape of my favorite records, elements of much-beloved bands who inhabited my world. Willie Alexander’s relentless EMI electric piano drone, the monotone vocal-meets-distortion-over-a-jungle-drum-beat of “Pablo Picasso,” the remorselessly unyielding metallic piano of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” screeching seagulls from Patti’s “Birdland” and the two chord trip around the world in Jonathan Richman’s “Road Runner.” It was all there, and a hell of a whole lot more, on The Velvet Underground and Nico.

The other thing there, of course, is a whole set of inroads into Downtown cultural history in the late-60s.

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Thumbnail image for miller batman.jpgWith registration deadlines approaching, it’s time to order books for next semester, which will mark (if I’m counting right) the fifth time Cyrus and I have taught Writing New York together since we first developed the class in 2003.

The course consists of two lively, media-heavy lectures a week and one recitation section in which students discuss the week’s reading in smaller groups. We generally take turns delivering the lectures, taking a week or two at a time then trading off with the team-teacher. We begin by dealing primarily with prose fiction, poetry, and drama, but in the twentieth-century portions of the course bring in popular music, film, and graphic novels as well. Yes, this is the course where you get to read Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and listen to the Velvet Underground for college credit. (Of course, you’ll walk away able to place them in historical and cultural context along with a lot of other things — some of them more high-brow.)

Here’s how we’ve described the course for several years running on the syllabus: “This course examines the evolution of New York City as a literary construct as well as the city’s emergence and continual reinvention as one of the country’s ─ and the world’s ─ premier sites of literary and cultural production. Beginning with the earliest New York theaters in the eighteenth century and continuing to the present, we will examine a range of drama, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry to reveal a variety of New York experiences. Students will also learn about the city’s cultural history; note the development of literary forms in American literature from the late eighteenth century to the present; understand how writing about New York contributed to American literary history as we commonly understand it today; think about the relationship between literature and other artistic forms and media; and explore the nature of interdisciplinary work in the humanities.”

The syllabus will include works by Royall Tyler, Washington Irving, Herman Melville, Anna Cora Mowatt, Walt Whitman, Horatio Alger, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Abraham Cahan, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, Lin Yutang, E.L. Doctorow, and Tony Kushner, among others; the films The Jazz SingerManhattan, and Do the Right Thing; and the albums TheVelvet Underground and Nico and Patti Smith’s Horses. (Click here to see a PDF version of last year’s syllabus.)

We’ll also, this time around, be test-driving some early drafts of chapters from our cultural history-in-progress. And we’ll be sponsoring an optional Friday-afternoon film series that parallels the syllabus — to be held in the Broome Street residence hall.

If you happen to be an NYU undergrad and this course suits your needs and interests — please join us! If that’s not something you’re able to do, we’re happy to have you along as a reader of this site, which will touch on issues we’re dealing with in the classroom but by no means will be restricted to that setting.