Thursday, November 22, 2007

Edward Albee: Peter and Jerry

I just saw Edward Albee’s “Peter and Jerry at Second Stage in New York City. The play pairs “The Zoo Story,” his first play (written in 1958), with “Homelife,” a companion piece written six years ago.

Two phrases struck me from the New York Times review of the play. Albee chronicles “the feral soul beneath civilized skins,” and he is “a chronicler of life as erosion.” It’s the feral soul beneath civilized skins that is the most compelling theme—a theme that stabs most of us who are living professional, relatively conventional lives. What have we lost in our pursuit of happiness in this modern world?

The play excavates the soul of Peter, an executive with a textbook publishing house in Manhattan, who is a tweedy man of upper middle-class decency and complacency. He’s comfortable in his complacency, and is quite willing to sail through life without examining it, but both plays force him into the most uncomfortable territory.

In the opening act, “Homelife,” his wife Ann opens the play with the line,“We should talk.” Peter, immersed in a book, doesn’t hear her, immediately setting the frame for the play—people listen, and connect, very little to one another, despite the intensity of their loneliness.

Peter hasn’t realized this yet, however. He says to Ann during their meandering Sunday afternoon discussion/argument that he thought they made a bargain, to each other or even before they met, to live life as if it were “a smooth voyage on a safe ship ... a pleasant journey, all the way through.” A life without great joys, but without great disturbances either. Implicit in this statement is the belief that this life is possible.

Albee begs to disagree—for an animal lurks within all of us, and the animal’s appetite can leap out urgently and voraciously.

Sexual metaphors and dysfunction define the tradeoff both Peter and Ann have made to live this smooth life.

Ann announces she has been thinking of having both breasts prophylactically “hacked off”—a statement that could be read as an urge to shock, to get attention from a husband who tends to lose himself while reading or sleeping or being. She wants to get them hacked off in order to prevent getting breast cancer—a preventive treatment of sorts—as if cutting away at your body (and/or soul) in order to “live” is a worthwhile, logical bargain. At the same time, Peter worries that his penis is shrinking, or that he’s becoming “uncircumcised,” recounting observations of his dick as if it were something apart from him.

He’s so polite that he struggles to even say the word “penis” at times, so Ann interrupts him to impatiently blurt, “dick, cock,” as a reminder to him of less clinical, and perhaps more accurate, words.

In fact, Ann mentions that she wishes their lovemaking were more animalistic or just not quite so nice. She states it both as a random thought and something that’s been gnawing at her for years. Again, it’s the paradox of a comfortable life: sex is fine, even good, between them, but it’s not truly satisfying. Still, it doesn’t seem as if either of them, especially Peter, would truly know how to explore “not nice” lovemaking. A smooth passage gets boring after a while it seems—we need disturbances to feel alive.

With “The Zoo Story,” Albee challenges the carefully spoken Peter—and all he represents—to a duel, forcing him into confrontation with a social outcast, Jerry, whom he meets in Central Park.

Jerry is a teasing, mocking guy who won’t let Peter go until he faces the truth about himself—in other words, Peter is effectively tortured, both verbally and then physically.

In a different way than “Homelife,” “Zoo Story” probes the seemingly inherent separation we live in. As Jerry says about his trip to the zoo, the world is a zoo, “with everyone separated by bars from everyone else, the animals for the most part from each other, and always the people from the animals.” Again, people are dubiously separated from their baser animal instincts in a world made safe with bars and barriers and living spaces that resemble cubicles.

Dallas Roberts, who played Jerry, brought a fitful, spastic urgency to the quest to find some sort of connection. He literally spit his lines out, his face flushed with fury and his eyes ravaged by the violence (or the life) he feels within himself but can’t express.

Albee offers little hope, however. For example, it's hard to know whether living a life more closely attuned to our wild side would make us happy or simply unleash a rapacious appetite that has no bounds. His plays are meant to provide a shock of recognition that we are rather doomed to a life of erosion.

For more, check out this profile of Albee in the Times.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Denis Johnson--All the Writing Advice You Need

Denis Johnson says it all in this brief interview after being nominated for the National Book Award.

What a lovely way to describe his process--"I don't have much interest whether any of my books work or not." If only more writers wrote with such disregard toward their audience, and such regard for the truth of the material.

Here's an excerpt from the interview....

BAJ: Were there moments in your writing process where you worried the book wouldn’t work? If so, how did you press on?

DJ: Well, I've never thought about this before, but now that you ask, it occurs to me I don't have much interest whether any of my books work or not.

BAJ: If there is a common thread among this year’s fiction finalists, it might be that all of the books employ interesting narrative structures and scopes. Although Tree of Smoke moves, for the most part, chronologically through its storylines, you’ve given the reader a sweeping, multifaceted, and expansive narrative. Did you conceive of such scope before beginning the book, or did the symbiotic relationship between the subject and structure emerge more intuitively?

DJ: I'm fond of quoting T.S. Eliot, who somewhere said he was concerned, while writing, mainly "with decisions of a quasi-musical nature."

BAJ: Finally, when you were writing Tree of Smoke, did you have an audience or ideal reader in mind? If so, who?

DJ: I write for my wife, my agent, and my editor.