Tag Archives: Edward Albee

“The War in Heaven”: Steve Kent and Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

Monday, July 31, 2017
THE WAR IN HEAVEN
In Memory of Two Poets of the Theater: Steve Kent and Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

In addition to canonical favorites such as Ibsen, Pirandello, and Strindberg, I had been primarily reading contemporary playwrights such as Edward Albee, Samuel Beckett, and Harold Pinter when I moved to Los Angeles at the age of 20. In the winter of 1969, a graduate student named Lynn (“Scotty”) Mason at UCLA posted an announcement that she was casting actors for a student production of a one-act play entitled Icarus’s Mother by Sam Shepard. I had not heard of Shepard or this play, but was fortunate enough to be cast in the role of Frank, the man who recounts an apocalyptic vision as a holiday picnic implodes. It was a prose poem of a high order, and I began to read as much of Shepard’s writing as I could get my hands on, as well as other playwrights he was aligned with. By chance, during the summer of 1969, I acted in a student production of Futz and took a course that concentrated on off-off-broadway playwrights, during which I became familiar with the work of Rochelle Owens, Megan Terry, Irene Fornes, Adrienne Kennedy, Lanford Wilson, and Jean-Claude Italie. Along with other students dissatisfied with the kind of plays the theater department was presenting on its main stage, I formed a theater group called “The Fifth Corner” and we rehearsed off-campus for our adaptation of Anne Sexton’s poem, “Flee on Your Donkey.” After graduation I went on to act with two other theater groups in Los Angeles, one of which included OOB playwright Robert Patrick’s Cheep Theatrics, starring Julie Kavner (future voice of Marge Simpson).

I never again acted in a play by Shepard, although I certainly saw enough productions of his plays. As famous as he was among theater people, one must understand that public attention and interest in Shepard’s work in the mid-1970s was relatively muted. I remember a production of Curse of the Starving Class at a small theater in Hollywood in the late 1970s, for instance, in which only half the seats were filled, and the same was true of a production of Action at the Burbage Theater around that time. In many ways, it was the devotion of working people in the small theaters who made the case for Shepard’s writing, and not just theaters in New York. The importance of theaters in California is most particularly evident in Shepard’s development, for it was during his residence in Northern California that he began come to terms with his youth in Southern California.

The people I know who worked with him all bespoke of his influence in their lives as well as their work, and I would not be the writer I am today without having encountered writers such as Walter Hadler and Murray Mednick at the Padua Hills Theater Workshop in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Shepard himself taught at the first gathering of that group of playwrights, and had a play he wrote called Red Woman produced there. Padua Hills remains for me the quintessential quest to understand what it is that makes theater theater and not just an entertaining game of “let’s pretend.” Its direct impact on my poetry and poetics is impossible to overemphasize.

The poet William Matthews once observed that there is more talent on exhibit at age 30 in any given generation than achievement at age 60. I suppose that’s one way of separating the highest levels of accomplishment from the merely competent, for not only had Shepard produced a memorable body of work by age 60, one of his very best plays had its premiere performance the month before he turned 61. I saw a production of The God of Hell at the Geffin Playhouse in the summer of 2006, and it only reinforced my belief in his capacity to see into the interstices of human contradictions in a manner befitting a major artist.

It should be mentioned that Sam Shepard was not the only person in his birth family who worked in theater. His sister, Roxanne Rogers, is also a playwright and director as well as an actress. I saw one of her plays, directed by Ivan Spiegel, at the Burbage Theater in West Los Angeles, after it moved from Pico Blvd. to Centinela. After the play was over, I went backstage to talk to Ivan, and we found ourselves in the alley behind the theater. Roxanne joined the group with an older woman whose blue eyes registered a singularly discerning glow. “This is Roxanne’s mother,” Ivan said. We talked briefly, and all the while I had to withstand the temptation to tell her how much her son’s plays meant to me; but it was Roxanne’s evening, and I focused on her play, which had had a scene in a loft built on the stage that made the voices and lines of the characters ricochet back and forth the stage, as if some pent up realization were emerging from a thicket. You can find an article about Roxanne Rogers’s direction of Murray Mednick’s play, “Mrs. Feurstein,” at:

Mrs. Feuerstein

Shepard, however, is not the only loss that the theater world has gotten news about: Steve Kent has also died, and not nearly enough has been said about his contribution to theater in Los Angeles and other areas of the country. Kent was one of the founders of the Company Theater and the Provision Theater, which staged plays in the late 1960s and 1970s that still glow in the memories of those fortunate enough to have been present. Anyone who took part in The James Joyce Liquid Memorial Theater or who saw The Emergence knew that what it meant for the audience to be part of the conscious journey of performed vision. Steve Kent was a brilliant director, and he is enshrined in my heart every bit as much as the author of Angel City and the The Tooth of Crime.

Indeed, both Shepard and Kent shared a common collaborator, Joseph Chaikin, founder of the Open Theater. Kent adapted Beckett’s writing into a brilliant stage piece (Texts) as well as worked with Chaikin’s on Shepard’s The War in Heaven, which Shepard specifically wrote for Chaikin. To speak of the sadness I feel in Shepard’s passing is inseparable from the jolting pang of Steve Kent’s death.

I sit in silent homage.

Director, Educator, Activist Steven Kent (1943-2017)

http://www.nytimes.com/1981/03/09/theater/stage-joseph-chaikin-s-beckett-solo.html

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/my-buddy-sam-shepard

Edward Albee (1928-2016): A Master of Audacious Protest

Friday, September 16, 2016

Edward Albee (1928-2016): A Master of Audacious Protest

When I was young, it was not unheard of for a young person to say, “I want to be a playwright.” In fact, the decision to focus on writing for the theater was a far more practical one than aspiring to be a poet sixty years ago. Back then, playwrights held a far more esteemed position within contemporary American culture. Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were legends by the mid-1950s, and reading plays by the great European playwrights was considered an ordinary part of a liberal arts education. As I pointed out in my book, “Holdouts: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948-1992,” theater supplied far more momentum to the avant-garde in the 1960s and early 1970s than poetry. It wasn’t even a contest.

Edward Albee, who died today, did not begin as a playwright, however. He started as a poet and then turned to theater. In both of these cultural endeavors, Albee knew all too well how a comprehensive fashion show is hard at work; his advice about the stance that both playwrights and poets should take about this fashion show should be fervently adhered to: “Actually, the final evaluation of a play has nothing to do with immediate audience or critical response. The playwright, along with any writer, composer, painter in this society, has got to have a terribly private view of his own value, of his own work. He’s got to listen to his own voice primarily. He’s got to watch out for fads, for what might be called the critical aesthetics.”

In demonstrating the level of vigilance needed not to succumb to fads, Albee taught us how theater is the quintessential laboratory for discovering “the temper of the time, what is being tolerated, what is being permitted.” It is in protesting those limits that writers distinguish themselves in the manner that Albee sorted them into: “Good writers define reality; bad ones merely restate.” (Tweeted by Ryan Adams). Great writers transmogrify those definitions of reality, and Albee belongs to that cluster of superb visionaries.

Along with hundreds of other writers, I owe Albee more than a nod of gratitude: he was one of the writers whose work helped wake me out of the stupor of the military industrial complex in which I had spent my childhood and adolescence. By the time I first read him, in the fall of 1966, he was already a superstar among the young playwrights. His one-act plays, “The Zoo Story” and “The Sandbox,” transfixed me when I first read them. I had the good fortune to act in a school workshop production of “The Sandbox” at Southwestern Community College in the spring of 1967, and this distant memory flutters within me as I find myself caring for 94 year old mother. And how can one overstate the extent to which the monologue of the story of Jerry and the Dog reverberated as a model for many young playwrights throughout the 1960s and 1970s? The monologues in Sam Shepard’s one-act plays, for instance, can hardly be studied apart from this progenitor. Albee most certainly redefined my reality; my own trajectory in shifting from theater to poetry could not have happened without that initial impetus to which the surplus of Albee’s corrosive writing made an enormous contribution.

I have continued to read Albee’s work throughout all the years in which I primarily have devoted myself to poetry; and cannot imagine my poetics having developed in their peculiar manner, in fact, without having had the guidance of Albee’s ear for the theatrical puncture point. In the entire history of theater, less than fifty playwrights have equaled his capacity for a shimmering clarity of self-examination made visible in imaginary people. Even more rare is how tirelessly the dialogue he coaxed out of his characters can coil and recoil within a stage’s “empty space.” He made the performance of a private vision an occasion of public urgency. In Albee’s case, I remember in particular a production of “Seascape” that I saw in Century City. The theater itself no longer exists, but the theater of my memory glows, and I remain spellbound.

One of the aspects of theater that makes the experience precious is its singularity: productions cannot be revisited like novels; yet that only makes one cling more closely to theater’s oscillating essence. Theater is the most porous art: it must be absorbed straight through the skin of one’s consciousness. This instantaneous envelopment marked Albee’s theatrical instincts. Even in plays that some regard as his minor work, his audacious imagination magnified the possibilities of what hides under the surface of contingency.

I have no doubt that Albee knew, in his final years, how much difference he made in the lives of so many writers whose work he never read a page of. What better reward can any writer hope for? Surely these are the unseen bouquets at any memorial service his friends will gather for in the days to come.

(See my blog entry on February 23, 2014 for a review of a production of Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” by the California Repertory Company.)

This blog entry, originally written on the day of Albee’s death, has been revised on Sunday morning, September 17.

“Something has been broken….”

Edward Albee’s “The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?” — February 23, 2014

The California Repertory Company is staging Edward Albee’s The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?  at its Royal Stage on the Queen Mary in Long Beach for a three-week run. When the play was first staged a dozen years ago, no doubt a significant percentage of its audience in New York would have remembered that Rochelle Owens wrote a play called Futz in 1968. Albee seems to have included one allusion to Owens’s play in The Goat. Albee’s story focuses on the marriage of Martin, a world-famous architect, and Stevie, who learns from a letter from Martin’s best friend that her spouse has deviated from the herd of sexual normativity in order to take up with a barnyard animal, In explaining to his wife that he has made an effort to understand his compulsion, he describes going to a self-help meeting for those whose sexual preference is an animal. The leader is fucking a small young pig, according to Martin and it’s hard not to regard that detail as an allusion to Owens’s play.

While watching The Goat yesterday afternoon, however, with Linda and and Hye Sook, I  was reminded of a passage in The Zoo Story,  which came out years before Owens’s play.  In the monologue, “The Story of Jerry and the Dog,” Jerry describes to his auditor, Peter, this encounter with his landlady’s dog, whom he has unsuccessfully tried to murder with poisoned meat.

“The beast was there … looking at me. And, you know, he looked better for his scrape with the nevermind. I stopped; I looked at him; he looked at me. I think … I think we stayed a long time that way ….. But during that twenty seconds or two hours that we looked into each other’s face, we made contact. Now, here is what I had wanted to happen: I loved the dog now, and I wanted him to love me. …. ….”

In The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? there is no love-hate relationship; rather, Martin claims to have a bond with a goat named Sylvia that equals if not surpasses the jouissance of Spenser’s Bower of Bliss. My point, though, is that this is not the first time that an off-stage animal has played a major role in one of his plays. In the mid-1970s, back when Century City had a very fine several hundred seat theater, I saw Albee’s Seascape, and my memory is that it involves an encounter between two human and a pair of large (human-scale) sentient lizards. I never read the play, but having seen The Goat, I am very eager to sit down with the script and to start considering what I can now learn about Albee’s use of animals as a dramatic trope. He was one of the half-dozen most important influences and inspirations in my youthful decision to start writing in a serious manner, and I have sadly neglected to keep his work as present in my thoughts as it deserves.

The production of The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia? is an above-average effort by a solid theatrical enterprise at the southernmost edge of Los Angeles County, despite the lack of a physical chemistry between the husband and wife. Both Roma Maffia and Brian Mulligan played their roles with thoughtful comprehension, but it was difficult to believe on a physical level that these two people would ever have fallen in love and managed to stay at the level of intimacy they claimed to have experienced during their marriage. Ms. Maffia was especially adept at picking up the comic jousts intertwined into the dissolution of a marriage through an extreme act of infidelity. When her shock gives way to grief, she was able to release the agony of mourning in a sequence of groans that turned the stage into a open grave for which there was no consolation. “Something has been broken that cannot be fixed,” she tells Martin, and though she tries to bury what been broken, the slaughtered goat she drags into their living room cannot ever be interred. Craig Anton’s portrayal of a best friend echoed Ibsen’s DNA to a remarkable degree, even in the final costume of a dark coat at the end of the play. I normally don’t notice costume design, but if anything hinted at the divergence of Stevie and Martin, it was the underlying warmth and coolness of their wardrobes. Stevie’s outfit bespoke a sensual passion, whereas Martin’s cut of cloth seemed to fit the methodical alignments required of an architect.

James Martin’s direction was commendable in its control of the play’s pacing, a far more difficult challenge that it might have seemed to the audience. Albee has always handled dialogue with a master’s gracefulness and any director who undertakes one of his plays had better come prepared for the need to calibrate his cast with vigilance. The one moment I would have liked to have seen worked on longer was the instant in which Roma smashed a painting by Martin’s mother through an easel. It was a rupture that could all too easily be coded as a punctum, and perhaps the brevity of the gesture’s ripples were meant to evoke the way a perfect diver glides through the surface of the water. If so, I still wanted to see the diver linger on the diving board thirty feet above the drowning pool.

Finally, my reflection on this performance would be at fault if I did not mention the winsome presence of a young actor who is still in the earliest stage of eventual multiplicity. Without any mannered sentiment whatsoever, Tyler Bremer’s performance as Billy evoked the inner turmoil of a young man willing to risk having told his parents that he is gay. Whether or not he has given permission to them to share that firm part of his still inchoate social identity with people outside his family is uncertain. (His father’s revelation of his son’s coming out to his best friend seems not to be held to the same standard of rectitude that Martin assails Ross for having violated.) Bremer’s portrayal of Billy superbly catches the travail that any young man must endure to break free of an ambivalence that almost any marriage can succumb to, even when the temptations are far less extraordinary than the betrayal depicted in The Goat.