12 Winters Blog

Side by Side by Sondheim, and Nabokov’s Bend Sinister

Posted in March 2010 by Ted Morrissey on March 28, 2010

One of the innumerable areas in which I’m woefully ignorant is musical theater, but I was spellbound last evening by a production of Side by Side by [Stephen] Sondheim at the Community Players Theatre in Bloomington, IL.  Among the amazingly talented players was Robert McLaughlin, an English professor at Illinois State University (and, as it happens, my dissertation chair).  The previous Sunday Dr. McLaughlin gave a 45-minute talk on Sondheim and his vast contributions to American musical theater, somewhat in commemoration of the composer and lyricist’s eightieth birthday.  Though the talk was brief, it gave me some insights into Sondheim that allowed me to understand and appreciate Side by Side more than I would have had I not heard it.  Dr. McLaughlin has written a book on Sondheim and his work, and he says it’s just about ready to go to his editor.  Though a neophyte fan of Sondheim, one of things about his art that I appreciate is his embracing subject matter because of its inherent interest to him — not because it was a commercial “sure thing.”  (As a part-time librarian, I see the claptrap that flows across our circulation desk from the likes of Nora Roberts, James Patterson and Nicholas Sparks — and I’ve considered writing similar nonsense in hopes of becoming wealthy, but I can’t bring myself to do it; I have too many other projects in mind, none of which has any genuine prospect of making me one penny richer.  It was Melville’s lament as he toiled on Moby-Dick, while the reading public clambered for another Typee or Omoo.  By the way, I only draw the lines of comparison between the likes of Sondheim and Melville and myself insofar as I too can relate to being drawn to the decidedly “noncommercial.”)

On another front, in a rather roundabout way I’ve been led to reading an early Nabokov novel, Bend Sinister (1947), via my interests in Gass, who knew Nabokov at Cornell in the 1950s.  It was Nabokov’s second novel that he composed in English; he’d been publishing in Russian since the mid ’20s.  Maurice Couturier calls Bend Sinister “one of the first ‘American’ novels about World War II” (Critique 34.4 p. 248).  I’m only ninety pages or so into Bend Sinister, but I’m struck by some similarities between its main character, Adam Krug, and William Kohler, Gass’s main character in The Tunnel.  For example, both are rather antisocial university professors who relish intellectual sparring with their colleagues.  Neither Krug nor Kohler thinks very highly of humanity, following the atrocities of the Second World War especially.  Intriguingly, in a section I read this morning, Krug has a recurring nightmare in which he dreams of “a tunnel of sorts”:  Nabokov writes, “The yawn of the tunnel and the door of the school, at the opposite ends of the yard, became football goals much in the same fashion as the commonplace organ of one species of animal is dramatically modified by a new function in another” (Henry Holt & Co. first edition, 1947, p. 63).  I hadn’t necessarily been looking to Bend Sinister as a direct source for Gass’s fiction, but some of the connections thus far are, as I said, intriguing.

I continue to gather notes for an article on the fallout shelter and its effects on the American psyche in the ’50s and ’60s.  I was hoping to have something publishable by May, but that seems unrealistic and sometime this summer is more likely.  Meanwhile, I continue to work on The Authoress, which goes well but slowly.  This afternoon I’ll attempt to make progress on one or both fronts, but I also should grade some research papers (my goal is to have all 90 or so graded by April 30).

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Notes on Romeo and Juliet, print-on-demand, et al.

Posted in March 2010 by Ted Morrissey on March 14, 2010

I’ve been meaning to say a few words about the production of Romeo and Juliet that I saw March 5 at Sangamon Auditorium.  It was produced by The Acting Company/Guthrie Theater, and was very well done–a treat indeed in Springfield, Illinois.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a live production of Romeo and Juliet (discounting Prokofiev’s ballet version that I attended a couple of years ago, also at Sangamon Auditorium), and it has been many, many years since I’d read it.  According to the Norton Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were probably written at about the same time, with scholars not certain of which was quilled first.  As luck would have it, I saw A Midsummer last, well, summer at the Shakespeare Festival, which prompted me to watch the Michael Hoffman 1999 film version in the meantime.  There are numerous points of comparison between R&J and Midsummer, not the least of which being that the story of Pyramus and Thisbe that concludes Midsummer is a parody of Romeo and Juliet’s.  I of course am still on my trauma-theory hobbyhorse, so I watched the play from that perspective.  While a goodly number of scholars are at work on the early modern period, especially Shakespeare, as a site of trauma and how it was manifested in the literature of the time, I have not spent a lot of time (yet) with their findings.  Nonetheless, during the play I was struck by the dynamics of the Shakespearean-style stage (Sangamon Auditorium is a picture-frame stage, but The Acting Company director had set up the stage to work, as closely as possible, like a Globe-style construction).  To say there’s been a lot written about the Shakespearean-style stage would be a gross understatement, and I’ve read a fair amount.  I know, for example, that one line of thought is that the stage was constructed to resemble acting in a three-sided alley, which was where the early London (and other large city) troupes would have performed initially.  That theory, though, doesn’t contribute much to understanding the spareness of the sets, and the stream of continuous action (and even simultaneous action) that sets (ha) Elizabethan/Jacobean performances apart from more contemporary designs–designs which came to place great importance on realism in set and costume and special effects (the cinema of course contributed to this trend as it evolved from the late nineteenth into the twentieth century).  Watching R&J, it occurred to me that the Shakespearean-style design mimics the human mind–especially (here I go) a traumatized mind.  That is to say, the flow from scene to scene reflects the so-called stream-of-consciousness narrative style that modernists perfected (and that was then taken further, artistically speaking, by postmodernists); and, in a sense, one scene will usurp the audience’s attention, just as a traumatic memory imposes itself into the present moment; moreover, simultaneous scenes, being played out at various points on the stage, very much resemble the competing memories/images that trauma victims have to contend with.  Ghosts are regular features of Shakespeare’s plays, of course, and R&J is no exception–though Mercutio’s ghost seems to be more certainly a manifestation of Juliet’s traumatized mind than, say, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, or the ghosts who appear to Gloucester in Richard III, or Banquo’s ghost as he interrupts Macbeth’s coronation feast.

Perhaps this notion–that the Shakespearean-style stage is mimetic of the mind, especially the traumatized mind–has been explored previously.  I’ll eventually have to pursue some research on the matter.

On another front, my story “Unnatural Deeds” (a title taken, incidentally, from Macbeth) came out this past week in Leaf Garden.  Leaf Garden‘s editors, like many editors/publishers these days, are trying to bridge the gap between online journals and traditional print journals by doing both cost effectively via on-demand publishers (for example, Lulu).  The Oak Bend Review, which published my story “Missing the Earth” about a year ago, works in the same manner as Leaf Garden.  In fact, OBR uses Lulu as well.  Basically, the work appears online so that anybody in the world (who has an Internet connection) can read it, but it’s also available in a print journal format.  The potential of a global audience is attractive about online publishing, and the option of an in-hand version is appealing for a host of traditional reasons.  I wonder, though, who exactly is reading online journals (of which there have been an explosion in recent years)?  One drawback to the print-on-demand formats is that, from my experience, the contributing author must purchase copies if he or she wants them (traditional print journals have almost always paid in one or two free copies of the issue, often with a reduced rate for additional copies if an author wants them).  For example, I bought a copy of Leaf Garden No. 8, with my story in it, and it cost me over $30 with shipping, etc.  That’s a full-color version, granted, and less expensive black-and-white versions will eventually be available (apparently), and I’ll no doubt buy a few of those, too.  Also, the print-on-demand copies tend to be rather cheap looking, in terms of the quality of the paper, and the quality of print and/or art reproduction.  But–and this is an important “but”–these online journals with an option for print-on-demand are much, much more feasible, from a budget standpoint, than traditional print journals, especially ones that are trying to put out a high-quality product.  The high, high cost coupled with low, low readership (and getting lower all the time it would seem) make traditional print journals money-losing endeavors for virtually all publishers (many of whom, if not most of whom, are university sponsored–universities which are hypersensitive these days to drains on the budget).  It could very well be that traditional high-cost journals are an endangered species; and these hybrid journals like Leaf Garden and Oak Bend Review are on the leading edge of where “serious” writing is headed this century.

I sent my article on cultural trauma, postmodernism, and William H. Gass to a European editor last week; we’ll see if it gets accepted for publication (he had expressed an interest in the article based on the slimmed down conference paper version I’d sent him).  I’m beginning to research (or beginning more extensive research) on the phenomenon of the fallout shelter in American culture and how it may have affected the mass psyche (I have a journal in mind for that one, too, and the next submission deadline is mid-May–not sure if I’ll be able to make that).  I’m also working on “The Authoress,” and I’ve been sending my story “Walkin’ the Dog” around (it’s really the last publishable short story I have right now–it’s tempting to take a break from the novel to write a story or two, but I’m reluctant to do that, especially since the writing is going well for now).  I have several ideas for stories and novels, not to mention critical articles and books–enough to last me years just to work through the list as it stands right now.