12 Winters Blog

Austen’s successful debut at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Posted in July 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 7, 2019

Every summer central Illinoisans are treated to the pleasures of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington, now in its 42nd season. The tradition has been to offer two works by Shakespeare and one of another sort. For the 2019 season, the non-Shakespeare offering is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice (1813), marking the first time Austen has been adapted for the ISF stage. I will cut to the chase: Go see it.

I attended the preview performance July 5. The evening’s sultriness did not discourage Festival fans from attending. The players, managing in their Regency garb, played to a sold-out house. In back, the artistic crew took a last look before finalizing the production for the summer. Among those taking notes was Deanna Jent, who adapted and directed Pride and Prejudice. Jent, a professor at Fontbonne University, also directed last summer’s performance of Merry Wives of Windsor. Those Regency costumes, which effectively broadcast the Austen vibe, were designed by Misti Bradford.

The central figure of the novel, strong-willed Elizabeth Bennet (second born of five daughters, all in search of husbands), was played by Aidaa Peerzada, who shone especially brightly when clashing on stage with prideful Mr. Darcy (Fred Geyer), but downright radiantly when on stage with the imperious Lady De Bourgh (Lisa Gaye Dixon). Peerzada and Geyer had a tall order to fill, almost as tall as a Regency gentleman’s hat, to capture the chemistry of one of literature’s most famous couples, and they have risen to the challenge admirably.

However, I must especially commend Dixon’s performance as the meddling Lady De Bourgh. The part has limited stage time, but Dixon commanded the space, just as the role required, and De Bourgh’s verbal sparring with Elizabeth brought out Peerzada’s best. Fourth of July  fireworks fizzled compared to Dixon and Peerzada’s pyrotechnics.

All of the performers added to the delightful adaptation, including Kevin McKillip (Mr. Bennet), Nisi Sturgis (Mrs. Bennet), Ashley Hart Adams (Jane Bennet, the eldest sister and Elizbeth’s special confidant), and Chauncy Thomas (the always affable Mr. Bingley). I especially appreciate McKillip’s sense of comedic timing. The veteran actor perhaps captures Jane Austen’s dry wit best of all the talented players in the cast — at times eliciting a roar from the audience merely by the perfect look.

The highlight of the production — for me, and it would seem the audience as a whole — was Jordan Coughtry’s interpretation of Mr. Collins, a cousin of Mr. Bennet who arrives to assess the Bennet property that he will one day inherit and to select which Bennet daughter he will marry (at least, that is his design). Coughtry is a remarkable Mr. Collins, sculpting Austen’s clownish clergyman into a character who is both true to the novelist’s original vision but also unique among the many actors who have portrayed him on the screen. Coughtry’s Collins is pompous, over-confident, insensitive — and yet wholly endearing . . . to the audience, that is, but not so much to the Bennets.

Coughtry is almost too good. He owns the stage in the first half of the play, which could be seen as problematic since Mr. Collins is a secondary character in Pride and Prejudice — important certainly, but normally one thinks of Elizabeth and Jane as dominating the reader’s attention. Perhaps fortunately, Mr. Collins’s stage time is lessened in the second half of the play, which allows Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy, and other characters more central to the plot to shine a bit brighter.

Nevertheless, Coughtry’s Collins commands the largest laughs, and the audience always perked up when he stepped on stage.

My only concern regarding the production is that it closely resembles the Joe Wright-directed film version of 2005 (starring Keira Knightley as Elizabeth and Matthew Macfadyen as Mr. Darcy; screenplay by Deborah Moggach). Rather than an adaptation of the novel, at times the Festival play seems more like a pastiche of the Joe Wright film. I recognize, however, that this is an idiosyncratic concern. Besides having taught the novel in college courses a few times, I have watched the film many, many times. It is one of my favorites, and I’ve shown it to classes more times than I can count. The typical Festival-goer would not be burdened with such familiarity.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting something like plagiarism or even mimicry, not at all. The unfolding of the play definitely adheres to Austen’s original work in ways that the Wright/Moggach film does not. In fact, one of the things I admire most about Deanna Jent’s adaptation is that she oftentimes advances the plot via characters’ narrating the action in third-person snippets taken from the pages of the novel, or nearly so. It is a clever way to compress the time span of the original and bring into the script some of Austen’s narrative voice — a treat for actors and audience alike.

Speaking of treats, Jent’s adaptation also makes terrific use of dance, as does Austen’s novel. In straitlaced Regency England, dancing was critical to courtship, and Austen’s Netherfield Ball scene is one of the greats in all of English-language literature. Likewise, Jent masterfully employs dance in the service of plot advancement, characterization, and mood-setting. (Sarah West is credited as dance captain for the ISF production, and Gregory Merriman as choreographer — kudos to both.)

It’s difficult to imagine a central Illinois summer without the Shakespeare Festival, and this production of Pride and Prejudice is yet another triumph in its proud history. I repeat: Go see it while you have the opportunity.

(As You Like It and Caesar are the Bardic offerings this summer.)

A truly delightful Romeo and Juliet

Posted in July 2011 by Ted Morrissey on July 29, 2011

Second only to Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet is the Shakespeare play I’ve seen staged most — only because the famous love story is staged so frequently — and there’s no question that the production I saw last evening at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington, Illinois, was by the far the most imaginative (while staying true to the text) and most emotionally engaging I’ve experienced. Directed by Doug Finlayson, the Festival production was truly delightful.

As one would expect, the portrayals of the title characters (played by Dylan Paul and Laura Rook) were at the heart (ha) of the production’s success — and I want to speak to these portrayals in some detail in a moment — but Finlayson took a number of creative risks in his treatment of what could be the best-known and most-read of Shakespeare’s plays (I’m basing my statement on the fact that so many high school freshmen read the play), and every roll of the creative dice was a winner. Moreover, judging from audience reactions, I know I’m not alone in labeling the production a triumph.

In the interest of time and reader attention span, I won’t try to speak to every risky choice made in the Festival production, but I do want to underscore a few. One was in the production’s costuming (designed by Linda Pisano). Often directors set Shakespeare plays in more contemporary settings (for example, a couple of years ago I saw another marvelous production of Romeo and Juliet, by the famed Acting Company, situated in 1920s Mississippi), and the costuming of course is instrumental in communicating and selling that setting choice. For the Festival production, however, the costuming was all over the map — with some characters dressing in Renaissance-style wardrobe, others looking more like extras in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and still others appearing as if they’d just come from shooting a Gap commercial, in jeans and trendy jackets … to name just a few apparent influences, and these influences were often mixed together for individual costumes.

I’ve seen some productions of Romeo and Juliet in which the costuming was designed to delineate between the feuding Capulets and Montagues, almost as if they were sports teams wearing home and away colors; but the costuming in the Festival production was no help whatsoever in figuring out family loyalties — especially when the fight choreographer (D. C. Wright) had the combatants moving in intersecting chaotic circles, thus further confusing the audience as to who was opposing who, especially early in the production.

The “confusion” of costumes — mixing and matching across centuries and geographies — and the chaotic fight scenes worked to emphasize the absurdity of the feud in the first place.  That is to say, even a careful perusal yields a sameness about the Capulets and Montagues — any differences which were so profound that they should result in a bloodfeud either never existed or have long since disappeared. This point is emphasized in the play’s final scene, in the Capulet vault, when the Prince asks, “Where be these enemies? Capulet, Montague, / See what a scourge is laid upon your hate …” (5.3.290-91). In other words, here, among these dead, there appear no family distinctions whatsoever.

Another artistic risk in the play is the use of contemporary top-40 music interspersed with more traditional compositions — perhaps most notably Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream” when Romeo and Juliet first meet and instantly fall in love at the Capulet masquerade ball. In fact, the Katy Perry song plays for the first time as the teenagers ascend a platform at the front of the stage, creating an almost cinematic (or TV) effect of focusing the audience’s attention on the pair to the exclusion of everything else happening on stage, the way that a framing close-up would work on the screen, silver or plasma.

Let’s talk about the portrayals of the leads for a moment. Both young actors, Dylan Paul and Laura Rook, are quite wonderful as they embrace the youthfulness and immaturity of the title characters. After all, we often forget that Juliet is only thirteen and Romeo not much older, fifteen or sixteen. As such, the famous garden scene is touching and romantic, but also very funny as the characters’ awkwardness is underscored in a way I haven’t seen before — giving a new dimension to a scene that is arguably the most famous in all of literature.

By far, though, the most interesting and complex character in the play is Juliet — and with whom the most risk is taken in the Festival production. She is played as downright childish in the beginning, tomboyishly roughhousing with her little brother and cousins, carrying around a stuffed animal (a lion — symbol of power, especially masculine power, even though it’s the lionesses who hunt and supply food to the pride). When Juliet enters the masquerade ball, her status as thirteen-year-old beams forth thanks to her costume, and the way the actor carries herself of course. Juliet wears a colorful and fun dress  that ends above the knee, along with equally colorful butterfly wings. We at first see her from only the waist up, and when she walks into full view, we see that she has “topped off” her ensemble with pink high-top Chucks — a marvelous touch that takes the audience completely by surprise. She could be any adorable thirteen-year-old going to a junior high Halloween party.

In the famous garden scene, Juliet carries her stuffed lion toy onto the balcony. She is wearing a cloak and hood of pale green. After Romeo, awkwardly, makes his presence known, Juliet ultimately loses the toy and cloak, thus revealing an alluring bare-shouldered nightgown beneath. It seems that in this brief scene Juliet transforms from a toy-carrying tomboy to a sensual young woman. This transformation is also communicated via the butterfly emblem that we associate with Juliet throughout. Besides her butterfly costume, she wears a small butterfly barrette in her hair in several scenes, and there is a large cotton sheet with a picture of a butterfly that serves several purposes: banner, bridal bedsheet, and ultimately funeral shroud. The butterfly is appropriately juvenile (how many teenage girls festoon their lockers, notebooks, bedrooms, and body parts! with butterflies?), but it also represents dramatic transformation in nature, maturing from caterpillar to butterfly, or from girl- to womanhood. It’s also worth noting that Juliet refers to Romeo, in 3.2, as “[s]ole monarch of the universal earth” (94, my emphasis), perhaps stressing, in the context of the Festival production, the kindredness of the newlyweds.

I was especially delighted that the Festival was doing Romeo and Juliet this year because the play is one of several subtexts I tinker with in my recently completed novel, “An Untimely Frost” — the title of which is taken from 4.4 when Capulet says of his daughter (prematurely) that “Death lies on her like an untimely frost” (55). In a later chapter in my novel, the protagonist attends an oddball production of Romeo and Juliet, so I spent several weeks studying the play to write that chapter in particular.

All in all, it was a typically terrific evening at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival (in spite of the heat and humidity), where I enjoyed a production of The Winter’s Tale just last Saturday.

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter

Pathfinding

The Winter’s Tale and other literary happenings

Posted in July 2011 by Ted Morrissey on July 24, 2011

I had the pleasure of attending a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival last evening in Bloomington, Illinois. I’ve been attending the Festival for years and am always impressed and pleased with its productions, some of which are risk-taking, like 2008’s Titus Andronicus, which channeled a kind of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome motif while employing a heavy-metal soundtrack (and, for my money, it worked), or last season’s The Tempest, which suggested that the entirety of the play was taking place in some sort of ethereal space and not on solid ground (I liked it) — while other productions are much more conservative in their staging. This Winter’s Tale, directed by Deb Alley, tended toward the conservative.

The most obvious manifestation of this conservatism was the deletion of Time, personified, from the text. Sometimes an actual character, sometimes a chorus, Time opens the fourth act by emphasizing the swift passage of time (in the context of The Winter’s Tale, sixteen years evaporate in an instant) and transitioning into the spring/summer section of the play. The Festival production eliminates this first scene of Act IV altogether, and 4.2’s exchange between Polixenes and Camillo serves as the transitional device. In more traditional readings of the play, time stands still in the nation of Sicilia, where the action opens (and closes), but the sixteen years have progressed in Bohemia, the site of 4.2 through 4.4, and thus the characters have aged. However, with the excision of Time and 4.1 in the Festival production, time’s passage has not been arrested in Sicilia, evidenced by the graying of hair and faltering of vision among the characters when we return to Sicilia for Act V.

The removal of this whimsical element in the play (that is, Time’s appearance and his freezing of time in the winter section of the play) lays the groundwork for a more conservative climax, which virtually eliminates Shakespeare’s ambiguity from the climactic event, and in my mind simplifies and makes less interesting the event. In the beginning of the play, Sicilia’s Queen Hermione is unfairly accused of adultery and is imprisoned by her suddenly insane (with jealousy?) husband, King Leontes; and we are told that because of the ordeal, Hermione perishes. In the final scene, 5.3, after Leontes has been reunited with his daughter Perdita (it’s a long story — go see the play), he is presented with a statue of Hermione — a statue which shortly comes to life. It is unclear in the text of the play if we are witnessing a supernatural event (a la the freezing of time) or if Hermione has merely been in hiding somewhere for sixteen years and is reintroduced as a “statue” for dramatic effect (dramatic within the context of the action of the play).

The Festival’s production definitely privileges the more conservative interpretation; through the actions of the characters, especially Paulina, the alleged maker of the statue, and through the graying of Hermione’s hair, it seems clear that the flesh-and-blood Hermione has only been playing at being a statue. The whimsical, the supernatural has been expunged from the scene, which is an extension of its being expunged from the play as a whole. The conservatism of the Festival’s interpretation shows up in other, more subtle ways. For instance, the contrast between the winter-Sicilia-tragedy half of the play and the summer-Bohemia-comedy half is evident in the costuming (especially the palette’s shift from largely monochromic to widely colorful) and the set (especially the lighting’s shift from blue spectrum to orange spectrum). While costuming and set/lighting do suggest the contrast, one has to look closely to see it. Another conservative choice would be the physical absence of the bear that famously chases Antigonus from the stage in 3.3. According to the Norton Shakespeare’s footnotes, in the Bard’s day an actual bear very well may have been brought onto the stage to “chase” Antigonus, but

[m]odern productions vary significantly in their representation of the bear. Some strive for realism, having a bearskin-clad actor or a mechanical likeness of a bear pass across a darkened stage illuminated only by the occasional lightning bolt. Other productions are more stylized, suggesting a bear by the obvious artifice of a mask or symbol.

The Festival removes a step or two further, and the bear is represented merely by its roaring and the terrorized expression of Antigonus as he runs (unsuccessfully) for his life.

One may argue that by eliminating elements like personified Time and an actor in a bear-suit, the Festival production is being the opposite of conservative — that it’s straying from more traditional, more textbound versions of The Winter’s Tale; and, on the one hand, that’s true, but I guess what I’m suggesting is that the Festival’s interpretation is more conservative (that is, less fanciful) than Shakespeare’s vision of the story. I have some ideas as to why these choices were made, and how they affect our overarching reading of the play — but that sounds like the stuff of an academic paper.

To be clear, I enjoyed the Festival production very much, and I encourage directors to stray from traditional staging choices and to play with the text, even if those choices and those edits seem, to me, less whimsical than what the playwright had in mind in the first place.

Anyway, the Festival is also doing Romeo and Juliet, and I plan to see that within the next week or so.

In June, I happily participated in the Poets & Painters event at the H. D. Smith Gallery in the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield, Illinois. The event was a joint venture between the Prairie Art Alliance and Springfield Poets and Writers (of which I’m a proud member). I was planning on providing a link to the poems and artwork that were presented that evening (including my poem “Anima”), but the page seems to be missing in action at the moment. If it rematerializes, I’ll update this post.

This month I’ve been participating in a poetry workshop organized by Lisa Higgs and Tracy Zeman (a link to Tracy’s poem “Grass for Bone” in Beloit Poetry Journal) at the Vachel Lindsay Home. Unfortunately I had to miss the second of four sessions, but I’ve been enjoying them very much and getting a lot out of them. I’ve mainly been focusing on writing some new short stories and putting the finishing touches on the manuscript of my newest novel, “An Untimely Frost,” but I did write a poem for the workshop; and in general Lisa and Tracy have had me thinking about language in ways I wouldn’t have been if not for the workshop this summer.

The workshop session I missed was time well spent nonetheless as I met with the Friends of Sherman Library book club July 12 to discuss my novel Men of Winter. It was great fun to talk with avid and enthusiastic readers, and they indulged me to read my brand-new short story “Crowsong for the Stricken,” which was also fun (for me at least). In addition to “Crowsong” I’ve also written a story titled “Primitive Scent,” and I’m at work on a third new story. I have in mind the next novel I want to begin writing, but now I’m thinking of postponing that project to write a collection of stories all set in the same weird little Midwestern village, the setting of these three new stories. We’ll see.

On the reading front, I continue to make my way through War and Peace (on page about 840 out of 1,200), and also Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (for my nightstand read) — but I did take a few days away from Tolstoy to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores (translated by Edith Grossman), and liked it very much: funny, haunting, touching — all the things one would expect from a Nobel Laureate.

tedmorrissey.com

Looking back, and a bit of True Grit

Posted in December 2010 by Ted Morrissey on December 31, 2010

On the one hand, I claim not to put a lot of stock in the significance of certain dates for their own sake, but the last day of the calendar year seems to encourage reflection. From a writing standpoint in particular, it’s definitely been a good one. I placed the odd and off-color story “Unnatural Deeds” with Leaf Garden, issue #8. Frankly, it took several months to find a publisher for that one, but I’m proud of it in the sense, especially, that the story is a testament to honesty — life as it really is, and not a sanitized version of it. It raised a few eyebrows, that I know of. I also placed the story “Walkin’ the Dog” in the debut issue of Spilling Ink Review. In that story I’d experimented with narrative that rests more heavily than usual (for me) on repetition of specific images, especially the color orange. It hasn’t come out yet, but Pisgah Review took my story “The Composure of Death”; it should be out this winter or spring. I realize now all three stories have in common that I borrowed their titles from other literary sources: Macbeth (5.1), “Unnatural deeds do breed unnatural troubles”; the title of Walter Mosley’s conceptual novel Walkin’ the Dog; and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “[T]he corpse had slightly shuddered, rustling the shroud and muslin cap, though the countenance retained the composure of death.”

The biggest stroke of luck of course was finding a publisher, finally, for my novel Men of Winter, which the new small press Punkin House picked up in the spring and released at the end of November. Thus 2011 will be in large part about promoting the novel. I also hope to release Weeping with an Ancient God, a novella and story collection, tentatively taken by Punkin House. The first chapter of Weeping, titled “Melvill in the Marquesas,” was published in September in The Final Draft. (I meant to provide a link to the story, which was published online, but the link has become inactive again — a bit disconcerting, as I’ve been hoping it would be floating around in the ether promoting in its way the coming novella release.) I thought I would have difficulty placing the novella excerpt — it is a bit unusual, in essence a fictionalized biography of Herman Melville’s experience among cannibals in 1842, during the whaling adventure that led to his eventually writing Moby Dick — but The Final Draft picked it up pretty quickly, and even though I withdrew it promptly from other journals’ consideration, I received three other offers of publication, and two rejections with long notes of praise (highly unusual, from my experience). So maybe the novella itself will generate some reading interest.

I was also invited to contribute to Glimmer Train Press’ Writers Ask series, a well-respected how-to publication, and thus my piece “Researching the Rhythms of Voice” will appear this winter or spring. I wrote about the process I’ve gone through to write my current project, whose working title is the Authoress, as its first-person protagonist is modeled after the nineteenth-century American writer Washington Irving. In particular I’ve been reading an obscure collection of Irving’s letters in order to get the feel of his more informal prose style. I’ve written about 340 manuscript pages of the Authoress, and hope to finish within a year or so. One other writing development was my establishing a new blog via my publisher, Punkin House. I decided what the world may need is a blog devoted to helping new(er) writers find outlets for their work, thus Pathfinding.

The Authoress has taken up all my writing energy, so I haven’t written any shorter pieces, nor any scholarly papers — both of which I miss, but it’s important to devote the necessary time and mental processing to the new novel. I’m not short on ideas: I have several writing projects, both small and large, creative and scholarly, in mind.

Finally, I don’t normally write about cinema, especially contemporary American cinema, but the other day I saw the Coen Brothers’ newest offering, True Grit, and I found it quite mesmerizing and wonderful. The acting is superb (and why wouldn’t it be, given the cast?), but beyond that the cinematic style is quite engaging, epic and even biblical in its scope. I know there have been some naysayers who don’t like the idea of remaking the 1969 John Wayne classic, directed by Henry Hathaway — and I love that True Grit, too — but the Coen Brothers have remained truer, apparently, to Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, and have given us a film that is darker and, well, grittier, than the original film, great as it is.

On the reading front, I continue to make my way through Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and am enjoying it very much. Winter break is nearly over, and it will be back to the three-job grind, but I’ve managed to make a lot of progress on the Authoress.

tedmorrissey.com

Men of Winter

Vimeo, new blog, Dracula, and a touch of Tolstoy

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

With the release of Men of Winter just days away (though I’ll believe it when I’m holding a copy in my hands), I’ve been working on increasing its (my) web presence, and one project has been to make a recording of myself reading the first chapter of the novel. Originally my thought was to embed the mp3 file at my website, but it seems WordPress doesn’t support that sort of link (or I’m just an idiot). Then I thought I’d turn the audio file into a multimedia file combining it with the image of the book cover, which I did, and embed that file at my website. However, that didn’t seem to work either. So … I uploaded the video to YouTube, except it turns out YouTube has a fifteen-minute limit, and my video is over sixteen minutes. Persevering, I’ve had an account at Vimeo for a few months but haven’t done anything with it except comment on various filmmakers’ projects and subscribe to a few of my favorites. Anyway, I uploaded my video (which is mainly audio) to Vimeo, god bless ’em, and I put the link on my webpage. Also, I’ve made an abridged audio file of my reading so that in the next couple of days I can transform it into a video and upload it to YouTube, just to have a bit more exposure.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, my publisher, Punkin House Press, encourages its authors to maintain a blog, so the question became, do I continue to use 12 Winters Blog only, or do I also start a special blog (on Blogger) that will be linked to PHP’s blogpage? Figuring that, perhaps, more is better (after all, this is America, people), I went with the latter option. I pondered for a few days how I might make my PHP blog different from 12 Winters Blog, which I use as a sort of online journal of my reading and writing life, and it occurred to me that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of practical information on the web about the mechanics of finding a publisher for one’s shorter work. I’ve come across a lot of sites that give writing tips, and there’s a lot of information about how to shop a book-length manuscript; however, for the so-called “new” writer/poet who is wanting to start seeing work in print, there doesn’t seem to be much out there. Hence, my Punkin House blog, which I launched yesterday — perhaps you heard something about it on the evening news. (Disclaimer: We seem to be having some technical difficulties related to its being a shared site, and thus far I haven’t been able to spruce up the generic template — but, fear not, I’m working on it.)

With my current writing project, the Authoress, a new novel, I’m toiling away on chapter 19, which is set during an … unusual performance of Romeo and Juliet. It’s taking awhile to compose my way through the scene, but I’m getting to spend some quality time with the Bard’s words (always a plus), and, in a strange way, I’m getting to stage the performance. In other words, I’m essentially the director/choreographer of this fictionalized nineteenth-century production in my head, and that in itself has been a lot of fun. (Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll try to stage an actual production of the play as I’m imagining it for my novel — it’d be interesting.)

Speaking of staging, last night I saw the final performance of Dracula at the Community Players Theatre in Bloomington, Illinois. To quote the website:

Adapted from the novel by Bram Stoker, this stage adaptation served as the basis for the 1931 Universal horror film classic starring Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula. Written in 1923 with the blessing of Stoker’s widow, this critically acclaimed version presents the classic Dracula we know so well today. The 1977 Broadway production, which won Tony Awards for Best Revival and best Costume Design, featured Academy Award nominee and three-time Tony Award winner, Frank Langella, as the nefarious Count Dracula.

The 1923 stage version was the first to present Dracula as a suave and sophisticated figure, and not the monstrous persona that Stoker wrote in his 1897 novel (according to my former dissertation director, Bob McLaughlin, who played Dr. Seward in the Community Players production). In a sense, then, this stage version laid the groundwork for today’s vampire craze with its plethora of sexy vampires. It was a small cast and deserves what little recognition I can provide here: Leah Pryor (Miss Wells, the maid), Gerald Price (Jonathan Harker), Bob McLaughlin (Dr. Seward), Joe Strupek (Abraham Van Helsing), Brian Artman (R. M. Renfield), Jeff Ready (Butterworth), Kristi Zimmerman (Lucy Seward), and Paul Vellella (Count Dracula); co-produced and co-directed by Bruce and Kathleen Parrish. As I said, it was the final performance, but the Community Players have several other shows planned for the season, including a one-weekend performance of “Art”, November 18-21 (that’s next weekend).

Finally, I’ve been wanting to read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1878) for a long, long time, and I’ve taken the plunge. I’m on Part 1, Chapter 14 — so far, so great. My favorite line to date: Oblonsky observes, “All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow” (p. 42, Barnes & Noble Classics edition, 2003; 1.11). For me it captures something that for the last couple of years in particular I’ve been working to get across to my students, who seem increasingly to see the world as black or white, and have little sense of (or use for) nuance, contradiction and complexity. Thus, literature becomes a calculus problem to be solved, to be reduced to its lowest, most simplified expression; but the purpose of literature is not to be solved per se — rather literature invites us to ponder and embrace the irreconcilable contradictions of being human. As I say at times, we don’t fully understand our own behavior, our own feelings, let alone other people’s. Yet we must try, for as we come closer to knowing them, we come closer to knowing ourselves. Heavy.

tedmorrissey.com

Women Writers reading, and release date for Men of Winter

Posted in November 2010 by Ted Morrissey on November 7, 2010

Last evening the Women Writers Association of Central Illinois, in conjunction with the Sangamon Watercolor Society, held an open-mic reading with the release of Mosaics 3: Art anthology of short stories and poetry.  The reading, held at Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield, Illinois, was well attended, and I daresay no one could have been disappointed in the material presented by the poets, writers, and watercolorists who came together for the event. The Women Writers Association is marking its twenty-seventh year.

The event was MC-ed by Dr. Rachell N. Anderson, formerly of Springfield but now residing in Mississippi, who has been a member of the WWA for twenty-five years. In addition to her MC duties, Rachell read a memoir piece from Mosaics, “For the Kindness of Strangers,” that was humorous, touching, and insightful. She writes of nearly running out of gas while driving through Arkansas, discovering, in a sudden panic, that she’d absentmindedly left behind her purse and with it the wherewithal to fill her tank. Other readings from the anthology that impressed me very much were Kimberly K. Magowan’s long poem “The Pebbled Path” (dealing with the tragic effects of Alzheimer’s disease), Pat Martin’s poem “Life Line” (about waiting for a call from a daughter who’s in the path of a tornado), and Debi Sue Edmund’s memoir “Moving Day” (in large part about the family cat who refuses to enter his pet carrier to be transported to his new abode).

In listing these, I leave out many worthy others. Other contributors to Mosaics 3 are Kathleen O’Hara Podzimek, Linda McElroy, Celia Wesle, Anita Stienstra, Jennifer C. Herring, Cindy Ladage, and Jean Staff. I want to make special note of not only Anita Stienstra’s remarkable reading of two ekphrastic poems that she wrote in connection with watercolor pieces by Sangamon Society members, but also that she edited and produced Mosaics 3, a lovely book that features cover art by Kathleen O’Hara Podzimek. Anita is editor and publisher of Adonis Designs Press, which does the important work of bringing out local voices who otherwise may not be heard. As a teacher, I’m especially appreciative of Anita’s efforts to produce The Maze, an anthology of work by local teenagers.

On the Men of Winter front, the publisher, Punkin House Press, has indicated my novel will be officially released November 23. PHP’s founding CEO, Amy Ferrell, and I will talk tomorrow about marketing and so forth. Somewhat along those lines, I’m playing around with making an audio recording of my reading the novel’s first chapter to post at the website. If it goes well, I may record myself reading one or two of my short stories also. Obviously, I hope the recordings might bring some (positive) attention to my work — but also I just enjoy reading aloud. In class these days we’re reading Frankenstein, and I especially love reading Mary Shelley’s prose aloud. (An editor who rejected my work said that he liked it, but my prose was “overheated” — which I took as a compliment as it is exactly how I would describe Mary Shelley’s style in Frankenstein — hmmm, does that mean that I write like a 19-year-old girl? So be it.)

On my current writing project, the Authoress, I’ve taken a few days away from composing to read, carefully, Romeo and Juliet, as the play seems to want to colonize my novel as a subtext. Before diving into the play itself, I’m glad that I read Gail Kern Paster’s essay “Romeo and Juliet: A Modern Perspective” in the Folger Library 1992 edition of the play. In it, Paster makes the case that Juliet’s rejecting her father’s plans for her marriage and her choosing her own marital path is a challenge to long-standing patriarchal order, or in Paster’s words, a “conflict between traditional authority and individual desire” (p. 255). Paster’s essay made me more keenly aware of challenges to traditional authority in the play, and this is precisely what my novel is looking for in directing me toward Romeo and Juliet. I’ve been especially interested in issues of identity and naming in the play. In the iconic first orchard scene, for example, Romeo’s identity is “bescreen’d in night,” and when Juliet asks him pointblank, “Art thou not Romeo and a Montague?” he is ready to shed both “if either thee dislike” (2.2). An especially provocative image, given this reading of the play, is Juliet’s declaration that if she awakens in the Capulet vault and discovers that her and Romeo’s desperate plan to be together has not come to fruition, she will “dash out [her] desperate brains . . . with some great kinsman’s bone” (4.3).

I’m just about done reading/annotating the play, so hopefully I can get back to writing chapter 19 on the morrow.

tedmorrissey.com

Authoress progress, Weeping, and a little Tempest

Posted in July 2010 by Ted Morrissey on July 21, 2010

My working on the Authoress, my novel in progress, slowed down for a couple of weeks, in large part because I was tidying up the manuscript for Weeping with an Ancient God, a novella with collected stories.  Novellas have been a hard sale, unless your name is something like Stephanie Meyer, but I’m hoping by pairing the novella with already published short stories, it will be easier to place.  It took longer to edit and compile the various pieces into a single manuscript — and it took more of my creative energies than I’d anticipated — and as such my writing was affected. But with Weeping put to bed so to speak, I’ve been back at the Authoress this week. I’ve also been doing some home improvement stuff, and these projects, though they’re not that cerebral, have been a distracting influence as well. Along with writing, I’ve also begun some research on nineteenth-century printing processes. Having it right per se is not pivotal to my book, but I’ve been throwing around some terminology, almost since page one, and I want to make sure it’s accurate. So far I’m finding that I’ve been pretty much on the mark, but I’ll probably tweak some language here and there. A metaphor has also been suggested to me via the research; I may pursue inserting the metaphor — letting it just percolate for now.  Since it’s a work of fiction I don’t consider myself a slave to historical accuracy, but authenticity is crucial to historically based novels and being accurate with those sort of details (the printing processes of the period) can go a long way toward establishing that authenticity.

In addition to the research, I’m back to reading Ulysses, specifically the “Circe” section, which is the longest and quite possibly most challenging section of the novel, essentially book-length in itself. Taking the form of a dramatic script, it is a dreamlike narrative. I haven’t done any serious scholarly research on Joyce’s work, but this “Circe” section seems to anticipate the narrative technique of Finnegans Wake, which has been described as the journey from wakefulness through the catacombs of sleep then back toward being awake at the conclusion. I’ve been trying to alternate reading a section of Ulysses with reading a shorter (probably more contemporary) novel, as there are many that I’ve been chomping at the bit to get to; I’ve “fit in” works by Hawkes, Nabokov, Solares, and Süskind whle reading sections of Ulysses. Last week I read a sizable chunk of Tom Rachman’s very new novel The Imperfectionists, and it was very good (it strikes me as more of a conceptual novel, though I don’t mean to imply that makes it somehow not a novel and certainly not less than a novel). I found it laugh-out-loud funny at times, and touching at times — but I abandoned it nevertheless. I felt a bit guilty, as it deserves to be read in full, but I didn’t seem to be in the mood for it. Being contemporary, it talks of cell phones and computers and the Internet — things my real world is filled with, and for some reason I don’t want to read about such stuff, not in a novel anyway. As a writer, I don’t want to write about such stuff either.

I’ve been circulating the first chapter of my novella as a stand-alone piece titlted “Melvill in the Marquesas,” and I’ve just started sending around a 2,000-word short story titled “The Composure of Death” (it’s a knee-slapper). It’s difficult to find open markets in the depth of summer, but already in mid-July things have begun to reopen, meaning that more and more journals have started to read again, though the flood gates won’t open until late August, early September; in other words, with the start of the academic year.

Finally . . .  I’ve been meaning to say something about the Illinois Shakespeare Festival production of The Tempest, which I saw several weeks ago. In a word, it was good. The Festival productions are always professionally done and enjoyable to watch. I was a little taken aback by the presentation of Prospero; he seemed too kind-hearted, not edgy enough for my Prospero tastes. I was most intrigued by the set design and costuming. In addition to its being part of the backdrop, a brilliant blue sky with ponderous white clouds was also rendered on the floor of the stage — implying I think that all of the play’s action is taking place in a sort of ethereal space. This ethereal-space impression was added to by the costuming, especially Ariel’s, which consisted mainly of body paint: sky blue with white clouds added on back and chest; then as pants he wore sort of knee-length breeches made of puffy white material, rather cloud-like if you will. At the pinnacle of the backdrop was the shape of a long-winged bird, maybe dove shaped, but filled in with the same sky-blue sky with clouds design that was on the stage floor and on Ariel (and the other spirits, too, for that matter). In some regards, the ethereal space is perhaps suggestive of the play’s taking place as much in imagination as in theatrical reality — in the playwright’s imagination? Or the audience’s? Perhaps Prospero’s or Miranda’s? I’m not sure — but I’ve been pondering it at some level since seeing the production. The Festival is also doing The Merry Wives of Windsor this summer, and I hope to get to it (though it’s turned into a busy summer in its way).

tedmorrissey.com

Ulysses, African-American Authors, et al.

Posted in May 2010 by Ted Morrissey on May 16, 2010

I continue to make my way through Ulysses.  This morning I finished reading episode nine, “Scylla and Charybdis.”  It was especially meaningful to me for several reasons.  It’s a highly literary episode, as the characters, especially Stephen Dedalus and the poet A. E., discuss Shakespeare and, in particular, their various theories about Hamlet (and Hamlet and king Hamlet).  Before reading Ulysses, I had not seen the parallels between Homer’s Odyssey — a text that I’ve taught for years — and Hamlet, a text that I’ve taught but it’s been awhile. Both, for instance, are very much concerned with the absent father (Odysseus and king Hamlet), and in both the returned father spurs them to violence against intruders to their home (the suitors and Claudius).  The bipolarity of faithful Penelope versus faithless Gertrude is interesting, too.

Perhaps the most intriguing notion to come out of my reading of episode nine, however, is the idea that Joyce was exploring the dichotomy between Aristotle’s rationalism (represented by the cliff-dwelling Scylla) and Plato’s more organic idealism (the maelstrom Charybdis).  I’ve been teaching and studying the Odyssey for years, but I’ve never thought of Odysseus as having to navigate between these philosophical poles — and the dangers associated with sailing too closely to one or the other.  We can see this metaphor played out in our everyday lives.  In education, for example, it seems that the Aristotelean has run amok with an overemphasis on standardized testing (crystallized in the politically named “No Child Left Behind” legislation) to the detriment of the more flexible and organic pedagogies, associated in this paradigm with the Platonic.  That is, President Bush and the architects of NCLB wanted to treat students as if they were software that could be tweaked into superior performance — and dismissing the complexly organic nature of complex human organisms.  Standardized testing has its place in education, but we mustn’t sail too closely to the rocks; a more moderate course is needed.

I’ve also been (re-)reading some slave narratives as I’m currently teaching one of my favorite courses at the college, Introduction to African-American Authors.  I’ve taught it several times over the last four or five years, but I overhauled the syllabus, placing greater emphasis on the early slave narratives (Equiano, Prince, Douglass, and Jacobs), and also on the Harlem Renaissance.  Regarding the latter, this new emphasis has allowed the poetry of Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes into the reading list, as well as the novella The Blacker the Berry (1929) by Wallace Thurman.  For the conclusion of the course, I’ve also switched out Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) for The Bluest Eye (1970).  Of course, in revamping the syllabus the age-old problem has manifested itself:  for everything the syllabus giveth, it must taketh something else away.  In this case, I’ve lost some writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker (and Walker’s concept of “womanism” as opposed to feminism).  These are great losses to be sure.  I’ll have to evaluate this incarnation of the course once we finish in mid-June.

I continue to work on The Authoress and am very pleased with how it’s taking shape.  I have a more solid sense of the ending, but it remains many, many words away, and I’m deliberately avoiding marrying myself to the ending as I envision it now — I want the narrative to have the autonomy to assert its own wishes and needs as we go along.  The fine folks at Punkin House Press are getting things in order.  I still haven’t been contacted by an editor there regarding Men of Winter, but it will no doubt happen soon.  Their plate is mighty full, to put it mildly.  Speaking of autonomy, PHP’s philosophy is to let writers have their own space to create and to promote themselves.  On the one hand, I very much appreciate this noble philosophy, but, on the other, some writers could probably use a bit more guidance when it comes to presenting themselves to the world.  I can offer no citation, but I’ve heard that when Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage, “The Open Boat”) would send his work to his publisher, the junior editors would draw straws to see who had to edit his writing, which was filled with misspellings and ungrammatical musings.  Creativity — even if a sort of genius creativity — does not necessarily make one a master of the English language, which is why the gods invented editors.

And speaking of unmasterful endeavors, I continue to tinker with tedmorrissey.com — but there probably isn’t a lot more to do until Men of Winter gets closer to an actual release date.

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.

More on Omensetter’s Luck, et al.

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

I continue to work on annotating Omensetter’s Luck, William H. Gass’s 1966 novel.  Images of enclosure continue to stand out for me in the text, especially Jethro Furber’s sense of his own body, especially his skull, being a sort of enclosure from which he would like to escape.  The psychological implications, especially when read via trauma theory, are fascinating.  Trauma tends to colonize the psyche of the individual and “haunt” the conscious mind, unbidden.  In an earlier post, I wrote about Macbeth’s visitation of the witches in their cavern suggesting to me the Scot’s exploration of his own unconscious mind, with the witches representing a traumatic event that has been lodged there.  Clearly Shakespeare was interested in, what we would call, the unconscious and its effects on the conscious mind (Macbeth doesn’t know if the bloody dagger that leads him to Duncan is real or a figment of his imagination, as is the case with Banquo’s ghost; and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking and suicide are due to a “mind diseased”).

Meanwhile:  The Web is an amazing thing.  I’ve had two email inquiries about my dissertation thanks (apparently in both cases) to the Register-Mail article about my completing the Ph.D. that was published online.  Due to the second inquiry (from Raymond Osborne of Boston University), I learned that the article was linked to “Nods Online & In Print” at Tunneling:  A Resource for Readers of William H. Gass website.  When I checked it out (who wouldn’t?), I came across a blog post on Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel that is really interesting.  In a comment about the blog I learned there’s a band named Omensetters (the commenter’s daughter is in the new band).  Also, in a subsequent email from Ray I learned of the blog Raul de Saldanha, for lovers of literature, which has some connections to Gass, etc.  It’s amazing, the interconnectedness of the information, but also a little overwhelming to try to take it all in.  Nevertheless, I appreciate people troubling to contact me about my dissertation, and it’s exciting to meet (online) others who appreciate Gass as much as I do.

On the creative writing front, I’ve been working steadily on “The Authoress,” my novel in progress, and have more than 180 manuscript pages at this point.  I’ve been able to add about three pages a week, by writing for about thirty minutes each morning, Monday through Friday, by hand, then typing up those pages on the weekend.  I’m working on a section now that I’ve been writing without editing/revising as I go, which is unusual for me.  Normally I begin each day’s writing by reading/revising the previous day’s output.  I think I’ll wait until the entire section is drafted before revising the whole thing at once, so to speak (revision is always on-going of course)–I’m curious how that approach may affect the revision process.  So far I’m pleased with what I’ve written, but the earliest chapters were begun three years ago.  I fear that the tone and style of those pages are distinctly different from what I’m producing now–reconciling these issues will be one of my chief goals as I revise, revise, revise.

I want to work on my Gass paper this afternoon (but the US does play Canada at 2 for Olympic gold . . . decisions, decisions).