It’s Friday, so I have a new Listener puzzle for the commute home. This one, “Quartet”, looks pretty hard. It’s one of those puzzles where you have to figure out where in the grid to put the answers, so I won’t be able to put anything in till I have a lot of answers. So far I have two.


I’ve been a member of the Times of London Crossword Club three weeks now, mostly to get the weekly Listener crossword. The three new ones since I’ve joined have been relatively easy (for Listener crosswords, that is). But yesterday I worked on the crossword from January 16, which is called “Conversion”, and it’s more the crazily difficult puzzle I associate with the Listener. The instructions are bewildering, to start with:

In 18 clues, the definition has undergone a conversion and contains a single misprint that must be corrected before solving. In clue order, the correct letters give a thematic introduction. All answers must be amended prior to entry; the across answers according to the part of the introduction given by down clues, and vice versa. These include two entries that are clued without definition, both of which are professions that were found wanting.

On locating the subject of the puzzle in the grid, solvers must carry out a conversion (the source of which was itself a conversion). This completes, in the shape of the subject’s place of work, a thematic quotation that must be highlighted.

The clues were pretty tough, with a lot of obscure words involved, and it took a good while before I had enough pairs of crossing answers to come up with a hypothesis about how to enter them to make the crossings work. Fortunately my guess was pretty close to being right, and once I could enter words in the grid and get help from the crossings, things started falling into place more quickly. The breakthrough came when I had finally enough of the 18 changed letters to figure out the first half of the “thematic introduction”. I didn’t know the phrase, but I googled it and that told me what the theme was. Figuring out the significance of the two “professions that were found wanting” narrowed down the subject of the puzzle, which indeed was located in the grid — it was startling to realize that it had been staring me in the face, really. That made it clear what was meant by all the uses of “conversion” in the instructions, with a nice unexpected surprise at how many different but perfectly appropriate twists of meaning it had.

And then the final surprise was finding the “thematic quotation” in the nearly completed grid (I still had a few unsolved clues in the upper left corner). Not a particularly short quotation, either. It could not have been easy for the setter to construct the grid, what with all the limitations: (a) the subject being hidden in the grid, (b) the quotation being hidden in the grid, (c) the across and down answers being modified in accordance with a phrase that is appropriate to the theme of the puzzle, and (d) the whole thing still having to work as a valid crossword puzzle grid with the right numbers of crossings in all the words. Just amazing, a wonderful piece of work and a very tough and satisfying puzzle to solve.

Rambling Thoughts About Writing in the Commedia Dell’Arte Style

Dave and I went to see a staged reading of a new play last night. Overall, it wasn’t really very good — the characters were well drawn and funny in the commedia dell’arte style (which basically means what you might call “comedy of types”, in the sense of simple, easily recognized character types). But they never really got very far beyond their basic types — the gay men were flamboyant, catty, temperamental, creative, and sex-driven; the wealthy woman spent outrageous sums without thinking to get whatever she wanted; her daughter was spoiled and shallow; and so on. Don’t get me wrong, they were stereotypes but pretty well-written ones, almost always funny and only occasionally edging into possibly borderline offensive territory (that line about cucumbers, for example).

But there was a predictable paint-by-numbers quality to it, too, with very little to make the characters particular to this play, and after 15 minutes or so I wanted to tell them all that, okay, I really and truly get who you all are, so now can we do something with this information rather than just continue spinning out further variations, however well crafted, of the same eleven or twelve jokes?

There seemed to me to be no genuine conflict until about ten minutes before the end of the play. I think those two things are the same issue, actually. The way you develop a character in the commedia dell’arte style, as everybody is a “type” and there are no psychological depths to be explored, is to start with the archetype and then give each principal character one clear goal to work toward, something vitally important to that character, something that seems at the start to be impossibly difficult to attain, yet that he or she will go to extraordinary means to pursue. Then the character is particularized by this desire and by the manner in which he or she goes after it. (A common variation is to define a character in terms of what he or she desperately wants to avoid. Best of all, if you can do it without cluttering things up too much, is one of each: The central character desperately wants to get the woman he’s smitten by while staying far away from the mafiosi who are after him, or she desperately wants to rescue her boyfriend from pirates while not being herself kidnapped and bedded by the pirate captain.) In a nutshell that’s the classic basis of both strong melodrama and strong farce, depending on whether your tone of voice is serious or comic.

If an archetypal character doesn’t have an all-consuming desire to go after, though, he or she doesn’t have anywhere much to go, and that was the problem with last night’s play. Until quite late in the play, nobody had anything that they wanted so badly that they’d go to extraordinary means to get it; there was nothing that anybody was trying to avoid at all costs; nobody had any serious obstacles to getting what they wanted. There was no real conflict, just a lot of bitchy talk. Very funny bitchy talk, most of the time, but with never anything much at stake. It was like weak sitcom writing, everybody working very hard at swapping zingers to cover up the fact that nothing much was happening.

Near the end, though, a plot finally appeared, when the wealthy woman secretly bribed someone to try and sabotage her own daughter’s engagement. This never really led anywhere, though — it was too late in the play, the man never actually did anything to try and break up the couple, and the couple ended up breaking up on their own, just from their own incompatibility.

Then the sentimental ending in which all the seemingly cold and hypocritical (and therefore theatrically interesting) characters are revealed to have hearts of marshmallow after all. Everybody stops squabbling, drops the bitchiness, and makes up with everybody else, the sort of sitcom ending that is supposed to be heart-warming but always seems to me to be underlining how really unimportant the situation has been all along.

It’s always irritated me when a character who throughout the story has only been drawn in one dimension for perfectly legitimate comic or melodramatic purposes suddenly turns sweet and gooey in the last scene just because the playright thinks it’s time to make the audience go “aww!” In the final scene, Regina Giddens admits with tears in her eyes that she really always loved Horace, and she and her brothers are moved to make up their silly little misunderstanding, realizing that the love of family is what really matters after all; Sweeney Todd suddenly decides to let bygones be bygone and tells Mrs. Lovett to pack her bags, because he’s taking her away this very afternoon to that little cottage by the sea she’s dreamed of for so long; Lady Bracknell embraces Jack warmly, confesses that she has disapproved only because her own heart was once cruelly broken in her sensitive youth, and we see for the first time that under her lovably crusty exterior, all she ever really wanted was for Gwendolen to be very, very happy.

No, no, no, I just don’t get how you can even want to make the entire play depend for its working on the presentation of a character as single-minded and archetypal, and then in the last five minutes suddenly give this character a heart and soul and expect me to do an about-face and feel instant sympathy. If this has been the character’s nature all along, then what on earth has the rest of the play been about? If he or she is really that flexible and forgiving, what exactly have we been fretting about the whole evening? If the characters can shrug off so easily and nonchalantly in the final scene the conflict that has been driving the whole play, then aren’t we in the audience now being told that any emotional engagement with the story and the characters that we may have felt up to this point, based as it was on the now-exploded idea that anything has ever really been at stake for anyone, was all just a matter of ha-ha-fooled-you-into-caring?

Play Time

A couple of nights ago Dave and I watched Jacques Tati’s 1967 movie Play Time. I became a fan of the Tati movies in college — they would show now and then at the Balboa Cinema not far from campus. Mon Oncle was my favorite, and I liked Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday a lot, but Play Time was sort of bewildering as a whole, though it had many very funny sequences. What we watched the other night, though, was a DVD of the movie in a restored version, with some of the footage that had been cut for its released restored (some but not all, as some of it is completely missing), and the whole thing makes more sense now and seems more consistently funny all the way through. Play Time is also a movie that gets better on repeated watching, partly because some of the deadpan humor takes a little time to grow on you, and partly because some of the sequences have actions and subtle visual puns and not-so-subtle sight gags happening all over the screen, all at once, and it takes a couple of viewings to absorb it and get the full point of the comedy. It also helped that we were watching it on a high-def television — the sharpness of the picture brought out a lot of the detail.

The Concord Sonata into the Concord Symphony

Friday night Dave and I went to Davies Hall to hear MTT conducting an orchestration by Henry Brant of Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata. The Concord, as Ives wrote it, is a very difficult and densely written work for solo piano; I’ve listened to it a few times on record but never with much comprehension. As arranged by Brant, it is much clearer, much easier to make out what is going on. Still a difficult work to figure out, but I felt I could see much further into it this way, and I came away with some sense of the work’s overall shape that I never did with the piano sonata. Now I want to get hold of a recording of the symphonic version and listen to it some more, and that’s saying something because I had pretty much figured the Concord Sonata was a work I was probably just never going to figure out how to listen to with understanding or enjoyment in this lifetime.

Brant worked for several decades on the orchestration, in between other projects, as a labor of love. The orchestration is terrific; some of the orchestral colors didn’t always sound quite like Ives’s own, but it rang true to my ear all the way through and I’m not sure that it wasn’t actually a more skilled orchestration than any of Ives’s own. At any rate, I often felt there was a greater variety of colors and a greater transparency to the orchestration than Ives generally had. There are also some appropriately inexplicable Ivesian quirks, such as a wind machine in the the percussion section that as far as Dave and I noticed only gets used once, and for only a few bars.

The other work on the program was a short Schubert mass which they could have skipped as far as I was concerned, though I did notice quite a few people came only for it and left at intermission, so I guess it had its purpose on the program. It was probably chosen as something easy and pleasant that the orchestra could just about sight-read through, so as to save all the orchestra’s rehearsal time for the difficult and unfamiliar Ives/Brant work.