Mrs. Warren’s Profession at CalShakes

Dave and I saw Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession Thursday night at CalShakes. The production is really good. Stacy Ross is terrific as Mrs. Warren, Anna Bullard holds her own very well as her daughter Vivie. Dan Hiatt is very endearing as Praed. The whole ensemble is delightful — the direction, the pointedly ironic set (pointed and ironic both literally and figuratively), the supporting roles, the colorful costumes.

It’s still Mrs. Warren’s Profession, though. It was Shaw’s second play and it has always seemed to me with this play that he hadn’t yet figured out how to make his lecture-hall points and tell a good story at the same time. There are too many times where the lectures cause the story to stop in its tracks for too long. Mrs. Warren seems to me to be a well-drawn character, but the same isn’t true of Vivie, who often seems to me to be who she is, and to do what she does, not so much because she’s a woman in a story as because she’s a symbol in the equation Shaw wanted to construct to describe the world as he saw it.

Still, this production made the play work better for me than it’s ever worked before, and I think it’s mostly because of the approach taken toward Vivie. A reviewer of this production harshly criticized the way Vivie is presented in this production, saying that it wasn’t worthy of Shaw’s character,

… the brave young woman who makes a hard choice to go it alone, at a time when conventional wisdom — and hindsight — declared a woman couldn’t.

Well, that’s one of my big problems with the play, right there: By the end of the play I don’t think Vivie is brave. I think she makes the easy, selfish, heartless, and ultimately cowardly choice, choosing to pretend to “go it alone”, when the really brave thing to do would be to admit that she knows she is only equipped to do well in the world because of the countless advantages that she’s received from her mother. But she doesn’t want to have to acknowledge them or admit any gratitude for them, because that would require her to give up her black-and-white, this-is-good-and-that-is-evil view of the world.

I understand that Shaw makes her that way because she’s his representative for the privileged world’s conventional attitude toward prostitution, loudly condemning it and staying aloof from it while in a state of carefully preserved denial about all the ways in which the world quietly profits by it. But that’s not a living character, that’s an allegorical statue. The few productions I’ve seen have tried to present Vivie in a positive light, her and Mrs. Warren as equally strong-willed women who have opposite and incompatible, but equally valid, points of view. It’s always managed to make the play about as compelling to me as a problem in long division.

What I’d really like to see is for Vivie to struggle her way toward some new understanding and acceptance and wisdom about her situation and her mother — not to give us the usual conventional, sentimental attitude about motherhood and/or prostitution, but to show us how Shaw wished that people like Vivie could change, rather than showing us how they don’t change. Shaw did take just that approach in so many of his plays, letting one or two of his central characters come to new and more complicated understandings of their worlds, even as the more conventional supporting characters around them held fast to their conventional, sentimental, black-and-white attitudes. But Shaw hadn’t tumbled to doing that yet with Mrs. Warren’s Profession, which was only his second play.

This production, though, does something that I don’t remember seeing before or remember ever occurring to me before in reading the play, and that is to make us see Vivie’s inflexibility as her way of coping with her profound fear of the world, of its sensuality, and of her own feelings. The production shows us that she is not so much going out into the world on her own as she is locking herself up tightly in a fortress she’s building higher and higher around herself. I still didn’t completely believe in Vivie as a human being, but the approach in this production came closer to making the play work for me than I can remember it ever doing before.

I thought Timothy Near’s direction contained a great many memorable and telling moments, maybe the most powerful of all being the sequence at the very beginning, all done silently before a line of dialogue is said, as we watch Mrs. Warren and Vivie, each in her own home, getting dressed in the morning. Vivie dresses herself in comparatively simple and lightweight clothing, while Mrs. Warren puts on layer after complicated layer with the help of two maids, starting with a corset (trying stoically not to wince as a maid puts a knee to her back and gives a firm tug to tighten the laces just another tiny bit) and a bustle and ending with a jacket and full skirt in a rich, beautiful, and very heavy-looking fabric. Her day hasn’t even begun and already she’s breathing a little harder just from getting dressed — but by God, she has created exactly the effect she wants and needs to create. It’s a brilliant opening, and Stacy Ross’s acting through it is brilliant, too — she seems to do very little, just stands and looks at herself in a mirror as she is dressed by her maids, and yet by the end of the sequence we know, before a word has been spoken, a great deal about Mrs. Warren, her character, her position in the world, her attitude toward it. And about the differences between her and her daughter.

Comfort Reading

Since my brain surgery eleven and a half years ago, I’ve suffered from excruciating headaches, though fortunately over time they’ve become less and less frequent, and I now only get them maybe three or four times a year. Usually when I get one I lie down in a hot bath — I’m not sure how much this actually helps the headache, but it’s soothing and it gives me something to do while I wait for the pain medication to kick in.

In theory, it seems like lying there in the tub with my eyes closed ought to be the best thing, but in fact that often just focuses my attention on the pain and makes it seem worse. So I often take a book with me to distract me.

But it’s impossible for me to concentrate on anything when I’ve got a bad headache, so the book has to be what I think of as “comfort reading”, usually something I’ve read many times already and like a lot and can follow and enjoy (or at least enjoy the illusion of following) even if I just let the words wash over me as I read.

Also, it has to be an inexpensive and replaceable paperback, in case I get a little water on it or heaven forbid drop it. There are several books that in theory would be great for this function but I only own them in editions too nice and/or too hard to replace to take the risk.

A couple of weeks ago it was a paperback copy of Anita Loos’s two short novels Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. The former is a comic masterpiece; the latter is just an OK sequel, but enjoyable enough.

Dave and I watched the movie of GPB last night, too. It’s a lot of fun, and Marilyn Monroe is terrific, but the movie is softer and more conventional than the book and only occasionally gives us glimpses of the untamed Lorelei Lee and Dorothy Shaw as they are in the novels.

Atom Smasher

Just dropped my entry into the mail for this weekend’s Listener puzzle, “Atom Smasher”. Another fairly simple one: After solving eight or nine clues, I found one of the 13 “clashes” in the grid (places where a pair of across and down words have different letters where they cross), and just looking at the letters I’d filled in already in the grid, my puzzle brains kicked in and I had a hunch about what was going on with the 13 clashes, and that turned out to be right.

I worked on the puzzle on my commute home, and a little more after dinner, and by bedtime I had solved enough to read the message that told how I was to resolve the clashes in the grid. I didn’t work on it again till Saturday evening, because I spent all afternoon working on the play I’m working on, but once I’d started again it didn’t take me long to finish. Having spotted the sort of pattern in the clashes was a help when I got to the last four or five clues, as it helped me know where the last few clashes could and couldn’t be.

Pleasant puzzle, not great, not bad.

Wet Wet Wet

It’s 2 a.m. and I just finished this week’s Listener puzzle. It seems like a much harder puzzle than the last few weeks’ puzzles have been, even accounting for the fact that I was incredibly tired today and napped most of the afternoon.

I’m too tired to try to explain any of it. For the record, though: I didn’t figure out what the mystery group was till I’d filled in the answers to all but one of the clues. I finally cracked it by way of the seven misprints in the clues; I had only found six of them, but that was enough for me to unscramble the seven-letter word. That led me to a location associated with one of the members of the group, at which point I had the head-slapping moment and everything became clear.

Very clever theme. There are six words you have to discover, and they make up the members of the mystery group; I had made guesses about what two of them might be early on, yet didn’t see what the group was, even though it eventually turned out that both guesses were correct and the group was not unknown to me. Tricky! Lots of theme-related answers in the grid that don’t have clues, so there wasn’t much help from crossing letters in parts of the grid. Lots of clues that made me smile, including 1A, 5A, 24A, 31D, 11D, and 27D.

The Barber of Bagdad

I’ve been on a small binge lately of listening to Peter Cornelius’s opera The Barber of Bagdad (Der Barbier von Bagdad). I’m a bit surprised to find I own five recordings of it. It’s not a well-known opera, but one I like a lot. For one thing, it’s based on a series of stories out of the 1001 Nights, and I have a soft spot for anything taken from the 1001 Nights. But even apart from that, it’s funny and theatrical and it has terrific music. Plus: a first-rate libretto!

It’s sort of a huge shaggy dog story about a young man in love. He has only a narrow window of time during which he can secretly visit his beloved — her very religious father goes to the nearby mosque every day at noon to pray — and as he has some time before he can show up, he decides he will make himself more presentable with a bath and getting his head freshly shaved. His friend suggests a barber that she knows — a brilliant man, she says, master of many arts and sciences. After she leaves, he shouts out the window after her, “Don’t forget the barber!” (“Vergiss den Barbier nicht!”)

Those words are his doom. The barber arrives, but he turns out to be a foolish old man who can’t stop bragging about what an expert he is on so many subjects, going off on one tangent after another. He has cast a horoscope for the young man, which reveals that he has chosen the most fortunate time on earth to be shaved, and the barber explains the chart in detail while the young man pleads with him to get on with it. When the young man gets so exasperated that he calls the barber an outrageous windbag (unverschämter Schwätzer, to be exact), the barber is offended, and he explains at length how he was actually the quiet one in a family of seven brothers — whom he names and describes, one … by one … by one. It takes the poor young man at least half the first act just to get the barber to start shaving him, and much of the rest of it to get him to complete the job.

Worse, in the second act the barber trails the young man to his secret assignation, intending to be helpful. From the street in front of the young woman’s house, he shouts to the young man inside not to worry, he’s on the lookout in case her father returns early — which of course alerts the whole neighborhood that the young man is there. Then the barber hears the shouts of a slave being beaten, and leaps to the conclusion that the young man is being beaten to death by the father, so he shouts to the neighborhood “Help! Murder!”, raising a crowd in the street outside and making it impossible for the young man to get away without being seen. Before long the poor guy is hiding in a trunk while the father rages at the barber and the room fills up with one group of people after another, who come to try to stop the imaginary murder or side with the father or wail in grief. The caliph’s police arrive to stop the near-riot, and finally the caliph himself appears. After some more confusion, all ends satisfactorily at last and the lovers can marry. (The story in the 1001 Nights has much more of a black comedy ending: The young man not only doesn’t get the girl, he gets one leg badly broken in the chaos, entirely due to the barber, and he walks with a limp ever after.)

It’s a great opera, but it really needs a good English version. A lot of the comedy is in the words, first because they’re often very funny in their own right and second because the style is mock-heroic and if you aren’t getting the ironic juxtaposition of the increasingly serious music and the increasingly absurd situation that is developing, you miss a lot.

I know enough German, and have gotten to know the opera well enough, to follow along now as I listen, but it’s got to be a perplexing opera to listen to in a language you don’t know. It’s never been all that successful outside of Germany, and it probably won’t be if it doesn’t at some point get adapted into other languages, and well. There’s an English-language version published; I haven’t really studied it to get a feel for whether I think it’d work in the theater, but from what I’ve read of it, the language seems very stilted and forced. (It also seems possible to me, though, that what I’m seeing as stilted language is intended, at least, to convey the flavor of the Richard Burton translation of the 1001 Nights. At some point I ought to look more closely at it.)

Cornelius wrote two overtures to the opera, writing the second one at the urging of Liszt, who didn’t like the first one. Of my five recordings, only one includes the second overture, and it seems to be obligatory to say in the liner notes that the composer’s original intentions were of course much superior. Well, as a pure piece of music, I agree; if given a choice of hearing the first or second version as a concert piece by itself, I would without hesitation go with the first. It’s a deliciously sly piece of music, full of charm and atmosphere, while the second version is a much more conventional comic opera overture, not doing much more than stringing together all the best melodies and getting the show off to a lively start. Nevertheless, I think Liszt was right and the second overture is the right one to use in the theater; it’s going to put the audience in a much better frame of mind to enjoy the story that follows.

And it does end with a delicious joke, though one that you have to get to know the opera to catch: The final cadence quotes the melody of “Don’t forget the barber!”