Is That What You Want? Is It?

I admire MoveOn and think they do a lot of good things. But I received a fund-raising message yesterday that said the following, and I have to wonder if anybody troubled to read this over:

If we can’t increase our budget, we might have to dramatically scale back or pull the plug on some of MoveOn’s most important election efforts this year.

Any sane person responds to a budgetary crisis by cutting back his or her least important expenses, not most. As written, it sounds kind of childishly passive-aggressive — do this or I’ll eat worms! And stick myself with a pin!

I’m sure that’s not how they meant it to sound, but the thought that they’ve become so blasé about their own fund-raising appeals that they don’t pay attention to what they’re actually writing isn’t much more attractive.

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The Great Divide at Shotgun

Dave and I saw The Great Divide at Shotgun Players in previews. It’s a new play by Adam Chanzit inspired by Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People, moving the setting to Colorado and changing the crisis from contaminated mineral baths to contaminated drinking water due to fracking (hydraulic fracturing used to extract gas and petroleum from the ground).

The production is good, with fine acting and inventive staging. But I found the play itself ultimately unsatisfying. It’s driven more by the desire to present all sides of a difficult social issue, and to spur the audience into thinking about what could be done about this issue in reality, than by the desire to tell a good story. The result is rather earnest and not, I think, entirely successful on either level.

But I don’t really see how a play ever can succeed at being a fair presentation of the complexities of a general social issue. A specific actual historical incident, perhaps. But as soon as you’re presenting a fictional incident that is supposed to be typical of a whole slew of similar incidents, the playwright is completely open to charges of stacking the deck — which is fair enough, because the playwright has stacked the deck, cannot possibly help but stack the deck. The very act of creating the story is one of carefully stacking the deck, and the playwright can as much as possible stack the deck so as to maximize the illusion in the theater of not having stacked the deck, but he or she cannot stack the deck so as to not have actually stacked the deck.

So if your goal is to heighten the audience’s interest in a particular social issue, I think the better approach is to drop fairness from your list of primary goals — it’s unattainable anyway — and concentrate instead on creating memorable characters and putting them through a compelling story.

Which I think is what Ibsen did in An Enemy of the People. The play doesn’t try to be “fair” about any particular issue; Ibsen didn’t give a damn if we left his play feeling a fresh determination to find better ways of handling future cases of contaminated mineral baths. He wanted to tell us a strong story about how a particular social dynamic works, how a self-effacing idealist who genuinely loves his community can step by step, and through no extraordinary fault of his own, be driven to become his own opposite: an idealist who stands self-righteously in opposition to that very community. In the final act, we see him slipping over the edge into full-out zealotry, insulting and threatening people who are trying to compromise with him, pulling his children out of school just to spite his community, and beginning to savor his alienation not just for the sake of his principles but for sake of the zealotry itself, for the heady buzz he gets from it.

The play is a mix of seriousness and satire, and the characters are in part satirical types, Tomas Stockmann included. It should have been a Frank Capra comedy starring Jimmy Stewart as Dr. Stockmann.

Later: Dave tells me that he first read the play in high school, and it was Arthur Miller’s version, which I don’t know at all. And he tells me that at the end of the play Stockmann is a completely heroic figure, standing up for truth in the face of the entire community. That may be Miller’s Stockmann, but I don’t think it’s Ibsen’s; Ibsen’s Stockmann is going over to the dark side where he’s not only lost his compassion for his community but forgotten his love for his family as well, seeing his situation as a crisis so extreme that it justifies his ordering them around like flunkies — and taking it for granted that they will of course do anything and make any personal sacrifice necessary to support him in his cause.

In an earlier play, Brand, Ibsen painted a picture of a man so zealous that he would not budge in his idealist convictions, even slightly, even when there is nothing physically at stake, only his own pride — not even when the very lives of his wife and child are at risk. In Enemy, Ibsen shows Stockmann taking the first steps toward becoming another Brand. Only, unlike Brand, in Enemy Ibsen makes sure that we see the comic side of things, too, and not just the serious side alone. (By the way, Ibsen himself described An Enemy of the People to his publisher as a comedy on a serious subject.)

Here’s Stockmann in the last act of Ibsen’s play, the mild-mannered doctor turning into a bitter and unforgiving zealot — and with no idea how comical he’s starting to sound:

Dr. Stockmann And look, Katherine — they’ve made a great tear in my black trousers, too!
Mrs. Stockmann Heavens! And that’s your best pair!
Dr. Stockmann Never wear your best trousers when you’re going out to fight for freedom and truth! Not that I care about the trousers — you can always sew them up again for me. But that the rabble should dare to attack me like this, as if they were my equals! I’ll never be able to abide that!

“Not that I care — you can always sew them up again for me”, he says, without the least idea that if he’s going to expect his wife to spend the rest of her life patching up his trousers after his fights, maybe her opinion about all this ought to count for something with him!

Stockmann decides the only answer is to leave not just his town but the whole corrupt country, but even his dreams of becoming a hermit are grandiose:

Dr. Stockmann If only I knew where I could buy a South Sea island or some unspoiled forest —
Mrs. Stockmann But think of the boys, Thomas!
Dr. Stockmann How strange you are, Katherine! Would you like the boys to grow up in a group like this? You saw for yourself last night that half the people here have lost their minds, and the other half don’t have any minds to lose.
Mrs. Stockmann Yes, but, Thomas dear, you also said some reckless things.

A little later:

Petra You should just laugh at them, Father.
Horster They’ll change their minds, Doctor.
Mrs. Stockmann Yes, Tomas, sure as you’re standing here.
Dr. Stockmann Yes, but it’ll be too late! They can wallow in their filth and be sorry that they’ve driven a patriot into exile!

Friends come to try to talk sense into Stockmann, and he chases them out by threatening to clobber them with his umbrella. And then the revelation: Stockmann discovers that he is tainted by the community’s “filth” as well, that there is in fact no getting away from it. And does he gain from this the insight that all of us are in fact tangled up in the complicated web of nobility and guilt that we’ve built for ourselves in our civilizations, and that maybe the better way to deal with all this is with compassion and sympathy for our shared weaknesses and strengths? Of course not! His response is to cling even more intensely to his view of himself as the only noble and pure soul to be seen anywhere around, to become even more unforgiving toward his community, and to vow to stay in the town and renew his battle against them all — all the while oblivious to how his overblown ranting, his dwelling on his torn trousers, and his chasing people around the room swinging his umbrella at them are turning him more and more into a buffoon.

Now, this is just the comic side of things I’m stressing here, and Ibsen has also shown us all the serious things that have led to this change in Stockmann, in such a way that we see the heroic side of his character as well. It’s hard to journey through the events of the play and blame the guy for losing his sense of proportion. But Ibsen also makes sure we see that he is in fact losing his sense of proportion.

Still later: Dave’s put up a window display at his bookstore with some paperback editions of An Enemy of the People in various translations, to tie in with the Shotgun production (the bookstore is The Other Change of Hobbit, at 3264 Adeline, a couple blocks north of the Ashby BART station and a couple of doors down from The Vault Cafe — an easy walk from the theater, too, so go visit!), and one of them is the Arthur Miller version, so I’ve had a chance while at the store to skim through it and read the last act. The Miller adaptation seems a lot more serious and earnest than Ibsen’s original, and Miller’s last act removes most of the comedy and presents Stockmann as pretty much a thorough hero. Gone is what seems to me to be one of the main themes of Ibsen’s play, that at the start of the story Stockmann is very, very naive and foolish about the world, and the story ends he is really just as naive and foolish as ever. Ibsen was invariably harsh with the idealists in his plays, no matter what side of an issue they were on, and he often made both comedy and tragedy out of the way they refuse to compromise with their ideals and end up making a far worse mess out of things than they would have if they’d been realistic and practical in the first place. But Miller clearly admires Stockmann and wants us to see him as noble and dignified, and the comedy in Ibsen’s lines and stage directions is toned way, way down or eliminated.

And it seems to me now that The Great Divide is probably inspired not by Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People but by Miller’s, and those are quite different things. And I may have to give The Great Divide another chance — I may have come in with the wrong expectations to see it fairly.

A Dadaist Limerick

This came to me this morning, I have no idea why.

“Please hand me my cane,” said the herring.
“I know all those people are staring.
A cane, they must think,
At a skateboarding rink??
But frankly I’m quite beyond caring.”

Welcome, Visitors!

If nothing else, writing a libretto for the ENO’s Mini Opera competition and posting it to my blog seems to be drawing some eyeballs. The libretto is now by far the most popular page on my site.

It remains to be seen whether it will have the staying power of my posts about Frida Kahlo’s parrots and Whistler’s The Gold Scab, which are a few years old and yet inexplicably continue to get a few visitors a week, week in and week out.

And Who Would Have Thought I’d Ever Have Anything in Common with the Metropolitan Opera

It looks like me and the Met are now on the same blacklist, and how cool is that?

I used to figure it was just my bad luck that Opera News would publish reviews of a number of other Berkeley Opera (now West Edge Opera) productions but always seemed to skip over mine. Over the years, though, I’ve heard from a few people that Opera News actually made a decision that no review of my work could be published in the magazine. Apparently this was decided about a decade ago, and they’ve stuck to it. I have no idea why — they review lots of Bay Area productions, and they review lots of productions of operas performed in the vernacular or in unorthodox ways. I even know that reviewers have at times asked to be assigned to write a review of one of my productions, and they’ve been refused every time.

What gives? I have no idea why this is, or who decided it, but it seems petty and unprofessional, doesn’t it? Still, I’ve taken a perverse pleasure in knowing that, no matter how unsuccessful I am, no matter how completely unknown I am outside the Bay Area (and not all that well known within it, really), I have somehow managed to acquire one enemy in a high place.

Now Opera News has declared that they will no longer publish reviews of Metropolitan Opera productions. I can only assume that the Met is quivering in its boots.

The Dream Sweeper

A few days ago, I noticed that there was less than a week left in the English National Opera’s “Mini Operas” competition, the first stage of which is a libretto writing competition.

When I first heard several months ago that the competition was coming, I thought it was a cool idea and I had wanted to write something for it. But then, when the rules were announced, I found them not only uninspiring but anti-inspiring, and I had drawn nothing but blanks.

First, the libretto had to be for an opera that was about five to seven minutes in length, which seems absurdly short to me. It seems unlikely to me that you can really accomplish the minimum that I think an opera should accomplish — tell anything resembling a real story, even a short one, and bring out through song the emotions that are stirred up by that story — in a mere seven minutes. If you manage to tell a very short story but don’t have time to use the music to enlarge on its emotional content, then why tell the story as an opera at all? It would be more effective as a short spoken play. Whereas, even if you use singing as the medium in which you show some kind of situation, if that situation is essentially static — if you’re not telling a story, however brief, in which somebody goes through some kind of experience and comes out the other end a different person in some way — then what you’ve got might be interesting and even good, but it’s a song, not an opera, and why not just call this a songwriting competition?

So I was having trouble imagining how I could create a libretto that I was at all satisfied with that could be adequately set to music and run no more than seven minutes. That was one thing. And the other is that the mini opera was supposed to be inspired by one of three short prose pieces, and none of them seemed to me to contain the seeds of an opera, either. Each of the three describes a static situation.

But last Wednesday evening, with just four days left in the competition, an idea came to me for a very short story that would involve a character from one of the prose pieces. Nothing else would be used from the piece but that character, and in fact the situation that I’d be placing that character in would be the very opposite of his situation in the prose piece. But the rules to the competition specifically say that you can be inspired by anything in the piece you choose and you can take it in any direction. So that should be cool.

And it was one of those rare moments when the Muse descends with full force: I started scribbling (in the back of my notebook for The Manga Flute, which still has a dozen or so blank pages left), and ten minutes later I had covered two pages with the outline for the whole thing, and I swear that thirty seconds before I started writing, I had no ideas at all. At least not consciously. Perhaps my unconscious had been thinking about it for weeks and chose that moment to spit the results up to me.

I looked over the outline. Four characters, which isn’t too many. Some opportunity for a composer to develop the emotional content. Not the same emotion running all the way through, either; there’s a variety of emotions along the way, which is good (though admittedly not as crucial for a seven-minute opera as it is for a full-length one). So all was looking promising.

The prose piece, which is by Neil Gaiman, describes the unfortunate consequences when its character (the Sweeper of Dreams) fails to appear, what happens when he refuses to do what is expected of him. This is intriguing but completely static, just a sketch or a vignette, really. My story, though, would be about his appearing and insisting on doing what he’s supposed to do over the objections of someone who doesn’t want him to do it. So, bingo, there’s my conflict, that’s where the force comes from to move the story forward and have the characters end up somewhere else from where they started.

And I was pleased to see that the story I’d outlined really did look like one that I could tell adequately in just ten minutes. It would be tight, but doable.

Yep, ten minutes. I hadn’t looked at the ENO website in over two months at this point, and I was misremembering the rules of the contest. I thought the maximum length was ten minutes, not seven.

The next morning, during my long commute by BART and Caltrain to work, I looked at the outline again. The words for a conversation in the middle of the story started coming to me, and I started writing. As I wrote, more ideas came up, and about an hour and 45 minutes later, I had a complete first draft.

I knew I needed to look at the website again and double-check that I was following all the requirements of the competition. But it was a busy day at work so I didn’t get around to it during the day. And then on the way home I decided what I really wanted to do first was type my handwritten draft into my laptop, where it would be easier to work on revisions. As I was doing that, I saw lots of places to make small improvements, so I got carried away and spent the whole commute on rewriting. Even after the revisions, though, the story still followed the original outline very closely, which is pretty cool. Outlines usually take all kinds of work to get right, but this one was still basically in the same form in which it first occurred to me.

So it wasn’t until after I’d gotten home Thursday evening, with my second draft completed, that I finally looked at the website and discovered that the damn thing had to come in at under seven minutes, not ten. Argh.

The rest of the process was to go through the libretto many times, singing it in my head to trite but passionate melodies of my own improvisation, seeing how long the various parts took to get through, and figuring out where I could cut things without losing anything really essential. Early Saturday evening, I submitted my entry.

The rules of the competition are that, instead of submitting your libretto directly, you post your entry to your blog and then submit the link to the webpage with your entry. So if you want to read it, it’s here. The piece by Mr. Gaiman that the libretto is inspired by (I don’t think I can really say “based on”) is titled “The Sweeper of Dreams”, and in a final burst of creative brilliance, I have titled my libretto The Dream Sweeper. It really ought to have its own distinct title, but under the gun I couldn’t think of anything more suitable than that.

Anatol Again

Dave and I took advantage of a discount offer on tickets and went back to see Anatol at the Aurora again. We both liked the play even better the second time. The performances were even stronger, sharper, and funnier than before. Also, we got to see the play from the opposite side of the stage (the Aurora has a thrust stage, with the audience on three sides), so we could see everything from a different angle — great fun, so thank you, ye gods of seat assignment. The Aurora has been one of my favorite companies since their days playing in a large room at the Berkeley City Club, and this production was no exception.

I gather from the comments I’ve seen on Goldstar and elsewhere that this hasn’t been a popular production. I’ve seen comments and a couple of reviews that complain that the central character isn’t likable and that makes the play itself impossible to enjoy — an attitude I totally do not understand. It seems to me that liking a character and being interested in what happens to the character are two different and to some extent even independent things.

Some of what I’ve read also suggests that some people are assuming that Anatol is supposed to be sympathetic and was regarded as sympathetic by nineteenth-century audiences, which is just wrong. If you cringe frequently at what Anatol says and does, then you’re getting the play, and you’re getting it in more or less the same way that its contemporary audiences got it; you’re just not getting that you get it.

One reviewer seemed to think that Anatol was a success originally because of its frankness about sex, but that our changing attitudes toward woman have dated the play and made it impossible now to approve of Anatol’s womanizing. That’s not quite right; there were plenty of plays in the nineteenth century that were every bit as frank about sex — really, many that were far more so. So many, in fact, that the theater had a reputation as not being quite a nice place for really respectable people.

However, in a typical nineteenth-century play, after the audience had had its fill of racy fun, the last scene would show conventional virtue triumphing. What was shocking about Anatol wasn’t the frankness about sex but the lack of explicit moral judgment. Anatol is presented for our examination and amusement, not as a simple theatrical type, neither as a single-minded villain nor as a shallow buffoon, but as a complicated psychological portrait with a few good points along with all his many bad points. If the final scene were replaced by one in which Anatol either shoots himself in despair or is forever reformed by the true love of a good, pure woman, the play would have looked a lot like a hundred others. But Schnitzler neither reforms nor kills off Anatol at the end of the play, just leaves him to continue on his self-deluded way, and some in the audience in those days found the absence of a firm moral judgment to be unsettling. Looks like some still do.