‘WRITE LIKE Chekhov’ gets to the core of his work

WRITE LIKE Chekhov is the latest in a Series of WRITE LIKE workshops, designed to model our writing on specific practice of a writer as our model.

Illustrative experiences of WRITE LIKE: The young writer who’d never read Hemingway, flattered to be told he wrote like him, horrified to read Old Man & The Sea, glad to be set straight on the effects that earned the accolade were found in A Farewell To Arms, four decades earlier. An older woman who learned being a “Smart Mouth” was simply how professional satirists keep in practice, in Dorothy Parker’s book. The writer who discovered that he shared much more with George Orwell than a passing interest in dystopian fiction. The writerswho discovered that Nature writing could be poetry, or a story about fishing with your kid. The writer who learned how Mark Twain landed a joke.

This is done in a room, with other writers —including a facilitator (me) who is trained to find something to admire in every writer. So, we are also looking at the practice of our colleagues, gleaning approaches and techniques we admire. It doesn’t mean we have to write standing up, be a mean drunk, or get overfamiliar with guns. It doesn’t mean LIVE LIKE Hemingway. Especially if there are better models for your particular lifestyle, writing style and their complex interface.

And it should be noted here that every observation is coupled with an exercise.It’s all well and good to say right better or right like this or that. The trick is as in theater or any other art form: do it.

So what have I learned about Chekov? And how will we activate that in writing. In an hour and a half

There are a pair of famous often quoted ‘Rules for Writers’ attributed to Anton Chekov. They are generalized rules for writing he shared his writer brother when he was 25. They capture nothing of what is unique to Anton’s work. But they do point to some interesting developments ACROSS his work.

Chekhov articulated 6 specific principles that point to his future development. They are not often quoted because they go against favored practices of many writers: Anton is not -pertinent example- a fan of overtly socio-economic or political speeches in plays. So, Chekhov is not the ideal model, if you want to write political speeches. But if you like emotional monologs, you need to know about the Chekhov Rant. And if you find undercurrents of a socio-economic nature in Chekhovian drama, you have the support of the best observers. 

Speaking of scholarship, I took a dive deep enough to get down into the murky world of translation, where one scholar Identified 8 techniques that they feel define the unique aspect of Chekhovian Mood, across 145 translations. If you find that ineffable atmosphere in Chekov as compelling as I do, you will want to work with these 8 elements.

And translation brought up the topic of tragic sensibility and national character. I spent time with this because I have a writer who is a fan of my courses, who is brainy and philosophical, who is multinational, and who speaks Russian. Chekhov himself was interested in national character. And Chekhov felt Russians lacked a tragic sense, or more correctly that his ability to see it was a function of a dialog between laughter and death.

If you’re a fan of the ineffable, the intangible, the poetry that emerges out of silences, you’ll find that. But it is not just a magic wand you wield; you still have to know the magic words. And even with the right words, there’s a necessary frame for the work.

You don’t need any background in Chekhov to participate. But you will need to write.

WRITE LIKE Chekhov a workshop with Tim West

A suggestion (from a Meisner-trained actor I admire but don’t know) to promote the course via my website struck me as eminently sensible. I was particularly keen to see theatre folk take an interest in Chekhov’s dramaturgy.

My course in PLAYMAKING (v. V-VIII) and monthly WRITE LIKE Series for 2021 are going quarterly in 2022. 

PLAYMAKING I-IV and WRITE LIKE Hemingway, Dorothy Parker George Orwell, Mark Twain drew returning writers, always a good sign. Writers evidently responded to both approaches.

Breaking PLAYMAKING down into Dialog, Story, Stagecraft and Development made it possible for students to offer up their works-in-progress at any time, knowing that the discussion would be pertinent to their own work. Students used exercises learned in session to further scripts outside of the workshop.

And WRITE LIKE allows writers to model our work on very specific, widely-read and well-known canonical authors who evince an interest in their own process. Repeat students were attracted to connection of their own practices as a writer with a positive  ‘best practices’ model from a familiar and successful professional practitioner.

So many writing courses are predicated on a prescriptive ‘rules-based’ approach. That is not my own practice, and as an artist and an educator, I deeply distrust it.

If ‘Rules’ work for you, fine, do that. They just never have, for me. If art were about ‘Rules,’ the practice of it wouldn’t so evidently privilege the Rule-Breaker tribe. And just about every list of ‘Rules’ notes that exceptions are not only permissible, but advisable, once we have internalized the Basics.

The Basics, however, are already internalized, latent in the writer. Writing advice that starts with “Rules’ for Basics are oriented toward absolute Beginners as practicing artists or creative writers. This is because beginners are the students who provided the major market for most teachers of writing. Any subject becomes increasingly more difficult to teach, as learners approach Proficiency. So, how do we get at that growth? How do we conduct a course so that writers of any skill levels are served?

The key is the connection to your OWN writer’s practice. There are LOTS of generalized ‘best practices’ for writers. The more canonical authors we’ve all been exposed to provide specific models in practice, for for analysis and deployment. So do your own favorite writers, who may not be generally own, but are still susceptible to your analysis.

So, as a teacher, I take the time most writers don’t have to conduct multiple deep dives into an admired individual writer’s practice. We’ll connect that with you, and your awareness of your own practice. Why do you want to WRITE LIKE this writer? What is it in the work that draws you? Let’s dive into that.

So — writer, playwright, thoughtful theatre artist — if you enjoy Chekhov’s writing, and think you might benefit from a closer look at his dramaturgy, this workshop will help you detect and develop useful techniques for your own writing practice.

3:00-4:45 Sunday NOV 14 Fall for Writers at San Diego Writers, Ink.

2021-11/14 (Fall For Writing) Write Like: Chekhov with Tim West

Restorative

LIGHTS UP on BAYES, the Poet, a fat fop

over-dressed in loud contrasting colored

greatcoat, waistcoat and pantaloons. As 

with Villiers’ character in THE REHEARSAL,

BAYES fishes about for objects concealed

in the many pockets about his person.

He stands before a London street scene,

where someone has posted a piece of

cloth across the entry to an alleyway.

The cloth a has round hole in it, perhaps

hemmed. The cloth is painted with the text

quoted below. There is a small side table.

Actually, our first glimpse of this is obscured

by BAYES’ bum, as he is bent over the thing

before reluctantly abandoning the peephole

to address us as he finds a flask.

Ah! You snuck up on me! Pardon my bum!

Welcome to my play…

(he turns and reads the ‘screen’)

“What Theatre Has Become:

A Playwright’s ‘Visual Journal’ of the Plague Year —

Together with those Small Events which sparked the Great Fire

The Return of the King from From Over the Water,

The Sacking of the Capitol, and diverse other matters

Connected with the Dissolution of the Commonwealth

And Restoration of The Way Things Were.” Ad nauseam.

He drinks from the flask, a bracing sip of brandy

that finishes the container, which he tosses aside.

An absurdly large clang sound FX would be nice.

Your health!

A vote sante! Schapps, ugh! “Dutch courage”! It’s now all we have.

Believe me! I’ve had better. Oh, what I wouldn’t give

For a brandy, a cognac, an old-fashioned restorative.

He finds and consults his pocket watch, dangling

on a chain, but then drops it, pendant again.

A ‘Restoration’ Drama, then, for the audience of today.

It starts in five. You get to watch for five. Quite literally: “Pay to play.”

He removes a small rectangular box from a pocket,

shakes the bank to show there’s already coinage in it.

Just plop a copper in our pewter coffers.

To get sneak peak at what theatre now has on offer.

He sets the bank on the sidetable, turns to the peephole,

suggestively, pruriently, lewdly.

A ‘Hoegaertan Peepshow,’ A Flemish import

Like “from Amsterdam’s Red Light?” I hear you snort.

Offended, he covers the hole, admonishing.

“No indeed. None of that!” is my manly retort. 

The BAYES we know from Villers: Sly, suggestive:

But then: Any room is an intimate theatre

The smaller, the better. Even OVER-familiar!

Optimum, then, would be… one-one-one.

“The days of communal assembly are done.”

To be replaced by… what? What will theatre be?

He snaps his fingers and points to the coffers.

Just drop your ha’penny in the slot and come see!

He references the peephole, gestures witness eyes, 

writing hand, stopped mouth, to end with the admonishing

waggle of the finger and the pocket watch again.

Watch the action, take note, don’t interrupt.

And yield up the peephole when your time is up.

With five minute slots, you’ll not see the whole show.

Sorry, one-by-one. How we do it now, you know…

He holds up a solitary finger, wets it, tests the wind.

Passing through a liminal space, taking on a communal mindset?

No, no: Forget mass audience. That’s now 2020 hindsight.

He spreads forefinger and thumb together before 

the portal, then brings them to camera, slowly

attenuating the space between thumb and forefinger.

No: Each of you shall watch just one small piece of the art.

And carry only that home with you —like each actor, his part.

—It’s “Experimental Theatre.”

This morning is its last rehearsal, in their habits and all that.

It opens with a boy player, bravely costumed as a bat.

It’s quite an effect, yes, to see him flown in.

Well: Long-story-short: an anteater comes in…

The bat-boy infecting the pangolin!

Now pangolin is Wet-Market White Meat: Top Shelf!

—It makes a week’s worth of soup for a family of twelve.

Within half a month, it has leapt China’s Great Wall

(which we recreate here) and run rampant… well,

All over the globe. Like our plot, it does sprawl. 

The ocean is a barrier for trade, not disease.

In no time at all, the world’s on its knees

—The girl playing Miss World is a real beauty, too!

You may have seen her in the Drury Lane Apprentice, Part II.

A cad forces this once proud dam consent to

The ravages of diseases she was never meant to

be exposed to.

Sickened, she breaks out in diverse presentments:

Injustices, cruelties, injuries, predicaments,

Dilemmas, paradoxes, ideological refinements…

Like a Statue of Liberty gone mad in Solitary Confinement.

The world has gone mad, and everyone in it.

That’s the state of the Globe, however doctors spin it.

Open-carry gun-law states ignore the prudent protocols,

Viruses as well as gun-nuts stalk our students in the halls

Folks won’t even wear masks when they flock to the malls,

Crowd the streets, pack the bars, throng the beaches

—the deaths of so many of us should teach us

That something is wrong, has been and remains so.

But theatre has held back from coming out and just saying so.

A Message Play, a manifesto, a bold proclamation

Is just what we need to restore our poor nation

To health, to sanity, to empathy, to humanity

From sickness and madness, cruelty, profanity.

But BAYES sighs. He tires of this, himself.

I shall be round with you: This endless backstory is problematic

The characters (though quite complex) are static.

The poetry, I must admit, falls flat…

We’re thinking of cutting the boy as the bat.

He produces a scenic blueprint of set design,

an elaborate Inigo Jones superstructure.

The settings, however, are realized in detail.

The furniture’s vintage, the costumes are retail.

We’ve spared no expense on the show that we offer.

Why even the wigs are cathedrals of coiffure.

Spectacle, spectacle, that’s what we need!

Not the poetry of Congreve, Wycherley, Tourneur, Dryden.

Poetry that can bespeak the tragic Year we’ve just lived through

—And some of us died in.

He produces a copy of the 1665 Bill of Mortality,

that large handbill listing the deaths from Plague.

The Bill of Mortality. So many thousands and thousands dead.

So: No “scene indivisible or poem unlimited.”

No high-priced song of sixpence from some tupenny- threpenny opera

But a truly poetical story of Love in a Time of Cholera.

Referencing the Bill of Mortality, now a bit of a rant.

Well, Cholera, Cholic, Consumption, Jaundice, Madness, Gout,

Palsy, Pleursy, Rickets, Scurvy, Small Pox, Hoof and Mouth.

—All diseases at once in one colossal Pan-pandemic!

Set in an alley, forced perspective, decorated to mimic

The endless aisles of empty shelves of white

Picked over by people who squabble and fight

Over TP and sanitizer, while the world goes mad

And we fight in the streets for the rights we once had

And the swamp isn’t draining, it’s flooding, and harming

The slim chance we have to stave off Global Warming!

BAYES ‘breaks character,’ strikes serious tone,

as he reaches up an pulls down the backdrop,

revealing nothing but more London street scene.

That is the kind of theatre that I am militating for.

It doesn’t exist yet. I ask: What are we waiting for?

BAYES looks at the audience, arches an eyebrow.

BLACKOUT. END OF PLAY.

Bonaparte Plays Automaton Chess

Napoleon, a retired French army commander and exiled despot 

Talleyrand,  a servant ministering to him, or minister serving him

The Turk, the famous Automaton, a figure robed and turbaned, 

perched on a plush red cushion or low upholstered stool before 

a chessboard with pieces in array.

At LIGHTS UP, Napoleon paces.

NAPOLEON: A Turk, you say?

TALLYRAND: A Turk, yes, Majesty. 

NAPOLEON: Why would a Viennese man display a Turk.

TALLYRAND: The Austrians were at war with the Turks for centuries, Majesty.

NAPOLEON: It’s big.

TALLYRAND: Life-sized… 

[the Little Corporal stiffens perceptibly, and levels a look at TALLYRAND]

Perhaps even a little out-sized. As the hands have to accommodate the armature, 

the mechanism, sire. 

NAPOLEON: Clothed like a Turk, I suppose. I dunno. Who knows how a Turk dresses. 

TALLYRAND: It’s called ‘The Turk,’ in fact

NAPOLEON: Why give a machine a nationality at all?

TALLYRAND: Likely just to annoy you, Majesty. 

NAPOLEON: Mystifying… They’re trying to mystify. You see that, don’t you. I see it. Set him up as some kind of turned-to-automaton sorceror or bewitched object, to strike fear into observers. I hear Field Marshal Bernadotte’s wife took such a fright, had to take the vapors the other night.

TALLYRAND:

Yes sir.

NAPOLEON: She said there was a ghost in the box. I’m not challenging a goodman ghost 

to a game of checkers.

TALLYRAND: Chess. No ghost, Majesty. It’s a machine, Majesty. We’re quite sure of it.

NAPOLEON: Of course, it’s a machine. I know it’s a machine! Don’t be an idiot, Talleyrand!

TALLYRAND: No, Majesty.

[the Emperor stares at the machine, Rodin’s The Thinker. He has a viola moment]

NAPOLEON:

There’s a little man inside!

TALLYRAND: We’re looking into that, Majesty. But the device has doors in it, which seem to show all interior mechanism, clockwork, with no space left for a chess-playing Little Person.

Perhaps the exhibitor accompanying the mechanism deploys magnetism?

Mesmerism, Majesty?

No, non Dieu. Actually magnets! To manipulate the figure unseen?

It doesn’t appear so, Majesty.

Hmmm.

[he approaches the figure to examine it more closely, but springs back as the Turk moves

an arms, sweeping it in mechanical expression of ‘invitation.’]

TURK: Let’s play.

NAPOLEON: Monsieur Le Turk. Are you challenging me, Napoleon, master of Europe, to the world’s most ancient game of war?

TURK holds out two hands, palms down.

TURK: Choose.

NAPOLEON selects a hand. Both wrists rotate to palms up. The hand selected moves

to NAPOLEON, the other recedes toward the TURK. Both fists open, revealing that 

NAPOLEON has selected the Black King. The TURK places the White King on the board mechanically, then moves automatically to perform an opening gambit.

NAPOLEON: Interesting. You are a Turk, but you open with a Russian Gambit.

NAPOLEON moves, TURK immediately moves; NAPOLEON, then TURK, neither

obviously fast or slow but in a general pattern that play is facile for the machine,

and his opening gambit an increasing challenge for the Frenchman. There will be

a total of 19, before we are done. Historical fact. Finally, comes a long pause.]

TURK: Your move.

NAPOLEON: I know.

[TURK simulates a discreet gentleman’s patience, annoying the General]

TURK: Time.

[Napoleon moves]

NAPOLEON: Check.

TALLEYRAND: Knights don’t move like that.

NAPOLEON: Like what?

The TURK executes a revolving mechanical placement of the piece, at four points,

around a perimeter, ending by returning the piece carefully to the center. 

TALLEYRAND: It can move there. There. There. Or There. Those are its possible moves, from this position.

TURK: “Majesty.”

A moment, before an afronted Buonaparte feels fit to find the laugh in it.

NAPOLEON: It even knows when I’m cheating!

NAPOLEON examines the board, then moves another piece.]

The TURK executes a similar movement, restoring a piece.]

TALLEYRAND: Bishops move diagonally, Majesty.

NAPOLEON: That’s diagonal.

TALLEYRAND: They must stay on their color. 

NAPOLEON: That IS its color.

NAPOLEON puts it where he had moved it; The TURK shakes its head, slowly.

Then replaces the piece, once again.

TALLYRAND: Queen’s Bishop, Black.

TURK: “Majesty.”

NAPOLEON: Oh.

[Napoleon examines the board again]

After a long moment, NAPOLEON makes his move. The TURK responds.

The General counters, faster. The TURK, imperceptibly hesitant, moves. 

When we get to 19, the TURK hesitates only a moment.

TURK: Check.

NAPOLEON moves.

NAPOLEON:

If must sacrifice a poor little castle, so be it.

TURK moves.

TURK: And… mate.

NAPOLEON gazes at the board. 

“Majesty.”

NAPOLEON glowers at him, then laughs, then psycho-sudden

sweeps the pieces from the board, in a fit. He stares at the TURK.

Rematch?

The Corsican raps on the cabinet.

NAPOLEON:

Okay, I’ve had enough. [singing it] “Come out, Little Man…”

TALLEYRAND:

Sire…

NAPOLEON: Yes, Talleyrand.

TALLYRAND: It’s not Tallerand, sir. My name kaCetshwayo.

NAPOLEON: That’s a strange name.

TALLYRAND: It’s native to this place.

NAPOLEON: That’s hard to pronounce.

TALLEYRAND: So you call me Talleyrand.

NAPOLEON: We’re not in the court at the Schonbrunn Palace, are we.

TALLEYRAND: No, sir. St. Helena.

NAPOLEON: Is that a cathedral?

TALLEYRAND: No sir. It’s an island.

NAPOLEON: Where?

TALLEYRAND: Off West Africa.

NAPOLEON: Mon Dieu. Why?

TALLEYRAND: A place of exile.

NAPOLEON: Do I come back from exile?

TALLYRAND: You already did. You came back from Elba. Another island. [forestalling him] Near Corsica. Much easier.

NAPOLEON: But I don’t come back from this?

TALLEYRAND: No. 

We start to hear the sounds of a fire crackling, and flames play on the TURK.

NAPOLEON: I feel hot. Is it hot where we are? Africa.

TALLEYRAND: Tropic. Biting cold, at times, too. But no, you run a fever toward the end. Delirium sets in. 

NAPOLEON: But the fever breaks.

More fire crackle.

TALLYRAND: No. 

NAPOLEON: Napoleon can’t die.

TALLYRAND: Delusions of grandeur. You do. Of lead poisoning, I believe. Though it could be arsenic, in the paint. Flaking off the walls of the villa. 

NAPOLEON: Dropping like those icky little lizards.

TALLEYRAND: It makes you delusional, toward… toward The End.

More Crackle. A last Napoleonic esprit.

NAPOLEON: So the machine isn’t real? It was never real. That’s just a delusion?

TALLYRAND: Oh no sir, it’s real, alright. You played it at the Shonnbrunn Palace, in 1809.

NAPOLEON: Before Waterloo. Is it still around?

TALLYRAND: It outlives you.

NAPOLEON: Outlives me?

TALLYRAND: 33 years after you’re entombed in a mausoleum in Paris and the world has moved on to another Napoleon, it burns in a museum fire.

NAPOLEON: Ha! Forgotten to history.

TALLEYRAND: Not quite. It’s last words, recorded in the flames.

NAPOLEON: Ha! Who could forget my immortal last words?

TURK:

The flames and the crackle have risen to dramatic proportions.

Check!   Check! Check!

CRACKLE RISES. MUSIC. BLACKOUT. END OF PLAY

Adapting -what is it?

The verb adapt came into English in 1794, alongside other formations from Latin, with the meaning of significant alterations of original materials to fit or suit present need.

Across the 19th Century, adapt, and its derivative’s adjectives and nouns adaptive, adaptable, and adaptation all benefited from the centrality of the concept of adaptability in Darwin’s 1859 treatise, The Origin of Species.

This was assisted in 1849 with the importation of the word into English–alongside bourgeoise French Comedy predicated on classical models– with the meaning applied specifically to stage adaptations of literary originals.

There’s no preference for the stage, of course. Any medium can be adapted, any material. The stage was the exciting, newly available medium of its day –much as film and television have served that function. Or rock-n-roll and hip hop. They all have a way of reviving useful cultural artifacts.

Any material can be adapted, to most any purpose, though it is surely possible that some prove more suitable and even complimentary to each other.

The point about the word adapt being linked to the stage may be pushing a conjectural point prematurely, but it is possible that our understanding about how to adapt -which we clearly need to do- is inextricably linked to BOTH senses of the word, which adhered to it in the rapidly shifting, tumultuous 19th Century.

Adapting is something which, in a Darwinian sense, we thrive and are defined by as species Sapiens, and quite clearly need to undertake now. The stakes now are apparent: no back-to-normal, no period of adjustment, no slow social or cultural adaptation, no evolution. Catastrophe. And either extant adaptations or rapidly evolved ones will survive.

But Darwinian adaptation is risky business. Natural selection usually prefers extant adaptations to extant environments. Sudden adaptations which may prove non-adaptive are not likely to survive, nor are adaptations with changes that are not immediately advantageous.

But diversity is important (again, in Darwinian terms) precisely because it allows for these harmless diversions from the evolutionary mainstream. For when catastrophic change occurs, it can suddenly favor these traits –even those that might formerly have been maladaptive now prove adaptive. It is the history of life on earth, and our response to it is the key to our own evolution, past and present.

Now, back to the stage. Not so fast, though. Let’s not rush back to the bourgeoisie stage of the 19th Century. Nor the 20th, for that matter.

Let’s use this crisis to move forward into the 21st Century –by looking at the art form unhitched to particular milieu. Let’s meld the two views: Let’s look at the protypical stage, the Ur-stage: one Joseph Campbell understands.

The people are not doing well. Hunger, disease… There is a need to change. Change location. Change the way we hunt and gather, come together… But how can we know? How can we know what is right?

We act it out. Magic: that is, we act out what we want. We imagine something different, and then adapt reality to the image.

In a ‘safe space,’ we rehearse. All the more necessary when the world is no longer safe. Before we act, we try things out. We assume roles that are unfamiliar to us, and practice them until we make them familiar to us.

We use ourselves and our practices as the material that needs to be adapted.

TW 6/2/2020

ADAPTING: a Summer 2020 emerging artists adventure

Artists and creatives of all varieties are confronted with the need to adapt existing performing arts forms and practices to new conditions.

But how do we ADAPT existing material in an unfamiliar situation when we don’t know what that situation is, and it is likely to shift across the future and is unlikely to resolve soon?

You find models. People who’ve lived through similar situations, who made choices, some of which work.

Let’s take an hour each week across the most unique and consequential summer of our collective lifetimes, to help each other generate the kind of thinking and shaping of materials that will serve to make our future as artists and creatives.

timcwest@gmail.com for details

Week 10: Hello, Old Friend!

So, Once Upon A Time, I had a webpage –on WordPress, and at some point plopping down $18 bucks per annum to drop the WordPress.

Though it’s been years, it is apparently still accessible and even updated in terms of dashboard.

What reminded me?

More to come.

“Watch This Space.”

Awards Season? Duck Season!

January to June is awards season, the annual accounting of deserving individuals and organizations from the previous calendar year. It is the time for all the awarding bodies, self-appointed or industry-based, to name those they’ve selected as worthy of their acknowledgement for their work in the year past.

There are two general responses to this.

For millions who get a kick predicting winners and losers beforehand, and afterwards reviling the awarding agency when they pick wrong, it’s a tradition. Some settle in early with popcorn and play bitchy Mr. Blackwell with the various versions of overpriced tasteless fashion statements on the famed Red Carpet. Some just get into handicapping the artists, and comparing proceedings with their picks throughout the evening. Some enjoy evaluating the host, the musical numbers, the presenters and the acceptance speeches for intellectual and emotional content, appropriate tone, and proper length.        It takes on aspects of a major sporting event, for many observers.

However, there are less vocal but nonetheless disaffected audiences for the annual event. The recent controversy over the representation of minority-status ethnicities among Oscar nominees is only the most recent example of this disaffection, which surfaces occasionally when nominations have apparent socio-political implications.

My own dislike of awards starts-out childish and personal, I admit. It dates back to my profound puzzlement over 1971 nods for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor going to the biopic Patton over my favorite, Five Easy Pieces, and actor George C. Scott’s rejection of an Oscar for the lead role as the doughty old general. Five Easy Pieces, in my opinion, was the better film. Scott, I thought, should have won for 1967’s The Flim-Flam Man. I was only ten, but like everyone I had opinions. I still think history will bear me out –at least on Five Easy Pieces.

I feel like this disappointment in the results is the fate of all awards. It is, I admit, in origin childish and personal, and not at all assuaged by my grandmother’s simpering exhortation to “Think how good the other team feels!” And I can’t understand why this perception of injustice in awards isn’t more common. Did you never notice how the awards in Scout meetings went to the biggest finks? Did it never seem to you that “High School Standouts” seldom featured a “Class Clown” with a truly outrageous but understated sense of humor, but went to the same braying fellow who won “Best Laugh”? Don’t awards seem to exist to dole out privileges that are no more earned than most privilege?

My own dislike of awards grew with my awareness as an adult. The actors I’ve admired since my youth were character actors, working actors with little public acknowledgment, their faces well-known but their names often little-recognized. Though there was a category of “Best Supporting Actor,” it didn’t seem to embrace the kind of actor I refer to, but instead was reserved for stars slumming in smaller roles. The list of actors never even nominated includes a surprising array of talent, but suffice it to say that the list is led by the late great and much beloved Alan Rickman.

When I became an actor, I was appalled to see good hard work passed over in my own community. My first exposure to that was a colleague whose brilliant Salieri went unsung, while the poor, lackadaisical effort of the actor who played Mozart was celebrated. I was told it is common for awards to reflect a love of the role as well as the actor. More recently, I’ve been disturbed to see how being passed over for nominations or awards has wounded friends in the profession, who labored to achieve worthy performances only to have their sense of accomplishment turned to ash by the lack of inclusion in the lists. Though of course these artists can be arraigned for needing to develop a thicker skin, it is hard to take anything so profoundly a part of one’s identity as “Nothing personal.”

As much as we like to say “It’s an honor just to compete,” we all recognize how hollow that sounds after someone has lost a competition. We’re trying to have our hierarchies and partake of the communal cake, too.

Though it may be a display of some deep-seated need in the race, the phenomenon of awards seems particularly pervasive in American culture. Americans have always been fond of the superlative: the best, the most, the biggest. Too, we like to think of ourselves as a classless society, a meritocracy where the best rises to the top. It is, as Americans see it, a confirmation of our belief in fair play: with a level playing field, the best will prevail.

Closely examined, however, it is a kind of implicit Social Darwinism, a belief that the best always rises to the top, leaving the remainder in the mudsill. It offers a species of circular logic to confirm its truth: creatures prove themselves to be the best, or most adaptable, since they survived and thrived; they were able to do that, of course, because they were the best. Ipso facto, it props up the status quo.

This explains the fierce reactionary resentment one hears voiced in various forums, about what we might call the “Student of the Month” syndrome: “If everyone is a winner, then no one is.” Acknowledgement for everyone challenges the concept of hierarchy. The concept of equality alters the vertically oriented order to things. Without selective acknowledgement of worth, we fear that we labor in an anarchic environment where merit has no external motivation. Social displays of coherent and cohesive values seem to lack positive reinforcement, and our actions seem to arise from internal and personal states that are not subject to any feedback.

So, this positive disposition toward awards is quite understandable. It’s natural to seek positive reinforcement from one’s community. The danger, in cultural terms,  is the confusion between that pluralistic alignment with one’s community and subscription to the concept of the absolute authority. Pernicious in politics, it is deadly in the arts. A sense of objective ‘best’ plays into disturbing and increasingly prolific memes that render divergent viewpoints irrelevant in the face of a universally acknowledged, standardized truth. It’s a method for the marginalization of other voices –diverse perspectives on our culture, which not only have a right to be heard, but perhaps need to be. The arts is the place for this. If any field is dedicated to replacing today’s mainstream thought with tomorrow’s innovation, it should be the arts. Awards, like all rewards, work against experimentation, unless experimentation is specifically being cited for positive feedback –as with sciences. Otherwise, the easy remuneration that comes with following established systems of reward will likely militate against any work that truly dares.

Awards, unless specifically instituted to provide positive feedback for non-commercial undertakings, steer artists toward gearing their efforts to popular standards, rather than attuning their practice to their own different drummer.         If we give credence to awards, we identify as believers in the concept of objective “best” in the arts. If we agree with the way that the artists were acknowledged,   then we have the objective confirmation of our opinions in the fact of that public acknowledgement. Even if we disagree with individual awards, though, we show that we subscribe to the idea.

To be sure, individual awards do not go unchallenged. In awards season, the Kanye Wests of the world hasten to announce to a captive audience their objections to particular instances of artistic recognition. They feel a need to advocate for “my girl, Beonce” over vanilla Taylor Swift, or whatever their version of that dichotomy is.

Such objections, of course, have their own agenda, which is often based on objective and quantifiable, extrinsic elements such ethnicity, gender, political persuasion, and a host of other –essentially social— considerations, more than on intrinsic artistic merit, which seems to remain stubbornly subjective.

However, objections to individual awards never challenge the basic assumption of all awards, and in fact serve to reinforce their seeming authority. Kanye’s quibble acted in much the same way that the Bundy family’s opposition to individual acts by the Bureau of Land Management reinforces federal prerogatives and undermines their putative revolt: Their claim is compromised by their acceptance of the largesse when it suits them.

Such objections never surface when our needs are being met, and when you see such people accepting benefits even as they complain about the system that distributes them, it becomes clear that they’re not challenging authority, but trying to leverage it. They’re just angry because they didn’t get theirs.

To be sure, we do hear hints of a more all-encompassing problem with awards. There are those lists of the surprising number of indisputably “great,” iconic Hollywood stars who never garnered the little gold statuette named for someone’s Uncle Oscar, and how many duds did. More tellingly, we often see actors awarded the honor late, for a less deserving role, after being passed over for more notable work earlier in their career. These observations lose their force when one complains about, say, Jim Carey being passed over for acting accolades, or disputes an obviously worthy award out of prejudice. However, it is a telling fact that actor Peter O’Toole was never honored with an Oscar, despite eight nominations, while John Wayne was, with only three nomination –telling about what kind of work      the industry is really promoting. The patriotic Patton over Bob Rafaelson’s quirky tale of familial disaffection and artistic alienation.

As an aside, surprisingly few people in show business know that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was founded by ultra-conservative industry mogul L.B. Mayer as a way to forestall the development of the left-leaning craft unions, the Screen Actors Guild and its more radical sister organizations for directors and screenwriters. This draws attention to the agenda of awards.

Occasional scandals with over-the-top marketing campaigns –employing mass mailers of materials to Academy members “For Your Consideration” to gain            the nomination or award so essential to prestige marketing— make it clear that    the annual red carpet event at the Helen Chandler Pavillion is still part of this       self-congratulatory identification with the mainstream, this jockeying for status. The parade of Hollywood royalty AMPAS is a marketing arm of the industry as          a whole. This is, of course, why they ceased televising awards for technical achievement in film. Nobody goes to see a flick because the sound guy won for it.

There’s even a kind of reverse cache to being passed over for an award. Popular soap-opera staple Susan Lucci achieved a special kind of notoriety when she was dissed for a daytime Emmy, year after year. So many worthy musicians have been passed over for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in favor of lesser candidates (too often, not even rockers) that one could populate a separate museum with the rejected artists.

This sense of injustice is a frequent response to public acknowledgement of the arts. It feeds into the same emotional spike that sports fans experience when “We was robbed” by a referee’s questionable call, and disputing the results is part of the fun of awards season in the same way that booing the umpire is an integral part of the enjoyment of baseball.

Such disputes are so common that they have served to promulgate whole new artistic canons. Painters whose lack of adherence to proper form barred them from an academic gallery established their own outdoor exhibit for their “Impressionist” works, which rapidly supplanted Naturalism in an age of photorealism. Performers left out of a state-sponsored arts festival founded the dynamic ‘Fringe,’ which in Edinburgh almost immediately outsized the stodgier official event and across the next 75 years grew to embrace festivals in any city that wants to identify as an ‘arts destination.’

So, I don’t argue that awards serve no purpose. In fact, one of the strongest arguments for awards is that artists deserve acknowledgement, and need it.       Their work deserves social affirmation, and requires it. Like most, I believe that merit should be rewarded. And, hey, awards are fun. Who doesn’t like prizes?

Yet the definition of merit is hazy, especially in the arts. There’s little consensus      as to what defines a superior performance, when there is such a complex skein of opportunity, synergy and timing. And as much as we like to think or say that we    all bask in the reflected glow, to say that awards benefit everyone by upping everybody’s game and bringing much needed emotional investment to the arts           is just another form of trickle-down in a culture already burdened with too much vertical.

However, I recognize that mine is a minority viewpoint. Like a democratic socialist or a person who doesn’t like pizza, I’ll learn to keep my mouth shut. I’ll avoid this pattern of competitiveness more appropriate to the cut-throat high-stakes gamesmanship of the awful real estate office in David Mamet’s play, Glengarry,    Glen Ross. (in the minority of folks who aren’t Mamet fans, either) or, at least, endure the kind of ‘silly season’ we can expect in a world dominated by talk of  “winners” and “losers,” where the zero-sum solutions of electoral politics trump reasoned discourse and assessments in a community of like-minded people.

You can have Patton. I’ll stick with Five Easy Pieces.

Ireland Stumbles

Slide1                                                           

                                                             LIGHTS UP on Ireland & Sons, an antiquarian’s

                                                            shoppe out of a sketch by Gilroy or Rowlandson.

 

                                                            SAM IRELAND, 50ish dealer in antiquities, sits

                                                            behind a table, with his 19 year old son W.H.

                                                            standing silent beside him.

 

                                                            JORDIE stands fidgeting, auditioning his wares,

                                                            as it were. He is an ill-kempt looking man whose

                                                            main interest seems to be in securing a pint of ale

                                                            for the empty ale pot he holds. He attempts this by

                                                            an outpouring of amusing anecdotage, which

                                                            SAM notes, skeptically, in a pocket account book.

 

JORDIE:

Nay, not just there in Stratford, but to this day

In all the roadside villages along the way

From Warwickshire to London, yea, the Bard

Of Avon, as they call him, was heard of –Nay,

Was known by name!— at every little courtyard inn,

For there was not a tavern even then

In any hamlet (pun intended, hehehe)

But that the tapster knew Bill Shakespeare’s name,

Long before he’d left for London to become

The Poet of the Age. So say they still in Stratford.

 

                                                            JORDIE pauses, then genuflects awkwardly.

 

I’ve heard it sworn myself, and will attest to it

Under witnesses, above my signature…

 

                                                            JORDIE puts the ale pot on the table, prentational. 

 

That this ale pot was his ale pot what wrote Lear,

And Hamlet, and the other plays he wrote.

 

                                                            A pause. SAM continues writing for a moment.

                                                            JORDIE clears his throat, indicates the empty

                                                            ale pot upon the table.

 

Can I get a pint, Gov?

 

                                                            SAM finishes his notes with a flourish, sets down

                                                            his notebook and smiles at JORDIE.

 

SAM:

By all means, Jordie, you shall have an ale.

 

                                                            SAM addresses W.H., as if speaking to a servant.

 

(Go, Samuel! Fetch a drink for our good friend)

 

                                                            JORDIE gives the ale pot to W.H., but SAM

                                                            snatches it from W.H., and snaps at him.

 

Bring another ale pot.

 

W.H.

Y-yes, F-f-father.

 

                                                            W.H. exits. SAM examines the ale pot.

 

SAM:

This ale pot looks to be authentic. Kiln fired,

Of a type you’d find in Warwickshire.

But nay, I’d not part with tuppence for that tale

You and your various sources would vend

About the Bard of Avon in a drinking bout

Under a tree in Bidford Common.

crabbed from a bunch of drunkards just about

a half a hundred years after the fact.

 

                                                            SAM thumps the empty ale pot, listening.

 

There’s nothing in this. No novelty. It smacks

Of rheumy gossip, frankly. Rumor, stale,

Over-rehearsed, a shopworn tale.

 

                                                            SAM sets the ale pot down with a thunk.

 

In short, it’s second hand news.

Worth no more than a small handful of sous,

This relic of another era.

 

                                                            SAM rises, addressing a contrite JORDIE.

 

I don’t believe that Shakespeare drank

Immoderately. I don’t subscribe to the popular view

That artists must be dissolute.

I am myself a temperate man, and so

Ascribe success in business dealings to

Retaining a clear mind and good judgment.

 

                                                            W.H. returns with a full ale pot for JORDIE.

 

JORDIE:

Ah! Thank ye kindly, Will Henry.

 

SAM:

My son’s name is Samuel, Jordie.

Mind you don’t spill the ale, there, Sammy.

 

                                                            Sam turns his back on both the others.

 

You’ve other items, Jordie, or that’s it?

 

                                                            JORDIE looks at W.H., who nods at him.

 

W.H.

Y-yes, J-j-jordie, there was something else?

 

                                                            JORDIE cagely draws out a document, as

                                                            W.H. shifts to stand outside his father’s eyeshot

                                                            to “conduct” JORDIE, even mouthing words

                                                            JORDIE hasn’t conned correctly.                                                     

 

JORDIE:

I hesitate to show it to such eyes as yours,

As Ireland & Son—

 

                                                            W.H. desperately shakes his head: “NO!”

 

SAM:

—It’s ‘Sons.’

 

JORDIE:

Beg pardon: “Sons.”

…Are known as such a reputable house.

 

SAM:

Get to the point, you avaricicious lout.

 

                                                            JORDIE, catching only an amiable tone and

                                                            missing SAM’s irony, looks confused.

 

JORDIE:

I thank ye kindly for that, sir, I’m sure.

I’d not abuse your patronage with slurs

Upon the authenticity of such

As you’d be likely or disposed to purchase

From these, my humble hands.

 

W.H.

G-G-G-GET T-T-O THE P-P-POINT!!!

 

                                                            SAM and JORDIE stare at W.H., chagrined

                                                            at getting so worked up. SAM sighs.

 

SAM:

Even my half-wit son is bored with you.

 

                                                            JORDIE draws out an impressive sheaf of

                                                            manuscript pages, tied with string.

 

JORDIE:

A manuscript, this scrap purports to be.

I’m wagering that it’s no forgery.

 

                                                            SAM gazes at the paper with rapt interest.

 

I picked it up in a bookstall near Saint Paul’s.

The paper, anyway, is older, you can tell.

The ink is brown, the hand’s an antique script.

 

SAM:

The trade in antiquities and documents

Outstrips the Tulip Bubble of a hundred years ago.

(scoffs) What am I telling you two for?

You’ve no idea what I’m talking about.

 

W.H.

Yes sir. The T-t-t-tulip B-b-b-b-b-b-b-bubble.

Inflated the price of b-b-bulbs in Amsterdam

In the late 1600s—

 

SAM:

–Yes, yes, yes! I am

Acquainted with it. God, how you waste my time!

I’ll give you two quid for it, Jordan.

 

JORDIE:

Aw, give old Jordie three.

 

SAM:

Two and another pot of ale, and I’ll buy your ale pot.

 

                                                            JORDIE hesitates only a moment before

                                                            handing his ale pot to W.H., who steps in

                                                            on cue to take it and clapping him on

                                                            the back to cue his last line as both smile.

 

JORDIE:

Sold! And if you like that, there’s more of that lot.

 

                                                            BLACKOUT. A bit of Handel, then LIGHTS UP

                                                            on SAM seated, perusing a pile of documents.

 

SAM:

I tell you, Sam, these Shakespeare manuscripts

Are the best blessing that’s e’err shower’d upon our house.

Can you believe the Good Lord’s bounty?

 

W.H.

B-b-b-bless me! G-g-g-good Lord, n-n-n-o!

 

SAM:

First just a few receipts and oddiments,

A mortgage deed with Heminges name on it,

Then a letter from Southampton! List!

 

                                                            SAM reads from a manuscript, pronouncing

                                                            the orthographics in what he takes to be

                                                            antique pronunciation. He’s also squinting

                                                            to read through bad glasses.

 

Doe notte esteeme me a sluggarde nor tardye for thus havyinge delayed

to answerre or rather toe thank you for youre greate Bountye…

[G]ratitude is alle I have toe utter and that is tooe greate ande tooe

sublyme a feeling for poore mortalls toe expresse

 

                                                            SAM struggles reading. W.H. takes the paper

                                                            from SAM, which SAM scoffs at but allows,

                                                            as his eyes are failing him.

 

W.H.

Here, F-f-f-father, let m-m-me.

 

                                                            W.H. reads, his stutter disappearing, with

                                                            a period feel and fluency that escaped

                                                            his father’s reading.

 

O my Lord itte is a Budde which Bllossommes Bllooms butte never dyes.

…as I have beene thye Freynde soe will I continue aughte thatte I canne

doe forre thee praye commande me ande you shalle fynde mee… Yours…

 

                                                            SAM continues through his treasures, with

                                                            W.H. helpfully handing each to him in turn.

 

SAM:

The profession of his Protestant faith!

 

W.H.

P-p-p-poo to those who claim our Shakespeare P-p-p-papist.

 

SAM:

A letter from Queen Elizabeth herself!

 

W.H.

You always say “A good man will find favor.”

 

SAM:

A wry self-portrait.

 

W.H.

“Wymsycalle conceyte.”

 

SAM:

A verse addressed unto his future wife, //Anne Hathaway.//

 

W.H.

//“Ann Hatherrewaye,”// yes. Complete with a lock of her hair.

 

SAM:

Books from the bard’s own library.

 

W.H.

With his marginal notes.

 

SAM:

A sheaf of “Hamblette” down in manuscript.

 

W.H.

//The text of Lear.//

 

SAM:

//The text of Lear.//

 

W.H.

Yes, sir.

 

                                                            A pause. SAM searches before him for

                                                            the documents as W.H. provides them.

 

SAM:

And then the unknown works I’d always suspected. Henry Two, Rowena

and Vortigern.

 

W.H.

Is that your favorite? Vortigern?

 

                                                            SAM sighs deeply, quite contented.

 

SAM:

They’re all my favorite, William.

 

W.H.

Sir? You called me “William.”

 

SAM:

Did I?

 

W.H.

Yes sir.

 

SAM:

The other Samuel died on me.

 

W.H.

Well… yes, sir.

 

SAM:

I don’t have a favorite, Samuel.

 

                                                            A spell is broken. W.H. tries to hold onto it.

 

W.H.

William.

 

SAM:

But I’m happy.

 

                                                            SAM smiles. So W.H. smiles, wanly. Music of

                                                            Handel. BLACKOUT.

 

                                                            LIGHTS UP on SAMUEL, completely blind, sickly,

                                                            reedy voiced, coughing, clutching a cane and some

                                                            documents rolled in his withered fists, attended by

                                                            W.H. as the two confront poor JORDIE, called to

                                                            account for passing on the forged documents.

 

SAM:

I don’t understand it. The Duke of Leicester’s signature and seal are found upon

the document, and yet the damned thing’s dated 1590.

 

JORDIE:

That’s right, sir.

 

SAM:

He died in 1588!

 

JORDIE:

Could be the Duke post-dated it?

 

                                                            SAM, in a blind rage, swats at JORDIE with the

                                                            documents, but catches W.H. in the face, then

                                                            tosses it aside and blindly searches for another

                                                            document on the table, which W.H. swiftly puts

                                                            under his father’s grasping hand.

 

SAM:

References to the Globe Theatre

 

JORDIE:

That’s Shakespeare’s theatre, innit!

 

SAM:

Before it was built! This Heminges signature looks nothing like authenticated Heminges autographs. Or so I’m told.

 

W.H.

A m-matter of op-p-pinion, surely.

 

SAM:

Shut up, son. Boswell himself had passed on this. The poet laureate.

The College of Heralds. The Duke of Clarence.

 

W.H.

Well, then.

 

SAM:

But they’re not right! Not right! Wrong hand and orthography, wrong history

– BAD SPELLING!!!

 

JORDIE:

That don’t count.

 

                                                            SAM rises in a rage, blind as he is, to whip

                                                            JORDIE with the paper, driving him from the room.

 

SAM:

And now I find myself mocked? Me! A scholar!

Mocked from the pages of volumes by Malone!

Mocked from stage by Kemble at Drury Lane!

My discoveries called forgeries, crimes,

The grossest of flimsy impostures!

 

JORDIE:

I got a lead on poxy skeleton, the Duke of Gloucester’s!

Marlowe’s Coronor’s Report, a portrait dated

Armada year that may be Shakespeare’s!

 

SAM:

Get out, get out! It’s killing me, you fool!

 

                                                            JORDIE bows and hastens away, followed by                                                                     

                                                           W.H., who sees him out. SAM collapses, weeping.

                                                            After a moment. W.H. returns and kneels at his

                                                            blind father’s feet.

 

W.H.

F-f-f-father… f-father… It was m-m-me.

 

SAM:

How now?

 

W.H.

Sir, it was m-m-me. The f-forgeries. I wanted so to p-p-please you.

 

                                                            SAM takes this in, nodding, then smiling.

 

SAM:

No. Oh Lord, you are a brave lad for the trying,

And well I love you for that heart would bleed for me.

But well I know, my son, you’ve not the head for this.

No, you’re not nearly clever enough to have freighted

so much mischief. I thank ye, though.

 

W.H.

I, s-s-sir, your son, AM that p-p-person!

 

                                                            SAM feels his son’s face gently, reading his tears.

 

SAM:

No. I won’t believe it. What is it Vortingen says?

 

            Make me forget the place by blood I hold,

            And break the tie twixt father and his child?

 

No. You may be a dull boy. But you are my son. You would not wound me so.

 

 

                                                            The two sit in silence for a moment, the elder man

                                                            striving not to weep, keep his dignity; the younger,

                                                            left with nothing else to comfort him, free to do so.

 

In Ecclestiastic Latin, the word is scandulum :

“that on which one trips, cause of offense”

In Greek, it’s skándalon, “A trap” is more the sense.

“A moral stumbling.” “The thing that causes one to sin.”

 

            Woe to the world for things that cause people to stumble!

            Scandals must come, but woe to those through whom they come!

Matthew 18:7 (or is it Luke 17:1?)

 

“Discredit to one’s reputation” that’s what brings in

the shame. The public disclosure of one’s crime. Or sin.

 

                                                            A pause.

 

I don’t know what I did.

 

                                                            A pause.

 

I did not think myself guilty of the sin of Pride.

But Sam, if only I had heeded your advice,

And not have published.

 

W.H.

Indeed, sir.

 

SAM:

It’s just so hard sometimes, to know where one has stumbled.

 

                                                            W.H. takes this in, nodding, as

                                                            LIGHTS FADE TO BLACK.

 

                                                            END OF PLAY.

 

Devereaux Redux

Slide1

At LIGHTS UP, WALTER DEVEREAUX, a man in his 60s, is sitting at a desk, marking papers with occasional but vigorous red pen strokes. He has a natty if tatterdemalion appearance, with a cardigan sweater-vest and horn-rimmed glasses. He is a curmudgeon, though his manner is civil.

MIKE DIXON enters. He is a man in his mid to late 30s, well dressed, soft spoken, consistently respectful, but with a banked energy that is quite evident.

DIXON:

Excuse me. Dr. Devereaux?

 

DEVEREAUX: (without looking up)

What’s it say?

 

DIXON:

I’m sorry?

 

DEVEREAUX: (pointing, not looking)

Can you read? On the door. What’s it say?

 

DIXON:

Your name. “Walter Devereaux, Ph.D.”

 

DEVEREAUX:

So, then: I’m Devereaux. And you are…?

 

DIXON:

My name is Dixon.

 

DEVEREAUX: (glancing in appointments)

You’ve no appointment with me, Mr. Dixon.

 

DIXON:

No, sir.

 

DEVEREAUX: (pitching appointment book)

I don’t see parents without an appointment.

 

DIXON:

I’m not a parent.

 

DEVEREAUX looks up.

 

DEVEREAUX

No?

 

DIXON:

Well, I am, but—

 

DEVEREAUX:

You seem undecided.

 

DIXON:

I’m—

 

DEVEREAUX silences him, an abrupt hand gesture, then sets his work aside, drawn in by the riddle.

 

Perhaps a step-father. Are you here about your step-daughter, by any chance? Slight overbite, obviously overweight? Pretty enough, but that girl really does need to shed a few pounds. And orthodontics for the overbite. I did tell her nicely.

DIXON stands there, not knowing what to say. DEVEROUX folds his hands and rests his chin on them, staring at his visitor, speculating.

 

Not the fat girl’s stepdad, I see.

 

DIXON:

I have sons.

 

DEVEREAUX:

But not my students. Faulty premise. Begging the question. You’re a parent, yes, but it’s irrelevant to why you’re here. Wait: Dixon. Any relation to… Was it Ted Dixon?

 

DIXON:

My father.

 

DEVEREAUX:

He just died.

 

DIXON:

I know.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Big obituary in the paper.

 

DIXON:

I placed that.

 

DEVEREAUX

Retired ‘restraunteur,’ it said.

 

DIXON:

Yeah, he ran a place downtown. The Saville Room.

 

DEVEREAUX:

I’m sorry for your loss, Dixon.

 

DIXON:

That’s remarkably kind of you, Dr. Devereaux.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Remarkable? I see: That Devereaux was kind.

 

DIXON:

Oh no, sir. I only meant—

 

DEVEREAUX:

I must be cruel, if only to be kind.

 

DIXON is taken aback for only a moment.

 

DIXON:

Hamlet. Act IV, Scene iii.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Well done, Dixon!

 

DEVEREAUX scribbles a grade on the paper, sets it aside. This looks to be more interesting.

 

What got your father? Cancer?

 

DIXON:

A heart attack, then a stroke.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Double whammy.

 

DIXON:

Yes ,sir.

 

DEVEREAUX:

The smoking didn’t help that any.

 

DIXON:

No. It didn’t help.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Puts you at risk, then, doesn’t it? Statistically. You’d be at risk then. Double risk.

 

DIXON:

I don’t smoke, but I suppose so.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Of course so. For a lot of things.

 

DEVEREAUX rises.

 

So, you came back for your father’s funeral, did you?

 

DIXON:

Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Whoa-ho!

 

DIXON:

Hamlet I/ii.

 

DEVEREAUX:

First rate, Dixon!

 

There is a shared laugh, then an awkward pause.

 

DIXON:

Actually, I came back for this reunion.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Good god, really? Another reunion? Seems like they have them every year. But no one ever comes back for those things.

 

DIXON:

Well, some people do. Clearly.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Who? Small timers who never did anything in college or after, perhaps, but, good god, no one who ever went out and accomplished anything! I never understand. Why do people want to revisit the past?

 

DIXON:

It’s a difficult time, high school. The formative years.

 

DEVEREAUX:

“Formative.” Two-dollar word!

 

DIXON:

Yes, sir.

 

DEVEREAUX stares at DIXON a long moment.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Michael Dixon.

 

DIXON:

Yes, sir. Mike.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Third row, right side aisle.

 

DIXON

That’s right.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Next to the pretty girls.

 

DIXON:

Yes, and near the door.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Ah, yes. ADD. Antsy. Leg-Jiggler. Hyperactive, I have no doubt. Showed all the signs.

 

DIXON:

Anxious, I’d have said. “Appearances versus Realities.” One of your major themes. “Nature versus Artifice.” “Stasis versus Change.” “Individual versus Society.”

 

DEVEREAUX:

Well, well. Even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose.

 

DIXON:

Merchant of Venice. Act I, scene… something. Three?

 

DEVEREAUX:

Three. You surprise me, Dixon. I don’t recall you being nearly that apt.

 

DIXON:

No sir. I wasn’t… I was not one of your “High Achievers.”

 

DEVEREAUX:

Quarrelsome, Michael, as I recall. Liked to argue with your teachers.

 

DIXON:

My betters, you said. “A Problem with Authority.”

 

DEVEREAUX:

I threw you out.

 

DIXON:

Expelled my last semester.

 

DEVEREAUX:

For a smart mouth.

 

DIXON:

That’s right.

 

DEVEREAUX:

You didn’t give me much choice.

 

DIXON:

No sir. I didn’t.

 

DEVEREAUX:

So… What? Now you’ve come back to rub your ancient nemesis’s nose in your present success, is that it?

 

DIXON:

Not at all. I came back to express my gratitude. Without you, my life would have taken very different course.

 

DEVEREAUX:

If you’re trying for irony, Dixon, you’re not catching the proper tone.

 

DIXON:

No, sir.

 

DIXON stands there, no hint of irony.

 

DEVEREAUX:

You’re pleased with the way things turned out, then, are you, Dixon?

 

DIXON:

Well. You once said that any man’s life, deprived of its error and folly, would be missing half the joy as well. My boys. I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

 

DEVEREAUX:

And their mother?

 

DIXON:

Out of the picture.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Children don’t do well without a mother, Dixon. You ought to know that.

 

DIXON:

Yes sir, I do. After my mother passed, I decided to get out of town. Start fresh. Omaha, at first. Topeka. All over, really. St. Louis. Chicago. Without a diploma, I washed dishes, scrubbed floors. Swung a hammer for a while. Got some training. Got on somewhere, and worked my way up. Got married. Got divorced. Raised my kids. Got on, anyway.

 

DEVEREAUX:

And you somehow ascribe all this achievement to my tutelage, do you, Dixon?

 

DIXON:

Oh, no sir. You made my life immeasurably more difficult. Crushing. Crippling, if I’d let it. I was angered by it for a long time. I cursed you. I did. You’d made it hard for me to be satisfied with less. You also gave me the tools to get over it. Or “get on with it,” as you used to say. You did that for me. Not my mom. She was so sick. Not my Dad, drinking himself to death at the Saville Room. You.

 

DEVEREAUX is struck silent for a moment.

 

DEVEREAUX:

It’s a pity, Dixon. You had a fine mind. You could have gone to a fine university.

 

DIXON:

That’s true, Dr. Devereaux. And you could have taught at a fine university, yes? We each took a different route.

 

DEVEREAUX:

If you quote “The Road Less Travelled,” I shall be very disappointed in you.

 

DIXON:

No. It’s not so much about the path you chose.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Hallmark sentiment. Perhaps the path chooses you.

 

DIXON:

Either way, it’s just hard to retrace your steps. Understand why.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Then perhaps one shouldn’t try. Not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment.

 

DIXON:

“Emotion versus Sentiment.”

 

DEVEREAUX:

Appreciate the thought, rather. “Intellect versus Emotion”

 

DIXON laughs.

 

What.

 

DIXON:

“Irony versus Sarcasm.”

 

DIXON:

Ah. I’d have thought that lecture came later in the term. After you left school.

 

DIXON:

No sir. I was expelled in May, not long before graduation, so I caught your Sarcasm lectures. And I have a fairly developed sense of irony. I owe that to you, as well. Perhaps that’s one of the things people find in reunions. A keen sense of irony.

 

DEVEREAUX:

I find it ironic that you’ve expressed a certain obligation or indebtedness, that you learned something from me, yet you seem to expect something from me in exchange. What did you come here for? Apology?

 

DIXON:

“Apology: Acknowledgement of injury. Explanation of past bad behavior. Assurances to correct future behavior.” No sir.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Sympathy?

 

DIXON:

“Apology versus Sympathy.” That would have been a great theme.

 

DEVEREAUX:

It’s “Empathy versus Sympathy,” actually. I feel a great deal of empathy for all the misfortunes that befell you.

 

DIXON:

That’s kind of you. Remarkable.

 

DEVEREAUX:

You want acknowledgement? That I had a hand in any of that? Alright. You had no mother to care for you, no father to speak for you. I could have gone easier on you.

 

DIXON:

You could have helped me.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Ah, there it is. Alright. I could have helped you. But you’re here to grant Absolution. You turned out alright. You got on with it.

 

DIXON:

Yeah. We survive. We move on. We’re human. But it wasn’t until I got married, had my boys that I understood.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Understood what.

 

DIXON:

That I understood you. Something hit you like that, once. Some unfairness. Perhaps why a man with an Ivy League Ph.D teaches in a Kansas high school.

 

DEVEREAUX:

That’s why you came back. To figure me out.

 

DIXON:

You’re right.

 

DEVEREAUX:

You haven’t.

 

DIXON:

No sir.

 

DEVEREAUX:

What did you expect?

 

DIXON:

I don’t know, Dr. Devereaux. Nobody really knows why people go for reunions.

 

DEVEREAUX:

I suppose the people who go to them don’t understand the people who don’t.

 

DIXON:

I’m sure that’s true.

 

DEVEREAUX:

“Truth versus Reality.”

 

DIXON:

You said it was “Reality versus Truth.” You could never understand why I preferred Truth to Reality.

 

DEVEREAUX:

I don’t understand it now. But: “Even a blind pig finds an acorn.”

 

DIXON:

So you always said.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Anything else, Dixon? If not, your visit has been interesting, but if you’ll excuse me. I’ve papers to grade. Enjoy your reunion.

 

DIXON:

Thank you, sir.

 

DEVEREAUX:

Door on your way out, Dixon. Thank you.

 

DEVEREAUX goes back to his papers. DIXON smiles, walks out, slowly. They have nothing more to say to each other, so it lays that way as he exits. DEVEREAUX sits there a moment, taking it in. Then he returns to grading papers, marking them as LIGHTS FADE TO BLACK.

END OF PLAY.