Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Best (pop) concerts

So I am just back from the Stevie Wonder Songs in the Key of Life show in Toronto (the only Canadian stop on the tour).  Pretty amazing band -- two of almost everything -- backup keyboards, guitarists, drummers, percussionists.  6 back-up singers, including his daughter (the one to whom Isn't She Lovely is dedicated to).  On some stops, India.Arie is the opening act and then joins the show.  Here she just joined in on 5 or so songs -- 4 costume changes (off-stage).  Great concert, though I wish he had started more or less on time -- it was 45 minutes late getting started.  Thus, we had to split as he was getting ready to do an encore.  Really wanted to hear that (on some stops it has been Superstition), but it was past our bedtime (and more to the point the baby-sitter meter was ticking...).  I've seen Stevie do a more hits oriented show in Grant Park in Chicago, so I decided it was ok to get out of there and beat the crowds on the train.  It actually was a pretty smooth ride back, maybe only 30 minutes to get from Union Station to home.

I'd say that this show is now in my top 10 of pop/rock concerts.  So that got me thinking about other great shows I've seen.  Now as it happens, I have not seen all that many pop/rock concerts -- far more classical and jazz concerts, and I wouldn't even attempt to pull out a top 10, though some day I could probably list a few of the most memorable.

In terms of my top 10, I'll just list what I remember, but will probably have to fill in details later (like year/venue and so on). (Actually, I am going to shamelessly steal from Spinal Tap and make it my top 11, since 11 is just so much more awesome than 10.)

Camper Van Beethoven, New York, 2003
This was a big surprise that they reformed and even managed to get one of the original members who had moved to Australia to come back for this one show.  I think it ran close to 3 hours, and they played a large part of Tusk (which was a high-concept album where they played Fleetwood Mac's Tusk).  It really was sort of an "event" for a relatively small handful of fans.  I've enjoyed all the times I've seen Camper Van and/or Cracker (I think it's up to 4 now), but this was by far the best.

David Bowie, Sound+Vision Tour, Detroit, 1990
This was supposedly the last time he was going to play most of his hits.  That didn't turn out to be the case, but I still had a great time, even if he didn't retire his hits afterwards.  We were on the main floor in the first 3 or 4 rows.  Sweet.

Steely Dan, Chicago, Chicago Theatre, 2008
This wasn't the tour where they played entire albums; it was just a tour where they had a really tight band running through the main hits.  I hadn't really thought they would tour together, but they seem to have gotten over their differences.

David Bowie, A Reality Tour, Rosemont/Chicago, 2004
Really great show -- a heavier, louder concert than Sound+Vision, drawing heavily on Earthling, which I like quite a bit.  From my understanding, we left and missed a second encore where he played "Panic in Detroit," but that may not be accurate.

Bruce Hornsby and the Range, Detroit, 1990
Cowboy Junkies opened for them and were incredible, far more dynamic than they usually come across on their albums.  Great show.

10,000 Maniacs, Detroit, 1988
This was actually at Pine Knob, a bit north of Detroit.  Again, a bit louder and more dynamic than what is on the albums.

Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life Tour, Toronto, 2014
See above

The Who, Pontiac/Detroit, 1989
They actually played at the Pontiac Silverdome, not Detroit proper; this is was the tour where they played most of Tommy.  It was also one of the very last tours before they became total caricatures of themselves.  You'd probably have to pay me to see The Who now.  I've heard that they will finally stop touring in 2015, but I'll believe it when I see it.

Depeche Mode, The Singles Tour, Rosemont/Chicago, 1998
Pretty much what it says on the tin.  The lead singer was just back from rehab and the band sounded great, playing mostly hits and some b-sides.

Tragically Hip, Chicago, 1995
This was at Metro, which was always standing room only.  They played slightly over half the material off of Fully Completely, plus some songs like Nautical Disaster and New Orleans is Sinking, that I wasn't very familiar with.

They Might Be Giants, Flood Tour, Vic Theatre, Chicago, 2009
They came through and played all the songs on Flood, but unlike some of these other album-centric tours, they mixed it up and played other hits as well.  I've seen them 4 times, including in their hometown of Brooklyn.  All were great shows, but I think this was best.

Runners up: Psychedelic Furs in New York; Roxy Music in New York (Rufus Wainwright opening); Sade with India.Arie opening, MSG in New York; Duran Duran in London (my wife really wanted to see the original line-up back together); Hall and Oates in Chicago; Steve Winwood in Vancouver; Sting in Grant Park, Chicago; Midnight Oil in Grant Park, Chicago; Barenaked Ladies in Grant Park, Chicago (mostly but not entirely singing children-oriented songs); Local H at a street fair in Chicago; The Waltons at a UT hang-out.

I just remembered seeing the original line-up of Everclear at Metro 1995 or so where they were playing off Sparkle and Fade.  Now that I think about it, that show is threatening to break into the top 11.  Probably would make the move "upstairs" if it had been the follow-up tour where they had some other great material from So Much for the Afterglow.  Now that Alex has reformed the band with some young pups, I'm less interested in seeing them.

I may recall some other really great concerts and shuffle the order a bit, but this is basically what I think of as the best concerts I've seen.  This actually is most of the pop/rock concerts that I have ever seen.  As I said, my focus has always been more on attending jazz or classical concerts.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Shakespeare and me: productions I've seen

As it turns out, I have seen a goodly number of Shakespeare's plays and certainly all the key ones.

The chronological grouping comes from this source.

Histories   
1590-91     Henry VI, Part II    (Bard on Beach, Vancouver, 2011)
1590-91     Henry VI, Part III   (Bard on Beach, Vancouver, 2011) 
1591-92     Henry VI, Part I     (Bard on Beach, Vancouver, 2011)
1592-93     Richard III             (Bard on Beach, Vancouver, 2011; Toronto 2016)
1595-96     Richard II    
1596-97     King John    
1597-98     Henry IV, Part I     (Oak Park, IL, 2011)
1597-98     Henry IV, Part II    (Oak Park, IL, 2011)
1598-99     Henry V                (Oak Park, IL, 2011)
1612-13     Henry VIII    

I've seen all the Henries (sometimes in abridged format) except Henry VIII.  I actually have had a chance to see that, but it just didn't look that interesting to me.  I came close to seeing King John at Stratford last summer, but that would have meant an overnight trip, so I ultimately passed.  I have not decided if I want to watch Richard II, but I did see a good production of Richard III in Vancouver.

Comedies
1592-93     Comedy of Errors      (Shakespeare in the Park, NY, 1992; High Park, Toronto, 2015; Shakespeare Bash'd, Toronto, 2016)
1593-94     Taming of the Shrew    (New Jersey, 1992; Atlanta, 2003; Stratford, 2015; Driftwood, Toronto, 2016)
1594-95     Two Gentlemen of Verona    
1594-95     Love's Labour's Lost     (Chicago, 1996; Stratford, 2015)
1595-96     A Midsummer Night's Dream   (New York, 1992; Bard on the Beach, Vancouver, 2014)
1598-99     Much Ado About Nothing    (Toronto, 1994; Toronto, 2014)
1599-1600   As You Like It    (Shakespeare in the Park, NY, 1992; High Park, Toronto, 2014; Shakespeare Bash'd, Toronto, 2017)
1599-1600   Twelfth Night    (Ann Arbor, 1990; Toronto Fringe, 2015; Shakespeare Bash'd, Toronto, 2017)
1600-01     The Merry Wives of Windsor  (Kalamazoo, 1986; Shakespeare Bash'd, Toronto, 2015)  
1602-03     All's Well That Ends Well    (Shakespeare in the Park, NY, 1993; High Park, Toronto, 2016)
1604-05     Measure for Measure     (Shakespeare in the Park, NY, 1993; Toronto, 2016)

I've seen The Merry Wives of Windsor many years ago (actually while still in high school).  I thought then, as now, that it is a pretty minor work and passed up a chance a couple of years ago to see it at Bard on the Beach.  The only one that I can't find proof that I attended is Two Gentlemen of Verona, though I've probably seen that somewhere along the way.  I'll just make a note to catch it the next time it comes through. Similarly, I know I've seen Twelfth Night more recently than 1990, probably in Chicago and somewhere else.

Tragedies
1593-94     Titus Andronicus    
1594-95     Romeo and Juliet     (High Park, Toronto, 1997; Stratford, 2013)
1596-97     The Merchant of Venice  (Chicago, 2011)  
1599-1600    Julius Caesar       (Stratford, 1990; High Park, Toronto, 2015) 
1600-01     Hamlet            (Bard on the Beach, Vancouver, 2013; Stratford, 2015; Driftwood, Toronto, 2015)
1601-02     Troilus and Cressida    
1604-05     Othello           (Kalamazoo, 1988; Stratford, 2013)
1605-06     King Lear       (Vancouver, 2012; Stratford, 2014; Toronto, 2015)
1605-06     Macbeth         (New Jersey, 1992; Bard on the Beach, 2012; Toronto, 2015)
1606-07     Antony and Cleopatra    (Toronto, 2012)
1607-08     Coriolanus    
1607-08     Timon of Athens

It seems like things start breaking down once I hit the tragedies.  It looks like I skipped Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens.  To be honest, I generally am not that interested in pure tragedies, though I generally find Macbeth and Hamlet worth watching.  I have very grave doubts about Lear, simply because he acts so foolishly and petulantly, that I am not sure I'll see it again.  I know I'm not interested in seeing The Merchant of Venice again, though the Bollywood-infused remix Merchant on Venice was pretty good.

Romances
1608-09     Pericles    (Toronto, 1994)
1609-10     Cymbeline    
1610-11     The Winter's Tale    
1611-12     The Tempest      (Bard on the Beach, Vancouver, 2014)
1612-13     The Two Noble Kinsmen*

I'm not that sure I even want to count Two Noble Kinsmen.  I guess I'll try to see it one of these days.  I believe I actually have seen Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale, though I don't have any surviving programs, so I may go when I have a chance if the productions get good reviews.  On the other hand, the plot of The Winter's Tale in particular is not one that I find very palatable and I passed on a chance to see Coal Mine do it.  I've definitely seen the Tempest more than once - most likely three times, but the details escape me now.

So the official tally is 27 out of  38 or 71%, though I suspect I've actually seen at least a couple more.  It's always hard to know how often to come back to these as opposed to seeing other masterworks versus spending more time on contemporary theatre.  I try to mix it up a fair bit, though time and money don't always allow for it.  I am sort of interested in the upcoming production of Hamlet at Stratford next summer, but in general, I am leaning more and more towards to just sticking with the comedies.  I just find too many loose ends with the tragedies that bug me, and the minor characters are too hard to tell apart in the history plays.

Edit: I guess I should add just a bit about a few of them, which were particularly memorable and so on.  Measure for Measure had Kevin Kline as the Duke, which did partially make up for the fact that it is such a "difficult" play.  The strangest production I remember seeing was Brian Bedford in Julius Caesar at Stratford.  The key characters were all in togas, but the soldiers wore yellow t-shirts and Army boots, if I am not mistaken.  A weak attempt at a pomo production.  The best Lear I've seen was not the one at Stratford (which was generally good, though Cordelia was weak) but the Honest Fishmongers in Vancouver in 2012.  Bard on the Beach generally does good but slightly populist renditions of Shakespeare.  However, the shows I saw in 2014 on the main stage -- Midsummer's Night's Dream and The Tempest -- were truly incredible.  It's somewhat strange that I basically can't bear watching The Merchant of Venice any longer, but I don't have nearly as much of a problem with The Taming of the Shrew, which is perhaps even more retrograde.  There's a lot about As You Like It that I do like, but the ending is so unbelievable as to spoil much of the play for me.  I generally have to pretend that the last five minutes didn't happen.

In terms of upcoming productions, I decided to pass on The Tempest at Hart House, but I'll catch a Bollywood-infused production of Much Ado About Nothing at Tarragon.  As I said, I might well see Hamlet at Stratford this summer, but I haven't really decided about Taming of the Shrew or Love's Labour's Lost.  It will depend a great deal on the concept/casting and possibly the advance reviews.  I see that Shakespeare in the (High) Park is going to be The Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar.  It's good for me in that it has been ages since I've seen either.  I'll probably try to go to both and may take my son to Comedy of Errors.  My daughter is probably too young to really understand what's going on, but we'll see a bit closer to the time.

8th Canadian Challenge - 9th review - Failure to Thrive

I'll just open with a short observation drawn from Alexander Herzen's My Past and Thoughts.  There seems to be a bit of a contradiction in how he and his coterie would argue so seriously about philosophical ideals, but then he has a general aside how he dislikes the serious young men of Germany but the Americans are even worse.  (I think he tries to square this by describing some of the high-jinks that his Russian friends got up to.)  While I probably would have gotten on reasonably well with Herzen as an adult, I was extremely serious in high school (this old before your time is exactly what Herzen dislikes).  (Actually, I am trying to recall some of that moral fervour in The Study Group -- how successfully is still to be determined.)  Generally, Herzen tried to be open minded and understand where people are coming from and why they act the way they do.  As he aged, he definitely became more empathetic, though he seemed to take an instant dislike to overly bureaucratic types, whom he kept running up against.

At any rate, I should try to find a way to dampen down my general antipathy to Millennials, given what a bad hand they have been dealt in terms of a bad economy and far fewer of the benefits that the Boomers got (Gen X falls somewhere in between), and if the worst environmental scenarios play themselves out, then they will definitely be forced to deal with this at a time when they should be looking forward to retirement.  I see from some general surveys that they actually do take an interest in the environment and that they generally are less materialistic with respect to the big-ticket items like cars (and they may never have their own homes).  However, the ones that I encounter seem to never take their eyes off these tiny little screens, and consequently, they seem to be extremely shallow and interested in the most trivial of things, aside from their more general problem of over-sharing (that will certainly come to haunt them later).

Despite these proclaimed intentions, I often fall short. I will have to say that Suzannah Showler's Failure to Thrive did little to change my perception of Millenials as trivial and unserious.  So this review starts from a fairly negative place, and I will understand if you decide to bail at this point.

There was one serious misconception on my part and that was I read "Whale Fall" as "Whale Fail," i.e. when Twitter goes down.  However, a whale fall is a real phenomenon that would be somewhat familiar to someone living in Newfoundland for instance.  I liked the lines from the last stanza: "Because this is one way the earth ends; / abyssal, superlative with all-dark, / an absence too thorough / to be imagined in a living body."

However, it is unclear whether Showler spent much if any time on the coast(s) to really feel whales in her bones, as she is from Ottawa and did her creative writing program in Toronto.  It seems she has actually decamped to Columbus, Ohio.  I guess none of this matters, but she isn't a place-based poet in the sense that some of the eastern poets are.  She tends to focus more on little ironies with her fairly-cerebral poems and draws on cyberspace as her "place." (In fact, Showler says that "Whale Fall" was inspired by a Radiolab program, apparently this podcast in fact.)

I think my favourite from the collection is probably "Pretty Good Time at the Olfactory Factory," which tries to generate strong smells in the mind of the reader:
  • Coconut-sweet wind laced with salt / bending around the near-albino mesa / of potash burped out of the prairie.
  • Bike lock in winter coaxed open / with a crème brûlée torch.
  • A Scratch 'n Sniff sticker / with all the good stuff / scratched out of it.

Incidentally, the cover of the collection has an image of a Scratch 'n Sniff sticker, which presumably relates back to this poem.


I also was amused by the idea that her idea of a disaster was being dragged by an invisible force back to Ottawa.  This is a poem from the section Sucks To Be You and Other True Taunts (which is perhaps appropriate the part of the book where she sounds the most like a Millennial).  The poem is "Why Don't You Go Home and Cry About It?"

I have a feeling about a very slow 
apocalypse where we are all drawn 
back to our hometowns by something
like a magnet that attracts whatever
inside us is most mediocre and true.
...
... I'll need something
to think about when I am caught,
post-apocalpytically, in Ottawa,
Ontario, the capital of Canada,
where my parents still live.

I found there were a few decent poems, which is not bad for a first collection, but on the whole Showler's voice and preoccupations are not of great interest to me, and that is at least in part due to generational differences.  I even found myself out of sympathy with the Radiolab folks who take some really interesting material, but cut it oddly and add a bit too much attitude and snark to it.  I can tell it's going to be a long, painful time for me as the Millennials come to the fore (while still living in their parents' basements) as I am so out of step with them.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Books as an Inheritance

I think for those of us with large libraries, it can be really hard to decide what to do about the books that are still in the collection after we are gone.  It used to be that there would be booksellers that would come and buy up interesting libraries, but those days are quickly passing.  Even CDs and LPs have pretty minimal resale value, with some exceptions.  I think if I passed in the next 5 years, my wife could still turn to some music shops to get a halfway decent price on some of the jazz CDs, but probably not on the classical and certainly not on the pop CDs.  Those would just be destined for the landfill.  But 20 years from now (and I think I have at least that long!), I doubt they will have much value at all.  And probably there will be almost no resale value to the books, especially since I don't collect first editions.  I think it really will be down to the kids wanting some or all of the books and CDs, so I will have to find out closer to the time what they think about that.  They may well be totally digital, growing up in this era.  (If that is the case, I should do them a favour and start de-accessioning in about 15 years.)

Despite Anthony Powell's dictum that "books do furnish a room" (though it is far better if this is a working library and not just for display) and Erasmus's wise words: "When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes," there is no guarantee that someone else will really want your books, precisely because they reflected your interests and intellectual history, or indeed, any books at all.  Some of my books are held onto purely for sentimental reasons, and do I really want to inflict this on my children (hanging onto a few dozen books just because they were mine)?

I am thinking about this because I have finally gotten around to reading one of the books that I took from my mom's collection, close to 20 years after her death.  I can't recall exactly how many books I ultimately took from her collection at the time, but I think it is down to 2 or 3 left after all these years of carting books from place to place.  I have to admit I didn't care for this book very much, and I'm a bit nervous that if I don't like the next one, I may have no books left to hang onto.*  Most of her books went to a nearby community center, where I am sure they are still being appreciated.  If we lived just a bit closer, I would probably take this one back to donate as well.

One of the few books I remember her having was a hardcover set of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels, but I honestly can no longer remember if they were in her house when she died or if they ended up with my father.  I might well have discarded them by now (since it is even harder to move hardcovers than paperbacks), but I do wish I had those books.  (Of course by now I have a fairly mismatched set of most of Fitzgerald's novels and stories, and I'm sure it would just be easier to get the missing ones.  Still I suppose if the set did fall into my hands, then I would make space for it.)

In general, there is not much of a tangible legacy left, other than a few artsy photos she took and some jewelry.  I would have liked to have a few more books as well, since an appreciation for art and literature was certainly her main legacy to me.  I think I actually loaned her an art book (Janson's History of Art, which she wanted since it reminded her of her college days) but never got it back, so I eventually replaced it.  On the flip side, I just recalled that I do have her copy of a Georgia O'Keeffe catalog, and I will certainly hang onto that until the end, so I guess we're even after all.  Anyway, I might as well cut this short, as it is getting a bit too morbid and maudlin (quite the combo!).

* In the same way, I have a bit of a mental block against finishing Gloria Naylor's Mama Day, as I started reading this to my mother in the hospital, as a way of passing the time (since it was unlikely she truly heard me by that point).  I had kind of expected to get through the entire book (over the course of a week perhaps), but I had to run back to Chicago to take care of some things, and she took a real turn for the worse while I was gone.  I haven't really had the heart to return to it, but maybe late next year I'll read Naylor's Bailey's Cafe, and if that goes well, I will tackle Mama Day the following year.  I think it is time to close out this book.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Emperor's New Film (Godard)

While I wasn't particularly surprised I didn't like Godard's Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language), I am really disappointed in the fact that it split the jury prize at Cannes (winning with Xavier Dolan's Mommy) and maybe even more so the positive reviews of this so-called film.  I really have to wonder how many are rewarding Godard for a magnificent career in film and are not really facing up to what a stinky mess of celluloid Adieu au langage is.  A couple of reviewers preface their reviews by saying that Godard remains a provocateur, and that the film needs to be seen in that light, i.e. it is a statement and/or an intellectual exercise and not really a film to be enjoyed.  But a couple seem to have really downed the Koolaid and talk about the magnificent colors of the film or how moving it was.  Bull.  These are reviewers who are afraid to be looked down on by their peers by admitting that this was a pretentious and intentionally amateurish film.  There are similar trends in the jazz world, where for a small number of listeners but a larger group of reviewers, free jazz is the gold standard, despite the fact that many (certainly including myself) find it so sterile and frankly unpleasant.  It just seems willfully obscurant and designed to chase away the general public.  Given how jazz used to be so rooted in popular culture, and film hardly makes sense cut loose from its pop culture beginnings, it seems an odd choice to go down these (to me) fruitless, arid and anti-populist avenues.  I can understand why some artists would get bored and turn inward, but I think it is a huge mistake for the larger community (particularly including critics) to be so indulgent towards them.

But I suppose it is a matter of degree; there are certainly lousy pop culture offerings that I turn my nose up at as well.  The bottom line is I really like plays or the occasional movie that makes you think.  In that sense, I found that Adieu au langage had so little to offer, other than rubbing our noses into the fact that film is an artifice and that it is a weakness or lack of character for people to expect meaningful dialogue or plots that seem to "go somewhere," i.e. build to some climax and then resolve themselves.  We are essentially dupes for wanting this, Godard is saying, and will only give us tiny snippets that repeat themselves and go nowhere.  There is no reveal as to whether the woman (or the man) committed suicide in the tub.  There is no follow through to know if the man shot died or who apparently ran over another character.  There is no plot at all in this film.  But he's been doing this for some time now (really since 1998's Histoire(s) du cinema), and not surprisingly, I find it pretty boring by now and certainly not well done in this instance.  While there is at least some truth to the general view that the French (and even British) have of Americans that we are all absurdly sentimental (as well as quasi-barbaric war-mongers), it seems just as true that the French fall for the most absurd pseudo-philosophizing and deem it profound.

But truly my loathing comes down to just how unpleasant it was to sit through this, so the craft as well as the ideas were bad.  I thought it was silly to have the soundtrack snippets cut in and out, then later repeat themselves.  I know the point is to call attention to the manipulative nature of movie soundtracks, but we get the joke, and this was not nice to sit through.  There were issues (again almost certainly intentional) that made the subtitles hard to read.  The film, despite some reviewers claiming otherwise, was deliberately amateurishly shot.  Given that it was in 3-D, turning the camera sideways or upside down or switching over to low-resolution images or moving out of focus and even allowing the two images to slide in and out (rather than forming an image in stereo) was very jarring and frankly unfair to the audience.  I had a headache from watching it that lasted almost 2 hours.  I came very close to walking out, which I never do, and only the fact that I knew it was short (70 minutes) and that I wanted to watch the whole thing if I was going to call it out, compelled me to stay.

Ultimately, this was a hot mess of a film and not even an entertaining hot mess.  I'm struggling to think of a film I dislike more, and I can't actually think of one off the top of my head (other than torture porn films which I've never actually viewed, knowing how morally bankrupt they are).  I look at the similarly empty and sterile films he's made since 2000 (particularly Notre musique and Film Socialisme), and it just drives home how unfair life in general is.  Godard gets lauded for these frankly terrible "films" (or rather art school projects) while Tati was completely shut out in his later years and could not complete some projects that would almost certainly would have been profound films in that very French sense.  Tati had some curious ideas (with which I am not really in sympathy) about elevating the common man and relegating the "stars" of the film to the margins, but he was certainly never contemptuous of popular culture or, more importantly, the audience, which is clearly the place Godard operates from now. 

I wouldn't say I am actually a fan of Chris Marker whose films are sort of in the same vein as late Godard (heavy on collage and cut-up techniques and light on plot), but I still find him easier to take.  In addition to Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader, who has long been in love with late Godard, I find Richard Brody of the New Yorker to be similarly unbalanced.  In this piece, where he is trying to explain just how great Godard's King Lear is (seriously, he considers it his top film of all time -- and most of his other picks are similarly inexplicable) and go into detail over the genius of Godard, Godard just comes across as a total prick and I had less respect for him than I did before I read it.  I really don't understand why some artists are given a pass to act badly and critics lap up everything they do, while others (particularly those who still show dedication to craft rather than avant garde ideas) are scorned.  By this point, I am well aware that I am in complete disagreement with Jonathan Rosenbaum on almost all films and I know that if he enjoyed a film, I will not and vice versa (aside from Tati, whom he reveres).  It seems the same is true of Richard Brody (even down to his appreciation for Tati).  Sometimes knowing which critics not to read is just as important as which ones that you do want to read.  However, the truth is that I rarely read film reviews anyway, and I certainly don't seek them out, the way I did with Roger Ebert's reviews.  I still haven't found anyone who made me interested in film (or at least film reviews) the way he did.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Season (and a Half) of Stoppard

So I am back from the production of Arcadia that was a sold-out hit at Shaw in 2013.  It was brought back by Mirvish Productions, and it appears to feature the entire cast from last summer.  I think it is doing well, though there were quite a few empty seats, so if anyone is interested, then it is worth a call.  Now I was not crazy about the seats in the upper balcony (far too narrow) and fortunately I was able to move down to a seat where I wasn't quite so squeezed after the intermission.  I have to say, Mirvish, just as the Broadway houses, has a pretty crazy pricing policy, and I think they would actually get higher yields if they didn't grossly overprice the various seats in the upper balcony.  (I have the same complaint about Tarragon, which is trying to get people to commit to new plays, which is laudable, but at a fairly absurd price point.  I've seen a very positive review of Sextet and one that found it enjoyable but shallow -- I suspect I would fall into the latter camp, but will not spend $55 to find out.  If the tickets end up half-price, I would probably go.)  Enough quibbling about price, the Shaw/Mirvish production is definitely worth the money.  I've seen a brilliant production at Court Theatre in Chicago (they always do right by Stoppard) and a good production at A.C.T. in San Francisco.  This was arguably even better than the Court version, but it might have something to do with the fact that I know the play quite well now.

I suppose it is one of those plays that improves with familiarity, as there is just so much thrown at you -- the intricacies of academic politics, a bit of Latin, a short treatise on the history of the English garden, some higher order maths (some of which I still can't entirely follow), a fairly succinct illustration of the signal to noise ratio issue and Thomasina's vision of the heat death of the universe.  To add to that, you have nearly as many mismatched couplings at in Midsummer's Night's Dream (though most are off-stage and only the outcomes are observed) and frustrated passion.  I won't go into any details but there is a truly tragic death somewhat put into perspective by the Olympian perspective of one of the characters who says it is all a bit trivial and a couple who seem to have a somewhat calm acceptance of death (at least in the abstract).  However, Stoppard ends on an upbeat note, having us watch Septimus teaching Thomasina to waltz and then, in an overlay, Hannah the cold, even frigid, academic dances a bit with Gus, the perhaps autistic young man of the manor house.  It's a reminder of looking for the moments of grace on the march to the grave (whereas Beckett seems far more mired in the pointlessness of the struggle).  I would say that of the various times Stoppard uses this technique (that is, characters overlapping on stage but not really in the same frame), this is the most successful.  I don't think it works at all in The Coast of Utopia, since there is no reason for us to know that the two groups are not in the same space, and it is a lame reference to Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe.  I also remembering not caring too much for the quasi-dream sequence at the beginning of Act II of Night and Day. 

Nonetheless, I think it is a bit exhilarating, even a bit courageous in these days, that Stoppard really makes the audience work (far more than most playwrights) but there are some times that he does cheat a bit for a showy result (much like Septimus translating Shakespeare into Latin), and just isn't playing fair with the audience.  That's certainly how I felt about that particular scene in The Coast of Utopia.  I think it's fair to say that Arcadia is my favorite of all his plays with only a handful of dopey characters to move things in slightly unpredictable directions.  Most of the characters are intelligent (in their favored spheres) and some are supposed to be quite brilliant indeed.  I would say that my main quibble is that Bernard Nightingale is portrayed as too crass for my taste.  Perhaps Stoppard has more experience with such foul-mouthed Oxbridge dons, but in my experience while they might well "work blue" with another academic, such as Hannah, they would never lose their temper or swear so much in front of minor aristocracy, particularly when Bernard still needed something from them.  It's a minor point, but one that I wish Stoppard had tightened up just a bit.  That's only a small point.  I see from a quick review of the play that I lost one joke because I didn't quite catch the line (pretty sure I got it during the second production I saw) but on the whole sitting in the cheap seats didn't diminish the experience.  It is just such a complex and rewarding play, showing that you can succeed with a play about intelligent characters having meaningful conversations.  (It's not really a secret that Corporate Codes of Conduct is heavily influenced by Stoppard as is The Study Group.  My other plays are a bit more conventional, as I was working out other issues in them.)  If you have the opportunity in the next month or so, I would encourage attending this brilliant production of Arcadia.  (I see that there are even a few discounted tickets at TOtix.)

It was back in April that I saw The Coast of Utopia at Shotgun Players in Berkeley.  This is another deeply rewarding play, though I think it merits its own review.  At this point, I will wait until I read the plays (probably mid December at my current rate of reading) and then review the production and the plays together or in paired reviews.  I still can't believe that no company in Chicago has attempted this.  As far as I know, it hasn't played in Canada at all.  I would probably go see the trilogy a second time, but that might be it (whereas after enough time has passed, I might go see Arcadia a 4th time).  The trilogy is a significant investment in time and effort, however, so I can see why companies are a bit shy about putting it on.  Still, it is so rarely performed, that if done well, I think it would bring serious theatre buffs in for hundreds of miles around.  At the Shotgun production, they actually had a group of Europeans, all related to Alexander Herzen, fly in for the last marathon night!  Talk about dedication. 

I am leaning more and more towards trying to work in a quick trip to Montreal next spring to see Stoppard's Travesties.  It's an early play, somewhat in the spirit of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in the sense it is comic, even a bit manic at times, but it isn't as deep as his later plays, by which I mean it is more of an intellectual exercise (and a bit showy) but doesn't have as much actual human emotion.  I've never seen Travesties, so I think seeing it in April or May, would cap off quite a run, stretching back to last April.  Then perhaps I can start a Kushner run in the summer with the Canadian premiere of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism With a Key to the Scriptures at Shaw.  Not sure what else I have to see of Kushner, perhaps a remount of Slavs?  (I just missed the Angels in America remount at Soulpepper, so that won't be coming around again for a while (probably).)  Actually, I don't think I've seen anything from the collection Death &Taxes, neither Hydriotaphia nor any of the short plays, so that would be something to keep my eyes out for in 2015-16.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

Working within boundaries in theatre

I managed to get 5 or 6 pages of The Study Group written while on this trip to Saskatchewan, which is basically the opening 10 minutes.  I probably could have gotten a bit more done but the people in front of me in both directions spent the whole time in my lap.  (I'm really starting to hate flying...)  My characters have started to come to life, which is gratifying, though there are just too many people in the scene, so I am going to start sending a few of them off-stage.  You just can't split the audience's focus (and leave that many actors with nothing to do when they aren't going to have lines).  This is definitely one area where you might do something a bit differently in film than you would in a play.  That said, I think Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead has far more characters (it's set in a restaurant), and he tries to juggle between them, but I'm not entirely sure it works.  Or rather it would work better had he pruned more of the characters or at least taken a fair number of them off-stage for longer stretches.  Classical theatre tends to work best when there are dyads and triads, not groupings of 5, 6, 7+ actors.  That said, I think there will probably be 5 or 6 characters on-stage for most of The Study Group.  It is becoming just slightly too much like The Breakfast Club, but so be it.  One thing that I haven't even seen on stage and rarely on film (though possibly Election comes close) is how intense (smart) high school kids can be.  Their brains are like sponges at that point, and some can be frighteningly smart, but their hormones are still a mess and generally their social skills are weak (at least in part hampered by said hormones).  If I can capture some of that, I think it will be worth it (and not simply using the play as a quasi-homage to my youth).  I think I will have them attempt the time travel prank, but Trevor (the intended victim) will just see through it immediately and play along.  That seems far more realistic and probably funnier than making this a farce where the audience has to agree that this super intelligent boy will be taken in and actually wonder about time travel actually becoming a tangible reality.

In terms of the research, I am pretty close to being done.  I'd love to come across a really old ACT study guide, but I think that is a bit unlikely.*  However, I haven't entirely given up, and I'll see what else is on the Web, as well as at the education library at UT.  I think I have gotten a pretty firm handle on what kind of pop culture things they would reference: a Miami Vice episode from Season 2 (which I happen to own on DVD), Back to the Future, Brazil and possibly The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, and then the 1986 Van Halen tour (in the wake of the bitter break up with David Lee Roth).  I've put together a list of songs that would have been in heavy play on the radio in late 1985 through the first week of March 1986.  I think my wife and I have the majority of them already, certainly all the New Wave hits, but all the missing ones should be on Youtube by now.  I don't need to reference them, let alone quote them, or put together a soundtrack or any such thing, but just listening to a heavy concentration of music from that era will be a bit of a time capsule to help me get back into the state of mind I was in at that time.  Quite a lot has been coming back as I have started working on this play.

While I probably could write close to 2 hours of this study group doing various things, I'd like to try to keep it as a one act play that would max out at about 75 minutes.  (I tend to think it is a bit cruel to older audience members to have a one act play go the full 90 minutes.)  I can't really see enough of a double climax to justify two acts, and I think that would really break the mood to have the intermission and come back in.  So that's one way where theatre is quite different from film where you really can have sort of a sustained piece for 2+ hours and not be completely compelled to have TV beats or what have you.  (While I have not written for TV or film for that matter, network TV seems to be even more constrained by the limitations of having to write a full story in 22 minutes with 3 distinct break points to allow for commercials -- this wouldn't interest me at all!)

So I thought I would take this opportunity to get down my thoughts on how playwrights should or at least could consider the nature of the stage when writing a play, given that plays really are so different from screenplays.  About a year ago at the Firehall in Vancouver I saw Travelling Light -- a work in progress by Jordan Hall.  It was basically about a physicist who managed to vaporize himself and perhaps turn himself into an entity of pure energy -- hard to say actually.  But whatever she thought she had done, she really had written a screenplay.  There were many scene changes, which are so deadly in theatre.  The required set was very elaborate.  There were implied flashbacks and so forth.  All of which make sense in film but generally translate very badly to the stage.

Another issue, though not too much of a problem in Travelling Light, is a character brought on for only a handful of lines.  Good playwrights will make sure to double up roles and so forth, as there is almost nothing more annoying for an actor than to have to attend rehearsals but with little to show for it.  Now, in a film, this may not matter much at all for bit parts where the actor can shoot for a day or so, and then be released, but it does not work that way in theatre, though I guess for an extremely complex play, one might only be rehearsing Act I on certain days and Act II on others.

I actually had created a fairly thankless role in Dharma Donuts, and I realized that this character didn't have much to say, i.e. was not much more than window dressing to indicate that this was a functioning donut shop, and that the subplot in which the character would have figured was just a distraction.  If a director really needs some people in the shop for verisimilitude, then the stage crew can sit at a table for the first minute or two, then head out, coffee cups in tow... However, had I been shooting a movie, I probably would have left that character in.

Now that we hear about the role of economics everywhere, it isn't surprising that the economics of putting on plays (always a pretty dicey business even in good times) raises its head more, and playwrights ought to pay at least some attention to that.  For instance, there is no question that Broadway and Equity companies in general are really looking for smaller and smaller casts (with 3 or 4 becoming the new ideal).  However, it is just as true that regional theatre and particularly high school drama teachers want large casts in order to find a part for everyone that wants to be involved.  Halcyon Theatre frequently put on productions with very large casts.  The dilemma is that until you are established (by having a play or two on Broadway) you can't get the play published and then available for these regional companies.

It has never been particularly easy to get plays produced, and in that sense, it might even make less sense to write plays than novels.  However, some playwrights do get attached to companies or even form companies if they have any resources at all just so that they can get their work read.  I wouldn't say that playwrights need more affirmation from outsiders (relative to other artists) but their forum is so public that some feedback can be really helpful.

Now I was never fortunate enough to be an in-house playwright, but I did have a fair bit of exposure to the artists and actors at Halcyon, and I was able to have them do some table reads and a staged reading of my work.  I think in general it came off quite well.  What I noticed is that as I was doing edits and rewrites in preparation for the staged reading, I did change up the parts a bit to match the actors I had in mind.

I actually liked this a lot for a couple of reasons, including that I paid more attention to everyone getting at least a couple good lines (not that everyone had to be the next coming of Dorothy Parker!) and that their role actually advanced either the plot or a significant subplot.  However, I found the main advantage was it forced me to pay attention to details and look for distinguishing characteristics.  It can be extremely difficult for a "cerebral" writer who lives mostly in his or her own head to write distinct voices for the various characters.**  Drawing on specific people and getting a bit of their background and speech patterns can help enormously.  At least that was what I found, and I do hope to continue further in this vein some day.  I would not say that I would totally change what I am writing to fit another company, but I would tweak and emphasize different things to bring my vision closer in line with something that worked for them.  I may possibly have found a company that could do justice to The Study Group, and as I get a bit closer to having a solid second draft, I will reach out to them and see if we can come to some mutually beneficial arrangement.  Were I still in Vancouver, I would probably try to touch base with the group formerly known as the Ninja Pirates, but I'll start with a group closer to home and see how it goes.

* Actually in 2016, I did find the appropriate study guide, and wow what a difference between the pre-1989 revisions and post-1989 revisions, particularly in the Social Studies area.  Some high level changes are noted here. I may even need to put a note in there to dramaturgs that this was heavily researched. 

** One general complaint that I have heard about Tony Kushner is how similar his characters sound -- and they are almost all over-educated.  This is not entirely true for Roy Cohn and Emma Goldberg in Angels in America, but for many others character in his various plays.  It never really bothered me, but I can see how this is something that would both people who are really attuned to character and dialogue.  (I'm trying to think whether Tom Stoppard is also guilty of it.  A lot of characters in The Coast of Utopia all had kind of over-the-top attitudes towards all kinds of things, but reading Russian Thinkers, they pretty much were a group that took extreme positions and didn't engage in that much idle chitchat.)  I actually wonder how recently has this been seen as a valid complaint -- that characters need to be seen as totally distinctive, even in their speech patterns.  I would imagine in the remote past, characters were supposed to act in different ways and have quite different motivations but not necessarily to sound all that different from each other.  Still, I might be way off base here.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Being reasonable

It can be so hard for me to be reasonable.  The last post showing the changes to the "library" do show some small signs of slowing down (and quite a few books moved into a pile that should lead to their being donated or sold off eventually), but still more books are coming in.  I'm hoping that it is almost at equilibrium now.

I wanted quite badly to go to Chicago in early Dec. but I kind of slept on the tickets and the price just kept creeping up on me to the point I couldn't justify it.  If we lived another 100 miles closer (or my daughter didn't seem so likely to get car sick), I think I would drive it, since it would shave close to $1000 off the trip.  I wanted to see Lynn Nottage's Mud, River, Stone and probably Sarah Ruhl's The Clean House, as well as check out some cool exhibits at the Art Institute.  I sort of skimmed the Nottage play and while it is interesting, I can't really justify the outlay just for that.

I've actually wrestled the various credit cards down (pretty significant given that the move wiped out most of the short-term savings) and it seems that this is the time to save a bit more.  Probably I will consider not going as a kind of trade-off for a potential trip to Detroit (where driving is much more feasible or even taking the VIA train to Windsor) over spring break (assuming we just can't make it work to go to New York next year, again due to threats of travel sickness) and possibly a train ride to Montreal in April/May (in part to see Stoppard's Travesties, which really is worth a major trip).

It's a little early to say if we can take a longer visit to Chicago over the summer, or if I just pack the family off to Chicago and visit towards the end of the summer.  (That would certainly lead to less guilt if I go to Stratford and/or Shaw Festivals a couple of times).  In addition to at least a couple of plays I'd like to see, I'd certainly like to see the Milwaukee Art Museum again, and if I can figure it out, the St. Louis Art Museum as well.  But the real reason would be to go (probably for the last time) to the urban roundtables at ASA in August.

So I think I've finally come to terms with the fact that we won't be going to Chicago in December.  Now if I can be more reasonable and/or use a bit more will power with respect to late night snacking and/or stress eating, that would be a major step in the right direction.  I might write about that later, but really what is there to say?  I know what I should and shouldn't be doing, but my will power is just stretched far too thin these days...

Updates to shelves

I suppose I am a bit too self-satisfied with my fiction collection: really anyone with some spare cash can put together a decent library, though I think I have done a good job in really stretching my resources.  If I recall, I had read slightly under 40% of the books on the shelves, which is certainly significant, though it would be far more impressive if I was at 75%.  Given my reading lists and rate of reading (vs. blogging and other writing), I hope to be close to 50% by 2020.  I guess I'll check back and see then.  In any case, I won't list all the books again, which I already did here, here, here and here.  I'll just update the status changes as best as I can (knowing that it is an endless task): books read, books taken off the shelves and books added.  I guess I won't worry overmuch about the purely paperback shelves, as they are still a kind of overflow area, but there is no question that in going from about 16 shelves of fiction, poetry and drama to 19, I've been able to put a lot of key books back out where they belong (even if it did mean relegating a lot of great urban studies books to storage).  If I don't do this relatively soon, I will simply forget what I did with some of these books and that would lead to difficulties later when I try to find them. So here goes.

Achebe R Things Fall Apart (removed-donated)
Isabel Allende R The House Of The Spirits (moved to paperback overflow)
Kingsley Amis Omnibus (Jake's Thing/Stanley and the Women/The Old Devils) (added)
Kingsley Amis Lucky Jim (added)
Martin Amis The Rachel Papers (added)
Martis Amis R London Fields (added)
Martis Amis R Money (moved to storage)
Margaret Atwood R Cat's Eye (moved to paperback overflow)
Margaret Atwood The Blind Assassin (added)
Margaret Atwood Oryx and Crake (added)
Margaret Atwood R The Edible Woman (moved to paperback overflow)
Jane Austen Emma (added)
Paul Auster Moon Palace (added)
Balzac The Human Comedy -- NYRB (added)
Frederick Barthelme The Law of Averages (added to TBRD pile)
Samuel Beckett Complete Dramatic Works (added)
Samuel Beckett R Waiting for Godot (removed-donated)
Samuel Beckett R Krapp's Last Tape (removed-donated)
Samuel Beckett R Endgame (removed-donated)
Samuel Beckett Three Novels (moved to paperback overflow)
Madison Smartt Bell R The Washington Square Ensemble (moved to storage)
Saul Bellow R The Adventures of Augie March (moved to paperback overflow)
Saul Bellow R The Dean's December (moved to paperback overflow)
Andrew Bely Petersburg (added)
John Berryman Collected Poems (added)
E. Bove Quicksand (added)
Elizabeth Bowen The Death of the Heart (added)
Elizabeth Bowen R The House in Paris (read and then donated)
Marie-Claire Blais Mad Shadows (moved to paperback overflow)
George Bowering R Delayed Mercy (added)
George Bowering R Vermeer's Light (added)
George Bowering R Burning Water (moved to paperback overflow)
T.C. Boyle Tooth and Claw (added)
T.C. Boyle Drop City (added to TBRD pile)
Macolm Bradbury To the Hermitage (added)
Joe Brainard Collected Writings (added)
Bertolt Brecht Three-Penny Opera (added)
Morley Callaghan -- all moved to paperback overflow with exception of More Joy in Heaven, which was actually read and then donated
Eileen Chang Love in a Fallen City (added to TBRD pile)
U. Chatterjee English, August: An Indian Story (added)
John Cheever The Stories (added)
Joseph Conrad Under Western Eyes (added)
Julio Cortazar 62: A Model Kit (moved to paperback overflow)
Albert Cossery The Jokers (added to TBRD pile)
Albert Cossery Proud Beggars (added to TBRD pile)
Robert Creeley Collected Poems 1945-75 (read entire volume)
e e cummings The Enormous Room (added to TBRD pile)
Michael Cunningham The Hours (moved to TBRD pile)
Machado de Assis The Alienist (added)
Don DeLillo Falling Man (moved to paperback overflow)
Ignoacio deLoyola Brandao And Still the Earth (added)
Thomas De Quincey R Confessions of an English Opium Eater (moved to storage)
Kiran Desai Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard (added)
G.V. Desani All About H. Hatterr (added)
Pietro Di Donato Christ in Concrete (moved to storage)
Isak Dinesen Seven Gothic Tales (added)
Isak Dinesen Winter Tales (added)
Isak Dinesen Last Tales (added)
Dostoevsky R The Gambler & The Double (read and then donated)
Dostoevsky Great Short Works (moved to paperback overflow)
Lawrence Durrell The Black Book (added)
Friedrich Dürrenmatt The Physicists (added)
George Eliot Daniel Deronda (added)
George Eliot Middlemarch (added to paperback overflow)
Ralph Ellison R Invisible Man (moved to paperback overflow)
William Faulkner R The Reivers (moved to paperback overflow)
Timothy Findley R Headhunter (moved to storage)
Timothy Findley From Stone Orchard (added)
Timothy Findley Dust to Dust (added)
Donald Finkel Not So the Chairs (added)
Theodor Fontane Effi Briest (added)
Ford Madox Ford R The Good Soldier (added)
Carlos Fuentes  A Change of Skin (added)
Carlos Fuentes Terra Nostra (added)
Athol Fugard Port Elizabeth Plays (including Master Harold and the Boys, Blood Knot and Hello and Goodbye) (added)
Athol Fugard Township Plays (including The Coat, The Island and Sizwe Bansi is Dead) (added)
Gadda R That Awful Mess on Via Merulana (moved to storage)
Damon Galgut The Imposter (moved to TBRD pile)
Damon Galgut Small Circle of Beings (added to TBRD pile)
Garcia Marquez Memories of My Melancholy Whores (added)
Gaskell Wives and Daughters (moved to paperback overflow)
N. Gogol Dead Souls (added)
Artie Gold Collected Books (added)
Richard Greenberg Eastern Standard (added)
Graham Greene R Travels With My Aunt (moved to storage)
Graham Greene R Monsignor Quixote (added)
Grossmith Diary of a Nobody (read and donated)
Alan Harrington Life in the Crystal Palace (added)
Nathaniel Hawthorne Tales and Sketches (added)
Hogg Memoirs of a Justified Sinner (read and moved to storage)
Jerome K Jerome Three Men in a Boat (added)
Nagai Kafu American Stories (added)
Molly Keane R Good Behaviour (added and read, then moved to storage)
Molly Keane Time After Time (added)
Molly Keane Loving and Giving - aka Queen Lear (added)
Jane Kenyon R From Room to Room (donated)
The Letter Killers Club by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (added)
Barbara Kingsolver R The Poisonwood Bible (added)
Ivan Klima R Love and Garbage (read and donated)
Aaron Kramer R The Burning Bush (added)
Aaron Kramer Wicked Time (added)
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky The Letter Killers Club (added)
Margaret Laurence R A Jest of God (read and donated)
Margaret Laurence The Fire Dwellers (moved to paperback overflow)
Margaret Laurence The Stone Angel (moved to paperback overflow)
Margaret Laurence A Bird In the House (moved to paperback overflow)
Margaret Laurence The Diviners (moved to paperback overflow)
Jonathan Lethem Chronic City (added)
David Lodge Therapy (moved to TBRD pile)
David Lodge The British Museum Is Falling Down (moved to paperback overflow)
Malcolm Lowry Under the Volcano (added)
Hugh MacLennan R Two Solitudes (read and moved to storage)
Olivia Manning The Balkan Trilogy (added to TBRD pile)
Olivia Manning The Levant Trilogy (added to TBRD pile)
Paule Marshall The Fisher King (added to TBRD pile)
W. Somerset Maugham Great Novels (including The Moon and Sixpence and The Magician) (added)
W. Somerset Maugham The Painted Veil (added)
W. Somerset Maugham The Razor's Edge (added)
W. Somerset Maugham Cakes and Ale (added)
Suzette Mayr Monoceros (added)
Brian Moore The Luck of Ginger Coffey (added to paperback overflow)
Phaswane Mpe R Welcome to Our Hillbrow (added)
D. Mueenuddin In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (added)
Bharati Mukherjee The Tree Bride (added)
Bharati Mukherjee Desirable Daughters (added)
Mutis The Adventures of Maqrol (added)
Naipaul The Enigma of Arrival (added)
Naipaul The Mystic Masseur (added)
Naipaul The Nightwatchman's Occurrence Book (added)
Irene Nemirovsky David Golder/The Ball/Snow in Autumn/The Courilof Affair (added)
Pablo Neruda World's End (added)
Ken Norris Hotel Montreal (added)
George Orwell A Collection of Essays (added)
George Orwell In Tribune (added)
Iris Owens After Claude  (added to TBRD pile)
Georges Perec A Void (added)
Georges Perec Life: A User's Manual (added)
Andrey Platonov R The Foundation Pit (added and read)
J.F. Powers The Stories of J.F. Powers (added)
J.F. Powers Wheat That Springeth Green (added)
Marcel Proust R Remembrance of Things Past (read! and discarded)
Thomas Pynchon Against the Day (added)
Thomas Pynchon Bleeding Edge (added)
Thomas Pynchon Inherent Vice (added)
Rabelais R Gargantua and Pantagruel (moved to paperback overflow)
Philip Roth Zuckerman Bound R (added)
Philip Roth Exit Ghost (added)
Philip Roth Nemeses (added)
Gabrielle Roy R The Tin Flute (read and moved to storage)
Gabrielle Roy R The Cashier (read and moved to storage)
Gabrielle Roy Street of Riches (moved to paperback overflow)
Tayeb Salih Season of Migration to the North (added)
Kamila Shamsie Burnt Shadows
Kamila Shamsie R Broken Verses
Karl Shapiro R The Wild Card (added)
I.B. Singer Enemies: A Love Story (added)
Tess Slesinger R The Unpossessed (read and moved to storage?)
Patrick Somerville R The Universe in Miniature in Miniature (read and donated)
Soseki Kokero (added)
Tom Stoppard R The Coast of Utopia (read)
Tom Stoppard R Travesties (adde and read)
Susan Swan R The Biggest Modern Woman in the World (added)
James Tate Return to the City of White Donkeys (added)
Elizabeth Taylor Complete Short Stories (added)
Elizabeth Taylor At Mrs. Lippincote's (added)
Elizabeth Taylor A View of the Harbour (added)
Elizabeth Taylor R A Game of Hide and Seek (added, read and moved to storage)
Elizabeth Taylor In a Summer Season (added)
Elizabeth Taylor Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (added)
Elizabeth Taylor Blaming (added)
Cam Themba R Requiem for Sophiatown (added)
James Thurber 92 Stories (added to TBRD pile)
Leo Tolstoy Great Short Works (read remaining short works)
Michel Trembley Chroniques du plateau de Mont-Royal (Fr) (added)
Lionel Trilling The Liberal Imagination (added to TRBD pile)
John Updike Licks of Love (added)
Constance Urdang American Earthquakes (added)
Constance Urdang Natural History (added)
Mario Vargas Llosa R Conversation in the Cathedral (added)
Mario Vargas Llosa R The War of the End of the World (added)
Mario Vargas Llosa Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (added)
Mario Vargas Llosa Making Waves (added)
Pablo Vierci The Imposters (added)
Kurt Vonnegut Novels & Stories 1976–1985 (Slapstick; Jailbird; Deadeye Dick; Galápagos) (added)
George Walker The East End Plays vol. 1 and 2 (added)
Robert Walser Jakob von Gunten (added, though I may donate this to UT library as they have lost their copy after I have read it)
Sylvia Townsend Warner Mr. Fortune (added to TBRD pile)
Edmund White Skinned Alive (moved to TBRD pile)
John Edgar Wideman The Stories of J.E. Wideman (moved to storage)
Tom Wolfe Bonfire of the Vanities (moved to TBRD pile)
Sol Yurick R The Bag (moved to storage?)
Stefan Zweig Beware of Pity (added)
Stefan Zweig The Burning Secret (added)
Stefan Zweig Kaleidoscope (2 vols) (added)

Sunday, November 9, 2014

8th Canadian Challenge - 8th review - Snow

I really wanted to like Snow, a graphic novel by Benjamin Rivers, but I simply didn't for a combination of reasons that may seem trivial or besides the point but that obviously bothered me.  The book can be ordered directly as a digital download here, and apparently there is a throwback video game that can be played, though I have not done so.  The comic was the basis for the movie Snow (which I have not seen), though possibly I would have liked that better, for reasons that may become clearer soon. 

I thought I would like it because I like Toronto and I remember hanging out a fair bit on Queen Street West in the 90s and many of those stores have closed, which is a recurring theme in Snow.  How many graphic novels tackle gentrification and its impact on small business owners?  However, Rivers pushes it too far with almost all the stores and bars Dana (the main character) frequents closing down (or burning down!) in the course of the book.  Rivers admits at the end that a handful of these locations are still in operation.  It was just a bit too much for even the hardware store to close on top of everything else.  We get it already -- rents are too damn high.


Anyway, I read it and thought there were a few too many coincidences for my taste, but it was ok.  Then I turn to the last page where Rivers lists some trivia.  He says that everyone thinks Dana is a young Asian woman when in fact she is a youngish (32) French-Canadian.  I know it sounds bizarre to say this changes everything for me, but it does.  (Incidentally, this is where the film is a bit "better" in the sense that Dana's background is far more obvious.)

Frankly, many of Dana's actions are understandable for a mid 20 year old, but not nearly so much for someone in their 30s.  I know the other bookstore clerk, Chen, keeps asking her why she is so jumpy around the store owner when she has been working there 4 years, but that could still put her at 25 or 26.  I just found Dana far less believable a character as a 32-year old than as the twenty-something I assumed she was.  I guess I've never run into any French-Canadians going out for a drink but that then want cranberry juice instead of beer.

But seriously, my gripe goes to the artwork.  If everybody and their mother says you've drawn an Asian girl and you insist that she is a 32 year French-Canadian, then maybe it is your technical skills that need a bit more polish.  And ultimately that is the real reason I found Snow a disappointment.  You can see and decide for yourself in this panel.


Topicality in Theatre

I've been thinking quite a bit about theatre these days.  I often have it at the back of my mind, since I try to see one play a month (and sometimes it is much higher number than that).  This month it will be Arcadia and possibly Sextet at Tarragon, though I am leaning against that.  I might be taking the kids to James and the Giant Peach, but that mostly depends on getting the discounted tickets on the day of the show.  December is still a toss-up, as I really do want to get to Chicago to see two plays (one from this list), but it is seeming just too self-indulgent and a bit too expensive.  But more centrally, it feels like I am about to start writing another play, which always means theatre comes to the forefront.

While one the one hand, I agree it is really important to get the date settled and to do at least some research, if you do too much or plug too much history into a play, then it probably will not be produced much after its time is over.  On the other hand, if you consciously set the play in a different era, and don't overdo it, perhaps it will have a slightly broader appeal.  Hard to say.  I think in that case, it is just as important to focus on the characters and their interactions and not endless call outs to the time period you are using.

So for example, I've basically settled on using approximately March 1986 as the date for this play The Study Group.  That actually is before the Iran-Contra Hearings in 1987 (technically the affair was revealed in late 1986 and the Tower Commission Report came out at the very end of 1986) but the C-SPAN hearings that made this such a pop-cultural thing were in early 1987.  I think it is better to go right before the veil of innocence was lifted and the only people strongly against Reagan were viewed as bitter hold-out Democrats.  So 1986 is better than 1987 in many respects.  I can also avoid the obligatory call-out to Alf (never a show I cared much for).  It looks like Max Headroom just misses the cut, as it was a TV show in the UK in 1985-86 but wouldn't really make it into the States until 1987.  The Art of Noise video with Max Headroom (Paranormia) probably still would have been too new (and maybe not even released on MTV in March anyway).  For those who were there and want to relive it, Shout Factory has the US episodes of Max Headroom for sale.


I think I might have somebody refer to The Day After but probably not V, which would have been 3 years old at that point.  (Actually The Day After would also have been 3 years old, but had a bit more staying power in my mind.)  Both Remington Steele and Magnum P.I. would have been on for quite a while and getting long in the tooth, and maybe I can refer to one (but not both of them).  Miami Vice would have been definitely the hotter show, though even there I think we are looking at the tail end of Season 2.  Actually, according to Wiki, Frank Zappa appears as a drug dealer in an episode in March 1986.  It's a bit too inside baseball, but that might be the kind of reference that goes a long way towards explaining the 80s but not quite too far.


As I said, I think the important thing is that the 80s stuff is important to the play, but can't be the only reason for its existence.  Now I basically passed up an opportunity in Chicago to see Frances Cowhig's The World of Extreme Happiness, and I just read the play, and I have to say I think it was the right choice.  The play really does feel ripped from the headlines and just doesn't seem like the characters are much more than cardboard characters expressing things that we think we know about China (girl babies are scorned, political dissent is extremely risky, rural peasants have a crappy time in the city, etc.).  I generally thought David Henry Hwang's Chinglish managed this better, though of course he wasn't exploring the rural-urban divide in any detail.  To be honest, I felt the last scene of Extreme Happiness was ripped off from the film version of Cloud Atlas with just a dash of Brazil mixed in.




Perhaps contradicting myself, the one thing that I did like is extremely topical or rather political, namely the discussion of the hukou system which is where rural peasants come to the city to work but, being without the proper hukou permit, they aren't able to rent in certain areas (one reason they end up stacked up in terrible dormitories) and more critically their children do not have the right to free education in the cities.  This is actually something I studied a bit, and it is kind of thrilling to see it in a play, though I think it still wasn't quite hammered home hard enough for the average theatre-goer.  I think a bit more foreshadowing of the fact that the girl Sunny is really taking a huge risk might have helped.  (Or not, I just didn't think the play was really well constructed.)  Now there are some rumblings that China will eventually have to reform the hukou system, and if it is liberalized, then almost the whole last third of the play no longer makes sense, except to history scholars.  (That's much like the dilemma I am having with regards to the format of the ACT which changed so dramatically, so that if I refer to it as it actually was in 1986 it will seem dated.)

Well, it's certainly not easy.  I mentioned already that Bogosian's edits to subUrbia actually weakened the play in my mind.  I'm interested in Eastern Standard, by Richard Greenberg, which seems to be very much a play about the 80s because it was written to reflect the trend of yuppies taking over parts of Manhattan and was sort of up-to-the-minute theatre, whereas a play written about the 1990s but from a later era (here I am thinking of Philip Dawkins' The Homosexuals) has a totally different, outsider vibe.  Both have their place, but I think the "retrospective" approach is trickier, simply because it is inevitably more self-conscious.  I know the risks, but I'll give it a shot anyway, but now I really need to get at least a few pages down tonight to see if the characters are ready to be born yet.

Edit (3/19/2017) It looks like I will generally need to save images to host them, rather than cross-linking, unless it is a website that will likely stick around for a while like Goodreads.  I assume there were more stills from Cloud Atlas and Brazil, which I may try to replace later.

I tried to come back to this old post since I just saw The Orange Dot, which is very much an au courant production that will date very badly.  I would be surprised if it is produced more than 2 or 3 years from now.  It seemed that the characters spent at least 15% of their time reading stuff off of their phones (which is just as annoying in the theatre as it is in real life) and most of the plot was driven by them talking about different apps or stuff that they found out about because of these apps, or just bitching about the phone's battery life.  It felt a bit trite and completely disposable.

Perhaps I am hypocritical, since I expect to set one play in the early 90s and one in the mid 80s, but I do think when you write a play set in a different time, 1) you think a bit more about what really represented that era and 2) you have a reason for doing so and thus there should be more of a message than simply "hey, this is a play about our times," a crutch upon which many productions do lean. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hierarchies

While I think or at least hope I can have profound thoughts on my own, there is no question that I have been sparked into thinking about some things at a higher level by reading the Isaiah Berlin essays.  They have sort of crystallized a few things that have been on my mind lately.

One key theme is that many people, particularly intellectuals, do want some sort of unifying theory that justifies their actions.  (While this is a fairly common thread, I think it is best expressed in "The Pursuit of the Ideal" in The Crooked Timber.)  Religion, with all its various contradictions, operated this way for many of them hundreds of years ago, though the most clever tied themselves in knots attempting to smooth out the contradictions.  However, post-Enlightenment, most serious thinkers and certainly the ones Berlin is interested in have been atheists or at best agnostics who are looking for some kind of a moral code that is not grounded in religion.  But the seeming paradox, even for these free-thinkers, is that they desire "true"or grounded principles.  Berlin seems to allude to this as a remnant of monism (a type of universal philosophy), or really the hangover left around after thousands of years of monotheism, though he doesn't put it that way.

The downside of monism is that it really attempts to drive out all other ways of thinking, just as Jesus drove out the money changers.  It is the antithesis of live and let live.  It's a fairly narrow approach to life that indicates one is perhaps a bit insecure about one's way of living and the best way to eliminate those doubts is by eliminating the competition.  This can be seen everywhere, including among militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins.  Generally, it would be better if people could accept that there perfectly reasonable people with different views than oneself and, as long as they don't try to impose their views on you (however amorphously that is defined) one should let them get on with their lives.  How much less conflict there would be in the world...  This used to be called believing in cultural relativism, but that term may have gone out of fashion.  Now, no question there are limits to tolerating or accepting other cultures, particularly when it appears (at least to outsiders) that some people have not fully accepted and/or internalized their roles, such as women under very extreme interpretations of Islam or any society that engages in forced labour.  As a general aside, which I may expand on some day, there is a huge problem in my mind with inter-generational legitimacy in the sense that most people inherit a political and legal system that they had no part in creating or endorsing and the rules to change the system can be so cumbersome that there is no meaningful path to change.  Some specific details of the US federal government fall into this category, such as 2 Senators per state.  Or in Canada where certain types of Constitutional reform requires the sign off of every province.

A corollary of believing in one path forward is that, even if it seems that society falls short, it is moving in the right direction.  So in many ways, Karl Marx was a utopian thinker who insisted that eventually the proletariat would rise and that the state would fall away.  Berlin and many others have made short shrift of how juvenile this outlook really is for any number of reasons, but ultimately it comes down to replacing religious faith with faith in a better world "down here" that is just as out of reach as the fairy tales that religious folks tell each other.  Even the often quoted saying by Martin Luther King, Jr. that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." is a kind of fable.  We can find some examples of it, particularly in Western culture, but also many places where "justice" or any kind of political liberty is so long delayed that it is meaningless.  We might be looking at another hundred or two hundred years of terrible conditions for women in the Middle East, India and Pakistan.  Even what I have written holds out the hope that it will someday change, but I just don't think there are those guarantees.  In many ways if the worst fears of the environmentalists are realized, human societies will be much worse and even more aggressive in another hundred years.

As is obvious by even a cursory glances through these posts, I am a pessimist, much more in tune with Freud and even Thomas Hobbes, in the sense I believe that conflict is built into human nature and that any kind of ideal society, such as the one Marx asserted would emerge after the revolution or even the more amelioratory State promoted by Progressives, is a fantasy.  That said, I still wish it were true and vote accordingly.  Perhaps someday I will post on the huge discrepancy in Democrats condemning the actions of Republican state officials and their belief that the State in the abstract will make life better for all.

Anyway, one small but important way that some of these issues play themselves out is that there really seems to be a measurable difference in people's adherence to and allegiance to the social system in general and hierarchies specifically.  In other words, some people are much more comfortable and accepting of hierarchies -- and have scorn and general mistrust of people who don't share this view.  And the reverse is also true.  This has actual real world implications when people try to communicate across this bridge.  It doesn't take very long before both sides break it off and think the other side is misinformed, stupid, wrong or downright evil.

There is pretty significant evidence that social conservatives tend to be far more accepting of hierarchy and one's place in it.  This page points to a bunch of academic articles on the subject, though I suspect most are behind a paywall.  The Republicans or Canadian Tories naturally will have far more party discipline simply because they believe more in hierarchies to begin with.  It was not surprising to see a number of negative comments when Justin Trudeau tried to enforce the party line on abortion rights for example.  Now the Democrats have attempted to make a positive out of this (being the Big Tent and all) but it is harder for them to enforce discipline, given that Democrats believe in personal autonomy apart from hierarchy more than Republicans.  (Again, this is a matter of degree.  I am not arguing that Republicans are robotic minions -- at least not most of them.)

Outside the political realm, conservatives tend to feel that one has an obligation to one's employers to keep schtum, and that if you violate this and tells tales or even become a whistle-blower, then you should expect the worst to happen.  (Aside from some crude tribalism, these people generally think it is acceptable for government scientists to be muzzled and to toe the government line.)  Most liberals do not feel this way and feel that if one's intentions are good and they benefit "society," then it is morally right to break silence.  (And generally, liberals are more in line with scientists who think that "science" should never be silenced.)  Even today, there are certainly a lot of people that feel that the Pentagon Papers should never have been published.  Others on the other side of the spectrum feel that Daniel Elsberg and, much more recently, Edward Snowden and even Glenn Greenwald are heroes.

This is basically an unbridgeable gap and two very different ways of looking at the world.  It is one of many reasons why people can't just get along when they differ so fundamentally.  I think acknowledging it is an important first step.  However, I suppose in truth it is also worth realizing that for most people, these things are pretty abstract and they may fall on different sides of the line depending on the specifics of the situation.  People who believe extremely strongly that economic secrets must be kept may be equally insistent that certain types of criminality must be exposed.  Also, humans are remarkably inconsistent when anything impacts them personally.  And yet, as Berlin and others have pointed out, they want to believe they are in the right and thus others must naturally be in the wrong.

I am generally not a strong believer in hierarchies, and I've always tried to justify my actions on the basis of what makes sense for the greater good (of the company, of the city, of "society") but certainly there are times I am upset about a specific interaction and then later on I realize it is because I wasn't granted the social standing and respect I thought I deserved.  That's really all I think I should say about that.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Demons - the Review

I enjoyed Demons more than I thought I would, and now I wish I had read it much sooner.  It ranks just slightly below The Brothers Karamazov for me (and probably just below Notes from Underground, though I will make the final judgement in a few weeks after I reread Notes).  It's quite possible that reading it in the newish translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky did make it stand out a bit more.  While I, like so many others am grateful for Constance Garnett for bring so much Russian literature to the English-speaking world, there is no question that Pevear and Volokhonsky are better.* 


What they seem particularly good at is capturing the many styles that Dostoevsky wrote in, both in the dialogue and even the authorial voice, so there will be a serious section, perhaps with some manic overtones where one of the nihilists argues with a visitor about whether Russian peasants could or should live without God followed by a more fully comic scene.  (Garnett tends to be a lot flatter with more of a monotone approach.)  It is worth wondering if Tolstoy could have succeeded as well in his abandoned novel about the revolutionaries, given that Dostoevsky had far more connections with progressives and even nihilists in his younger years.  If I am not mistaken, some politically motivated characters appear in Resurrection, but it isn't really a novel about revolution per se.  I could be wrong of course.

Perhaps for me the most absurdly comic scene of Demons was when we see Pyotr Stephanovich addressing a meeting of these leftist thinkers within which he has already a group of 5 (in other words the proper number for a revolutionary cell).  They argue amongst themselves with a young women insisting on women's liberation at all costs.  (However, even she is not as strident as the unfortunate Shatov's wife who turns up unexpectedly and somewhat inopportunely.)  This meeting is found in the section "With Our People": Part Two, Section Seven.  While it was all outrageous at first, it was also interesting to see how Pyotr could ultimately bend the crowd to his will.
  
A couple of general points, for those who can tolerate absolutely no Spoilers, then read the Introduction after the book, as there are a few key plot points revealed in the Introduction.  Second, at least in the Pevear and Volokhonsky version, there is a long chapter called "At Tikhon's" which doesn't form part of the canonical book, primarily because the censors of Dostoevsky's day found it too troubling or problematic or what have you. It should probably be read right before Book 2, Chapter 9, although reading it at the tail end of Book 2 is also acceptable.  It gives some important insights into why Stavrogin (Nikolai Vsevolodovich) acts the way he does throughout the book, but particularly in Book 3.  I'll discuss this a bit more after the spoiler break. 
 
SPOILER

The start of the novel focuses on the long quasi-courtship of Varvara Petrovna by the tutor and failed intellectual Stepan Trofimovich.  It really does seem as if the whole thing will be a replay of Turgenev's A Month in the Country, but the cast of characters widens significantly when Varvara Petrovna's son Nikolai Vsevolodovich turns up with Pyotr Stephanovich (Stepan Trofimovich's son) trailing in his wake.  The whole cast of characters is practically in the room when Stavrogin turns up, and you can just sense them come to life in a different way when he appears, and the novel really does make a major turn at that point.

In general, the narrative gets more edgy as the younger generation takes centre stage.  In particular, Stepan Trofimovich is pushed aside by his son and quickly becomes an even more ridiculous character, though in his last exile, he somehow summons up just a bit of dignity and seems just a bit like Don Quixote after his last quest when he starts to regain his senses.

The bit about the firebugs setting fire to part of the town and Fedka using this to cover up his crimes is quite dark.  I think it was around this time that I started reading a bit more each night, and somehow I managed to overlook Lizaveta's almost random death at the hands of the mob.  (The "people" think she will benefit from Marya Timofeevna's death and that she has come around to gloat and that sets them off.)  

I found it telling that one of the conspirators had a passport and money but didn't take the opportunity to slip out of Pyotr Stephanovich's clutches.  It might have been more interesting had this happened and thus Pyotr found that he did have limits to his Svengali-like powers, although I suppose Dostoevsky only needs Stavrogin as a foil and all the other revolutionaries turn out to be very weak-willed.

I found the conclusion to be a bit disappointing in the sense that I would certainly not act that way, throwing away a perfectly good opportunity to leave town and probably leave Russia for abroad, but Stavrogin feels he has a goodly number of sins on his head (including statutory rape!), even if he did not carry out any of the murders himself.  He doesn't seem to think that the authorities can sufficiently punish him, so he takes matters into his own hands, which is to say quite a bit further than Raskolnikov ever did.  But then again, I don't welcome or seek out punishment, even if it is deserved, so I can admire Dostoevsky's novels as works of art, but artworks with which I am slightly out of sympathy.

At any rate, I thought there was a great deal of interesting material in this novel, and I suspect I will try to return to it some day, perhaps in my 60s.  I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Crime and Punishment. 

* This Nov. 5, 2005 piece on dueling Russian translations in the New Yorker is quite good, though I believe it will be going behind a paywall shortly.) 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

8th Canadian Challenge - 7th review - Scientific Americans

I only just found out about John Mighton a week or so ago.  He is involved in math education and apparently still lives in Toronto.  He also has written a few plays that examine the role of science in society. A Short History of the Night is basically about the reception of Kepler's ideas and how unsettling they were, and how some tried to suppress them.  (Of course, this is pretty much the same theme as Brecht's Galileo.)  His best-known play, Possible Worlds, is going to be put on at Stratford and it looks quite intriguing, as it incorporates science and philosophy.  This joins Travelling Light and Now Then Again as a handful of plays that explore how parallel universes or reverse time travel might occur, more as a metaphorical device than anything.  None of them really are asserting that if you do this, you'll meet your mirror-image twin.  Anyway, I'm trying not to find out too much about the play, as I think I'll be seeing it this summer. 

However, I had no reservations about reading Scientific Americans, which is basically a story of a couple where Jim, a physicist, starts working for the Army and his finance, who is a computer scientist, starts to become radicalized and turns against the military-industrial complex.  My general feeling is that this is a play that would definitely work better on the stage than on the page.  This is particularly the case for when the physicist meets some intense characters at work who try to get him involved in their projects.  I could sense Mighton was going for a X-Files vibe, but the actual dialogue is fairly pedestrian.

SPOILERS AHEAD

While it is not impossible to meet such a person, it is a little difficult to believe that the finance, Carol, is going to turn so quickly against the military and military research.  Most computer scientists are a bit more pragmatic, especially seeing how much computer technology originated with the military.  But to totally wig out over the fact that stealth fighters are going to be built and that Jim had a tiny, largely unexplained role in this seems unlikely.

I think my bigger objection is that I just never bought into them as a healthy, functioning couple.  Maybe it would require a play twice as long for her to gradually become estranged, but here she goes really cold on him almost immediately after he takes the job, then calls him up at work and basically entices him home with phone sex.  Then the next time they get together he ends up throwing wine in her face (very uncool and something that probably should be edited out) and then she tries to sabotage his job by baking cookies shaped like the stealth bombers.  Now I do remember that stealth bombers were pretty secret for about a year or so, and then there were pictures and within a year or two you could get model planes shaped like them.  So eventually the Air Force turned it towards positive PR for themselves.  That isn't to say that given the high levels of security and paranoia Jim wouldn't have lost his job had his boss actually seen one of these cookies. (Now why Jim would be working on something for the Air Force at an Army installation is one of many small details that I think Mighton really didn't think through.)

But the bigger issue is that I just never really believed them as a functional couple.  Granted there is a lot of theatre built around dysfunctional couples, but I thought Mighton was going after something else, showing how the two gradually fell out of sync over Jim's work.  However, I didn't see nearly enough to be convinced that they were right for each other in the first place.

I suspect that a solid majority of theatre goers, particularly in Canada, will root for Carol and think Jim is a jerk for working for the Army in the first place.  Maybe I am wrong, but I felt Mighton was stacking the deck that way and not being even-handed enough.  I suppose more than anything I thought he was being kind of lazy in his thinking about what Jim should be doing with his life.  (I'd say the movie Real Genius has some of these same biases in that the teacher decides to steal the kids' laser and present it to the military, and ultimately everything military-related is deeply tainted in the movie, which at least has the advantage of being quite funny.)  Maybe my time at RAND rubbed off on me a bit after all, and I don't automatically think of people who work for the Department of Defense as monsters.

The bottom line is that, obviously, I wasn't terribly impressed with this play.  I suspect A Short History of the Night is more to my taste and from what little I have read about it Possible Worlds would be as well.