Tuesday, August 1, 2017
Friday, July 28, 2017
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Cassandra, in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon
A character study for directors and actors
Cassandra is a minor, but vital character in Aeschylus’ drama, Agamemnon. She informs the audience of the forthcoming death of Agamemnon, as well as herself, precipitating the action to come. Presumably the audience knows what’s coming, since it is a tragedy. The challenge to the director is to make the prophecy of imminent death theatrically dramatic to an audience visually saturated by the incredibly sophisticated imagery of film and tv.
In order to construct the emotional involvement of the audience in a scene that is critically important, Cassandra must compel a range of feelings. This can be facilitated by the chorus, who can express qualities of scorn, derision, mockery, pity, for the possessed woman. The actor, by creating tension before, during and after prophecy, completes the stage requirements for furthering the action.
The source of developing the depth of character necessary for Cassandra to evoke tragic awareness is in the pre-history of the Iliad and the myth of the House of Atreus. The director and actor should presuppose that the audience may be familiar with the tale of Troy, and possibly even the play itself. They should assume the audience will not know the myth of Apollo and Cassandra, which could be the key to initiating the foundation of constructing the character. Cassandra, a young royal princess (12-14?) of the house of Priam of Troy, is desired by the god Apollo. She agrees to have sex with him, if he’ll give her the gift of Prophecy. He does. Then she mocks him and refuses to keep her part of the bargain. He can’t take back his gift, so he curses her with not being believed.
This is where the actor’s work begins. This once privileged personage is now an embarrassment, a demented creature, possessed of madness, yet still a beloved member of the royal house. All these qualities must be examined and included in the character. The curse began before the Trojan War, which lasted for ten years, followed by the capture and destruction of the city. Then Cassandra was awarded as a slave to Agamemnon and presumably was his bedmate during their return to Argos. By building the character’s emotional life for at least ten years before she comes on stage, the actor may arrive with a three dimensional persona that will stir the audience’s emotion.
The exploration of pre-character should not be a day to day diary, or a chronicle. There should be some invented salient facts or experiences that will lead to the tormented emotional state of a character alienated from the world around her. It is vital to understand that Cassandra has been disbelieved many times. She has probably been treated as a privileged, demented member of the royal household, yet was considered harmless.
Cassandra surely prophesized the fall of Troy, which largely had to have been laughed at. The inner torment at being mocked and pitied would be a constant. It is useful to be aware that prophecy is a ‘divine’ gift, not an act of reason, therefore, the prophet will be possessed/transformed, while in a state of inspiration.
A physical transformation when in the state of prophecy must be carefully created so as not to be contrived, grotesque, silly, etc. Any implausible quality that might make the character unbelievable to the audience must be eliminated. The complication for the director is how to get the chorus, whatever format to use them is selected, to sustain disbelief in the prophecy, despite the fact that the audience knows it’s true. Since the curse of disbelief is on Cassandra, she must be convincing, or the scene will be contrived and the audience involvement with the play will deflate.
Of course very few actors will have the opportunity to play Cassandra, at least in a serious theater setting. Yet the same general outline of character development can be applicable to other roles. Create who you are, then you will be, of course pre-supposing you have the talent and skills to be.
Posted by record at 12:13 AM
Saturday, May 20, 2017
Agent Orange Echoes Quietly in Rural America
A Man of No Words
Virgil comes to group therapy every week in his pick-up truck with his dog, Buster, standing in the bed of the truck. The sessions are held for veterans of Korea and Vietnam. Quite a few veterans in this small town because not many males applied for deferments back then to go to college. Money for college wasn’t available and this is, after all, a farming community. In one way or another people here earn their living from the fertile land.
This week as usual Virgil gets out of his truck, flicks a cigarette away and goes in the center. He leaves Buster as usual standing untethered in the back of the truck. Not many Dalmatians around here but Virgil got him somewhere as a pup and for the last six years Buster has been coming with him to therapy once a week.
People in town think Buster is the best-behaved dog they have ever seen. He remains standing in the back of the truck in driving rain, heavy snow and even while a squirrel or two cavort tantalizingly on the ground nearby. The dog seems oblivious to distractions while he waits for Virgil to return.
Other vets in the group feel sorry for the dog in bad weather but talking to Virgil about anything doesn't work. Over the years he has never sought nor offered comments or advice. He is a man of no words.
Every week on therapy day Virgil enters the therapy room before the session starts, looks around like he’s casing the place for interlopers, turns around and walks out. Then he goes into another room and basically repeats the performance.
In that room are women waiting to begin group therapy for domestic abuse. Virgil gives them the creeps, they admit, but he leaves the room as quickly as he comes in. He has never said nor done anything untoward.
His next stop is the table in the hallway where his best friend, Mr. Coffee, waits. He likes his black with lots of sugar.
Next Virgil heads for the room where some men play pool before therapy starts. Over in the corner there’s always a serious game of poker in progress.
Neither the pool players nor the card players look at Virgil anymore. He sips his coffee, looks around the room carefully, turns and leaves.
When the staff serves lunch, Virgil goes to the dining room, leans against the wall and watches the people eat. He has never sat down to eat.
Folks new at the center have complained about him and have been told by the regulars that Virgil is harmless but not quite right since he came back from Vietnam. It helps when they mention that he was All-State in football for the local high school before Vietnam but that was a long time ago. He didn’t go to college when he came back although a football scholarship was waiting for him.
Virgil steps outside the center every now and then, has a cigarette, sometimes two, and says hello to his dog. Then he comes back and watches the pool players again, mostly old-timers who are veterans from Korea. They don’t know Virgil was a pool shark of sorts but that was before Vietnam. Although he was in high school at the time, he used to beat many of the men. He hasn’t played pool since Vietnam.
In fact, Virgil hasn’t done much of anything since coming back except come to group therapy once a week.
During therapy, he sits in his chair for an hour, says nothing and looks around. Any time a new person is introduced he’s obviously concerned.
In the past, a few Korean vets have tried to engage Virgil in conversation but he says nothing but his name, rank and serial number. The men mean well but they came back from Korea where there was no Agent Orange. Monsanto and Dow did not provide any spray in Korea. Korea was bad for many reasons but it had nothing to do with Agent Orange, which still echoes today in veterans all over America and in the people of Vietnam.
The Vietnam vets don’t bother Virgil. They just advise any well-meaning vet from Korea to let Virgil be Virgil. If they want to help him, they suggest they make certain Mr. Coffee is ready when Virgil arrives. He asks for nothing more.
Every veteran in the group has his own coffee mug with his name on it.
Virgil’s mug has no name—just a big navel orange.
A Writer Who Writes Not Knowing Why
That my parents were Irish immigrants is probably the most significant factor in my writing life. The English expelled my father from Ireland around 1920 at age 18 or so for running guns for the IRA. My mother was an illegal immigrant who somehow got on a different ship around the same time and ended up in Harlem. Nice people took her to her cousin’s place elsewhere in New York. She too was 18. The year may have been 1924. Hunger motivated her to leave.
Words were everything in the home I was raised in. Words flew around the house at times like butterflies; other times like missiles. My father launched most of them. My mother said little.
Most fathers in that immigrant South Side Chicago neighborhood, if asked by a son about a trip to the zoo, might have answered yes or no. My father always said "perhaps" to any question like that.
I think “perhaps” is the first word that sent me to the dictionary. I have spent most of my life looking up words, for years in dictionaries and now online. I think “diarrhea” is a beautiful word to hear and look at in print so that might offer a hint as to how odd in some ways I am.
Other kids went to the zoo during summer vacations. My father took me to the stockyards instead so we could tour the slaughterhouses.
We watched cattle and hogs being slaughtered. No one was allowed to watch the sheep being killed. But my father made sure I saw the Judas goat lead the sheep into the slaughterhouse. I was not shocked by any of this. In fact, I enjoyed it because my father had often talked about slaughtering livestock as an adolescent in Ireland. I wanted to grow up to be rough, tough and hard to bluff like him.
My father could use any tool to fix almost anything. I could fix nothing with or without any tool. Words were the only tools I had. I kept them in an invisible quiver and kept buying bigger quivers.
The first thing I ever wrote or tried to write occurred early in grammar school, perhaps in fifth grade, circa 1948. I sat with a pencil and pad of paper in front of an RCA console radio listening to Sunday afternoon dramas. The main and only character in my unfinished “novel" was Yukoa, an Indian living in Alaska. Can’t recall how much I wrote but I enjoyed doing it.
There were no computers, of course, back in the Fifties when I started writing on my own apart from school requirements. I'd jot down phrases for poems that came into my mind on scraps of paper and I'd stuff the scraps in my pockets.
I had to wear a suit and tie to work as a young editor in the Sixties, even though I have a blue-collar mentality. I could do white-collar work but I really didn’t fit in with those with a similar education. I had no interest in business despite giving it a try. But I had to make money.
Five children were born between August 1962 and March 1968. Yes, I was Catholic, having spent 19 consecutive years in Catholic schools without ever being tempted to be a priest. I was always a Believin' but Misbehavin' Roman C, a phrase I have often thought would make a good Country and Western song.
I took a couple of degrees in English because I knew the intricacies of the language coming out of elementary school thanks to a nun in eighth grade. She made me diagram 30 sentences a night for rolling marbles down the aisle. I learned grammar that way. After I got a master’s degree I tried to find her and thank her but she was already in a home. Teaching the kids of immigrants was no easy task.
When I'd get enough scraps of paper with lines for potential poems in my pockets, I'd type them out, one to a sheet. I'd come back to those sheets and keep adding more words and lines until I had a first draft. Then, I'd revise each draft a zillion times and go through all kinds of Eaton’s Corrasable bond typing paper to do so.
Before Eaton’s became available, I was a big buyer of White Out to erase my typing mistakes. Now I just sit behind a Macintosh computer and hit the delete key.
When I was young, James Wright knocked me over with his "Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota." The last line floored me and I was hooked. Here's the poem if the link still works: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177229
In the late '60s and early '70s, when I still lived in Chicago, I began submitting to "small magazines" in Ireland. There I had the company of another young writer named Seamus Heaney. Even then I knew he was light years better than the rest of us. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I wasn’t at all surprised. The man put down words like a bricklayer, nothing misaligned. And yet he had a music all his own.
I was asked once to list words that might capture my personality. I settled for excitable, competitive, intuitive, obsessive and empathic.
Nine years ago I returned to the Roman Catholic Church after a 40-year hiatus. Though I was never "holy," theology and philosophy have always fascinated me. Even during the years I was misbehaving, I always believed in God. Faith is a gift, of course, and for some reason God let me keep it till I wandered back home.
I have probably 1,000 or more poems, short stories and essays at various sites online. We moved recently and my wife found quite a few little magazines from the late Sixties and early Seventies containing what a scholar might call my juvenilia. I had only poems appear in print back then—perhaps a hundred or so sent out methodically with a self-addressed envelope. It would often take months to get a response and rejections far outnumbered acceptances.
I did not start writing fiction and essays until an editor in 2010 told me that a poem I had submitted would work better as a short story so I gave fiction a try. Writing fiction and non-fiction turned out to be a whole new experience.
For me trying to write poetry is far different from trying to write prose.
Poems of mine almost always begin with a word or phrase or line that simply comes into my mind, often while shaving or doing something else when my mind is empty.
Fiction usually begins with an attempt at a poem that doesn’t work as a poem, and nonfiction often begins with fiction based on fact that won’t work as a story so I have to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.
I have found poems harder to finish than fiction or non-fiction. I “hear” the first draft of many poems, take dictation and then revise and revise.
Prose requires that I think and then write. I “feel” nothing in the process of writing prose.
Because of working on deadline as an editor of different publications, I quit all personal writing between 1972 and 2008. When I retired, my wife bought me a computer as a gift and showed me in the basement cardboard boxes of unfinished poems gathering dust since 1972. I have not stopped writing since. It’s a great prophylactic for the prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, at least for me.
I write at least three shifts a day of at least three hours each. I write and revise and revise and revise, finally admit to myself that I can make it no better and send out the work. The reception by people who don’t know me has been gratifying but I don’t write for others. I write for myself.
I forget the name of the famous poet who said that a poem is never finished, simply abandoned. I agree completely with that idea and apply it as well to fiction and non-fiction.
My wife spent many years taking photographs, professionally and creatively. I have never lacked ideas for something to write but if that ever happens I might give poems to her and have her match them with photos and see if a publishable book might result. That combination appears online a lot but I don't know if books have begun to use it. Could be interesting but it sounds like work. Since I worked as an editor most of my life, I try now to avoid work. Writing my own stuff isn't work.
I don’t have any advice for young writers except to revise and revise, let the piece marinate over night, and revise it again in the morning.
Send it out when you can do nothing more and you think it has merit maybe only you will appreciate.
Writing is a wonderful obsession that doesn’t make one a drunkard or the parent of illegitimate children. If one has the skill it is worth pursuing.