Daniel Williams

Posts Tagged ‘American literature’

Eugene O’Neill: The Playwright’s Playwright

In American, Essay, Literature, Playwrights, Theatre, Writing on 09/09/2011 at 16:39

Eugene O’Neill had balls. I could probably find a more literate way of expressing this sentiment, but it gets the point across- Eugene O’Neill had balls, more so than any other American playwright of his time. His ambition exceeds every one of his contemporaries.

He started off writing naturalistic drama and won the Pulitzer Prise for Drama twice in three years; he moved onto writing experimental expressionist plays before digging deeper into the history of drama by writing a nine-act soliloquy-fest, Strange Interlude (1928), then writing a trilogy of plays, Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), which updates The Orestia (458 BC). O’Neill then planned to write a play-cycle following the fortunes of a family; his plans grew to include eleven plays in this cycle. Illness forced O’Neill to abandon the cycle and only two unfinished plays survived his burning of material. Whilst working on the play-cycle he also wrote The Iceman Cometh (1939), one of the most highly regarded plays in American theatre. With his magnum opus abandoned and a tremor in his hands making writing painful, he turned to write about what he had really been writing about his whole career, namely his own family. The play was Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1941), for which he wins the Pulitzer Prize for Drama four years after he died. What other American playwright has a career like that?

Like many of the great American writers O’Neill was a big drinker. Unlike many of them, O’Neill gave up drinking and wrote his most well-known work sober. Yet these later-plays, written while sober, are probably the drunkest plays in the history of theatre. The Iceman Cometh is set in a bar and A Touch of the Poet (1942) is set in a tavern. Long Day’s Journey features a family of two alcoholics, one heavy drinker and one morphine addict. His final play, A Moon For The Misbegotten (1943), follows one of the alcoholic Tyrone’s from Long Day’s Journey and features copious amounts of drinking. I suppose with sober eyes he could really see the effects of alcohol that caused painful tremor in his hand and caused the death of his brother. But these plays are not finger wagging ‘alcohol-is-bad’ plays. They are works of a damaged man writing about damaged people.

Sometimes my feelings towards O’Neill’s work are mixed. There’s a lot of good to say about him, but his work can be quite dry and the length of his plays really can be an endurance test. The later-plays of O’Neill’s are intense. Because they are intense and lengthy they can be painful plays to watch. I like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but it’s so exhausting to read, I couldn’t imagine been able to sit through a full-length production. The play is quite humourless. O’Neill never really gives the audience a break. This, and other of his works, feels like O’Neill barking ‘THIS-IS-DRAMA!’ He reminds me of Dostoyevsky in that, despite the flaws, you have to admire the sheer power they create.

My favourite of his plays is A Moon For The Misbegotten. This play gets unfairly forgotten. In what material I’ve read on O’Neill, it’s normally dismissed as weak in comparison to Long Day’s Journey and Iceman, but I prefer it to both of them. I think A Moon for the Misbegotten is one of the most beautiful, sad and haunting plays I’ve ever come across. It’s not as long as the others and offers something different at the end than the other two.

Recently I finished writing a play for my thesis. This play was about a dysfunctional family. I looked at Long Day’s Journey a lot while writing this play, because, despite its problems, it is the touchstone for all semi-autobiographical plays about family.

My perspective on O’Neill is a playwrights’. I imagine an actor’s response or a critic’s response would vary. As a playwright I stand by the belief O’Neill is a playwrights’ playwright because of the sheer scope of his ambition. To conclude- Eugene O’Neill had balls.

Advertisements

Summer Reading Challenge

In American, Indian, Literature, Miscellaneous on 04/09/2011 at 17:15

In my borough (and in other parts of the country) the libraries are having a summer reading challenge for children. For the challenge they have to read six books over the summer. For doing so they get stickers, bookmarks, a medal and a certificate. I decided to try and read six books myself, despite not receiving any stickers, medals or certificate. But I did take a couple of bookmarks for my troubles. My six books:

1)      Knight’s Gambit (1949)- William Faulkner: I can’t say I really enjoyed this book. I’m not a fan of Faulkner’s prose style, I find it unnecessarily difficult, though I’m sure many a scholar could tell me why I am wrong about this. I wanted to read this book because I’d heard they were Faulkner’s only attempt at crime stories.

2)      A Special Providence (1969)- Richard Yates: The story is about an 18 year-old dreaming of success in World War 2, with the middle chunk of the novel about his mother and his upbringing. I’m a big fan of Richard Yates and thoroughly enjoyed this book. Possibly the best book out of the six.

3)      The Long Fall (2009)- Walter Mosley: I wanted to read a crime novel as a break from the heavier stuff. I’ve read one of Mosley’s books before and I preferred that story. This didn’t really engage me like Blonde Faith (2007).

4)      The Painter of Signs (1976)- R.K. Narayan: A charming and funny little story about the relationship between a sign painter and a young woman devoted to the promotion of family planning. It was quite sweet in places.

5)      A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010)- Jennifer Egan: I did write a review of the book on here, but to summarise- it’s great.

6)      Across the River and Into the Trees (1950)- Ernest Hemingway: This was the sixth novel by Hemingway I’ve read, and it’s my least favourite. I didn’t really think much of the quite thin story, and the character of Renata only existed to be in love with the hero. This was quite a disappointment because I am a fan of Hemingway.

‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ (2010) Jennifer Egan

In American, Book Review, Literature, Review, Writing on 15/08/2011 at 19:25

There has been some talk as to whether A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) should be classed as a novel or a short story collection. No matter what it’s classed as I think it’s a great read. The book is made up of a series of interconnected short stories- a supporting character in one becomes the main player in the next, somebody mentioned in that story is a narrator three stories later. The stories also skip around in time, flitting from now to the past and the near future. Probably most famously is that one story (or chapter, depending on your view) is told through PowerPoint slides. I first thought this was just a gimmick, but the story turned out to really use its medium well.

The thing that could most argue for A Visit from the Goon Squad’s status as a novel is that themes of the passage of time and growing-up are the focus of most of the stories. The non-linear order of the stories allows the reader to see aftermaths of decisions before going back to the decision. One of the voices of the novel is an omniscient third-person narrator who gives details of characters futures before returning to present of the character in the story. This is none more poignant than in the story ‘Safari’ which reveals a child’s tragic future before returning to the child dancing. While it has comic passages I felt that the tone of the book was one of poignancy, been able to see characters pasts and futures can be heartbreaking.

My favourite stories in the book were ‘Safari’ and ‘A to B’, but because of the changing style of narrative voice, central character and time I think somebody else reading the book would prefer other stories. The story I liked least was the final one (if you actually want to read this book you might want to skip these next few lines- nothing major is revealed, but if you’d prefer the surprise of discovering for yourself skip this part) because it skips forward to a near-future where everybody connects by handheld devices that project 3D holograms. I suppose because it was set in the future the short did not have the same ring to it as when Egan wrote about the 70s, 80s or now. It felt to me a little like when you see a programme from the 1950s talking about the future- that by 2000 we’d by on the moon, wearing jetpacks, etc. I just find that looking to the future always looks silly once the future becomes present.

At it’s best A Visit from the Goon Squad functions as a Citizen Kane-like puzzle as we are asked to unravel who this characters really are from what Jennifer Egan shows us. I found myself trying to remember supporting characters and characters mentioned in passing to see if they’d turn up again in other stories. There are some red herrings- important incidents are mentioned but never shown. I liked this style. It kept me on my toes.

 A Visit from the Goon Squad is a funny, sad and well-written book that I gladly recommend.

Thoughts On Richard Yates

In American, Essay, Literature, Writing on 10/08/2011 at 12:51

Nobody writes about dreamers quite like Richard Yates. His characters are caught up in their dreams so much and never quite achieve them, this can make his novels very depressing reads. Revolutionary Road (1961) is full to the brim of unfilled ambitions and dreams that never work. Frank and April Wheeler are hard characters to like, as are many of Yates’ characters. Yates makes the reader fully aware of the tics, neurosis and flaws that will make them unable to realise their dreams. It can be hard to sympathise with these characters but Yates really makes a reader empathise with them through the structure of his work. His novels have been criticized as episodic, but I like the episodic nature of his work and it really shows how these characters live- we see the characters through decades and how an action in Chapter One reverberates and echoes again in later chapters when the characters are at a different station in their life.

There is a quote I read by C.S. Lewis I saw a few days ago and thought it relatable to Yates. Lewis writes that ‘To be concerned with been grown-up, to admire the grown-up because it is grown-up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence.’ His characters often are very concerned about been grown-up, and find themselves admiring the more successful of their peers. In a great short story from Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962) a child finds that whilst playing cowboys and Indians it’s more fun to lose and be the one who gets shot, then the story skips forward to the boy as an adult as he loses his job and has to spend weeks pretending to his wife that he is still employed.

Yates writes of people whose ambitions outweigh their talent, of ones who dream of success without wanting to put effort into achieving it. A lot of Yates’ dreamers dream of been artists- writers, painters, sculptors, etc. And those that are artists are often without merit, like Michael Davenport in (probably my favourite Yates’ novel) Young Hearts Crying (1984), he refuses his heiress wife’s offer to support him so he can focus on his poetry, because he wants artistic success on his own terms. This novel is probably my favourite because its characters are either aspiring or professional artists, writers and actors. These characters reflect people I have known through doing a Creative Writing course. I’m not very familiar with all the biographical details about Richard Yates’ life, but I do know he taught Writing at several universities during his life, so I can’t say for certain he drew on his former students for this novel, but I know I certainly recognise people from my course in that novel- people whose ambitions really do outweigh any kind of talent.

I think what draws me back as a reader to Yates’ novels is, despite the unsympathetic characters, that there is a truth in them. I often see a reflection of people I know, have known and myself in them. I’m surprised to find the characters of Yates dream as big and as often as I do. Sometimes the reflection I see of myself in his characters is an uncomfortable one. I do see a truth in what I read of Yates, of people who moan about been in a nine-to-five world, but never take any chance to break out from it. The person who introduced me to Yates turned out to be very much like a Yates’ character, very much like the younger Grimes sister in The Easter Parade (1976).

Yates only published nine books during his lifetime. I’ve read six and a half of them. There has been, so far, only one I haven’t liked. He is one of my favourite novelists. I find his prose wonderfully straightforward and quietly engaging. But, sometimes, I’ve felt very miserable at the end of his novels- I wouldn’t describe them as humourless, but sometimes they are very much hopeless.

%d bloggers like this: