The weather has turned gray and cold, which is depressing for life but good for work. There must be so many great English writers because the weather there is so dismal; it's harder here in California where the outdoors is so glorious it seems really stupid to stay inside trying to put words in some pleasing order.
Here's what I've been seeing, reading, and thinking about lately: after an appropriate mourning period after finishing The Wire, which was the best show EVER, we are now renting ROME from Netflix, which is good; not quite as good as the Wire, but it has the added benefit of teaching you some ancient history.
Rome is bloody and violent in a casual way that makes The Sopranos look like Romper Room. Watching it I could understand how, in context of the times, Christianity would seem a better option; when contrasted with human sacrifice and animal sacrifice on a large scale, with torturing and killing slaves for entertainment, with rape and incest as common ways of passing the time, Christianity could be seen as a real improvement. (When the Emperor converted to Christianity, then Christianity itself became Roman-ized, in the form of Roman Catholicism, and the old values of empire and violence became part of the religion, but that's another discussion.)
Anyway, we watched the first two episodes with interest, and two more just arrived in the mail, so we'll keep up with it for a while. I wondered where the Jews were when all this history was going on, and marveled at our survival in such a bloody, bloody time. My friend Marci says it was Jews (Jewish slaves?) who built the Coliseum. How did we ever make it?
We also went to the Berkeley Rep last weekend and saw American Idiot, the Green Day musical. If I were twenty-five I might find it inspiring and moving; as a fifty-year-old I was irritated not to be able to make out the lyrics for the first third of the show. I also found myself thinking, "Hair was better." Which is, perhaps, an unfair comparison: that was then, this is now. American idiot represents the anomie and angst of the generation that came up under 8 years of Bush, Jr. So there's a lot of rage and hopelessness and flailing, which we can all relate to, but which, by itself, doesn't necessarily make for good theater. You need some plot or characters or something to hang it all on. There were many moments of beauty; there was some very fun dancing, and a lovely aerial ballet featuring four wounded soldiers; there were some good voices and some nice guitar work. But four days after seeing it, I retain not one line or note. There's nothing running through my head from it, it's like the proverbial Chinese meal--none of it stuck.
Last night I went to see The Pillow Man at San Jose Repertory Theater, a black comedy about the random torture and murder of children. It's a brilliant play; like a set of those nesting Russian dolls, stories within stories, opening up to more stories. Among other things the play asks the question, "If art arose in human beings as a response to the horror of suffering, if telling stories is a way we soothe ourselves from suffering, a way we make sense of it, then what price are we willing to pay for our stories? Is the suffering and death of innocents necessary to a world in order for theater to exist?"
As the play progressed and as the gruesome stories piled up, I was caught between laughter and horror. It was so over-the-top it was funny, and, well, as my companion (not C., another friend) said, "Slipping on a banana peel is funny." I was raised by a woman who believed that slipping on a banana peel is not funny--we were not allowed to watch The Three Stooges because she found the image of people hitting each other on the heads with hammers to be repellant. I'm fairly certain she would have hated the Pillow Man.
For myself, I'm torn; I wonder why we find violence so entertaining. Are we just like the Romans? Their gladiators really did suffer and die, while our actors are only pretending, but is there something in the human psyche that revels in the spectacle of other people's pain?
The Hindus think of all of this drama of life that we undergo as "lila" (not sure if I'm spelling that right)--God's play. We appear to suffer; we appear to die. In reality, they say, life is everlasting, and all these terrible things, wars, famine, sicknesses--are just illusions. Our souls are untouched by it all. But something about this whole human experiment calls for drama, and in drama you have to have the play of light and shadow, good and evil, life and death. Even if, underlyingly, it's all one, we need our illusions for the sake of, I don't know--education? The testing of one's mettle for the progress towards enlightenment?
Which begs the question: would God enjoy watching The Sopranos? Would He or She enjoy gladiator contests, or wars? What kind of a huge (sick?) mind would God have to have to be entertained by this stuff we call life?
Sorry, but this is what watching Martin McDonagh's work does to me. It opens up these weird cynical dark places in my brain that I am normally not in touch with. McDonagh wrote The Pillow Man, along with six(!) other plays in one year--actually in one nine-month stretch--when he was 24 years old. This is kind of inconceivable to me as a writer--it's a feat akin to running a marathon every day. On the one hand it shows what a person is capable of if he focuses, and he doesn't have anything else going on in his life, and if the weather is really shitty. On the other hand, what the--? How is anyone sane supposed to be able to compete with that?
All his plays are filled with images of torture, cruelty, sudden death, and the like. There's a real shortage of what we could call the feminine principle. And they are funny. And brilliant in their own way, although after I saw the Beauty Queen of Lenane I wanted to throw myself under a train. It was the most godawful depressing disturbing thing I had ever sat through--and I've sat through some bad poetry readings and a fair amount of bleak theater.
Anyway, I appreciated seeing The Pillow Man because there was so much to chew on, even though it was depressing, and even though Mary Zimmerman's Arabian Nights also dealt with the theme of story-telling and the never-ending story without making you want to go out a down a bottle of Prozac. I wished they would have cut about twenty minutes out of the script and had an after-theatre discussion--although we wouldn't have been able to stay for it, as it was a weeknight--because I think the real value in this kind of work lies not only in experiencing it, but mainly in digesting it--with other people. Theatre, unlike reading, is a communal act, and the fact that we were all assembled there to hear these unspeakable stories, and watch some of them acted out, and even to laugh at some of the horrors our world comes up with, is something worth acknowledging.
I'm also reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a wonderful novel that was recommended to me by one of my writing students last year. I'm loving it, reading slowly and savoring as I go.
I finished a draft of the Second Marriage essay for MORE magazine--at least that's who I intend it for, I hope they'll take it. They still are holding onto a 900-word piece I wrote earlier in the summer. The magazine industry has been hit so hard by the recession that many editors have been laid off, and advertising pages lost, which means less pages available for essays and memoirs. Which means for me, that it's taking three times as long to hear back about work I've submitted, and that essays which might once have been taken--like the piece on self-defense for women which was near and dear to my heart--are being rejected. Not enough pages, the magazine is too skinny to support the more eccentric work.
It may, big picture, be a good thing, politically and ecologically speaking, for some of these glossies to shrink or go under completely. It's probably for the good of the planet if Revlon and Cover Girl and the people who make Botox and spend millions promoting their unnecessary products fail. But for those of us free-lancers who cling to the undersides of capitalism--and I realize, yes, it's parasitic--(but it's also a way to sometimes get paid good money for writing)-- it's a loss of an outlet. Then again, there's the hope that other venues will spring up, maybe ones that are healthier for civilization as a whole.
Okay, shameless self-promotion: you can order my book of poems, See How We Almost Fly from www.pearlmag/pearled.html, or from Amazon.