Friday, June 17, 2011

et in ARCADIA ego

(this review contains spoilers for both ARCADIA and Kushner's THE INTELLINGENT HOMOSEXUAL'S GUIDE...)

OK loyal readers and fanemies, I know what you are thinking: "just what the hell did Nancy think of ARCADIA already? It's been a week. I must know!"



I liked it better than THE INTELLIGENT HOMOSEXUAL'S GUIDE... - but if you read what I wrote about that, you know it isn't a high bar at all.

But ARCADIA has a plot that is clearly more carefully crafted than HOMOGuide - and it's very intricate indeed. Just keeping track of the plot inter-weavings will keep you diverted for the entire three hours.

I've said that I think Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA might be the best play of the 20th Century - and I like that play better than anything I've seen by Stoppard. Which admittedly isn't alot - I've seen ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD - which I suspect is his best; THE INVENTION OF LOVE (I saw this ten years ago and barely remember it) and now ARCADIA.

Actually I think Stoppard's best work is his (co-written) screenplay for Shakespeare in Love - I was genuinely distraught by the parting of Will and Viola. I've never felt nearly as emotionally effected by anything else by Stoppard.

And that's what drama is all about - emotion. It's too easy for smart people like Stoppard and Kushner to keep the entire proceedings all up in the head.

In fact, I'm worried that my JULIA & BUDDY is too head-over-heart in its current incarnation, although it is supposed to be a comedy. Must work on this further.

Unlike HOMOGuide, I don't have the impression that Stoppard just quit by the third or fourth draft of ARCADIA. He went over it again and again until the plot worked like a fine Swiss watch.

In fact he is so pleased by the intricacy of the plot that he lets the audience figure out what happened in the big tragic scene through the gentle suggestions in the dialog - rather than showing the big tragic scene.

Probably because actually showing tragedy is so unseemly and unclever. It's just - boom - emotion. How animal - how feminine.

How much more admirable might one be if one's plot is intricate and clever and witty? Anybody can show you awful things happening right on stage - where's the glory in that?

Shakespeare, of course, never shied away from showing the actual effects of tragedy.

And mind you - according to reviewers, like Vincent Canby in the NYTimes in 1995 - this play is actually supposed to be unusually emotional for Stoppard!

But to backtrack a bit - ARCADIA has two time periods - Regency England and late 20th century England, both in the same grand manor house. And they are connected because Hannah, from the late 20th century is researching a hermitage (a small decorative but functional building created as part of a designed landscape) wherein there was found reams of paper with mathematical notation. It turns out the notation was done by Septimus Hodge the tutor of girl-genius Thomasina who figured out chaos theory and the second law of thermodynamics decades before anybody else.

The plot goes back and forth between the two time periods as the 20th century researcher and friends guess - sometimes correctly, sometimes not - the meaning behind all the artifacts and events which we see in the Regency scenes. Eventually Hannah figures it out. And then the "meaning" of the play: that human romantic love is the root of chaos theory- we don't fall in love with those we are "supposed" to fall in love with - is demonstrated through a scene in which Hannah waltzes with her boy admirer Gus, the young mute brother of Hannah's would-be fiance Valentine; and Septimus waltzes with Thomasina.

This spectacle is creep-out city. Both child actors look very young - Thomasina is supposed to be almost seventeen in that scene, but she looks younger - and the actor who plays Gus also plays Thomasina's younger brother, so he's a teenager too. And Septimus is in his late 20s, while Hannah is in her 30s. I don't think Stoppard is actually trying to promote pedophilia - or hebephilia, if you want to get technical - but it still looks creepy as all get-out.

But the actual big tragic event is that Thomasina dies in a fire on her seventeenth birthday and it is implied in the 20th century section that Septimus went crazy as a result and that is why he spends the rest of his life living in the hermitage trying to work out Thomasina's equations.

We don't ever see any of this. The Regency period plot ends the evening before the fire.

Now compare that to KING LEAR - we don't actually see the death of Cordelia, but we've seen Lear go nuts and we see him recover his wits long enough to mourn the death of Cordelia - while she is actually in his arms - and then we see him die of a broken heart.

We get none of that in ARCADIA - we hear a researcher say that the person in the hermitage was probably crazy and we hear a researcher say that Thomasina died in a fire on her seventeenth birthday. And we congratulate ourselves for figuring out what happened. But we don't get to see what happened.

We don't actually have to see Thomasina die in a fire - we don't see Cordelia actually die - but we could at least see the effects of Thomasina's death on Septimus as enacted by the actor - not as theorized by researchers two centuries later.

And then there's HOMOGuide - we don't actually see the death of the family patriarch - the play ends when he manages to find somebody to help him commit suicide who isn't his favorite child.

In ANGELS IN AMERICA we get to see Roy Cohn die. Right there in front of us. With the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg watching and gloating.

Granted it's not Roy Cohn's story, it's mainly Prior Walter's story - but we get to see Prior go to heaven and decide not to die. It's a big moment.

The final scene of ANGELS gives you a prefect understanding of Tony Kushner's weakness as a dramatist, which, up until that last scene is kept perfectly in check. Prior is given a nice monologue but then the other characters bicker bicker bicker. That's what happens in HOMOGuide the most - bickering. And Kushner loves the bickering so much he gives loud overlapping bickering a full seven obnoxious unintelligible minutes.

With Stoppard it's love of puzzles that is his downfall. Shakespeare in Love transcends that, maybe in part because of his co-author, but maybe because we know that William Shakespeare didn't leave his wife for Gwenneth Paltrow. So the movie has to end with their parting. And that's no puzzle - it's just sad - so sad that it puts a stop to all the cleverness and we just feel the sadness - and the anger at the injustice of arranged marriages and laws against divorce. It's about feelings.

But so many contemporary intellectual playwrights seem to believe that it's just too literal and too voyeuristic to actually show intense emotional responses on stage. Much more satisfying to set up a plot-puzzle to be solved.

I have to agree with Hilton Als in the New Yorker, reviewing the current production:
The play draws its voracity from historical facts, which the author manipulates in a variety of ways, but which end up feeling as intellectually nourishing as pork stuffing, and about as moving. “Arcadia” takes place in the early nineteenth century and in the present day, on the same English estate. The seven scenes that make up this very long play alternate between then and now, eventually overlapping, though by that time we’ve nearly lost the thread of the plot altogether. Stoppard’s aim is not to show us people but to talk about ideas.

And so there was only the tiniest hint of an emotional orgasm with ARCADIA (and none at all with HOMOGuide - I just wanted that to end.)
ARCADIA provides one of those dud orgasms where it's more like a sudden release of tension than an intensely-felt emotional-physical response. You end up feeling just a little more relaxed, not exhausted and exhilarated.

However, of the six of us NYCPlaywrights who attended, only myself and the other playwright - he's an actor-playwright - were dissatisfied. Not everybody requires an emotional orgasm to be satisfied, I guess.

And after all, that's already been done by Shakespeare - the belief now is that art is about doing something different and new and let's face it, tragedy provokes the same feelings in us as it did in Shakespeare's audience. Where's the inventiveness in that? Who's going to admire you for your edgy risk-taking with a bunch of been-done human emotions? It's not about making love to the audience these days - it's about having people pay to watch you masturbate.