In which the cute story I thought I’d tell is quickly reduced to insignificance.Continue reading From texting gloves to tragedy in high society
I wrote this piece this summer, as part of the publicity for Theatre Unbound’s A Gertrude Stein Christmas. This seems like a good time to revisit it. May your holidays be happy, by design or happenstance!
Lately I’ve been helping my mom go through some of her mother’s things. I’ve learned that Gramma liked to take pictures of flower arrangements.
Sometimes the flowers have some context. This one is labeled “Cleo’s Birthday 1981 from Joy” (Gramma’s name was Cleo), and I recognize Gramma’s dining room furniture.
Others are in places I can’t identify.
In “For Worse,” beleaguered substitute teacher Michelle, called in the middle of the day to sub for a sub in a seventh-grade English class, gets out some of her frustration by asking the students to shout their vocabulary words as loud as they can. I got this idea from my ninth-grade English teacher, the late Mrs. Miriam McCluney, who regularly had her class shout the items on our weekly vocabulary list. (“Loud enough to wake Mr. Mitiguy out of his after-lunch nap next door!” she told us.)
I was incredibly lucky to have been in her class, especially given that I ended up in theater; or you can make the case that I ended up in theater because I was lucky enough to have been in her class. In addition to having us perform our vocabulary words, she had us memorize and present passages from the works we studied – not just plays (Romeo and Juliet) but fiction too (To Kill A Mockingbird). I learned later that she received grants to travel to Shakespeare festivals throughout the West. After I graduated, she invited me to go with her to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and the As You Like It we saw there – a confection in 18th-century style where the lovers had costumes color-coordinated with the person they were supposed to end up with, and a young and ever-so-ennuyé Jaques attitudinized in a green velvet frock coat – is still a highlight of my theatergoing experience.
OK…trotting out attitudinizing there brings me back to the subject of vocabulary. A number of years ago now, the Hennepin County Library brought novelist M.T. Anderson to town as part of their lecture series. He had recently published The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, whose narrator is a young African American man in 18th century Boston. Anderson does an uncanny job of creating “18th-century” prose, in both sentence structure and vocabulary. The book was advertised as Young Adult fiction. After Anderson’s talk, one of the audience members asked whether it was really wise to try to sell Octavian Nothing to young adult readers; wasn’t there a risk that the unfamiliar, difficult language would put them off?
As I remember it, Anderson answered that he had faith in the curiosity of young people and their willingness to learn new words and new ways of using language. In a democracy, he argued, it is vital to encourage curiosity in order to create an informed electorate.
It’s the strongest argument I’ve ever heard for the importance of using unusual words and forms of language, and as someone whose educational background is in literature and linguistics, I’m inclined to cheer for it. On the other hand, fancy vocabulary can make a message unclear. Sometimes speakers or writers purposefully use it to make themselves look superior. I can’t blame anyone for taking unusual words as a signal that they, as readers or hearers, are not welcome.
How do you see it? Do you take weird vocabulary items an invitation, or a “no trespassing” sign?
A scrap from Liability.
In “Liability,” Emmett’s character description is “A Sumerologist, currently temping.” When I first started working on that script, I was fascinated by different writing systems, including Emmett’s specialty, Sumerian cuneiform. Early drafts probably had too much about Emmett’s specialty; at any rate, over time, many references to his work got trimmed away, including the original title of his thesis:
Systematic Differences in Compound Cuneiform Characters as a Means of Identifying Scribal Colleges in Pre-Akkadian Sumer.
I imagined Emmett squinting over clay tablets trying to identify the handwriting of individual scribes; not that that turned out to have anything to do with the story I was trying to tell.
Lately, though, identifying the handwriting of individual scribes in the ancient world has been in the news, as evidence that literacy was widespread in the Holy Land quite early, which may change ideas about when biblical texts were first written.
In honor of Emmett and ancient handwriting, here’s a speech of his that also got cut.
EMMETT: The story of Enki and Ninmah.
Before there were people, the gods had to do all the menial work.
They complained about this to the water god, Enki; they got his mother to wake him up from his bed in the sea.
With the help of a number of goddesses, including Ninmah, the earth mother, Enki molded people out of clay, brought them to life, and set them to work.
Freed from the work they hated, the grateful gods threw a party for Enki. Enki and Ninmah had too much to drink. Ninmah started playing with the leftover clay.
“Enki, look at this, I made a blind one. What are you going to do with him?”
“He can be a singer. I’ll give him bread to eat.”
“Enki, look at this, I made a woman who can’t give birth. What are you going to do with her?”
“She can live in the women’s house. I’ll give her bread to eat.”
Finally, it’s Enki’s turn. He makes a weak and useless creature who can neither stand, sit, nor lie down. “All right, Ninmah, what are you going to do?”
Ninmah tries to speak to this creature, but he can’t answer; she offers him bread, but he can’t reach for it.
She can find no place for him.
So Enki wins. – At least, that seems to be the gist of how the story ends; several lines are missing or damaged at that point.
This text survives in two separate tablets, one excavated from Nippur and now at the University of Pennsylvania; the other, of unknown provenance, in the Louvre.
A scrap from The Good Fight.
In The Good Fight, I have two members of the Pankhurst family as characters: Emmeline and her daughter Christabel. Emmeline had two other daughters, Sylvia and Adela, also political activists. I struggled with whether or not to include them, too. In the end I opted to leave them out in order to keep an already-unwieldy cast size and web of relationships from becoming even unwieldier.
Sylvia in particular still haunts me. Trained as an artist at the Manchester School of Art and the Royal College of Art, she worked, like her mother and sister Christabel, for women’s rights. At first, she worked through the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) that Emmeline and Christabel headed. But unlike them, she was not a one-issue person. They wanted votes for women; what she wanted for women, particularly working women, included votes, food, shelter, child care, and physical safety. In addition to crusading for the vote, she opened cooperative kitchens and legal aid offices.
In early 1914, Sylvia’s mother and sister expelled her from the WSPU because she was willing to work in concert with left-wing political parties led by men. A friend of Emmeline’s described this expulsion as a “private family execution.”
Sylvia appealed to me because she worked to help women in a variety of ways and was willing to do so with a variety of allies. I admire her range and flexibility much more than Christabel and Emmeline’s autocratic style; if nothing else, it’s hard to wholeheartedly admire the perpetrators of a “private family execution.” Yet in the end I chose to exclude her from my telling of the story. It was possible for me to tell the story of the suffragette bodyguard without her, but not without them.
Some quotes from Sylvia’s book The Suffragette Movement:
Not then, but many a time as we grew older, he [her father, Dr. Richard Pankhurst] would say to us playfully, and yet in earnest: “If you ever go back into religion you will not have been worth the upbringing.” Always he added, and more passionately: “If you do not work for others you will not have been worth the upbringing!”
As a speaker, a pamphlet-seller, a chalker of pavements, a canvasser on doorsteps, you are wanted; as an artist the world has no real use for you; in that capacity you must fight a purely egotistical struggle. [Ed.: Ouch.]
The Suffrage movement, which lived through the vast holocaust of peaceful life, was a more intelligent and informed movement than that which, gallant as it was, had fought the desperate, pre-war fight. Gone was the mirage of a society regenerated by enfranchised womanhood as by a magic wand. Men and women had been drawn closer together by the suffering and sacrifice of the War. Awed and humbled by the great catastrophe, and by the huge economic problems it had thrown into naked prominence, the women of the Suffrage movement had learned that social regeneration is a long and mighty work. The profound divergences of opinion on war and peace had been shown to know no sex.
For further reading:
Pankhurst, Richard (2001): Suffragette sisters in old age: unpublished correspondence between Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, 1953–57, Women’s History Review, 10:3, 483-537
Pankhurst, Sylvia (1931): The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals.
Purvis, June (2002): Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography. London and New York: Routledge.
Wikipedia: Sylvia Pankhurst.
A scrap from Frankenstein Incarnate. Caleb Williams is a novel by Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin. One part of the story really stuck with me:
Caleb’s corrupt employer unjustly accuses him of theft, which carries the death penalty. Caleb is put in prison to await trial. A month goes by. His friend Brightwel, a fellow-prisoner, dies of a disease he (Brightwel) catches in prison. Caleb decides to escape.
He offers to build “a dozen handsome chairs” for the jailer if the jailer will bring him the tools and materials. He accumulates “gimlets, piercers, chisels, et cetera” and a crow bar, the last item courtesy of the jailer’s daughter, who likes him. In the middle of the night, he forces his cell door open and removes the lock from the door leading into a garden. Just as he is scaling the garden wall, the jailer sees him and throws a stone at him. Alarmed by the stone’s near miss, Caleb drops to the ground on the far side of the wall, dislocating his ankle in the fall. The jailer captures him, fetters his ankles, and chains him to a staple in the floor of his cell.
The jailer leaves Caleb’s cell door open during the day so he can watch him. In the dim light from the door, Caleb notices a nail sunk into the mud floor of the cell. He memorizes its position and, after dark, finds it by touch and uses it to pick the lock of his fetters. Even being able to move freely about the cell is a welcome change, but one night Caleb forgets to replace the lock by the time the jailer opens his door in the morning.
The jailer, angered by Caleb’s continued attempts to escape, shuts him into the dank, mildewed “strong room,” where he is kept in solitary confinement, fettered, chained and handcuffed. One day, Thomas, a former co-worker, comes to see Caleb and, though believing Caleb guilty of the theft, is horrified by the conditions in which he is being kept. Thomas smuggles in a chisel, a file and a saw, which Caleb is able to conceal in the bottom of his rush chair.
Caleb waits for a full moon so that he can have good light to work by. He files off his fetters and saws through the iron bars in his window. The window’s not big enough for him to fit through. He uses the chisel and one of the iron bars to remove bricks from around the window and squeezes his way out onto the roof of a shed standing in “a rude area between two dead walls.” The outer wall is too tall to climb; Caleb’s going to have to dig his way through. What if someone sees him? He picks the lock on the shed door and works on the wall from inside the shed.
Over the next six hours, he removes a layer of bricks, only to discover that the remainder of the wall is made of stone, and the mortar is “nearly petrified.” The moon vanishes, leaving him in complete darkness. At this point (only at this point!) he considers giving up. He takes a ten-minute break, which re-energizes him enough that he is able to chisel his way through the stone wall to freedom.
I don’t know how Godwin wants us to respond. If he means to encourage us to persist in the face of adversity (Caleb did it! you can too!), for me, at least, it backfires (Caleb did it, but I can’t! No way!). Is he showing how powerful the unjust system is, by showing the near-superhuman effort it takes to oppose it? Or what?
For further reading:
William Godwin, Caleb Williams.