Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Playwriting Class

I am happily teaching an advanced playwriting class starting April 3rd. Here are the details:
Chelsea Rep Lab is pleased to offer an Advanced Playwriting Class. Classes will meet Sunday afternoons, 1-4, April 3 through June 19, 2011 (no class Easter Sunday and Memorial Day weekend) at Shetler Studios, 244 West 54th Street, 12th floor (near the corner of Broadway & 54th Street). In the course of the class, each student will complete the first act of a full-length play, or a long one-act play. The plays will be considered for a public reading by Chelsea Rep at the end of the course.
The class will be taught by award-winning playwright Anne Phelan. Tuition is $150-$200, depending upon enrollment, payable in full at the first class. The class will be limited to 12 students. To schedule an interview, contact Chelsea Rep Director John Grabowski at jwgrabow at
Why is tuition so cheap, you ask? To make the class accessible to more people, regardless of their income. So you can have that first act finished by summer.
Link above is to Chelsea Rep's website.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mariette in Ecstasy

Lately, we have been watching less TV at night. Which mean that Tom spends more time working on his photographs, and I spend more time reading. Since I'm in the position of working on two projects (reworking an old,long monologue and rewriting the first act of a musical) at once that I've finished all the research for, I've been attacking my stack of books. Some of that includes things Tom has recently finished (I think I just finished the fifth Cormac McCarthy novel- an odd story about brother/sister incest), But last night a book I got at the Presbyterian church sale last year. I saw it and thought it was one of those novels I ought to have read, Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen. Should you have any doubt what kind of ecstasy he's referring to, there's a rendering of Bernini's famous St. Theresa in Ecstasy on the cover.
Twenty pages into the book, I could tell that if Hansen was not a Catholic (I suspect that he is), he has read a great deal of theology. He chooses extremely apt theological passages to be read out to the nuns during their lunch. He's also good at creating the world of the convent- safe, yet with the potential to be stultifying, and the watchfulness of the senior nuns for sin, heresy and particular friendships among their fellow sisters. In many ways the convent of the Sisters of the Crucifixion is a celebration of life and the simplest of pleasures. But all it takes is Mariette, the new postulant, to upset the apple cart.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson

I saw the movie of The Talented Mr. Ripley for a second time a few years ago, and I started wondering what the novel was like. So I read it, and the first sequel, Ripley Under Ground. It made me wonder what kind of a person with what kind of a mind could have created Ripley, and Strangers on a Train. So when my niece Maggie and I were in St. Mark's Book Store on Sunday, I pounced on Andrew Wilson's Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith on the sale table. Then I inhaled the book in a few days.
Highsmith was nothing like I thought she was. From Texas, not a Brit. A conservative, an anti-Semite, a racist, a misogynist (despite the fact she was a lesbian) and deeply, deeply strange. At the age that I was reading fairy tales and then the lives of the saints (St. Barbara's life is remarkably like Rapunzel), she was reading Karl Menninger's The Human Mind, about deviant behavior.
Wilson is a journalist, and it shows in the writing, which is dutifully plodding and repetitive. With a good editor (are there any anymore?), the book could easily been cut by 20%. Or I've just been spoiled by spending so much time with Lyndall Gordon's well-considered prose. The one thing Wilson does capture is Highsmith's constant struggle with reality (the one that most of us are in) and the world of her imagination. Ripley's character became so real to her, she considered him a co-creator of the novels. Her romantic relationships line the biography like so many fallen soldiers, and invariably it's Highsmith's idea of who she's fallen in love with pit against the reality of it. The idea gets smashed, and she flees. Over and over again. Ultimately, Highsmith was a deeply sad woman, however adept at her craft.
The uncredited publicity photo is from 1966.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Romulus Linney, 1930-2011

In the whirlwind of activity for Tom’s solo show and finishing up my class, I neglected to note the passing of Romulus Zachariah Linney IV. I’m not sure I understand why his plays were not better known. He wrote on a wide variety of subjects- his one-act, Stars, crackles with Manhattan sophistication; he also wrote several historical plays. My favorite is 2: Goering at Nuremberg. You get a wonderful sense of Goering’s character, but that does not mean pat answers or demonizing him (however much of a demon he was).

Mr. Linney was also very kind to me at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in 2003, which I will not forget.

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout

So I read the rave review of this book in the Times Book Review. And then in the New Yorker. And saw a subsequent ad in the New Yorker. But I was highly skeptical- pay for a hardcover graphic biography? I had a Radcliffe Series biography of Curie- did I really need another? Then I had a meeting about a musical I’ve been working on, and the lyricist suggested that one character may want to identify more closely with one mentor, and that Mme. Curie fit the bill. Matthew Love’s lead review in TimeOutNY that week was of Radioactive. So I went to the Stand and got one for myself.

Lauren Redniss has mapped out quite an ambitious undertaking for herself in the making of this book- text, illustrations and photographs working together. She was a Cullman Scholar at the New York Public Library while she wrote it, and there is an exhibit at the Library of her work. There’s also a very cool website that Redness designed with her Parsons School of Design students: The book is not only the Curies’ story, but examines some of the ramifications of their work. Redniss is judicious in her choice of non-biographical material; it had the potential to spin out of control, but she reins it in. She also exploits the fact that has always had resonance for me: the more Mme. Curie worked in her laboratory (M. Curie was killed by an errant wagon in 1906), the more she sowed the seeds of her own death from the poisons she was working with.

The book itself is beautiful- the endpapers look like early Rothkos. I have never seen color saturated in something printed (as opposed to photographed or painted) to quite that degree. It was too beautiful to annotate- I had to take my notes in longhand.

The Fountain Overflows

I have read some Rebecca West- her New Yorker articles about the Nuremberg trials; Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (about Yugoslavia); and the Meaning of Treason. Somewhere in the latter a play is lurking, I just haven’t been able to find it yet. Other than that, I knew about her affair with H.G. Wells, and not much else.

But a few months ago I stumbled upon the first of her novels in the Aubrey trilogy, The Fountain Overflows. I read it over my vacation and it was incredibly compelling. It’s about a family named Aubrey, not plot heavy, but much incident. The family is loosely based on West’s own (her name was Cicely Isabel Fairfield). The mother is a former concert pianist, the father is a gambling intellectual, who manages to repel his peers, despite his great charm. The four children are Cordelia, the twins Mary and Rose (who narrates the novel) and their brother Richard Quinn. West captures the relationships been each parent and child, and the children amongst themselves, equally well. It didn’t matter to me that Rose was a child, and then a teenager, and the novel was all from her point of view. She’s a smart little girl- good at sizing up her peers, particularly her older sister. The children aren’t undone by their parents’ precarious finances- it’s nothing new, they’ve grown used to it. And West captures that delightful, child-like forthrightness that an intelligent child emits.

The novel is available in a reprint edition from New York Review Books.

A Private Life of Henry James- Two Women and His Art

After reading Colm Toibin’s The Master, I was interested to look at his source material about Henry James. There is so much material on James (I’ve feel like I’ve read a lot, but I’ve barely scratched the surface), it’s difficult to know where to start. Toibin cited a book by Lyndall Gordon, A Private Life of Henry James- Two Women and His Art.

My friend Dorothea and I devoured Gordon’s two books about T.S. Eliot back in the 80s, the later of which followed hard on Michael Hasting’s play, Tom and Viv. Gordon gets inside of her subject’s head in a way that most biographers do not. So even though I’d finished reading The Master, I dove into A Private Life of Henry James- Two Women and His Art when it came from alibris. The two women of the title are James’ cousin Milly Temple, who died from tuberculosis in her 20s, and his friend Constance Fenimore Woolson (who I’d never heard of before Toibin’s book) a best-selling American novelist who committed suicide. James went back to his relationships with these two women over and over again, until the end of his life, plundering them for his work. His last book, A Small Boy Among Others, quotes extensively from Temple’s letters to a mutual friend, John Gray.

Woolson was related to James Fenimore Cooper, and born in upstate New York, though most of her childhood was spent on the east side of Cleveland. She was a tireless writer, producing travel pieces, short stories and novels. Like James, she was an American expatriate, though she spent more time in Italy than he did. Her close friendship with him mirrored Temple’s with James, and Gordon makes a compelling case for James’ influence on Woolson’s death. Gordon begins her book with the image of James out in the Venice lagoon in a gondola, trying to drown Woolson’s dresses, but they keep rising to the surface.

One thing that stood out for me in the book was Gordon’s quotation from James’ The Middle Years. My high school drama teacher had used the same quote on her year book page the year I graduated, and I swear I’ve thought of it every few months ever since: “We work in the dark- we do what we can- we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

Gordon nails down James both as a man and a writer: “a fictional truth James offered in lieu of biography. He is right, of course, to urge the autonomy of art, were it not for one problem: the myth of solitary genius. That myth … is largely untrue. For James leant on the generosity of women who surrendered the Light of their Lives.’ Feeling, breathing women who provided the original material for Milly and Miss Gostrey [characters] were disappointed in untold ways not unconnected with their deaths. It is on behalf of these women that biography must redress the record James controlled.” [pp. 327-328] Gordon ends with: “So he made a legend of the master; so he shed the partners of his private life. But see, they return, and bring him with them.” [p. 372]


When I was in Montreal last week, I read an interesting play. I'd planned to see it, but that didn't work out. I was there visiting my friend Marija Djordjevic, who's my favorite costume designer. She designed fantastic costumes for the premiere of my play Mushroom in Her Hands. But a few years ago, she and her husband moved to Montreal (Michel is Canadian) and they now have a baby.
I managed to show up for tech week of Marija's latest project, Rehabilitation (in French; Recovery in English), and to prepare to watch it in French, read it in English (it's actually being performed in a French translation). It's at the Studio at the Segal Centre at the Montreal JCC (a lovely space, link above) until March 10th.
The playwright is Greg MacArthur. It is a deeply creepy play, and I mean that in the best possible way. It is set in Antarctica in a private rest home/rehab center. MacArthur takes you into this slightly off-kilter world, one which you think you know. And then it almost imperceptibly transforms into a deeply menacing world. I wish someone would produce it in New York.