Monday, April 6, 2020
The other morning it occurred to me that I had not shut off my computer for three weeks.
When I was working full-time, I would turn it off when I left the house for work, then turn it on when I came home in the afternoon, and leave it on overnight when it backed up every night and updated whenever Microsoft sent the download. But since I’ve been home for three weeks, I kept it on: writing plays, keeping in touch with friends and family, reading, blogging. But Saturday morning I shut it off, went out to the patio in the dawn’s early light and did the crossword. I left it off for three hours until the pull of my new play became insistent.
We all develop routines. I did when I retired, changing — or trying to change — my wake-up time to something closer to sunrise, finding new routines on the way to work (Starbucks in Miami Springs knew my order when I showed up) and coming home in the middle of the afternoon and finding things to do around the house. Now I’m finding a new routine: working from home, learning how to use Zoom, and other little trivial things that become necessary in this situation, this crisis, this new world.
Yesterday I went to Quaker meeting via Zoom. It was new, but it was also like it always was: the Friends in their homes, sitting in silence, later sharing, reuniting, shaking hands virtually, joking (are you mediating or is that a screen-freeze?), and doing what we do every Firstday. Later that afternoon, I attended a meeting of the car club board, testing this new way, trading our jokes and seeing a bunch of old guys who know the insides of a 1939 LaSalle or Corvette but proud that they didn’t need to ask their grandson how to set up this newfangled contraption. It helps. And we will all be better for it.
Routines help us cope with the overwhelming enormity of what’s happening in other places that we hear about, we read about, that loom in the distance. Worrying about remembering the Zoom password help to digest the fact that nearly one thousand people in this country have died from Covid-19; not by ignoring it, but by somehow making us realize that a little thing that occupies the mind, that fits and fills the routine, keeps us from being paralyzed by the enormity. It’s our human nature to do this. It keeps us from sheer panic. That’s one way of surviving. For some of us, it’s a comfort. For some, it’s the only way.
Sunday, April 5, 2020
I think we’re all looking forward to getting back to the rat race (don’t forget your briefcase).
A Letter to My Students — George Saunders in The New Yorker shares his thoughts with the students he won’t be seeing again this school year.
Jeez, what a hard and depressing and scary time. So much suffering and anxiety everywhere. (I saw this bee happily buzzing around a flower yesterday and felt like, Moron! If you only knew!) But it also occurs to me that this is when the world needs our eyes and ears and minds. This has never happened before here (at least not since 1918). We are (and especially you are) the generation that is going to have to help us make sense of this and recover afterward. What new forms might you invent, to fictionalize an event like this, where all of the drama is happening in private, essentially? Are you keeping records of the e-mails and texts you’re getting, the thoughts you’re having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living? It’s all important. Fifty years from now, people the age you are now won’t believe this ever happened (or will do the sort of eye roll we all do when someone tells us something about some crazy thing that happened in 1970.) What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this, and what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you are paying now, and what records you keep.
Also, I think, with how open you can keep your heart. I’m trying to practice feeling something like, “Ah, so this is happening now,” or “Hmm, so this, too, is part of life on Earth. Did not know that, universe. Thanks so much, stinker.”
And then I real quick try to pretend that I didn’t just call the universe a “stinker.”
I did a piece once where I went to live incognito in a homeless camp in Fresno for a week. Very intense, but the best thing I heard in there was from this older guy from Guatemala, who was always saying, “Everything is always keep changing.” Truer words were never spoken. It’s only when we expect solidity—non-change—that we get taken by surprise. (And we always expect solidity, no matter how well we know better.)
Well, this is all sounding a little preachy, and let me confess that I’m not taking my own advice. At all. It’s all happening so fast. Paula has what we are hoping is just a bad cold, and I am doing a lot of inept caregiving. Our dogs can feel that something weird is going on. (“No walk? AGAIN?!”) But I guess what I’m trying to say is that the world is like a sleeping tiger and we tend to live our lives there on its back. (We’re much smaller than the tiger, obviously. We’re like Barbies and Kens on the back of a tiger.) And now and then that tiger wakes up. And that is terrifying. Sometimes it wakes up and someone we love dies. Or someone breaks our heart. Or there’s a pandemic. But this is far from the first time that tiger has come awake. He/she has been doing it since the beginning of time and will never stop doing it. And always there have been writers to observe it and (later) make some sort of sense of it, or at least bear witness to it. It’s good for the world for a writer to bear witness, and it’s good for the writer, too. Especially if she can bear witness with love and humor and, despite it all, some fondness for the world, just as it is manifesting, warts and all.
All of this is to say: there’s still work to be done, and now more than ever.
There’s a beautiful story about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. Her son was arrested during the Stalinist purges. One day, she was standing outside the prison with hundreds of other women in similar situations. It’s Russian-cold and they have to go there every day, wait for hours in this big open yard, then get the answer that, today and every day, there will be no news. But every day they keep coming back. A woman, recognizing her as the famous poet, says, “Poet, can you write this?” And Akhmatova thinks about it a second and goes: “Yes.”
I wish you all the best during this crazy period. Someday soon, things will be back to some sort of normal, and it will be easier to be happy again. I believe this and I hope it for each one of you. I look forward to seeing you all again and working with you. And even, in time, with sufficient P.P.E., giving you a handshake or hug.
Please feel free to e-mail anytime, for any reason.
Author’s note: I wrote this letter quickly and sent it out. Later I was able to find the actual Akhmatova quote, from her poem “Requiem”:
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I said: “I can.”
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
That last line is, maybe, the real point of the anecdote—Akhmatova’s confidence gave this unknown and tormented woman some measure of comfort.
Doonesbury — Restoration hardware.
Saturday, April 4, 2020
Rest in peace, Bill Withers.
Fun facts about our friends, the chickadees.
Friday, April 3, 2020
“Happy Friday” is a wish, not a declaration. In the midst of this crisis, we are all looking for something, large or small, to keep our spirits and hopes up.
How about some good news, at least for me? My play, “A Life Enriching Community,” has been picked up for publication by ArtAge Publications of Portland, Oregon, and will be available soon for reading and performance from their catalogue. It was originally written in 2014 and first presented in December 2014 at the Miami 1-Acts Festival, then in readings at the William Inge Festival New Play Lab in 2016 and at the Midwest Dramatists Conference in 2019. It was slated to be read at the Valdez Last Frontier Theatre Conference in June, but it’s been postponed until 2021.
I’m entering my third week of self-imposed isolation. I have, however awkwardly, figured out how to work from home; I’ve had a couple of Zoom meetings, and next week I’ll be guest-lecturing a theatre class via the internet. I’m working on new plays, maintaining contact at a distance with friends, and making new ones through this dance of electrons and pixels. My housemate is conducting his broadcasting arts classes to his middle-schoolers via Zoom and Team, keeping his office hours from the dining room table, doing his martial arts exercises on the patio, developing film in the bathroom, and painting in watercolors, all under the watchful eye of Sombra, whose feelings are kept to herself, as is the practice of all cats.
Stay well. Stay safe.
Thursday, April 2, 2020
When I worked full-time, most of it was done at a computer and a lot of it was conducted over the phone or via e-mail. I used to note that there were some people that I worked with on a daily basis and became friends with but never met them in person. My part-time work is basically the same: do my reporting and data-crunching at the computer. That was before Covid-19 and stay-at-home orders, but other than relocation from a school office to the one in my house, it’s the same routine.
But that’s me. A lot of people are figuring out how to do their job from their kitchen table or living room, and they’re finding out new ways to do it. Teachers and students especially are adjusting to conducting classes and doing their work via Zoom or Microsoft Team. It has the advantage of keeping some semblance of the classroom. It’s interesting to note that a lot of school districts have been moving in the direction of iSchooling; now they’re learning how it may or may not work.
If there’s an upside to this, and I realize it’s a bit of searching for a silver lining, it may be that productivity at work and learning at school may benefit from having to adapt to this new method of what futurists dreamed of years ago: “Learn and work from the comfort of home!” It may lead to lowering the stress level of job performance and thereby actually improve our daily lives on the job or at school. After all, doing a budget amendment or completing a homework assignment when you are surrounded by the comforts of home — a cat on your lap, a dog snoozing next to your desk, and no dress code — may be one of the unintended consequences for good from all of this horror.
Cartoon by Jon Adams in The New Yorker, 4/1/20.
Wednesday, April 1, 2020
I binged on this new iteration of the Star Trek universe.
That seems to be the question I hear in just about every conversation I’ve had, either in person or on line or even as a salutation in an e-mail. It’s usually a throw-away line, asked out of habit, and the reply is usually just as casual: “Fine,” “Okay,” “Good, and you.” But now we pay attention when we ask and we listen for the answer. We used to joke about asking someone how they are and dread it when they would actually tell us.
This crisis has made us think about both our physical and emotional well-being. We are creatures of habit and changes in routines, even if they’re voluntary, are disruptive and stressful. Now that we’re hearing the depths and breadth of this crisis: extending the restrictions on social interaction to May 1, the stark prediction of 100,000 to 240,000 deaths, and it coming home to nearly everyone with the loss of a job, the distance of friends and family, the concern for our own well-being is becoming a driving force in our lives.
We deal with this in our own way. I have work to do here at home, and I’m doing it. I have friends to talk with about things like playwriting and car clubs over Zoom (and being sure to wear more than just a t-shirt). I found my thermometer and take it three times a day (I’m literally cool; it averages 98.3 F). I do my best to keep the humor quotient up. I’ve been writing plays, including the next chapter in the “All Together” series. I’ve discovered things on TV that have nothing to do with news — Netflix is a treasure trove (“Cheers” is timeless) — and the simple pleasure of a good book or crossword puzzle is as much a stress-reliever as a good massage or a stiff drink.
One of the memes on Facebook has been to post pictures of landscapes without people in them: no selfies, just beauty. I’ve been doing that, and one I put up yesterday was of the beach on Montserrat, the little island in the Caribbean where Allen and I went twice in the 1990’s. It also has a part in the novel “Bobby Cramer” where it plays the role of St. Edmund.
I hope you are well. I wish I could tell you that it will all be over soon. And I hope that the next time someone asks you how you are, you will truly to be able to say “Good, and you?”
Tuesday, March 31, 2020
Franklin Graham and his pharisaic Jesus-shouters can still be annoyingly and dangerously sanctimonious and full of hate.
The group building a makeshift tent hospital for coronavirus patients in Manhattan’s Central Park is asking all volunteers to read and follow a “statement of faith,” including rejections of same-sex marriage and abortion.
As the toll of the outbreak on New York continues to increase dramatically, Mount Sinai Health System has been working with the relief group Samaritan’s Purse to open a 68-bed respiratory care unit that will begin treating patients as early as Tuesday.
Praised by Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), the tent facility is one of several efforts to expand medical capacity across the city: A 350-bed facility is set to be erected at the Queens tennis arena home of the U.S. Open, while a temporary hospital has been constructed inside a Manhattan convention center.
Yet unlike the other projects, Samaritan’s Purse has asked all volunteers working at the field hospital — including health workers — to pledge to 11 declarations, Gothamist reports, including one that defines marriage as “exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female” and another that says “human life is sacred from conception to its natural end.”
The Christian group was founded by Franklin Graham, a minister with a famous preacher as a father and a history of making incendiary comments, and has specifically sought out Christian medical staff for the tent hospital.
As some local lawmakers questioned whether LGBTQ patients would receive equal treatment, a spokesperson for de Blasio told Gothamist that the field hospital must adhere to Mount Sinai’s nondiscrimination policy.
“Our record on human rights is clear; and we are confident that the joint effort by Mt. Sinai and Samaritan’s Purse will save New Yorkers’ lives while adhering to the values we hold dear by providing care to anyone who needs it, regardless of background,” she wrote to the news blog.
In the middle of this plague, the last thing anyone needs is a bunch of superstitious hatemongers judging those who want to help. Either let everyone who wants to help do their job or get the fuck out.
Meanwhile, Jerry Falwell Jr., who never misses a chance to fleece the flock with the same vengeance and mercilessness of his dead father, spreads not only his poisonous version of ancient fables, he’s spreading coronavirus along with it and supremely ironically proving the theory of both evolution and survival of the fittest.
LYNCHBURG, Va. — As Liberty University’s spring break was drawing to a close this month, Jerry Falwell Jr., its president, spoke with the physician who runs Liberty’s student health service about the rampaging coronavirus.
“We’ve lost the ability to corral this thing,” Dr. Thomas W. Eppes Jr. said he told Mr. Falwell. But he did not urge him to close the school. “I just am not going to be so presumptuous as to say, ‘This is what you should do and this is what you shouldn’t do,’” Dr. Eppes said in an interview.
So Mr. Falwell — a staunch ally of President Trump and an influential voice in the evangelical world — reopened the university last week, igniting a firestorm. As of Friday, Dr. Eppes said, nearly a dozen Liberty students were sick with symptoms that suggested Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Three were referred to local hospital centers for testing. An additional eight were told to self-isolate.
As of 8 p.m. on March 29, of those three students tested, one was positive, one was negative and one student’s results are still pending, according to Dr. Eppes, who added that the student who tested positive for Covid-19 lives off campus.
“Liberty will be notifying the community as deemed appropriate and required by law,” Mr. Falwell said in an interview on Sunday when confronted with the numbers. He added that any student now returning to campus would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days.
“I can’t be sure what’s going on with individuals who are not being tested but who are advised to self-isolate,” said Kerry Gateley, the health director of the Central Virginia Health District, which covers Lynchburg. “I would assume that if clinicians were concerned enough about the possibility of Covid-19 disease to urge self-isolation that appropriate screening and testing would be arranged.”
After initial publication of this article, the university said it had asked four students who returned from the New York area and two of their roommates to self-quarantine, but none of them were referred for testing and none had symptoms. One student who returned from a county with a high number of cases was running a fever and had a cough. He was tested and elected to go home pending the results rather than self-isolate, the university said.
Of the 1,900 students who initially returned last week to campus, Mr. Falwell said more than 800 had left. But he said he had “no idea” how many students had returned to off-campus housing.
It’s one thing to feel sorry and hope for the best for the students at Liberty; they’re victims of both the coronavirus as well as the scam of religious bigotry. But the people who willfully exposed them to it should be visited by as many plagues as their sky faerie can inflict upon them, and with dispatch.
Monday, March 30, 2020
You can’t turn on the TV or the radio or the internet without being inundated by news, public service announcements, even commercials pinned to Covid-19. The numbers, the statistics, the trend lines, the buzzwords; it can be overwhelming to the point that you want to change the channel or just turn it off. Sometimes it’s worse to hear the news and the rumors and the fear than it is just to isolate yourself for a few hours or a day or however long it takes to loosen your jaw, unclench your fists, and remind yourself that a great deal of the equation of staying healthy is mental stability.
Last week I mentioned humor as a vaccine, and it works to the point that it helps relieve the tension without ignoring good medical advice. I binged all the episodes of “Schitt’s Creek” and found myself giggling over a line by a minor character (come to think of it, it still makes me chuckle). I diverted my attention by catching up on “Star Trek: Picard,” letting the battle between the synths and organics (no spoiler alerts) occupy my time. I wrote thirteen pages of a play that I’ve been promising to write for two years, happy to be back in the world of characters who don’t have to worry about social distancing.
According to the calendar, spring break is over. School is back in on-line. The Quaker meeting is figuring out how to use Zoom, as are schools and businesses. This morning I will go to my office for a few minutes to pick up some files and then come home and work from here.
I’m not ignoring the news. I’m taking it in small and necessary doses, recognizing the fact that the talking heads on TV have to say something to fill the hours and that everyone from General Motors to the restaurant down the street have to adapt to the conditions of the time and have to let me know they’re doing what they can to keep my business. Message received; thank you. Now let me get back to my writing.
Sunday, March 29, 2020
Picture yourself alone in a garden…
Trump’s Quackery — Steve Coll in The New Yorker on the need for rigorous science in the midst of the worst pandemic in history.
On March 18th, researchers in France circulated a study about the promising experimental use of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, in combination with azithromycin, an antibiotic, as a treatment for the disease caused by the coronavirus. The study was neither randomized nor peer-reviewed, and other scientists soon criticized its methodology. But Tucker Carlson, on Fox News, highlighted the work. The next day, President Trump promoted hydroxychloroquine’s “very, very encouraging early results.” He added, mentioning another unproven therapy, “I think it could be, based on what I see, it could be a game changer.”
At a White House press briefing on March 20th, a reporter asked Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, whether hydroxychloroquine could be effective in treating covid-19. “The answer is no,” Fauci said, before yielding the microphone to Trump, who countered, “May work, may not. I feel good about it. That’s all it is, just a feeling, you know, smart guy.” A few days later, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, said, “Using untested drugs without the right evidence could raise false hope and even do more harm than good.”
Trump’s quackery was at once eccentric and terrifying—a reminder, if one was needed, of his scorn for rigorous science, even amid the worst pandemic to strike the country in a century. Yet his conduct typified his leadership as the crisis has intensified: his dependency on Fox News for ideas and message amplification, his unshakable belief in his own genius, and his understandable concern that his reëlection may be in danger if he does not soon discover a way to vanquish COVID-19 and reverse its devastation of the economy.
New York City now faces a “troubling and astronomical” increase in cases, according to Governor Andrew Cuomo, and the emergency is overwhelming hospitals, straining drug and equipment supplies, and threatening to cause a shortage of ventilators. The grim course of events in the city is a “canary in the coal mine” for the rest of the country, Cuomo said, and leaders elsewhere must take decisive action lest they, too, become inundated. Trump, though, spent much of last week promoting a contrarian gambit that has been percolating in the right-wing media. He said that, to revitalize the economy, he would like to lift travel restrictions and reopen workplaces across the country within weeks, perhaps by Easter, which is on April 12th, because, as he put it repeatedly, “we can’t let the cure be worse than the problem.”
Public-health experts immediately warned against such a reversal of social-distancing rules. “The virus will surge, many will fall ill, and there will be more deaths,” William Schaffner, a specialist in preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, told the Times. When a reporter asked the President whether any of the “doctors on your team” had advised him that a hasty reopening was “the right path to pursue,” he replied, “If it were up to the doctors, they may say, ‘Let’s keep it shut down . . . let’s keep it shut for a couple of years.’ ” Public-health specialists have said no such thing; they have spoken of a conditions-based approach (“You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline,” Fauci has said), while advising that, to save the most lives, local leaders must wait to lift restrictions in their areas until the data show that the virus has stopped spreading. Trump said that any loosening of rules he might seek around the country—he mentioned Nebraska and Idaho as possible sites—would be “based on hard facts and data,” but he also said that he chose Easter as a target date because he “just thought it was a beautiful time.”
It is true, as Trump also argued, that enormous job losses and an all but certain recession caused by the pandemic will harm many vulnerable Americans, and claim lives, as ill people without health insurance, for example, forgo care or struggle to get it at stressed clinics and hospitals. Yet, at least in the short term, over-all mortality rates fall during recessions; the reasons for this aren’t fully clear, but social scientists think they may include the public-health benefits of a decrease in pollution, as a result of the slowing economy. In any event, the case the President made for hurrying an economic revival against the advice of scientists was morally odious; it suggested that large numbers of otherwise avoidable deaths might have to be accepted as the price of job creation.
Public-health officials spoke frankly to the press about the catastrophic prospects of the President’s Easter folly. (“President Trump will have blood on his hands,” Keith Martin, the director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health, told the Times.) Trump responded on Twitter by lashing out at the “LameStream Media” for reporting such forecasts, calling the press “the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success.” Last Wednesday, after Mitt Romney, the only Republican who voted to convict the President, on a charge of abuse of power, during the Senate impeachment trial, announced that he had tested negative for COVID-19, Trump tweeted mockingly, “I’m so happy I can barely speak.” At the White House briefings, surrounded by the sorts of civil servants and experts he habitually disdains, Trump has adapted awkwardly to the role of solemn unifier. When he leaves the podium to tweet nonsense at his perceived enemies, he at least provides his opponents among the country’s homebound, screen-addled, and anxious citizenry with a galvanizing dose of his immutable obnoxiousness—a splash of the old new normal.
The journal Science asked Fauci why he doesn’t step in when the President makes false statements in the briefings. “I can’t jump in front of the microphone and push him down,” he said. America’s public-health system is fragmented and market-driven, conditions that only compound the challenge of quashing COVID-19. In the Trump era, however, decentralization has a benefit: the President is not solely in charge, and in the months ahead governors and mayors will continue to shape the odds of life or death for great numbers of Americans. Last week, Trump reviewed the possibilities for quarantine in New York City, his ravaged home town. He rambled about the stock exchange (“It’s incredible what they can do”), before going on to pledge, “If we open up, and when we open up . . . we’re giving the governors a lot of leeway” to decide how this should be done. We can only hope so.
Home Theatre — Ben Brantley in The New York Times has some suggestions for plays to read with your family gathered around.
Our stage was always a sofa — the long one that faced the fireplace. It could easily seat four or five, but my mother and I would huddle at one end, sunk into extra cushions, with our books on our laps.
And my 12-year-old self might say to her, “Now, mother, what’s the matter?” And she would answer, “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.”
That’s from “Hamlet,” of course, the scene where the title character confronts his mother in her chamber about her unholy marriage to his uncle. We were, I should hasten to add, too caught up in a cracking, plot-propelling confrontation — and the gorgeous language in which it was expressed — to be consciously thinking about how it might mirror any tensions between a real-life mother and son in the 1960s.
No, the play always was truly the thing, a fascinating story that you understood better on every occasion you read it aloud. Though we went through “Hamlet” at least several times together — as we did with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Twelfth Night” — it always surprised us.
We’d read an act or two at a time, and there’d always be a certain point when the words would make sense in a new way. I’d feel so privileged to be saying them myself, with my voice, and hearing my mother answer me in the same language. And I’d start to feel a hum of undiluted contentment, pitched at the level of a cat’s purr, that was so very rare during my adolescence.
Those moments have been much on my mind in this time of shuttered theaters and social isolation, when a drama critic is deprived of his livelihood and memories have a way of surfacing amid the silence. Though I have yet to coax my partner into picking up a script with me, reading plays aloud is a tradition I’d love to revive — and one I would highly recommend to those looking for ways to find magic in empty hours.
I can’t recall exactly when my mother and I started reading plays aloud together, or which of us first suggested we do so. Her father, an English professor, specialized in Shakespeare, so the canon had always been part of our lives. Though my mom, like my dad, became a newspaper journalist, she had loved acting in college and community theater productions when she was a young woman. And, by the age of 8, I was taking acting classes and appearing in local shows in Winston-Salem, N.C., where we lived.
We’d select works not only by Shakespeare, but also by Kaufman and Hart, Oscar Wilde, Noël Coward, Philip Barry and occasionally something grittier — Eugene O’Neill, say, or Clifford Odets. We weren’t reading scripts to flex our muscles as thespians or to show off for each other. (OK, maybe I was, a little.) This was just our version of stress-free, parent-child bonding, an activity that took us out of ourselves for an hour or so, while confirming our mutual love of theater and words.
You don’t have to be a Meryl Streep or a Mark Rylance to enjoy this pastime, any more than you have to be Tom Brady to play touch football. All that’s really required is the ability to read and to speak — and, well, a willingness both to suspend critical judgment and to let whatever you’re reading take over your imagination enough that self-consciousness retreats.
Remember that plays — even those lofty classics that show up on college reading lists — are meant to be spoken and heard. And saying their lines aloud, no matter how clumsily, helps you hear the music and cadences in them. This is true not only of Shakespeare, but also of linguistically rich latter-day writers like August Wilson, Caryl Churchill, Edward Albee, Suzan-Lori Parks and David Mamet.
If play reading at home captures your fancy, here is a list of suggestions. Because times are grim, I’m mostly sticking to works that are easy to follow and fun to read — and driven more by dialogue than visual effects or physical interaction.
This is my choice for a first dive into Shakespeare out loud. It’s sinewy and relatively short, and moves as fast a Scottish warrior’s steed on a battlefield. It is also irresistibly lurid, with lots of opportunities to go over the top in interpretation. (Those witches!) It also seems fair to say that all of us these days — who have become weary experts in hand-washing — are prepared to take on Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, in which she endlessly scrubs at hands she imagines are permanently bloodstained.
Thornton Wilder’s portrait of small-town American life in a cosmic context is written in plain and forthright prose that grows in power in the recitation of it. Perfect for those who would just as soon avoid flashy histrionics, and a good choice for families. (An alternative could be O’Neill’s uncharacteristically sunny domestic comedy, “Ah, Wilderness.”)
‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
This one’s definitely not for children. But Albee’s immortal, four-character look at marriage as a blood sport (which was to have been staged on Broadway this season, with Laurie Metcalf) has a fierce momentum that can be ridden like a roller coaster. This is the play that the woman I lived with my senior year of college and I would trot out for postprandial entertainment when we had guests for dinner. And no, I do not want to think about what this says about my character at that age.
‘The Piano Lesson’
Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winner from 1987, set in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression, turns the classic domestic drama into an exploration of the legacy of slavery. It’s the most immediately accessible — and family-friendly — of his plays, and it has a poetry all its own that approaches Shakespearean heights.
Another favorite from my college days, Coward’s peerlessly urbane tale of a couple who can’t live together and can’t be apart provides an occasion to put on plummy English accents and arched eyebrows. Just the sort of thing to read in a dressing gown, with a dry martini or two at hand. (An alternative: Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite,” a series of comic vignettes set in the hotel of the title, which had been scheduled to open on Broadway this season with Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick.)
‘The Little Foxes’
Lillian Hellman’s great potboiler about greed and chicanery in small-town Alabama in 1900 allows plenty of opportunity for camping it up wickedly, and with a Southern drawl to boot.
‘Waiting for Godot’
For those who are feeling that life is indeed an endless waiting game these days and are brave enough to take on the ultimate literary evocation of that feeling. Not exactly escapist fare, but a lot funnier than you may remember. (An alternative: Parks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning two-hander “Topdog/Underdog.”)
‘The Mousetrap’ and ‘Witness for the Prosecution’
For the British mystery lover, these theatrical adaptations of Agatha Christie novels are equal parts cozy and creepy. And the reassuringly stock characters require no special actorly finesse to bring to life. (Ayn Rand’s “The Night of January 16th,” a longtime favorite of high schools, could be an alternative. I played the gangster my junior year.)
Most of these plays are available for download online. One warning: This kind of project can affect the way you talk. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself saying “methinks” (if you’re doing Shakespeare) or calling people “dahling” (if you’re reading Coward). But, really, what’s wrong with bringing a little flash to everyday conversation at a time of stay-at-home monotony?
Actually, I have another list to offer: my own plays are on New Play Exchange and they offer a variety from one-minute comedies to full-length dramedies. If you want copies for your in-home entertainment, let me know via e-mail: mustangbobby (at) barkbarkwoofwoof.com. I mean it.
Doonesbury — Ladies first.
Saturday, March 28, 2020
This song popped into my head because of an off-hand comment made by a character in a play I’ve just started.
Some of the best times I had with my dad were going birding. Cardinals were common in Perrysburg and frequent visitors at our backyard feeders, and even today my parents get them at their feeders in the place where they live now. Even though they’re called Northern Cardinals, we have them here in South Florida. Enjoy.