A Woman’s Life in Letters

Letters used to be gifts, rare and wonderful things.  They came, hand-addressed, through the mail and you were supposed to answer them promptly.  (I know because I rarely did.)  A good letter might remind you of the writer through the distinctive handwriting or the stationary he/she chose but the the act of writing letter was most important: it meant the reader was meant so much to the writer that he/she was invited into a direct channel of the writer’s thoughts and feelings.  From personal letters, we went to electronic mail which was quicker and easier as long as you knew how to type and you could, if necessary, address it to many people at once.  After than came social media sites with ever-shortening messages to wider and wider groups of people and now we communicate by emojis, sharing news and opinions so quickly, we’re back to communicating through pictures.  That’s progress and I’m thrilled because I’ve managed to reconnect with friends I’ve owed letters to for decades but there’s something missing in our e-correspondence that was present in in the old-fashioned letters.  My mother, aunts and grandmothers could mark the stages of their lives with their correspondence. That’s what Lee Smith must have been thinking of when she wrote Fair and Tender Ladies.

Here is the tale of Ivy Rowe, in her voice and captured in a lifetime of letters.  The early ones are the greetings of an precocious and engaging child from her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia to a world she’s already longing to see.  Life is hard for those who live on the Blue Ridge at the beginning of the twentieth century but Ivy sees the beauty in the land and the people as clearly as the hard-scrabble existence that takes so much of their happiness.  You can trace the changing fortunes of the Appalachian folk through Ivy’s letters.  They descend from the “hollers” and mountain cabins to the river towns of Virginia and then to the coal mines with their promise of greater income and danger for the men who tear the ore from the mountain.  Ivy sees first-hand the wealth of a mine owner’s mansion and the poverty of devastated families of the miners killed in an explosion.  Ivy returns to the Blue Ridge mountains to face the good and bad parts of being grown, of making mistakes and getting old.  She watches electricity and the modern world make their way to the mountains and how they change the rhythm of isolated lives. She even learns to accept some of the values her parents had and then lost. All of this is recounted in hundreds of letters to strangers and friends, loving family and long-lost relatives.  While Ivy’s early dreams of being a writer and seeing the world can only be fulfilled by her daughter, Ivy points the way with her clear-eyed appraisal of life and her never-ending letters

Ivy speculates that, in the end, the collection of recorded letters don’t matter to the writer or to the recipient as much as the act of writing them does.  I’m not sure if I agree since this book (among many others) would not exist if written letters weren’t kept.  But she is right about one thing: the act of writing is what makes the document meaningful.  It is the act that says,”I open my mind and soul to you so you know the real, inner me.  Here, I will do my best to capture and transcribe the truth.” That act, whether it’s done with parchment, paper or pixels is a generous, difficult one and one of the things that distinguishes our species.  We communicate through words and the words, once we release them, expand the universe with our ideas.  Our time here is short but when we leave, the words remain.

The Reading Format Grudge Match: Paper v. Screen

It’s funny how often SF writers predicted the future.  Verne imagined exploring space and the ocean floor, Bradbury predicted earbuds and my favorite, Robert Heinlein foresaw the Cold War, the Internet and helped invent water-beds.  Still the development Heinlein predicted that I enjoy the most was in his novel Time Enough for Love.  In that book, Heinlein not only foresaw the development of the e-reader, he predicted the difference between the traditional “paper” book fans and the screen readers.  However, I doubt if he realized how silly that battle would get.

According to that source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, e-readers actually started in the 1930’s, long before the computer age (or I) was born and Project Gutenberg started digitizing texts 40 years later. Of course, the hardware wasn’t really available to the public then to make the data easily accessible but once personal computers and access to the internet became a common household item, the times began a changing.  People began reading books on screens.  Then eight years ago, Amazon upended everything by coming out with the Kindle, first as a standalone e-reading pad and later as a software app that allowed the user to keep and use an entire library on any computer: from the CPU at home, to the hand-held smart phone.  The format grudge match was on.
Now I’ll admit that reading off screens can give the dedicated reader a monumental case of eye-strain.  The night I realized the entire Anne of Green Gables series was available on Gutenberg’s website, I strained my eyes racing through all the books in one night.  Of course, I am a card-carrying weirdo. Strained eyes and a headache weren’t going to stop me from making sure Anne ended up with Gilbert Blythe.  Since then, screen texts have become a lot easier to read.  So what’s the fuss?
Part of it, some friends insist, is the gestalt of the book reading experience.  No e-reader, they say, can compare to feeling the size and weight of a book and turning the printed pages; in a way they have a point.  For devotees to the act of reading, no delight is quite like lifting a hefty book that you’ve been wanting to read.  But when I’m lost in a story, I lose focus on minor details like the number of pages left in the book (or where I am).  I read until the tale is done or the book falls from my hand as I drop off to sleep (and I can hold the light e-reader in my hand longer than a heavy, traditional book).   Let’s put it this way: if you’re reading the books of Marcel Proust, an e-reader could save you from straining your wrist.  But if you insist on reading in the tub, paper is the only reasonable candidate. No e-reader I know has learned to survive a dip in the bath.
A real area of concern is comprehension: the e-reader has limited worth as a tool if screen reading results in lower comprehension.  As a teacher, my sis worries about that kind of thing and she sent this article that suggests that “deep reading”, reading that involves contemplation as well as visual auditing, falls off when people read off of screens instead of paper.  However the studies in the article didn’t list any hard data to support their worry – just the notice that people are more dis-tractable when they’re reading off the screen. Since most e-reading is done from the same machine that handles the users phone calls, text messages and social media, it may not be the act of screen reading that creates the distraction but the inputs a user gets while using the machine.  And the question of comprehension is still in debate.  In 2012, a Norwegian study suggested the format made a difference in reading comprehension.  Last year, a French study came to the opposite conclusion.  
So does the format change how we experience or incorporate knowledge from reading?  I don’t know.  I wish we could settle the question but I hope the medium is not the message.  To me, a great story is a great story and I don’t care if I read those words from a page, a screen or painted on the sky by a plane.  The story is what matters, the prose and the characters, the narrative, themes and thought.  Without that we are arguing about the frame of an artwork; the masterpiece inside would be gone.
Or so says the card-carrying weirdo.

A Great Writer, Stealing

Some say T. S. Eliot came up with the quote, “Good writers borrow; great ones steal.”  Others say the line came from Oscar Wilde.  Either way, every fiction writer knows that their finished work is based in part on the experiences and stories of others that they’ve heard about and read and the best way to avoid a copyright or invasion of privacy suit is to take the base material and then change it until it becomes something you can use for your story.  Do a good job and you’ll win the lawsuit, (although you may not be forgiven).  Do a great job and academic types will study your work and reverse engineer it to detect the roots of the story you wrote.  That’s what James Shapiro has done in The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.   Whether you like history or theatre, this fascinating book puts a great man’s work back in the context of his time.

Shapiro points out the author and the play are not the the creations we assume we know.  Younger Shakespeare is remembered for writing the comedies and historical plays that entertained Queen Elizabeth I but the times and the man have changed.  The author of Lear is an older man, retired from acting, and now writes full-time for the King, James the I.  A theatrical company like Shakespeare’s was supposed to produce twenty new plays each year as well as revive twenty more old favorites (well, this was before TV and the internet).  So writers were scrambling for new material to fashion into plays that would divert the court and put audiences in the seats.  Everything was up for grabs including the play someone else invented last season.   Oh, by the way, did I mention Bill stole the basic plot and characters we thought he created for Lear?

The Most Famous Chronicle Historye of Leire King of England and his Three Daughters had been produced 12 years before by Shakespeare’s company but it is wildly different from the Lear that we know.  The King still makes the moronic mistake of dividing his land between the daughters that lied to him and disinherits the dutiful daughter but in the original, the King is ultimately saved from his mistake.  The “Good Daughter”, with the help of her husband, rescues Lear and his kingdom and puts Lear back on the throne.  All ends well.  Shakespeare wasn’t only a brilliant playwright on his own, he was a collaborator and a first rate play-doctor in the bargain and he saw the weakness in this structure.  With Lear and Cordelia well and triumphant at the end, the whole episode lacks consequences.  Let one good character die and make the other one triumph is a standard formula today.  Kill both along with Reagan and Goneril (Stinking Sister One and Stinking Sister Two) and now the country has no government and is likely to fall apart.   That’s consequences.  That’s believable and (of course) that’s our well-known King Lear.

Mr. Shapiro points out that Shakespeare’s Lear was political propaganda as well.   While Elizabeth was the Queen of England, her heir, James, ruled both Scotland and England and unifying the two countries (plus Wales and Ireland) into Great Britain was a thorny proposal James was trying to get Parliament to accept.  It wasn’t a popular idea in Parliament or Glasgow (Given Scotland’s referendum two years ago, the idea still has its detractors).  Shapiro points out that Shakespeare’s tragedy starts when a King of Great Britain willfully divides his empire.  Unified, the country has a strong central government.  Divide it between sisters that can’t and don’t trust each other and eventually the whole island falls apart.  It’s a subtle lesson but one that would have easily understood by the audiences who saw those first performances by Shakespeare’s company, the aptly-named, “King’s Men”.  Their objective wasn’t just to entertain the Court; it was to support and impart the King’s policies.

Bill the Scribe

So much more of what happened that year appears in this famous play.  A woman pretending to be possessed is exposed  and the recipe of the potion she drank to create her altered state is paraphrased in the play.  An anonymous letter exposes the Gunpowder Plot (remembered now on Guy Fawkes day) and another anonymous letter kicks off the sub-plot of Lear where a powerful man chooses to believe the wrong son.  Shapiro recounts the episodes of paranoia, happiness, intrigue and change that Shakespeare witnessed during this year and then ties them to incidents in Shakespeare’s Lear, Macbeth and the Tempest so a year in the life of the playwright becomes a key to understanding the man and his work a little better.

And, in the end, it is the work that matters.  We don’t remember Lear because it started life as a play with a happy ending or that Bill the Scribe wrote his strongest, darkest pieces when he was old enough to see that older, more powerful men, can make larger, more disastrous mistakes.  We remember the work because it is good, because it moves us and the emotional truth of the piece informs our own lives. Lear is the story of families that come to grief after flattery is mistaken for love.  That is nearly a universal experience recreated in deathless lines that intelligent actors love to declaim.  The Year of Lear gives Bill’s tragedy context that enriches our understanding of the play.   But Lear, even standing alone, is a devastating, brilliant gift that writers have been stealing from ever since.

Reading during the Worst of Times

A friend of mine died this week.

A brain aneurysm no one knew she had ruptured without warning.  She lost consciousness and passed away days later without ever regaining it.  She was only 51.

The morning after she passed away, I kept checking her Facebook page, hoping someone would post a retraction.

Oh God, I wanted someone  to post a retraction.

But they didn’t.  They can’t. My friend is gone and she isn’t coming back.

Emotional pain on this level leaves me barely able to function at first.  I spent the first day wandering around in shock and crying.  I wanted to tell someone but I couldn’t decide who to call.   There were  colleagues we had worked with years ago but how do you call someone, out of the blue, and say, “By the way, a woman you haven’t seen in years died yesterday.  Thought you’d like to know.”  I wanted to buttonhole strangers and say they’d missed knowing someone wonderful.  I wanted to share the pain.

I couldn’t.

After I came home, frustrated and grieving, I looked up an essay William Allen White wrote when his sixteen year old daughter, Mary, died unexpectedly.  Like my friend, Mary White was enthusiastic soul who liked everyone she met and most people liked her right back.  As I read Mr. White’s recollection of the child he’d loved and lost, a knot inside of me started to ease.  When I got to those final, beautiful sentences…

“A rift in the clouds in a gray day threw a shaft of sunlight upon her coffin as her nervous, energetic little body sank to its last sleep. But the soul of her, the glowing, gorgeous, fervent soul of her, surely was flaming in eager joy upon some other dawn.”

…part of me could see the face of my friend joyfully moving forward toward her next destiny. 

That night I had trouble sleeping so my husband turned on an audio-book, hopeful that the reader’s voice could lull me into dreaming.  The book was the much loved Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows and as the reader recounted Harry’s walk toward Voldemort, I thought again of my friend and the premature end of her life. I found myself hoping that, like Harry, my friend felt the support and comfort of those she’s loved and lost when she faced her final moments.  I don’t know this happened but I hope it did.  I wouldn’t want her to feel afraid or alone.

And I realized that although I was still grieving, at least I no longer felt stunned or confused.  Because of what Rowling and White had written about grief, I was beginning to come to grips with mine.     

Reading can be an escape from pain and that can also be therapeutic but greater is the book that helps us cope with it.   Some are fiction, like the ones I’ve mentioned and others, like C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed, are not but their message is the same: they tell us we are not alone.  Someone else has climbed this hill before us, someone has known this grief and, through words, they reach out to help us.  They strengthen us as the memory of love may strengthen those who face the Dark.

Yes, I will remember and miss my friend for the rest of my life.  And I will spend a long time grieving. I know this from experience. But reading the words of others who’ve mourned helps me during the Worst of Times.  And their words will continue to be there until I can look with joy again at the dawn.

A Life in American Theatre.

If you go to any college orientation, it’s easy to pick out the theatre major wannabes.  While the business majors are making contacts and the proto-engineers are using their smartphones to game and/or calculate maximum spillage in their latest prank, the theatre majors are busy being theatrical.  Other students wear clothes; the theatricals show up in layers. Layers and layers of rehearsal outfits which can be removed or rearranged as needed, along with an overly large carrier of some kind that also looks like a refugee from the consignment store.  Once inside, it’s hard to get theatre majors out the door again.  They aren’t friendly during interviews, they are effusive (or moribund, if they’re channeling a Method Actor).  An English Major is ten minutes late for class; the Theatre Major appears just before he/she is declared dead.  It’s the nature of the beast.  And, concealed into the folds of rehearsal layers or tucked into the overlarge carrier are the proto-drama major’s tools of the trade: their Starbucks card, a few B&W headshots, a book on acting by Stella Adler (read), another by O’Neill on masks (not read) and Moss Hart’s autobiography, Act One.   When you see one of these young and theatrical types, knock them down, grab their copy of Act One and run for the exit.  They can draw on the memory of you mugging them to prepare for some future role and you can get a good read.  When it comes to a life in the theatre, there is no better story than this one.

Hart was the Horatio Alger of 20th century American Theatre, a child of immigrants from the poorest slum in New York whose success and drive allowed him to build the kind of life that (according to one critic) God would have built…if he only had the money.  But it didn’t come easy.  There was no Julliard at that time, no AADA, or film school for those who wanted a life in the industry.  There was only the stage and how you got in depended on connections or drive.  Moss got there by drive, first taking the worst jobs in the least stable productions (where getting paid was still a gamble) and then inching his way up to something better.  Along the way he saw the Catskills resorts at its best and some declining stars at their worst and realized that he needed a life behind the footlights.  Hart was a director and a playwright but not an actor.  His idea of how sound would affect silent pictures became a satire on Hollywood that attracted the biggest playwright on Broadway at that time: George S. Kaufman.
It’s difficult to describe Kaufman in terms of contemporary theatre.   He started out as a journalist and drama critic (like Shaw) and became a playwright, someone infatuated with the rhythm of a spoken line as well as the idea it presented.  He was a sought-after play-doctor, for his ability to see the structural flaws in developing vehicles and correct them.  Harvey Fierstein does some of that these days and, like Fierstein, Kaufman was known to act, on occasion.  He was a fearsome director, a tireless worker and the most intimidating person in the world, according to Moss Hart but he was also a generous collaborator and, as Act One shows, a firm believer in the practice of “Kill Your Darlings.”
Kaufman and Hart’s first comedy, “Once in a Lifetime” is a study in Hollywood excess and early performances included a third act in an expensive, bird-themed nightclub set that was hilarious to look at but it stopped the action cold.  Another Broadway legend, Sam Harris (the man who partnered with George M. Cohan for years) mentioned after one dreary, show-killing point how loud and tiring the whole show was.  There was never a scene where a couple of the actors could simply talk over the events, he said and give him a chance to rest.  Hart took the suggestion seriously and rewrote the entire act, scrapping the expensive, already paid for set and adding the quiet interlude needed before the mayhem of a finale begins.  That quiet, third-act moment is necessary for the audience and whenever I’ve seen one in other productions, I know it was put in because the playwright heeded the advice of Moss Hart and Sam Harris.  George Kaufman agreed and when “Once in a Lifetime” opened to rave reviews, Kaufman made sure Hart got most of the credit (financially and publicly) for the hit.

The plural of genius: Kaufman & Hart

It’s a shame Hart never wrote the follow-up to this vivid theatrical autobiography because there was so much for him to cover: the string of plays and musicals he wrote and/or directed, his screenplays (including Garland’s “A Star is Born” and “Hans Christian Anderson), but it wasn’t in the cards.  Moss Hart died when he was still in his fifties and two of his shows (Camelot and My Fair Lady) were still running on Broadway.  Instead, he left behind a widow, two children, the theatrical legacy of a wunderkind and an autobiography theatre majors still pore over.  Let the sagacious and elderly rethink their lives reading Shakespeare; Act One is when you need to feel young.