“Proof:” Men, Women, & Math Skills

By Barry Honold

In Proof, Catherine is depicted as a math prodigy. Playwright David Auburn has said that he was fascinated with the idea of a young genius toiling away in the small hours of the night and producing a work that would revolutionize an entire field. Likewise, Tom Stoppard’s hit play Arcadia features a young and exceptionally talented female protagonist.  Both deal with advanced mathematical concepts: chaos theory in Arcadia and Fermat’s Last Theorem in Proof.

The sex of the protagonist is significant, largely because it is not considered the norm. Most stories about the hard sciences involve men. And, in scientific and mathematical jobs around the country, men outnumber women. Auburn wrote about “a panel of women mathematicians [that] used [Proof] to discuss questions of sexism and bias in their profession” at New York University. Bias against women in math is common.

In 2005, former Clinton Administration official and Harvard President Larry Summers spoke at a diversity conference on campus. He began musing on the disparity between men and women in tenured positions. As it was reported, he had a three-part theory: high-power, high-prestige jobs require sacrifices most women seem unwilling to make; it is possible that men have more “intrinsic aptitude” for advanced math and science; and the normal glass ceiling problems. “In my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described,” he finished.

The reaction was immediate. MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins walked out, saying that if she did not leave, she would have “blacked out or thrown up…this kind of bias makes me physically ill.” Feminist provocateur Camille Paglia immediately pounced on this remark, expressing sympathy that Hopkins’ doctoral degree students were unfortunate enough to have a professor prone to “swooning” when confronted with an idea she found disagreeable. The left, right, and center talking heads on TV began blasting away at each other.

Time ran an entire issue devoted to the “gender gap” shortly after the flap, asking “[i]s it true, even a little bit, that men are better equipped for scientific genius?

As usual, there is no simple “yes” or “no” answer. One of Summers’ cited sources was the University of Michigan’s Yu Xie, who said that “I didn’t exclude biology as an explanation. But I know biological factors would not play a role unless they interacted with social conditions.”

There are certainly role models for women in math: Hypatia, probably the first prominent female mathematician. Her father taught at the Library of Alexandria. Or Maria Agnesi, noted for differential and integral calculus. Or one of Voltaire’s associates, Emilie du Chatelet, the French Enlightenment mathematician who translated Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica.  

In fact, if there are any intrinsic differences, recent research suggests they can be accounted for and bypassed. In “The Gender Gap in Math: Its Possible Origins in Neighborhood Effects” the researchers devised a contextual study to look at the disparity. Essentially, the normal socialization of boys encourages them to be outside of the house more than girls. Boys are more likely to be encouraged to play sports that involve math in some form and explore their community (and thus access libraries, after-school centers, and museums). However, girls who have access to these resources do equally well. Education and affluence tend to trump biology.

Another article, “The Myth of the Gender Gap,” pointed out recent studies that have shown girls’ math scores and participation to be pulling even with the boys. This “may reflect the simple fact that more female students are now taking math courses.” It furthermore discovered that “girls are increasingly sticking with math classes through school…girls and boys take advanced math in high schools in equal numbers, and women receive nearly half of all bachelor degrees in the US – and their scores are closing the gap.” The stereotype about boys doing better in math persists, though.

 Allanah Thomas, who teaches adult women math skills, explains that “[w]hat often holds girls back is self-confidence; it drops sharply in middle school.” One unlikely ally is the video game “Tetris.” Time writes that when girls played the game after math tests, their spatial reasoning skills shot up dramatically. High schools and colleges can make their math departments more “women friendly” by hiring more female math faculty. The most important thing is for parents and teachers to encourage their girls to work at math, and refuse to give up.

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Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 5:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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DARPP-32: Genius & Madness in “Proof”

By Barry Honold

David Auburn’s Proof deals with a recurrent theme in literature – the alleged link between genius and madness. Catherine’s father, Robert, almost certainly suffers from schizophrenia. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, it is a “chronic, severe, and disabling brain disorder that affects about 1.1 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older ….People with schizophrenia sometimes hear voices others don’t hear, believe that others are broadcasting their thoughts to the world, or become convinced that others are plotting to harm them. These experiences can make them fearful and withdrawn and cause difficulties when they try to have relationships with others.” Robert is also a mathematical genius who did some of his best work before his mid-twenties.

In Proof, Catherine may have inherited some of her father’s illness: she has a perfectly lucid conversation with him wherein he reminds her that he is, in fact, dead. We are never told whether this is a dream or a delusion. In a flashback, she discovers him working in the cold on the front porch. He convinces her that his illness is in remission and that he has resumed real work again. She is cautiously optimistic, but when she looks over his work, realizes that it is gibberish. Interestingly enough, Auburn wrote of meeting with one woman at a book signing: she told him that her mathematician father had a nervous breakdown and she had “spent her whole life caring for him.” Then, she said, “This is the story of my life. How did you know?”

The idea of some link between genius and madness is not new: it stretches back from the Roman orator Seneca, through the Middle Ages with Paracelsus, to Van Gogh’s self-mutilation and the description of Lord Byron as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” Not just Van Gogh, but Edvard Munch, Paul Gaugin, and Jackson Pollock also suffered from mental illness. Derek Hillard, writing in “The Rhetoric of Originality: Paul Lolan and the Disentanglement of Illness and Creativity,” writes that the notion of madness sharing “ground with originality is at first not evident: both the products of genius and madness may seem to be fancy; they neither ground themselves on a universally accessible logic nor define themselves based on previous grounds.” Auburn discovered a similar idea while reading A Mathematician’s Apology, by G.H. Hardy, while researching the play. Hardy had written that, “in a good proof, there is a very high degree of unexpectedness, combined with inevitability and economy.”

And here we have the difference between Robert and Catherine’s toil: his, a work of insanity which could never hope to survive peer review. Hers is a work of genius that will cement her name in the annals of brilliant mathematicians.

Vanderbilt psychologists Brad Folley and Sohee Park did a study that showed creative people to be more likely to suffer from depression and schizophrenia. The most well-known case involving a mathematician is John Nash, Jr. (portrayed by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind).

Nash is a seminal figure in the field of Game Theory, and formulated the Nash Equilibrium. Game Theory analyzes how people, states, and organizations behave, usually in competition. His work was first applied to Cold War strategy and later to economics. After he received his master’s degree in math, his advisor wrote a one- sentence recommendation letter: “This man is a genius.” He began having auditory hallucinations and believed himself to be persecuted by the Pope and President Eisenhower. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, hospitalized, and treated with Thorazine and psychoanalysis. His hallucinations lasted, in varying degrees, over the years without ever really ceasing. In 1994, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.

As science has advanced over time, madness has gone from something viewed as quasi-spiritual to a simple medical condition. As such, madness has been de-mystified, is diagnosed by doctors, treated with pharmaceuticals, and its storied history as a link to the divine severed.

Now we have a more prosaic explanation: DARPP-32. A UK Daily Mail article explains that DARPP-32 is a gene that controls thought and action, but is also partially responsible for schizophrenia. When “genes and environmental events” create an information overload for the brain, everything backfires, and may result in schizophrenia.

The “antic disposition” of Hamlet and Lear screaming into the storm gave Romantic writers an iconic image to emulate: the tortured soul. They took the step of rooting the cause of that torture in over-reliance on cold reason and the rejection of nature and the spiritual. It is certainly poetic that “cold reason,” if anything, will be what finally ends or ameliorates madness.

The Foundations of Modern Math: Pythagoras, Euclid, and Archimedes

Barry Honold, Dramaturg

According to Calvin C. Clawson’s Mathematical Sorcery: Revealing the Secrets of Numbers, the earliest archaeological evidence for counting is “two animal bones which show clear grouped marks.” These are also called tally sticks. The first is a baboon’s thigh bone discovered in the Lebembo Mountains in Africa and dates back to 35,000 years ago. The second is a wolf bone that is 33,000 years old. It is, he notes, “especially intriguing” because it is “notched with fifty-five marks, grouped in eleven sets of five marks each.” Other early counting methods were developed by Egyptian and Babylonian farmers and bureaucrats for record-keepin and determining crop size.

Pythagoras (ca. 570 – 501 BC) – Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. He was the son of a prosperous merchant, In “Pythagoras, Son of Mnesarchos,” author Nancy Demand surmised that his extensive travels were business trips made with and for his father. In 529, he went to Sicily, then Tarentum, before finally settling in Croton. Amir D. Eczel explained that he was in an ideal locale to have seen all Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. His philosophical order was founded was the assent of the local government, allowed women to join, and was very much a secret society. It was also strict: one initiate who was overly garrulous was thrown into the sea and drowned. Eczel writes that they “followed an ascetic lifestyle, and were strict vegetarians.” He saw that many aspects of nature were cyclical (the tides, day and night, lunar phases, etc), and extrapolated that everything was understandable via numbers. He discovered the concept of odd/even integers. The Pythagoreans believed that everything in nature was essentially mathematical, and that even concepts like justice and friendship had correlating numbers. He is recognized as one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, with Carl Friedrich Gauss, and is most known for the Pythagorean Theorem and Pythagorean Triples.

Euclid (365 – 300 BC) – He was invited by Ptolemy to head the Academy and Library of Alexandria after the death of Alexander the Great. Aside from that, we know very little of his life. His greatest work is the Elements, and Eczel writes that the first two volumes of this work are believed to be entirely influenced by the work of Pythagoras and his society. Euclid is viewed as more of a compiler of Greek mathematics than an innovator. Clawson writes that, using five postulates and axioms, Euclid “logically deduced all of his theorems of geometry. This was a monumental achievement and served as a model for all of mathematics right up to the twentieth century,” selling second only to the Bible. “The Elements was used as a geometry text for two thousand years.”

Archimedes (287 – 212 BC) – Archimedes is considered by some to be the pre-eminent mathematician of antiquity. Marshall Clagett writes that Galileo revered him and described him “in almost Homeric hyperbole.” Eczel writes that his work pre-figured integral calculus and differential calculus. When he suspected that he was being plagiarized, he would intentionally fudge an equation, and later point out the error to the embarrassment of the thief. He invented the Archimedes’ screw, which is a drill that pulls water out of the ground and is still used today. He discovered the first law of hydrostatics, which says that “a submerged body loses from its weight the weight of the liquid it displaces,” via an apocryphal tale: the king was concerned that one of the local gold merchants was dishonest. He asked Archimedes to find out the truth. Archimedes began using his own body to determine weight. He ran some numbers, and arrived at the truth. “When he discovered the law, he jumped out of the bath and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting ‘Eureka! Eureka!’ (I found it!).”

He used his mathematical skill to help defend Syracuse against the Romans via catapults. This gives us another story: while he was doing geometry in the sand, a Roman soldier approached him and ordered him to leave. Archimedes was too caught up in his work, and didn’t hear the soldier. The soldier thought he was being ignored and angrily drew his sword. He walked too close to the figures, and Archimedes ordered him away. The soldier killed him. This was reported by Roman general Marcellus in the Second Punic War. According to Mary Jaegar, “Archimedes’ death was a sore point for the Romans – their commander Marcellus is said to have been both angered and aggrieved. Cicero later sought out and found his grave. Then, the grave disappeared to history. In 1963, construction workers found his tomb while beginning work on a hotel.

Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 5:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Interview with Sam Whited, “A Christmas Story” Lead

Sam is a favorite at Tennessee Rep. He was in Inherit the Wind, Dearly Departed, 1776, Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol, The Crucible, The Underpants, Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Darwin in Malibu, and many others. He is a well-known sight on Nashville stages, having also appeared at Nashville Children’s Theatre, Mockingbird Theatre, People’s Branch Theatre, and the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. He lives in White Bluff with his wife, Erin (who is also the stage manager for A Christmas Story). We had the chance to ask him some questions about the show, his previous work, and whether he ever shot his eye out.

Tennessee Rep: Where were you and what was your initial impression the first time you saw A Christmas Story? Were you familiar with Jean Shepherd’s work before then?”

Sam Whited: I’m not sure when I first saw A Christmas Story– I think it was in high school and I had no idea who Jean Shepherd was. I just remember how it felt like I was looking at an honest assessment of a kid’s Christmas experience. I was struck even then at how genuine the memories were in their state of “heightened reality”.

TR: Why do you think A Christmas Story has such enduring appeal? Is it childhood nostalgia, or do you think it’s something more?

SW: I love the sense of nostalgia it evokes, but nostalgia is not something that is particularly hard to come by. I think the humor is probably what keeps it in our minds; its timeless in the way that all great comedy is. It is not dependent on the time period and manages to avoid being dated in that way. I think it also works on an totally different level. The genuine reactions the characters have to each other touch us in ways that surprise us. In the midst of all this comedy, we find a moment or three that genuinely move us to tears in their displays of stinging truth and unconditional love. That’s pretty potent stuff.

TR: Shepherd wrote that only adults have room for nostalgia, that children are too busy trying to get older to reminisce about the past. Does he have a point? Why or why not?

SW: I agree. I think it is an issue of adults reflecting on a culture they’ve already established while kids are still establishing their own. You can’t really reflect on the way things were when there isn’t much “past” in your culture. I was struck when I heard 20 somethings reminiscing about Smurfs, Pop Rocks and Opryland. Apparently nostalgia is a sense you develop when you realize you have moved away from something difficult to get back to.

TR: Erin tells me that you and your little brother have roughly the same age difference as Ralphie and Randy. How does that, in any way, help you connect with your character? What about your childhood did you bring to this role?

SW: Anyone with a sibling can better understand the relationships in the play. There is a dynamic (partially of competition, partially of “comrades in arms”) that is different from families with one child. It is one of the reasons I find Randy’s concern for Ralph particularly moving. Needless to say, I am never on stage alone. My immediate family is as close by as my stage family.

TR: While we’re on the subject of your childhood, I’d like to talk about BB guns for a bit. You had one as a kid, and your aim was particularly formidable. Can you elaborate?

SW: I wasn’t particularly good at anything growing up. I was extremely sensitive and self conscious. My BB gun was one of the first things that demonstrated to me that I could do things that others couldn’t necessarily do. I will not brag on my BB gun technique any further than to say that splitting dandelion stems set me apart. No domestic weed was safe when I was in a killing mood.

TR: What is your favorite Christmas memory?

SW: It is a relatively recent event.

On Christmas Eve, 1994, I attended midnight mass with my girlfriend and her family at Trinity Episcopal church in Clarksville. After the service, her parents headed home and the two of us drove over to the Austin Peay campus to have a quiet moment together. (Our relationship started there during a show.)

As we drove on campus, just in front of the Dunn center gym, I noticed a campus policeman patrolling ahead of me. In a rush of foolishness, I chose to make a large show of a U-turn in the middle of a 4 way intersection before coming to a stop in front of the gym. We sat for a moment gazing at the trees there under which we had talked for long hours, then the blue lights started flashing behind us.

My date was mortified, a little shocked and a tad concerned about the path the evening was taking. When the officer walked up to my window and asked if I need any help, I smiled and told him that this woman and I had met at the university and I wanted to bring her back to propose. Between the tears in my wife’s eyes and the goofy, “aw shucks” response of the officer, my heart was cartwheeling. That night, its memory and the subsequent years of happiness I share with Erin are something that I don’t think can be topped.

TR: What is it like to play a nine-year old on stage? Does it make your acting more free?

SW: Heavens no! Nine is a terrible responsibility. Not as bad, say, as four or two; but there are specific needs and responses in younger characters that are harder to make genuine the further you move from childhood. I love to play children and there is perhaps a greater physical simplicity in their characters, but there is a greater need to be honest and present and firmly committed to the rules of childhood. As far as I’m concerned, playing younger is much more challenging than older.

TR: You’ve acted in many shows with Tennessee Rep before, including the holiday show Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol. What about holiday shows do you find particularly rewarding and/or challenging? Is there a different kind of energy there?

SW: I love holiday shows. They almost always seem to center on a character’s gradual realization and acknowledgment of something greater than themselves. They are reflections of the best in us rising to meet the best in others or the redemption of those who had been lost. It’s hard not to love stories with such investments.

By the same token, I think there is as much to be made of the differences in the responses of the audience to such material. Unlike other shows where folks come to hear and see a story of interest, they seem to come to holiday shows specifically to share something. Ideally, theatre should always be a shared experience; the audience should leave feeling that they have been on a journey with everyone else in attendance. Yet, when they come to a Christmas show, there seems to be a need to connect that is different than at other times of the year. As far as I am concerned, regardless of the show, I thirst for that connection with the ensemble and (of course) the audience. It is also interesting to think perhaps the time of year affects how open some folks are to the experience of theatre.

TR: Do you think there is a scene you look forward to performing the most? Is there a scene that the audience will particularly enjoy?

SW: I think each member of the audience will be looking for their own specific moments. I think they will each be pleasantly surprised at what they find….My favorite moments in any show are when I can play with the rest of the ensemble.

TR: Exit question: have you ever shot your eye out? Anybody else’s eye?

SW: No, but I did once poke a jagged stick in my eye. I can’t really recommend it.

Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 9:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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Jean Shepherd’s Hohman

“Fitzgerald showed this. He was always the guy from the Midwest looking in the window at the Princeton dance. It’s no coincidence that Hemingway was from Oak Park [in Illinois]. You’re never a part of anything if you come from the Midwest.” – Jean Shepherd

In Shepherd’s works, Hohman (his fictionalized version of Hammond), Indiana becomes almost a character in its own right. It clung “to the underbelly of Chicago” the way barnacle clings to boats. It was a rough, industrial city, where “streetcar wires creaked under ice and kids plodded to school through forty-five mile-an-hour gales tilting forward like tiny furred radiator ornaments.” Hohman was a steel town, and he liked to say that there has never been an upper-crust steel town. One had to be tough to make it.

But there was still cause for celebration, especially around the holidays. Downtown Hohman came alive at Christmas; once the curtains hiding the massive toy display at the local Goldblatt’s were opened, the time was set for the giant “Yuletide Jubilee,” and the quest for the Red Ryder BB gun was on (Incidentally, Macy’s in New York re-created scenes from A Christmas Story for their windows in 2003). Peter Scholl, writing in The Great Lakes Review, pointed out that the Indiana council of English teachers had literally put Shepherd “on the map.” In the upper left-hand corner of their Literary Map of Indiana is a boy listening to the radio expectantly. In his hand is a Radio Orphan Annie decoder pin. The “iris-less orphan girl herself is pictured above him, string emptily down [over] Lake Michigan and across the northern steppes of the Hoosier State. Scholl goes on, like so many others, to compare Shepherd to Mark Twain: both were born in and subsequently left the Midwest. But they returned to it in their adult careers, at least in their imaginations. It provided “the raw material for their best stories.”

 In a 1966 Newsday article, Shepherd mused on the inherent differences between Midwesterners and Easterners. While comparing himself to JD Salinger (Shepherd was never much into modesty), he wrote that the Midwesterner generally thinks that they are pretty lucky in their circumstances and accepts life for what it is. Conversely, Easterners (whom he stereotyped as being varying degrees of Holden Caulfield) go through life with a certain degree of anger and bitterness. The fact that they have more favorable circumstances of birth gives them a sense of entitlement, matched with bitterness if their wants are not met.  

Shepherd left his hometown, moved to the big city, then proceeded to talk about his hometown incessantly. He became a de facto advocate of the small town childhood, and wove it into his stories. In a 2001 Time article, he was pictured as the “hip hick, a defender of the Midwest at the precise moment that America was becoming bicoastal.” Hohman, Indiana, was known by its banality. It was even mentioned as a precursor to The Simpsons’ Springfield. According to Shepherd, the Midwest “swam in a sea of futility…[a]nother name for realism.” Shepherd, the White Sox fan envious of the (relative) success of the Chicago Cubs, inevitably identified with those who “failed most artfully.” The Old Man and Ralphie’s failures are nothing if not artful.

He made repeated mention of his speaking engagements at venues like Princeton University, where his audience showed an almost-anthropological fascination with “flyover country.” They were amused that there were people who actually attended, say, a Kiwanis Club. For his book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, he wrote about returning to his hometown as an urbane, sophisticated New Yorker. His initial reaction was that he “felt like a spy.” Here he was, looking at his old town from the window of a cab. Taking a cab in New York is commonplace; it was almost unheard of in Hohman. The cabbie takes him to the bar owned by his childhood friend Flick, and the two reminisce.

Scholl, in “Jean Shepherd: the Survivor of Hammond,” asserts that Shepherd’s true target was the “cultural elite” who scoffed at the Midwesterner. He was by no means a “disaffected and alienated spirit who lambastes the Hoosier for comic effect. But he does explore the differences between the Easterner he has become and the kid who “survived Hammond” that he was. Appropriately enough, at the end of the article and book, Shepherd eschews the cab, and walks to the nearest bus stop, becoming “a native son” yet again. – Barry Honold

Published in: on November 9, 2009 at 8:20 pm  Comments (1)  
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Themes & Language in Jean Shepherd

A Christmas Story falls into a distinct category of Shepherd’s work: growing up in Indiana. These recollections were a favorite among fans. The success of the 24-hour run of the movie every year is a testament to its success and Shepherd’s success as a storyteller. A 1962 Time article wrote that he “remembers his Indiana boyhood with a command of imagery so precise that he can spin into the air everything from the smell of an old-fashioned icebox to the guilty excitement of [a teenage boy] looking through a stack of Breesy Story magazines…in the cellar.” Whether listening to or reading him, there was no mistaking who it was. He worked hard to achieve his voice, and once confessed that it took “years for me to learn how to edit, to phrase, to give beat, pause, momentum…to keep a thematic mood running through the whole thing.”

It is important to note that A Christmas Story did not start off as a whole. It is cobbled together from his writing over the years, most notably from In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash. In the book, the childhood remembrance is the result of a busybody woman wearing a button that says “DISARM THE TOY INDUSTRY.” She “spoke in the ringing, anvil-like tones of a True Believer” and gave him a pamphlet denouncing “world-wide Capitalistic decadence, all through plastic popguns and Sears Roebuck fatigue suits for kids.”

Shepherd was not a fatalistic writer, but he definitely recognized the limitations of Homo sapiens. For him, the human condition has its downfalls, but the struggle itself provides opportunity for laughter. Like the characters in Waiting for Godot, Shepherd’s protagonists (often his younger alter ego) don’t know what’s coming: they can only wait and hope for the best. A 1971 Wall Street Journal article noted that “[he celebrates the] hopelessness and haplessness of the human race and the total absurdity of life on earth….almost all of [his stories] involve characters including young Shepherd who flirt valiantly with victory, only to go down in the end in crushing defeat….In the world of Shepherd, there is no cause whatever for hope. And hope springs eternal.”

 His view of mankind was very much in line with the Ancient Greeks: “there is no way for man to control history. He is instead a victim of it.” His characters, including his younger alter ego, try to control (or at least persuade) history and their circumstances. They try to work hard. They can use guile and cunning. They make valiant efforts. But in the end, these efforts are doomed. Tragedy and the fall are not only for Lear, but also for young Ralphie.

Nor were Shepherd’s stories consciously meant to inspire nostalgia at the “good ole days,” because they weren’t always that good: I think nostalgia is one of the great sicknesses of America. what my work says is, ‘if you think it’s bad now, you should have seen it then. You’ll notice that nothing works out for [Ralphie]. He gets hit with the gun, the furnace blows up, the dogs go wild, and the family winds up having to go to a Chinese restaurant for Christmas. Probably unintentionally, his stories do inspire nostalgia. Or perhaps identification. Identification with a struggle against everything the world throws at you. Identification with the young protagonist dealing with the same humdrum and momentous conflicts of childhood that have always existed and will always exist. Shepherd’s work inspired such identification, largely because of his consummate skill as a storyteller. Story after story after story after his death tells of kids and teenagers hiding under their covers in the 50s and early 60s with their radio every night, waiting for Shepherd to tell them How It Really Is. An article in The New York Times wrote that listening to Shepherd was akin to being “admitted to a locker room bull session with a guy who really knew what it was all about – and (here was the ultimate magic) implied that you did too.”

 Time thought his work in general and A Christmas Story in particular “displayed an immaculate instinct for conveying the emotional ups and downs that are associated with nostalgia.” His ultimate view on the nostalgia towards childhood is that it only seems blissful through the prism of being an adult because “we were not yet aware of the basic truth: that we’re all losers, that we’re destined to die and death is a defeat.” There is also a definite “subtle undercurrent of sadness in his work, even in A Christmas Story. The adult Ralph tells us, in the closing monologue of the story, that his Red Ryder BB gun “was the greatest Christmas gift I ever received – or would ever receive….” It is Shepherd’s genius that he maintains such a perfect tension between the joys and disappointments of childhood in his stories, that the perfection of that gift also indicts everything he received thereafter.

Shepherd was a humorist, along the lines of Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Hunter S. Thompson, and P.J. O’Rourke. He emulated Mencken’s practice of saving newspaper clippings, which Shepherd referred to as Triviata globus. Like Mencken’s Americana, these were pithy reports on the absurdities of everyday life. One story involved a woman who mistakenly vacuumed up her canary whilst distracted by the phone. She retrieved the traumatized bird. From that day forward, it merely sat on its perch, catatonic and unsinging, “hunched over and staring.” Shepherd’s response? “Ah, how like us all, hunched over, sitting, staring. But eating well. Not much singing, but a lot if staring.”

But there was no bitterness toward the world. Shepherd never lost his sense of humor about the inequities of life. In a 1973 article called “Some Guys Make It – and then there’s us,” he explored the Us versus Them nature of the common man, while simultaneously making light of it: 

“You notice that up and down the street the guys in the big Cadillacs never get ticketed? Have you ever seen a ticket on a fat Mercedes? I used to come back with my motor scooter decorated like a Christmas tree…I’d slow down, and the fuzz would be alongside me, tying ‘em on.”

For us all, including Ralphie, the good about life has to exist alongside the bad. And, instead of raging against the dying of the light, we could try mocking it. Watch Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert if you still doubt. Like Steel Magnolias, A Christmas Story, too, offers an idea “of people who laugh as an affirmation of life in spite of all the darkness of the world, of humor as a therapeutic response” to the strangeness of life.” – Barry Honold

Published in: on November 9, 2009 at 8:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Drink Your Ovaltine, Fatheads! — “A Christmas Story”

“That reminds me of something that happened to me when I was a kid.” –Jean Shepherd

Jean Shepherd is best remembered as the narrator and co-screenwriter of A Christmas Story. According to the website “A Christmas Story House,” in the 60s, film director Bob Clark (of Porky’s fame) was going to pick up a date when he chanced upon a re-broadcast of Shepherd’s early radio work at WOR. Clark was so enthralled that he circled the block for “almost an hour, glued to the radio until the program was over.” The date may have been a failure, but it focused Clark. When he made Porky’s in the 80s and it turned a profit, he issued his ultimatum: no Porky’s sequels until he was allowed to direct a Shepherd story. A Christmas Story was the result.

When he died in 1999, Shepherd was widely eulogized as a virtual Renaissance Man who was prolific in writing, radio, and TV. Time magazine pointed out that many of the Shepherd tributes started with some variation of “it was late at night, and I had my transistor radio tuned in to Jean Shepherd’s show.” Shepherd got his start in radio in Hammond, Indiana, where he did a high school sports show. He did two years in the Army Signal Corps, then went on to do radio shows in Cincinnati and Philadelphia before arriving at WOR in New York in the mid-50s.

A 1966 Newsday article noted that, “[h]e is unique, not only in his ability to talk so much, but his sheer artistry with the spoken word.” He is credited with inventing talk and free-form radio. Shepherd’s show eschewed callers, music, and taped commercials (he loved to do the commercials himself, and was once fired for endorsing an unauthorized soap, only to be re-hired because of the angry reaction of listeners). He delivered monologues, depending on the local broadcast, from one to five hours. He did prep work for the show, but he also was a gifted improv artist. He created the phrase “night people” to describe his listeners, and he would often enlist them for pranks. The soap incident involved his listeners flooding Manhattan stores to request the soap, then yelling “Excelsior!” at the clerk while leaving. But the greatest prank, the one that earned global press, was the I, Libertine literary hoax.

Shepherd disliked the way contemporary bestseller lists were compiled. At the time, requests for books carried equal weight with actual book sales. He had his listeners flood bookstores, demanding a copy of a book that didn’t exist by an author who didn’t exist: I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing. The book shot to the top of many bestseller lists globally, New York literary personalities wrote about meeting Ewing, and the book was proscribed by the Arch-Diocese of Boston. After two months, Shepherd allowed the Wall Street Journal to reveal the hoax. According to Bob Kaye, “the story came out – front page, middle section. It hit the stands at about 3 pm. At 3:01 pm, about six countries called. It became a world-wide story. It was also one of the stories that was reprinted word for word by Pravda.”

Shepherd also wrote for National Lampoon, Playboy (“Red Ryder Nails the Cleveland Street Kid,” upon which A Christmas Story is based, first appeared here), Newsday, Car & Driver, Town & Country, Popular Mechanics, Village Voice, and a number of now-defunct magazines. His writing displays skepticism towards establishments of any sort, combined with a populist rooting for the little guy. In “Jean Shepherd: The Survivor of Hammond,” author Peter Scholl writes that he “believes in the dignity of man –even in the dignity of the Hoosier. But he also understands that our dignity is an achieved and precarious status, and that men are continually behaving comically.”

This comic behavior is on display on a number of fronts in A Christmas Story. From the Bumpus hounds, to the infamous leg lamp, from Flick getting his tongue frozen to the flag pole, to Ralph’s seemingly futile quest for the Red Ryder BB gun – the Everyman nature of Shepherd’s work shines through.  — Barry Honold

Published in: on October 16, 2009 at 6:04 pm  Comments (1)  

Ritual Ceremony & Theater

If there is one theme uniting this week’s readings, it is the idea of theater as a form of ritual, returning it to its earlier mystical origins stretching from the Pleistocene to the Middle Ages. Both Chaikin and Staniewski treat theater very much as a communal ritual wherein the actors behave as a sort of priesthood for the communal audience. Chaikin’s was the first American theater solely dedicated to collaborative creation of new texts. Indeed, one of his underlying principles – empathy – is necessary for the very survival of society.

Staniewski left the cities with his actors to create rural theatrical communities, in which the locals often participated. He fostered such a level of trust amongst his actors that they would often perform “night runs,” huddled tightly against each other to catch any potential community members who fell.

Victor Turner’s work on ritual is practically a Holy Bible of Evolutionary Psychology. He reminds us that only as societies grow increasingly secular do drama and ritual split. Ritual and art have been around as long as we have, and a very strong case can be made that, like sex and the survival instinct, evolution deemed creativity “too important to be left to chance.” For social animals such as us, ritual (before spoken language) may have been the glue that held early bands of our ancestors together. His definition of theater as separating people, placing them “in limbo,” and then “returning them to mundane life” can be applied to theater as well, though normally without the spiritual implications. For the West, a straight line can be drawn from our appearance on this planet right up through the medieval morality plays, and it always served the purpose of “sustaining cherished social and cultural principles and forms.

What Hitler did was a complete marriage of ritual and theater. The same holds true for the Soviets, nightly staging their “Marxist argy-bargy.” Ritual theater is meant to unify the community as one: it “involves selves, not self; yet the aggregate of selves in a given community is often thought of, metaphorically, as a self.” This is a very important distinction. When my mom attends church, it is not “rigid,” “stereotypal,” or “obsessive.” She attends as a Christian unifying with a community of other Christians.

In 1968, The Living Theater began to try to create a “free theatre piece with chance-type rules.” Their overall goal was to create a “depiction of the state of being” they imagined as “desirable.” Like most artists of the time, they were very serious about making fundamental change to a society they saw as unfair. They saw Paradise Now! as not merely a theatrical piece but a “state of being/this will result in freedom/freedom is honesty/a new – a newly realized self can realize a new world.” It was meant to be a reaction against what they saw as a new fascism in Greece, Italy, Sweden, and Germany. The play would address the problems with society: “fascism – money – war.” The Living Theater would “make everyone artists, into their rightful state as creative beings.” This, too, was an attempt to reconnect with the idea of theater as ritual, as a simultaneous civic and religious event.

In the introduction to “The Serpent,” Van Italle writes that the playwright is not so much to “write a play” as “construct a ceremony.” Here we have another example of theater as ritual, as interaction between priest and flock. He even allows that the text may be altered as needed to fulfill the requirements of any future community it serves.

The essays from the director and playwright are both instructive in showing how they did the piece, how the piece works if done successfully, and how the playwright thinks it should not be done. Most interesting is Van Halle’s assertion that improvisation “works best in inverse proportion to the amount of time left in a rehearsal period before performance.” I quite agree. The last couple of weeks before opening night are when control must tighten and the work must focus. Improvisation is best left to the first few weeks of rehearsal. Because “The Serpent” in particular has some ephemeral elements, the director must have absolute clarity in deciding “why” one element is highlighted of glossed over. Otherwise, the play can devolve into nonsensical mutterings.

I like “The Serpent” because it hearkens to the idea of community ritual. More specifically, it reads like a communal ceremony to publicly grieve over two fallen giants, and compares it to the loss of innocence in the Garden of Eden. Brecht and Van Italle may have two competing ideas about human choice. For Brecht, no choice is inevitable. Bad choices in the past do not negate good choices in the future. Van Italle has written a play, according to the director’s vision, that seems to say that past events have “fixed” a course on human society and ended up restraining future choices, a much more pessimistic view.

Published in: on May 16, 2009 at 12:51 am  Leave a Comment  

Jan Kott, Shakespeare, and “The Godfather”

The back cover of my copy of “Shakespeare, Our Contemporary” notes that Jan Kott is the only theater theorist who finds it completely natural to have the secret police knock on one’s door in the small hours. The book is written from the point of view of someone intimately familiar with the workings of a totalitarian state. His is a theater with a survival mechanism of justified paranoia – “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” He was all-too familiar with the state wherein it was standard practice to “listen in on…conversations, ask questions, and read [private] letters.” Discourse must be coded when the citizens realize realize they are “being watched.” Of course Kott would read into Shakespeare the “drama of political crime.” Of course his experiences let him to write that the political machinations are mad because “politics is itself madness,” and to recognize in Fortinbras the survivor as “the youth, deeply involved in politics…more primitive [read: Machiavellian] than the previous Hamlets.” A Fortinbras who understands that “a coup is a difficult affair,” and best left to others.

What we must remember is that, for the majority of human history, peaceful transfers of power have been the exception rather than the rule. Kott and Brecht both had experiences with governmental “hostile takeovers.” Kott, like Brecht, was more interested in “the sequences of historical conflicts” in Shakespeare than in individual analysis. Bolingbroke and Richard are equals; both sought the throne and didn’t give a damn what barbaric necessity required. Reading about Shakespeare through Kott is like reading a dramatized version of Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” Politics is power, nothing more. The weak ruler is taken down as readily as the strong leader (in a moment of weakness).

Lear is a good example of the strong ruler ripped apart when he gave an opening. I would agree that “King Lear” not only destroys the concept of “kingly power” derived from divine right, but it, too “crushes the entire moral order.” The world of Lear, Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan is destroyed from within by a house “divided against itself.” In the Elizabethan “Great Chain of Being,” all creatures were placed into a hierarchy with God at the summit. Betraying that place could lead to all manner of natural and civil disasters. As I wrote for my article on “King Lear” at Kentucky Rep:

Neither could a person voluntarily give up their place in The Great Chain; they did not choose that place. The position a person occupies in the hierarchy is more important than that individual person. Lear’s decision to abdicate was not his to make. However, the decision, once made, caused him to fall from his kingly station. The Elizabethan view was that there was no such thing as a “bad king,” but that a person could “do kingship badly.” In the hierarchy Lear the Man had no right to usurp Lear the King, because Lear the King was put on the throne by God, and could only be removed by God. As such, the job of Lear the King is more important than any one man’s opinion, even if that man happens to be Lear the Man.

Kott wrote that “King Lear” is best viewed as a precursor to absurdist drama: that the world is pointless, and there is only suffering. He wrote that the “exposition of ‘King Lear’ shows a world that is to be destroyed,” and that the old view of nobility and morality, embodied by Lear and Gloucester, was hopelessly “naive.” Shakespeare’s world echoes Beckett’s: “hopeless from the start,” wherein “everyone has experienced the cruelty of the world.” You can rebel against it, stoically accept it, and it cares neither way. “[B]oth are crushed by it.” Kott writes that the plays of Brecht, Beckett, and others are rightly called Shakespearian in the sense that they resemble a “medieval morality play.” The morality plays of the Middle Ages took generalized characters and created parables with good or bad endings depending on the characters’ decisions. However, the decisions made in ‘…Lear’ and ‘Endgame ‘ lead to particularly bad ends. What I particularly liked about “Hamlet of the Mid-Century,” just because I had never been exposed to it, was the stress on Fortinbra’s role in Hamlet (another video game reference: In Onimusha, you fight a demon king named Fortinbras, who’s renowned for his sword expertise). Hamlet, in this light, is just setting the stage for the Great Man Theory embodied by Fortinbras. The play still fits with Kott’s hypothesis that Shakespeare’s plays are circular: in both the beginning and the end, there is a new king.

Fortinbras didn’t even have to do any of the dirty work. As in “Richard II,” someone else was kind enough to whack everybody what needed whacking. All he had to do was show up, lament Hamlet’s regrettable but necessary taking of action which led to Hamlet’s death against Fortinbras’ “eternal watching/with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair” (poor Fortinbras. Stuck with a cold apple, a little seat, and a clear path to the throne once the killing had abated). The only thing left is for Fortinbras to say, “with a charming smile,” “take away these corpses. Now I shall be your king.”

Both Beckett and Shakespeare make use of circular plays: Beckett’s German production of “Endgame” had remarkably similar opening and closing tableaux. Shakepeare’s history plays begin and end with a new king. Life begins and ends for individuals, but the species gropes anew for answers with each generation in a never-ending cycle. According to Beckett and Shakespeare, there may not be any answers. There may only be our desire for control. The Great Machine and our inherent need for power over others is as apparent in the relationship between Hamm and Clov as it is in all the machinations of Richard III.

Published in: on May 16, 2009 at 12:47 am  Leave a Comment  

Anne Bogart and Strict Constuctionist Dramaturgy

In And Then, You Act, Anne Bogart quotes Jerzy Grotowski’s notion that “it is not theatre that is indispensible.” What is indispensible is that each artist must attempt to “cross the frontiers between you and me; to come forward to meet you, so that we do not get lost in the crowd.” What does this mean and how does it apply to new play development?

It means that each artist can approach their peers with the expectation of open communication, trust, and confidence. Bogart wisely chastises daydreaming about our ideal theater ensemble. No. “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.” This military analogy extends further. Soldiers, asked why they fight, do not use abstract notions like “to defeat Islamofascism” or “protect America’s interests.” They fight for their buddies in the field. So it is with artists. We make art with our friends, for our friends. She writes that we should “learn to love, admire, respect, and appreciate” our colleagues: they “provide the necessary keys to [our] development and growth.” We must commit to making great theater with the people we work with now, because we are known by our reputation. “If you do not commit fully to the people with you now, like-minded others will never show up,” because we have been proven unworthy.

The discussion with Ken Rus Schmoll was intriguing because “Telephone” was a great and unique play. I enjoyed his description of the actresses’ character-finding process for the long (and brilliant) second act, and how she inhabited a woman so completely unlike herself. She did “cross the frontiers” in an exceptional fashion. This production was also a successful crossing by turning such a dense book and its ideas into a show. This required much back-and-forth between the author and Schmoll. The author had never written a theatrical script, and was very receptive to Schmoll’s suggestions on how to dramatize scenarios.

The two essays from the course packet which most intrigued me were “Saving the Story” and “Media Lab creates Center for Future Storytelling.” In the second, Frank Moss makes the important point that storytelling “is at the heart of what makes us uniquely human.” He mentions how technology has historically been employed in storytelling, and how it has “given people new ways” to “cross the frontiers” separating them and “tell their stories.” Gina Gionfriddo’s essay describes theatrical storytelling’s most distinct advantage: “that sense of mess and mystery that the very best poems achieve, works that circle the truth of our lives without nailing it down reductively.”

The theater may need to cross the frontier back from the non-narrative Postmodern theater to the simple yet profound act of telling a story, a good story which speaks to the universality of the human condition. I agree with Grotowski that theater which attempts to rival movies and television is doomed to failure. While not eschewing the avant-garde, I think the best new plays are those that just tell a story. Think of Martin McDonagh, David Harrower, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and Tom Stoppard. There are many disparate elements in their work; the unifying element is that they are all great storytellers. They “cross the frontiers” to their audience effortlessly.

A similar phenomenon is at work in video games. Games now also perform one of the original roles of theater: to tell the stories of gods, generals, and heroes. The coolest weapon system does not save a game with a bad story. Gamers are smart, and they will not drop sixty dollars and invest thirty to sixty hours of their life for a bad story. The same holds true for theater. We cannot expect an audience to return if we overcharge them at the box office and bore them in the darkened room. It may be time for the Postmodern avant-garde to stop loudly complaining about audience stupidity, and admit that it has become a tad guilty of narcissism. As was once said: “if you’re on your fourth divorce, maybe she’s not the problem.”
“Scriptwork” offers two pages on the role of the production dramaturg, but they are two pages worth memorizing. The dramaturg must “advocate the play based on its own qualities rather than…a preconception of what the play…should be.” For every thing there is a season, and sometimes the seasonal hymn is “sit down and shut up/you’re not that brilliant.” Is that not an awful thing to say? No, not really. Human nature being what it is, inch-giving can oft lead to mile-taking. Gionfriddo’s essay shows how “revision is a slippery slope.” It is a very short trip from “punching up” a character trait, to the playwright feeling “ganged up on and not protected,” to the inevitable endgame: the playwright “outside the theater smoking and crying.” The dramaturg should have long-ago crossed the frontier to stand athwart this mess and yelled “Stop!”

Scriptwork and the Gionfriddo essay are important cautionary tales for the dramaturg working on a new play. Earlier, I asked what “cross the frontiers” means for new play development. I shall now venture an answer in regards to my role as dramaturg. First, some background.

I coined the term “Strict Constructionist Dramaturgy” for my work. This was inspired by reading Antonin Scalia’s “A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts & the Law.” Applying a legal philosophy to theatrical practice is iffy; strict constructionism is the narrowest form of an umbrella philosophy that includes textualism and “original intent.” What the phrase does is crystallize what I do not do: monkey around with others’ scripts. I learned early what playwrights thought of activist dramaturgs. As I once sarcastically wrote: “it is not the job of judges to legislate from the bench, except in extraordinary circumstances. Nor is it the job of the dramaturg to direct or play-wright from the cheap seats. Ever.” The other professional axiom I use is from Alexander Hamilton’s writing in The Federalist Papers, which describe the role of the federal judiciary: “they have neither force, nor will, but merely judgment.” I do not influence the story, I just try to help the playwright realize it.

For a strict constructionist dramaturg the text is central, as is shepherding the play to production and “protecting the playwright.” Realizing the original intent of the playwright is the ultimate goal. Will there be changes? Possibly, but that is for the playwright and director to decide. My job is to make it easier for the three of us, and the rest of the production team, to cross the already-difficult frontiers toward making great theater.
To close with another legal analogy: judges who have the authority to “grant” rights are dangerous, because they then possess the de facto authority to remove those rights at will. So it is with dramaturgs. If you “grant” a playwright control over their creation, it becomes too tempting to re-assert control and look for the “easy fix” if things start getting hard. The more difficult job is to tough it out, and “learn to love, admire, respect…appreciate” and trust your colleagues. They are crossing, as well.

Published in: on May 16, 2009 at 12:40 am  Leave a Comment