Monthly Archives: February 2013

Right and Rage in Luck of the Irish

I had the opportunity this afternoon to see The Luck of the Irish by Kristen Greenidge at the Claire Tow Theatre, which houses LCT3 (Lincoln Center’s space for new writers). If the play is a bit wobbly, it is still worth a look. One of the advantages of LCT3 is that tickets are only $20 a piece. At that price, one can feel free to take more of a chance with unknown material. And, as with this play, when there is a great deal to capture the interest but there are flaws present too — well, you can still feel like you’ve come out ahead. And with this work, the audience certainly does come out ahead.

The Luck of the Irish is one of the ever-growing number of plays that are in conversation with Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. The plot turns on a piece of real estate, and the over-arching question is who has the right to it. Though as more than one character hints at — white or black — we are all visitors to these shores from some place else. Ultimately, I think it is great that A Raisin in the Sun is getting this attention and that many of the themes and issues it addressed are still relevant today. A Raisin in the Sun was starting to become a musty museum piece in our collective theatrical sense, but it shouldn’t the way, say, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has. Lodged within Hansberry’s work about the Younger family trying and achieving the cornerstone of the American Dream (ownership of a house), are questions about African-American identity within the larger framework of American hegemonic society.

But on to Luck of the Irish. The fascinating aspect here is that a down-on-their-heals Irish-American family, the Donovans, has to serve as “ghost buyers” for a wealthy African-American family in 1958. This is the only way that Rex and Lucy Taylor can move into an affluent Boston suburb without getting firebombed, as they had been two years previously in Newton. The dynamic between the Taylors and Donovans is endlessly fascinating. The antagonism between Lucy and Patty Ann Donovan is fueled as much by class as it is by race. There is only one scene in which they are alone — where they meet in a diner — and it crackles. So much resentment, animosity, and condescension informs this moment that in many ways it speaks for this nation’s continued simmering racial divide; the dust up between Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley gains is given significant context.

Lucy and Rex form, to me, one of the most interesting married couples to appear on the American stage. They are NOT the Youngers. The Youngers, while not exactly naive, make the move to their Chicago suburb with a certain amount of idealism intact. The Taylors are under no such illusions. This is their second bite at the apple. As stated above, in their first attempt, they were forced out because of arson. Here, they are clearly manipulating the system — as well as the financial need of the Donovans — to get their house. And this is not some artifact of the American Dream or some representation of equality and what they hope to be a colorblind society in some far off future. Lucy is motivated as much by bourgeois avarice as anything else. And once in her home, she will not leave because her pride will not force her out. She believes she is as above Patty Ann as Patty Ann believes she is above Lucy. This is a wonderful conceit. And the twin roar from these two strong-willed unforgiving women would be enough play in and of itself. Eisa Davis, who plays Lucy, and Amanda Quaid, who plays Patty Ann, could drive this play all by themselves. I like too that the ones to break the glass ceilings and racial barriers are not doing it for a larger sense of duty to a community. They are doing it selfishly for themselves. Others will simply come along and take advantage of their tenacity. Mad Men often plays with similar strategies. Peggy is trying to get ahead for herself, not a sense of sisterhood. In a contemporary scene, the older Patty has an eruption of venom about being passed over that has been infecting her for 50 years. According to her, first come the English, then the Irish, then the Italians, and finally the African-Americans. It is of interest to note that the Taylors bought the house from an Italian family, so Patty Ann has been displaced twice. The America of Greenidge’s work is a Darwinian cesspool of class versus class, and race versus race. That which should unite us is not as strong as what divides us.

The play moves between the 1950’s and the present (or near present). I disagree with Charles Isherwood of The New York TImes here. For me, while the scenes from the 1950’s crackled, the ones from the present fizzled. The stakes and the jeopardy which were so intrinsic to the earlier scenes of the play in an organic way were non-existent in the later scenes. Indeed, the threat to losing the house turned out to be no threat at all and existed seemly to move the plot along. To be honest, the events and various crises of this half often felt contrived.

All and all though, The Luck of the Irish is a worthwhile evening of theatre. The play adds a very interesting perspective on the question of ownership in the African-American community. As such, it is responding as much to Toni Morrison (with The Bluest Eye) as it is Hansberry.

Downton Abbey Takes Its Season 3 Bow

I haven’t updated this blog in a bit due to a lingering illness. But I am back this evening with some thoughts on the close on Season 3 of Downton Abbey. I won’t talk about the “shocking” ending when [SPOILER] ran off the road and [SPOILER]. Rather, I want to talk about the evolution of Tom Branson. Our Irish republican chauffeur now found himself in the uncomfortable position of being the only grandee left in the house while everyone else was up in Scotland getting serenaded by bagpipes while munching on haggis. A maid made goo-goo eyes at him. They flirted. He dined below stairs just as he had done before he married Lady Sybil. She walked in on him while he was changing. There was a promise of lunch. And then Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes asked her to leave. No, she had not done wrong, according to Mrs. Hughes; but there are rules to a life in service. And she had violated those rules.

Now, the maid, Edna, was clearly manipulating both Tom’s grief and guilt for her own purposes. But they were there for the manipulating. Nothing puzzling about the grief. The guilt, however, I find interesting. And I wonder how that is constructed. Here it is, given how the show has progressed, the Summer of 1921 (probably). The war for independence in Ireland is winding down. The war over the “Irish Free State” is about to erupt. Tom is a member of the family — Anglican, wealthy, noble — that is the very epitome of English rule in Ireland. Added to that Tom helps Matthew in his plan to rescue Downton through modernization. Now people are complicated, and so should fictional characters be too. Tom has daughter Sybil to care for. That is a responsibility he does not take lightly.

But I think Fellowes missed an opportunity here. Given how much in the crucible of history we are at this point in the series — particularly a history that is of paramount importance to Tom — I think he would have acted differently than in the almost saintly and bourgeoise way he did. (I think there is a reason for this tied to the spoiler-y thing I didn’t mention above). He has lost his wife. He is in a strange house with strange people with strange ways. He has been sidelined from a cause to which he is passionately committed. From where I sit, I think the more interesting choice — the one with the higher stakes for the character — would be to not be so “English” in responding to Edna’s advances. I think it would have served the character — and the show — better if Tom had an affair (a fully physical sexual affair) with Edna. It would have been a way to escape his grief, if only momentarily. It would be a way of satisfying a longing. It would have been an attempt to rekindle some of his more proletariat beliefs, to do something rebellious, something not proper. He would, of course, have been wrong to do so. But people do stupid things all the time, especially when emotionally distraught. There would have been, of course, scandal. But a very interesting scandal that would have cut across class lines and provided much fodder for future plot lines.

But instead of D. H. Lawrence we got a dose of good old fashioned Victorian repression. Fellowes has his characters in these tight little boxes. He needs to let them out of their cages and see what chaos and carnage will follow. It will make for stronger plotting.

Week 4 Reflections on Teaching

It’s been a pretty interesting week of teaching all and all. On Monday I was still feeling the effects of the norovirus so there was some definite ups and downs. And, of course, now that the semester has set in and its has been really quite cold outside, the students were on the quiet side.

But there was some highlights as well. In my Monday night elective, we worked on the first half of On the Road and “Howl”. Students at my college really take to Kerouac and Hemingway (from the week before). I showed them the connection between the two writers, particularly made manifest by their common utilization of Ecclesiastes; for Hemingway, it is in the epigraph and for Kerouac it is in the text. Always a thrilling moment. I think what most draws them to On the Road, though, is that while it admires Dean M/Neal C, it is not written in the spirit of Dean/Neal. There is a great deal of sexual energy, freedom, and desire present. But ultimately the tone is more in keeping with Sal/Jack. The need to talk, the need to connect, before the sexual act. The search for something called God as something to salve the soul.

We didn’t get to spend as much time on “Howl” as I would have liked. But one student was really turned on to Ginsberg and plans to write his research paper about him. Those moments are what make teaching so rewarding.

Meanwhile in my freshman experience class, I tried to mess with the freshmen’s heads by suggesting that literature is actually a form of technology. It is a somewhat daft notion (though not completely daft). If nothing else, it is an interesting thought experiment that gets them to try and discover what literature really is and does. That it is not useless.

Papists, Prostitutes, and Publicans — Or Another Day at Downton Abbey

My thoughts on Downton Abbey’s Season 3 Episode 6 (or, for those of us Stateside, Episode 5). And it was yet another round of everyone’s favorite game: guessing what bad decision will Robert (Lord Crawley, 7th Lord of Grantham) make next? There was no end of them, especially following (SPOILERS AHEAD) after the expiration of his youngest daughter, Sybil, who died so she could pursue film roles with less ensemble-y casts. As the rather forced alliteration of the title indicates, Robert was getting it on all fronts. First, Tom, the chauffeur/Irish republican/son-in-law had the temerity to insist that his now motherless daughter be baptized a Catholic (a “left-footer”). Next, Cousin Isobel hired a former prostitute as a housekeeper/cook, and then invited all the Crawley women for a light lunch of salad and salmon mousse. Robert stormed over and insisted that they all leave immediately because they were all in danger, perhaps, of catching prostitute cooties from the salmon mousse??? A bit unclear what he hoped to gain. And, finally, Matthew continued his campaign to bring modern business methods — like balancing the books — to keep Downton from being in danger of going down a third time.

There was an excellent conversation toward the end of the episode between Mary and Robert that really crystallized where we are in Season 3. As I watched, I thought, “Wow, these two have really changed since The Titanic sank and the Turkish diplomat’s son died in Mary’s bed.” Change is built into this series. It’s its DNA. And, I think this is what gets people’s knickers into a twist. On the surface, it does look like it’s all about the dresses, the hats, the tea services, and the fancy-schmancy dinners. And in a sense it is. But it is about the loss of those things. The change. And Fellowes builds that into every aspect of the show, into the sometimes into the too-on-point lines. And it causes some unfortunate missteps. The less said about the con man/burn victim or Matthew’s miracle cure the better.

But I come back to that scene between Robert and Mary. Mary, who started this program as a spoiled willful and often cruel young woman. And Robert, the wise and benevolent paterfamilias who was the font of virtue and compassion. It was Mary in the first season who frequently directed her spite at sad sake Edith. It was Robert who hired poor injured Bates as his personal valet. How a little world war, a little Spanish flu, and a little Irish revolution change things around.

Now Mary has taken on many of his better qualities: the compassion, the benevolence. She supports the Catholic baptism and the prostitute in the kitchen. She is starting to serve as a peacemaker between Robert and Matthew. And time and time again Robert (along with uptight Carson) is on the wrong side of history. And that is an interesting evolution.

One of the more interesting lines from The Dark Knight (hey, I’m nothing if not eclectic) is, “You either die the hero or live long enough to become the villain.” Basically, it picks up on a plot line from Coriolanus. By standing still, he is moving away from what the world, Britain, his estate, and his family need. And, indeed, isn’t this the arc the British upper classes as a whole took? Once, they were the very foundation of empire. The heroes. The good guys. And then there was a pivot. And suddenly, at best they were useless. Or they were an impediment to progress, change, modernization. The bad guys.

Fellowes is taking a chance here, but as the world of the series changes so must the internal mechanics of the series as well. He gives a Robert an out, at least in Cora’s eyes, when Dr. Clarkson “confesses” that there was no way to save Sybil. But I wonder what we in the audience are to make of that. Can we ever go back to respecting Lord Crawley as someone higher on the divine chain being — as somehow closer to Grace — and thus as someone worthy of our admiration and devotion? Or is the title “lord” just as much an antique as the others cluttering his office, nothing more than a cudgel to maintain his position over property gained during the Reformation? Or, how else do we think the Crawleys took possession of magnificent house that was once an abbey?

Back from Southern American Studies Association Conference 2013

I am back from the Southern American Studies Association Conference in Charleston, South Carolina. I had hoped to have posted more from the conference in Charleston, but I became quite ill the second day there. The norovrius and blogging are not conducive to one another.

From what little I did get to see, the quality of the scholarship was quite good. William Black, a graduate student in the history program at Western Kentucky University, presented a particularly fine paper entitled “When Honest Abe Came Down South: Lincoln Sightings in African-American Folklore”. Utilizing oral histories preserved by the WPA back in the 1930’s, Black painted a very unusual picture of Lincoln, at least a mythopoetic Lincoln, from these tales dating back to slavery. Basically, Lincoln is portrayed as almost a trickster god, along the lines of Loki, who fools and humiliates Southern plantation owners. I don’t want to steal Black’s thunder here, but I am looking forward to his further research in this area.

The plenary speaker for the conference was Tiya Miles, from the Center of Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan. As with Black, I do not wish to steal her thunder. But her talk focused on so-called ghost and haunted houses in the Deep South. Many of the ghosts of these houses are the product of the often violent nature of the master/slave relationship of the antebellum period. These houses are becoming bigger tourist draws than Gone with the Wind style mansions. And, of course, that the need for these ghost stories to somehow revolve around this nature’s dark history with slavery is something of potential significance in a contemporary cultural context indeed. It certainly has me thinking about my own work concerning August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.

What is immediately clear on the surface, though, is that the Civil War — it still haunts, still defines us, still polarizes us.