Thursday, March 19, 2009

Exits & Entrances

Larry and I went to see this last weekend. Fitting, as this is a memoir or memory play by Athol Fugard, the South African playwright and novelist. This past winter, I've been teaching a writing class that used lots of prompts to get people to access new personal material. I was shy about asking students to write bits of drama or scenes, but no more. You can dramatize your past as long as you're willing to be aggressive with the form as this play shows.

I had two fears at the start of the play. First, when the lights went up and actor Ross MacDonald, who is the Playwright in this piece, began to write in his diary while reading aloud what he was writing, I cringed. Oh, no. Oh, no. This is so wrong. Writing in a diary is not dramatic. Reading out loud while you write is not something anyone does except in a 1960s era sitcom. No. Make it stop. And the prose itself is so flowery and writerly, and not in a good way. It was a rough moment, but fortunately the playwright moved quickly to addressing the audience. That's still strange in my view, but not as awkward, and the writer uses this technique to set up the rest of the drama by introducing the other character, the legendary actor Andre Huguenet, who is nearing the end of his career of playing leading roles in classical plays. We learn that the actor has just died, and that the rest of the play will be a smooth series of flashbacks.

My second fear was that I was not going to be able to relax and watch Will Lymon, the actor who plays Huguenet. When he opened his mouth and out came the voice that narrates the movie, Little Children, in that oddly deadpan, NFL Films-style voice of God, I thought I wasn't going to be able to shake the association. His voice is too distinctive. Not to worry. By the time he got to his sudden soliloquy from Oedipus, that association was gone. Both performances were wonderful.

Apparently, critics don't like this play because it's not up to the playwright's usual standards of throwing grenades at political injustice. But I found it fascinating as a series of insights about how a sea change in art can coincide with and even lead something similar in society. It also meditates on the artist as an earnest young agitator and shows him alongside an older artist who looks at the young man and knows himself to be irrelevant. The fear of being displaced by an ever-changing world is surprisingly powerful, at least for those of us in middle age. This fear and empathy sneaks up on the audience, I think. At the end of the play I was astonished to find myself in tears, and I looked over to Larry to find him in the same condition. We weren't the only ones, either. So when the play ended with the Playwright reading aloud from his diary again, it was sort of okay. Not that anyone was listening. We just needed time to sit in the dark and mop up before it was time to clap.

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