James Joyce

We're All Townies

As Steve Scarpa, of the New Haven Theater Company, sees it, Thornton Wilder is “our own.” And if that’s so, his town is our town. That play, one of the truly iconic American plays, is the latest project of the NHTC. Scarpa, who directed the play before in Shelton, finds himself now, five years later, reflecting on how the play’s big theme is the “idea of memory.” And, on that note, it’s worth remembering that Wilder is buried in his family plot in Mt. Carmel Cemetery, marked only by a little plaque, that he graduated from Yale in the class of 1920, that he lived for several decades in our environs (Hamden), and that he was a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and that his classic play, which treats American small-town life sub specie aeternitatis, is, this year, 75 years old.

That’s kind of hard to believe, since the play, in some ways, seems like it should date back much further—to the Twenties, at least, even to the previous century—but, in fact, Our Town represents ideas that Wilder was picking up from that era—the period of late Modernism—including the style of Gertrude Stein’s cubist masterpiece The Making of Americans, and the meditation on the changing same that is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, then known as “Work in Progress.” Wilder was an early enthusiast of Joyce’s work and penned an essay about it. The idea of evoking a place—for Joyce, Dublin, for Wilder, Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire—through a historied sense of time is a common feature that shows the modernist influence in Wilder’s best-known work.

In staging the play, Scarpa finds himself more than ever aware of how New Haven, where he was born, has changed in his own lifetime, making Our Town’s sense of both a place’s permanence and impermanence very much a hometown concern. As Scarpa sees it, Wilder’s play is about a place that could be any place, but that doesn’t make the town a generic Anytown, U.S.A. Rather it’s a universal place, and reminds us that, no matter where we hail from, we remember a place through a particular sense of time.

For the New Haven Theater Company, that sense of time and place is also important. The close-knit group has lived and worked together for some time now—more than one married couple can be found in the cast, and, in the case of the Kulps, their daughter is also involved. That means the generational sense so important to the play is not only thematic, it’s also an element of the company. That feature of NHTC is important to Scarpa, for, though this production does include non-members who auditioned for parts, the company’s ensemble sensibility—that sense of short-hand between actors who know each other well—makes his job easier and more fun. Fun that extends to the audience—many the friends, families, and co-workers of the NHTC actors, in their regular lives—who can look forward to seeing who so-and-so is this time.

One interesting element of the casting: The Stage Manager—the part Wilder himself played and which is perhaps best known as a vehicle for Hal Holbrook—will be played by a woman: Megan Chenot. Scarpa finds that the change in gender gives the play a different tone—more engaging and personable—but that it also makes the Stage Manager’s managing of Emily’s marriage a more nuanced occasion. The play, Scarpa stresses, isn’t as sentimental as maybe our own memories—many of us read it or saw it produced in high school—make it out to be, and that means adapting the play to our time may well be in order.

Scarpa hit upon the idea of doing the play while researching Wilder’s papers in the Beinecke for an article about New Haven turning 150. That piece provoked another, in the Arts Paper, about Wilder, and the idea of re-staging the play came from there. The New Haven Theater Company tends to be a shape-shifting affair without a permanent performing space, and finding the right spot can be a chore. This time they’ve been able to use a big, empty room at the back of English Building Market, next to the Institute Library, on Chapel Street, a location that is not only a bit of New Haven history but which, by virtue of the antiques and heirlooms it sells, offers a serendipitous step into memories of other times.

Drew Gray, relative new-comer to NHTC, is responsible for transforming the room into a stage-set. Gray expected an easy task as the play famously asks for “no design” and is meant to be a theatrical space, such as would be found in any real theater. Not being in a theater, per se, means “something needs to be there,” Gray says, and he hit upon the idea of musical notes. Music is directly referenced in the play, such as the hymn “Blessed Be the Tie that Binds,” and Gray set out to create “abstract shapes to sculpt the space” so as to recall music.

Gray has also incorporated ideas he first encountered in Super Studio, a conceptual design studio in the 1970s. Their idea of “life without objects” is one that Gray finds serviceable in his design concept where most of the setting takes place in the mind, not in actual furniture and props. He has introduced two ten-foot columns or pillars to break up the space and, with changes in lighting, create shadows for effect. It’s a case of making “the scenery disappear into the scenery” Gray says, and that sounds high concept enough to serve both the modernism of Wilder’s vision as well as its timeless sense of classical civilization.

Both Scarpa and Gray stress that Wilder was about more than just making a feel-good paean to Americana. The play, Scarpa says, is “both funnier and sadder” than many viewers might expect, and that the NHTC’s effort is to “make something beautiful” that will live up to Wilder’s intention to add America’s “moral, decent” values to what Wilder saw as the long march through history to civilized behavior.

Given that Wilder first staged the play 75 years ago—in 1938—with the world on the bring of World War II, it’s worthwhile to reflect on how far along we are on that march, now.

Our Town by Thornton Wilder Directed by Steve Scarpa

English Building Market, 839 Chapel Street September 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28 8 p.m.

Story Playlist 12: The Dead

James Joyce: “The Dead” (1914) Joyce is one of the authors we literary folks are supposed to like. Ulysses is the greatest novel ever written, turning more tricks with the styles of prose fiction than anyone knew were in the bag. It is also the novel people like to say is their favorite, because that sounds good to say (I said it was my favorite while in college). In truth, Joyce’s work is hard to love, but certainly easy to be impressed by. He writes in literary puzzles, games that well-read individuals can play against him. He always wins. There is a chapter in Ulysses structured to mimic the evolution of English prose from translated Latin through Middle English to the different identifiable styles of famous Anglophone authors. The idea is that you play the "Name-That-Authorial-Style" game that Joyce has set up for you. This sort of thing sounded very cool to me during my grad school, clove cigarettes, emo music period. Now, as a mature(-ish) writer and professor, it’s both impressive and mildly annoying. Joyce is a genius, for certain, but perhaps not the sort of guy you could love, or even enjoy as a dinner guest.

But there are things I love about Joyce. The last page of Ulysses, culminating in Molly Bloom’s reminiscence about a sexual encounter, is heavenly prose-poetry. The last page of “The Dead” is likewise a gorgeous reinvention of what English can do. In fact, the last one-third of “The Dead” is incredible, but what’s the deal with the first two-thirds?

The bulk of the 15,000 word short story (which some consider a novella, due to its length) is a wash of intentionally-mundane conversation at an annual dinner and dance party hosted by the elderly aunts of our protagonist, Gabriel Conroy. As a reader, I understand the reason for this segment of the story: we see Gabriel as insecure and socially-awkward, and we observe the banality of those at the party (whom we might consider to be examples of “the dead” referred to in the title). All this mundane detail helps to set up the real meat of the story, when Gabriel returns to a hotel with his wife, whom he suddenly desires more than ever, only to learn a secret about her past that makes him realize that he knows her less than he thought. But as a writer, I would have asked Joyce why we need a good 10,000 words to set up this banal contrast to the last 5,000 words. The whole could have been accomplished in a tenth of the space. My eyes glazed over as I read on and on about who said what at the party, none of it interesting beyond a few strokes of Gabriel’s awkwardness. Inflicting this section upon us in order to get to the good part seems like another Joycean trick. He wants us to glaze over, because glazing over is what Gabriel does while stuck in the midst of a party he’d rather not attend. It’s clever—making us suffer with Gabriel—but it doesn’t make for the most fun reading.

That was my initial reaction, at least. But I was sure that I was missing something, and of course I was. It took some research on my part, and words of encouragement from my editor at the New Haven Review, for me to fully appreciate what the first two-thirds accomplishes, and the reason to admire it, and not to just see it as a means to set up the ingenious, soaring final third.

The real interest of the first two-thirds of “The Dead” comes down to Joyce’s virtuoso use of what’s called “free indirect speech.” This is a fancy way of describing what today is an entirely common narrative technique, but which Joyce pioneered in English: the use of third-person narration to provide the essence of first-person perspective. The omniscient narrator takes us inside the head of his protagonist to describe what the protagonist thinks. By way of example, here is a sentence written in four ways: third-person direct speech, third-person indirect speech, first-person narration, and third-person free indirect speech.

Direct speech: He stood in the batter’s box and thought of hitting a home run. “What if I can knock one out of the park?” he wondered.

Indirect speech: He stood in the batter’s box and thought of hitting a home run. He wondered to himself, What if I can knock one out of the park?

First-person narration: I stood in the batter’s box and thought of hitting a home run. What if I could hit one out of the park?

Free indirect speech: He stood in the batter’s box and thought of hitting a home run. What if he could knock one out of the park?

The last example features the omniscient, third-person narrator stepping into the character’s head and asking aloud a question that the character is actually asking himself. Melding across the boundary between omniscient third-person and subjective first-person narration was one of Joyce’s preeminent technical advances, and what he was able to make this technique do was truly revolutionary. It may seem like a subtle distinction to more casual readers, but it certainly gets the lit majors excited, and provides authorial fireworks for the astute reader to marvel at during the otherwise rather dull initial section of “The Dead.” We marvel not at what is said and what happens in this section, but at what Joyce as a very much present author is capable of, if we take the time to notice such narrative effects.

Now, it is interesting to note that my full appreciation of “The Dead” required an intervention. It is hard to grasp on one’s own, even for a seasoned reader, just as Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are the sort of books that are probably best read as part of a course. I can’t imagine settling down on a beach with a piña colada in one hand and Finnegans Wake in the other. But with concentrated examination—and maybe with a literature professor as your co-pilot—pearls rise out of the sand.

What’s undeniable is that “The Dead” is impressive for its expression of male lust, and for showing a wife as object of such lust, and for the mixed interior thoughts and emotions of Gabriel when he gets his much-desired wife back to the hotel room. His hunger for her is foiled as she cries over a memory of a first love, of which Gabriel was unaware, a memory triggered by a song sung at the party. From the moment Gabriel and his wife close the hotel room door, “The Dead” lights up like a lantern in the darkness. Circa 1914, it was certainly risqué to write so openly about sexual desire and private emotions, even within the confines of marriage. Joyce paints a picture of great tension, cycling us through Gabriel’s sine wave of feelings, frustrations, childish pouts, and ultimate acceptance of what his wife experienced before he arrived in her life. The story ends with a cascade of a final page, written in lyrical, rhythmic prose that flutters on the page like the snowflakes drifting to the Dublin streets outside the darkened hotel window in which Gabriel stands.

“The Dead” is Joyce in microcosm: brilliant, with strokes of great beauty, ingenious, and frustrating, but with the good over-powering the dullness. A view that can only come from reflecting back on the reading experience, which might be why Joyce is such a favorite of professors in the first place. For reading Joyce is not a Sunday stroll in the park, but an experience that requires work—and rewards the effort.

Our First Reading Experiment

by James Joyce read by Bennett Lovett-Graff [Click title to download]

Digital sound recorder in hand, we consider this the first of, we hope, several experiments in sound recordings of the written word by and from the New Haven Review.

In this case, attached as an MP3, and thus playable on your computer or downloadable to your iPod or the MP3 of your choosing is James Joyce's short short story, "Eveline," appreared in 1914 as part of his short story collection Dubliners. We think hardly more need be said.