All posts filed under “Drama



KetchupCan’t keep up the full-blown posts while school’s in session. This isn’t everything seen, heard, and read this semester — just what I can remember off the top of my head.

Atonement, Ian McEwan (2001). Hundreds of terrific sentences and a lively yarn. Is it now always necessary that every novel has to be about both what it’s about and also about novelists?

Ex Machina, Alex Garland (2015). This made me so mad but now I’m having trouble even remembering it. I think it had to do with the fact that it was masquerading as being all Jaron Lanier philosophical when really it’s just about grubby horny boys wanting to look at sexy naked girls without feeling bad about it. Two choices available to female-coded beings in this world: slave or murderer. See my commentary elsewhere regarding those recent Scarlett Johansson movies; she’s the queen of this kingdom, and Luc Besson is its Don King.

Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, Errol Morris (2011). Manic, obsessive, repetitive, and great investigation of photography’s truthiness and its consequences. Particularly astute on the ways photographs can be put to use as political propaganda.

Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes, With Other Popular Moralists, ed. Robin Hard (2012). I didn’t like Diogenes as much as I thought I would. His inconsistencies irritate me. Turns out I’m more of a Seneca guy. What are you going to do.

Dialogues and Essays, Seneca. Still working on this. Not as immediately accessible as Marcus Aurelius but I’m warming to it.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius. I love this like I love Montaigne; their spirits are so close. (My understanding is that Montaigne oddly doesn’t seem to have known Aurelius — a pity.) The Staniforth translation is the best. The Robin Hard one may be “better” for classicists but it’s awful for human consumption.

Welcome to Me, Shira Piven (2014). A little Truman Show, a little Nurse Betty, a little To Die For. Doesn’t quite hold together, is too one-note and too relentlessly committed to despair, but it’s still a smart movie.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Suzan-Lori Parks (2015). If you’re struggling to write a play about a soldier come home from a war and you find out that your favorite living playwright’s new play is titled “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” you have some kind of mixed feelings. But the main feeling here is satisfaction, since this is one of Parks’ best.  I admire her so much. I’m particularly impressed that she’s getting less and less obscure, but isn’t losing any of the fundamental ambivalences that make her work so provocative. This work is every bit as incisive and destabilizing as, say, The America Play, but I can also imagine this one put on by a high school drama club, whereas earlier work was a bit too far out for that kind of venue. Wonderful, wonderful piece; wish I could have seen it at the Public.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty (2015). Beatty reminds me of my good friend Jeffrey McDaniel, such a fecund imagination that he’ll never use one clever metaphor when three have come to mind. The novel works as a crazy comic satire on contemporary race relations, politics, poverty, capitalism, Los Angeles, and also as a sort of fictional beard for Beatty’s more essayistic commentaries on all of the above. I sometimes wish Beatty didn’t feel the need to stuff every single sentence with as many jokes as possible, but all that candy is laced with enough acid that I suppose it balances out in the end.

Also reread Roth’s The Radetzky March  and The Emperor’s Tomb this fall, for fun.  

Also reading more Simon Stephens plays.

TV: Sandy convinced me to watch Orphan Black. It’s pretty dumb but I did watch the whole thing. It’s kind of ironic that here you have a show with all these strong female characters, but only one actress getting work! Also watched the Netflix series Narcos, FX’s The Americans, and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Also re-watched the entire span of The Wire and thought it’s holding up very well. More and more, I find I watch fewer movies and more series. This depresses me a little, but I don’t know why.

Listening: Nicholas Jaar, Claude von Stroke, The Juan Maclean, Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, Maya Jane Coles. Utterly in love with my absurdly expensive Spotify subscription.

Looking: Thinking a lot about August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, Sternfeld’s Stranger Passing, and this post from Blake Andrews on “docutrinity.”



These endless summer days I ingest culture faster than I can process it. In addition to a lot of material about PTSD, which I’m reading for a writing project, this is what’s been passing in front of my eyeballs. 

White Material, Claire Denis (2009). Denis goes back to Africa. Isabelle Hupert makes me nervous. The politics here are a mess, totally confused. A good example of how sloppy thinking likes to masquerade as ambiguity. But it’s Claire Denis, so of course we must still love it.

Somewhere, Sofia Coppola (2010). Just letting the camera keep running on a lifeless scene doesn’t make it Cassavetes. This is a deeply boring movie.

Another Year, Mike Leigh (2010). Another heartbreaker from Mike Leigh. It’s not really a story so much as it is a kind of temporal vitrine, in which are displayed a half-dozen fully-realized characters, interacting with each other and trying to be alive.

True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen (2010). Lacks the Coen whimsy of Fargo, etc. and also the Coen fatedness of No Country for Old Men. Fine, but neither here nor there.

F for Fake, Orson Welles (1973). Sloppy, self-indulgent, self-important, gimmicky, dull. And that’s coming from someone who’s genuinely interested in and who has great patience for this theme. Poor old fucker.

American Experience: Stonewall Uprising, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (2010). Nice doc. Lots of fascinating footage of Village life in the 60’s.

The Fighter, David O. Russell (2010). Stolid family drama, worth seeing. Has the kind of genuineness and moral seriousness of purpose you rarely see at the multiplex these days. It’s about a hundred times less interesting than, say, Raging Bull, but I think contemporary audiences are so incredibly grateful when they’re not pandered to, they wind up thinking something like this is art for the ages.

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Jonathan Shay (1994). Perfect idea, poorly executed with slack, repetitive prose and a lot of unnecessary self-dealing.

Speed the Plow, David Mamet (1988). Dialogue perfection. Perfect dramatic efficiency.

Still Life: A Documentary, Emily Mann (1982). Really lively, allusive, slippery drama about the collision of eros and thanatos in the post-war life of a Vietnam veteran.

Lethal Warriors, David Philipps (2010). Philipps didn’t ask for this job; he was a sports writer in Colorado Springs when the “Band of Brothers” started coming back from Iraq and killing each other and others. Philipps does an admirable job of stepping up and becoming a real reporter, covering some of the saddest stories of the war. Good, thorough, clear reporting. See also the Frontline episode, The Wounded Platoon.

Louie, Louis C.K. (2010-). Makes Seinfeld look like Happy Days.

The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni (1975). Oh, it’s horribly pretentious and aimless and even sometimes irresponsible, but it’s also of course gorgeous and dizzying poetry. I had to go get my camera to take pictures of it. Then I had to spend an hour planning a trip to Andalusia. 

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924). Been clambering up this Alp since May. Certainly skimmed some of the later Settembrini discourses, but I genuinely enjoyed almost all of these 700 pages. Took extensive notes elsewhere. This is utterly worth your time. Read it while you’re young. What’s it about? It’s about a young man who decides — the verb is too strong — to absent himself from history.

Port of Shadows, Marcel Carné (1938). Oh, France. Merci pour Michèle Morgan.


Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies (2009)

Ha! I’ve been fussing at the old rosary of whether activist drama has any usefulness whatsoever, and then I stumble across this play in which the author shrewdly avoids the need to answer that question by instead simply stating it. It’s an exquisitely and numbingly honest setup: Two idealists are racked with doubt about their ability to change the world. Making themselves and each other miserable. One of them decides to just give up. The other one decides to just keep trying. They both remain racked with doubt and miserable. The end!

This is a great example to pull out when you hear someone complaining that such and such a movie, novel, play, etc. is “formulaic.” Life is formulaic!


Ruined, Lynn Nottage (2009)

The use of rape as an instrument of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most horrific ongoing crises in the world today. Lynn Nottage and Kate Whoriskey traveled to the DRC and heard the stories of many rape victims first-hand. Nottage used this material to write this play, which Whoriskey directed.

I can think of few other examples of works of art which so vividly demonstrate the problem of the representation of human depravity. That problem being that on the one hand, one wishes to see terrible crimes brought to light, in hopes that once exposed they will be ended and punished, but on the other hand one despairs to see the indescribably horrible described, since any such description inevitably minimizes the scope of the crime.

Nottage’s play succeeds for me in theory, because it draws attention to a crisis which is not receiving enough attention. But it fails in practice, because it turns that crisis into a narrative, with types for characters and a classic Freytag pyramid for a plot, and so provides a coherence, structure, catharsis, and sense of resolution which the reality in the Congo does not possess.

I’ve been asking this question of myself for twenty years, and I know I sound like a broken record, a whiny American bourgeois, a useless intellectual who would have been shipped out on the first train to the pig farms during the Cultural Revolution, but the question persists regardless, namely, how does the politically-engaged artist ensure that the audience won’t feel they’ve already done something to help just by experiencing the art?


Enron, Lucy Prebble (2009)

Can you tell I’m trying to find a play or two to use for my “Uses of History” course this fall?

It seems clear that Prebble’s play loses more than most by just being read on the page rather than seen on the stage, since apparently the production itself is a real extravaganza of dance, music, zippy high-tech effects, and so on. Spectacle is no doubt an appropriate mode for this story, which is all about the use of smoke and mirrors to occlude reality. The play itself is loose and lively, with lots of fast-paced short scenes stitched together, rather than long lugubrious capital-D dramatic scenes. I’d have to see it to say much more, but this seems to me a promising mode for coping with the problems of depicting historical realities on stage.

In my comments on David Hare’s The Vertical Hour, I opened up a little vein regarding Anglo/American relations as played out, so to speak, through the vector of theater. Add this to that, filed under Interesting and Unexplained: Prebble’s play was a smash hit in London but absolutely bombed when it moved to Broadway. Thoughts?


Venus, Suzan-Lori Parks (1996)

I only read this, I didn’t see it. That’s an image from a Public Theater/Yale Rep production directed by Richard Foreman.

I really loved Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, but this one was a big disappointment for me. It was disappointing in an interesting way, though, namely, it’s a vivid instance of the imitative fallacy: Parks makes a spectacle of Saartjie Baartman as she attempts to condemn those who made a spectacle of Saartjie Baartman. I rush to make clear that I well understand that Parks has created her spectacle out of sympathy, while Baartman’s captors acted out of ignorance and cruelty. Still, this is a play which makes little to no effort to empathize with Baartman’s plight; instead, she is set down on the stage, presented for our consideration, and talked about. Which is to say, she’s made a spectacle of.

Elizabeth Alexander wrote a book of poems about Baartman, and Barbara Chase-Riboud wrote a novel about her, and those works, like Parks’ play, also seemed to me sadly flat. I commend all three authors for trying, since this is a story which exemplifies in microcosm so many forms of repugnant injustice and prejudice–racism, sexism, and colonialism, for starters–and so, I think, is an important one to tell. But it seems that when a particular situation is so overwhelmingly blatantly obviously horrid, artworks which try to represent it often just sort of point at it and say, “Look. Look how horrid.” Which of course we already know.

But does that mean Baartman–or Auschwitz, or My Lai, or Emmett Till–shouldn’t be represented by artists? Certainly not! I’m just saying that artists who pick up subjects like these have set themselves up for some serious challenges, to say the least.

1 comment

The Vertical Hour, David Hare (2006)

Didn’t see it, just read it, but I think it’s as much meant to be read, as the characters spend a lot of time reading off position-paper type speeches along the lines of

People who blame materialism blame it because they feel it doesn’t nourish them. And you could say it’s true: materialism, by definition, isn’t heroic. In the West we no longer prize heroism. People no longer want to do dangerous, outstanding things. All they want is to live as long and as comfortably as possible. And so this new Western ethic of survival, simply surviving as a human being–merely surviving–as though the world were everything, and the manner in which you live in it secondary–seems to other people, other cultures . . . well, ignoble.

This and much like it is delivered not in a classroom or on a political talk show, but at dinner. I sometimes host dinner parties, and I think many of my guests might well hold opinions not dissimilar from those expressed above, but I can’t recall any of them fulminating quite so explicitly over wine and salad, as if they were explaining the world to a sixth-grader.

That said, I found myself quite enjoying the way Hare manages to leaven his extended flat political speeches with a fairly bubbly Albee-ish family drama, wherein a creepy but brilliant father playfully bats at his faithful but dull son’s lover, a Yale professor who’s so desperate to do the right thing at every moment that she almost never succeeds.

I’m sure much hay was made of the fact that the men are British and the woman American — Hare offers commentary throughout on the different ways in which the two nations do power, war, gender, politics, education, medicine, et. al. — but that sort of thing both bores me and makes me feel sorry for the British, because when they they appear so bent on defining themselves on the basis of their differences from us, as they so often do, it just makes them look pathetic. (A hint for the Commonwealth: The opposite of affection is indifference, not disdain. We know you love us “underneath.”)


Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, David Mamet (1998)

“What comes from the head is perceived by the audience, the child, the electorate, as manipulative. And we may succumb to the manipulative for a moment because it makes us feel good to side with the powerful. But finally we understand we’re being manipulated. And we resent it. Tragedy is a celebration not of our eventual triumph but of the truth–it is not a victory but a resignation. Much of its calmative power comes from that operation described by Shakespeare: when remedy is exhausted, so is grief.”

“Drama doesn’t need to affect people’s behavior. There’s a great and very, very effective tool that changes people’s attitudes and makes them see the world in a new way. It’s called a gun.”

“The purpose of art is not to change but to delight. I don’t think its purpose is to enlighten us. I don’t think it’s to change us. I don’t think it’s to teach us. The purpose of art is to delight us: certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It’s no more elaborate than that.”

“I don’t believe reaching people is the purpose of art. In fact, I don’t know what ‘reaching people’ means. I know what Hazlitt said: It’s easy to get the mob to agree with you; all you have to do is agree with the mob.”


“The avant-garde is to the left what jingoism is to the right. Both are a refuge in nonsense. And the warm glow of fashion on the left and patriotism on the right evidence individuals’ comfort in their power to elect themselves members of a group superior to reason.”


And many more bossy but glossy little gems.



American Gangster, Ridley Scott (2007). Better than everyone said it was. Narratively a mess but mythologically deeply astute.

The Interrogators, Chris Mackey and Greg Miller (2005). As with all the memoirs of interrogators I’ve read, this is useful both with regard to what it thinks it’s saying and what it’s saying without realizing it.

Need for the Bike
, Paul Fournel (2001). Oulipian on cycling. Charming/irritating in that utterly French way.

The Third Man
, Carol Reed (1949). Genius. A perfect pairing with Civilization and Its Discontents. I’d forgotten how wonderful it is to look at, and how perfect the music.

Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud (1929). CANDY. The intelligence is stupendous, the style is wholly beguiling.

The Man Outside
, Wolfgang Borchert (1949). Wanted to like this but it’s a bit too manic for my purposes. That’s saying something, considering how useful I find Buchner.

Travels with Herodotus
, Ryzard Kapuscinski (2007). Almost makes me cry. The final, supremely elegant work by one of my favorite writers ever, who died in 2007. A perfect conclusion to his oeuvre.

Monstering, Tara McKelvey (2007). McKelvey makes a bit too much effort to make a narrative of her journalism, and is a bit too proud of her scoops, which are not in fact that deep. Not without merit, but not necessary if you’ve read Mayer and Gourevitch.



Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman (2008). Former IDF soldier sets about unrepressing his repressed memories of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Waking Life plus Johnny Got His Gun, in Lebanon. Interesting to look at. I don’t get why making it a cartoon is a good idea.

Miller’s Crossing, Joel Coen (1990). I didn’t like this bitter little movie the first time or the second.

Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey through Iraq, Tony Lagouranis (2007). Useful. Complicated. Many of the ways in which this book is interesting are likely not ones of which the author himself is aware. Lagouranis believes he’s written the story of his coming to consciousness and conscience during his time as an interrogator in Iraq. The book is that, but it’s also — I don’t want to overstate this, because I suspect Lagouranis is an ethical and well-intentioned person, but it’s true nonetheless — an example of the very self-exculpatory style which Lagouranis deplores in his commanding officers. More accurate and more precise to say: Lagouranis’s oscillations between “there’s no excuse for what I’ve done” and “here’s my excuse for what I’ve done” are themselves an important part of the story of the systemic failures of the Bush administration’s strategy and tactics in the GWAT.

The Last Days of Haute Cuisine, Patric Kuh (2001). Poorly written but fascinating account of the rises and falls of the French ethos, California cuisine, and corporatism in the American restaurant business.

Life of Galileo, Bertolt Brecht (1947), directed by Joseph Losey for the American Film Theatre, (1974). Brilliant production starring the great Topol of Fiddler on the Roof fame. Really enjoyable and provocative.

I haven’t yet seen In the Loop, or The Thick of It, upon which In the Loop is based, but I’m having a hard time either of them will surpass Harold Pinter’s Party Time. I just watched a 1992 production of the play as filmed by Pinter himself. (The DVD is from 2004, and was produced by “Films for the Humanities & Sciences.) What an absolutely brilliant piece of writing. The lurches and swerves from naked aggression to high society chitchat to lyric flights of symbolic imagination to stammered disconnections of sign and signifier literally make me gasp. Just a short play — 35 minutes — but I’d set it next to any of Pinter’s best, or anyone else’s.

Septem8er Tapes, Christian Johnston (2004). Weird, irresponsible, self-satisfied, atrociously written mockumentary “about” a filmmaker who goes to Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 to “get to the bottom” of the GWAT. Deeply strange. I not only don’t get the point of it, I don’t even get what the filmmakers might imagine the point might be.

The Situation, Philip Haas (2006). Well intentioned ham-fisted Americans-are-bad message movie about an improbably beautiful and beatific female journalist in Iraq.

I could, but won’t, and probably shouldn’t, write a book about representations of the GWAT in film.

Humana Festival 2008: The Complete Plays. Why am I always so surprised that so much contemporary drama is so trite and boring? After all, so much contemporary everything else is trite and boring, why shouldn’t that be true of drama, too? One good play here: Becky Shaw, by Gina Gionfriddo. A queer claustrophobic family drama. Title character is an outsider who comes into the family’s orbit to simultaneously air the dirty laundry and soil a bunch more. Not really my cup of tea — too much psychology, too much talking — but very good at being what it is.

Lars and the Real Girl, Craig Gillespie (2007). Surprisingly sweet and affecting movie about a town that teaches a guy how to love. That sounds horrible, but it’s true! I don’t know how it doesn’t lapse into sentimentality or broad comedy, but it doesn’t.

The Forever War, Dexter Filkins (2008). Dispatches it is not, but the comparison will be made and not for no reason. Filkins was the Times‘ guy in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, and these are the stories that aren’t right for a newspaper but need to be told nonetheless, the ironic ones, personal ones, the ones that unfold over years and the ones that are contained in a single instant. You don’t read this one for policy analysis, political history, or any of that big picture stuff; this is about people trying to stay alive in war zones.

, Michael Mann (1981).
Manhunter, Michael Mann (1986).
I’ve always enjoyed Mann’s glacial style — that’s a reference to both time and attitude — but it sure doesn’t hold up well over time. The interminable Tangerine Dream riffs in Thief and the interminable brooding of William Petersen in Manhunter don’t feel slick and cool, they feel like you just ate a quart of quaaludes. Also, James Caan’s entire torso is covered with hair and Mann makes sure you know it, often. Also, Caan blows up The Green Mill, which is inexcusable.

Elizabeth, Shekhar Kapur (1998). Stylish pseudo-historical romp, great cast.

Network, Sidney Lumet (1976). The M*A*S*H of television. Did anyone make any movies in the 70’s that weren’t completely depressing in both form and content?