10 Examples of Perfectly Acceptable Simple Sentences

The fabled grey house of Bunker City loomed from its high seat atop Taylor’s Hill.

I found myself staring at the red numbers blinking twelve O’clock from the alarm on my nightstand.

The chair creaked under the weight of the tall man waiting for his coffee.

She took deep slow breathes through and made her daily run in less than ten minutes.

Three of them out of the four had found their way into prestigious colleges.

The painting of a red heart made of ribbon held a special place on her wall.

The small clay pieces that his son had sculpted the night before sat drying in a box on the kitchen table.

The teacher found a way of procrastinating with sample sentences in a word document.

The ugly home grown tomatoes were beautiful sitting atop a sandwich.

Sometimes, writing simple sentences is much harder than it sounds.

Urban Sprawl is for the Birds

5 October 2014

Celestino Deleyto’s essay “Focalisation in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds” emphasizes focalization due to camera angle. For the most part, Deleyto uses focalization as synonymous with point of view shots. In fact, Deleyto keeps such a tight hold to the idea that camera angle equals point of view that he refers to high angle, bird’s-eye-view shots as the omniscient external focalizer as if the camera, independent of a character, is a character in its own right. An external focalization is an object or character that is being viewed by the camera, and an internal focalization is when the camera acts as the sightline of a character. Deleyto mentions that anything in the view of the camera is focalized at least to some degree, but he spends very little on this idea (Deleyto 3). Following Deleyto’s ideas, one can see that both Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and Daphnie Du Maurier’s “The Birds” spend a great deal of time focalizing the birds themselves.

Du Maurier only uses external focalization to portray the birds in the text. However, in Hitchcock’s adaptation both external and internal focalization are used to portray the birds as an object and as a subject in the film. Du Maurier’s “The Birds” focuses all of its narrative on Nat’s house and the Trigg’s farm. But Hitchcock’s adaptation of Du Maurier’s story extends the symbolic possibilities of the attack of the birds. While the extended scope of Hitchcock’s film The Birds does add more possibility for changes to the symbolism of the bird attack, the scope by itself does not do everything necessary to create a new context for symbolism. The new symbolism is being carefully crafted from the beginning of the film. In Hitchcock’s The Birds the damage that is wrought by the birds symbolizes the impact that people fear urban sprawl might have on small town America.

In fact, between the years of 1950 and 1960 San Francisco County lost 4.5% of its population while the entire region had a 35.7 % increase in population. During the years between 1950 and 1960, Sonoma County, the county that includes the actual city of Bodega Bay had a 39% increase in population and a 42.5% increase during the decade before (U.S. Geological Survey 184). By the time Hitchcock made his 1963 film The Birds, the people of Bodega Bay had already been witness to the effects of population growth over the last 20 years.

Hitchcock goes through great pains to imbue the birds with a greater symbolism than the everyday clichés one might expect. Hitchcock’s birds are actively made into symbols by their juxtaposition with Mitch, Melanie, and the city of San Francisco itself. In the first scene of the film, Mitch and Melanie meet in a pet store among all of the caged birds (Hitchcock 1963). The beginnings of their budding love affair takes place within a background of multicolored imported birds, and Mitch and Melanie’s conversation is highlighted by the sound of the birds in the background. Adding to the metaphoric connection that is built between the prospective couple and the birds, Mitch asks Melanie if she would show him some lovebirds, but more importantly, the lovebirds take actual form in the mise en scéne of the film. (Hitchcock 1963). Not only does Mitch’s choice of lovebirds indicate that he is interested in Melanie, but also his choice of birds creates a symbolic connection between him, Melanie and the lovebirds.

But Mitch and Melanie are not fully equated with the birds until Melanie drives the pair of lovebirds up and sneaks them into Mitch’s house (Hitchcock 1963). By allowing the lovebirds to surprise Mitch, Melanie’s actions foreshadow the scene when the birds enter his house through the chimney and the scene when the birds enter through the hole in the roof, and the damage and confusion that the bids cause symbolizes the damage being caused to small town America.

The birds in the pet shop are an assortment of domestic and exotic birds imported from around the world, and workers that are attracted to a booming city like San Francisco also arrive from all around the world. The arrival and departure of birds in the San Francisco pet shop mirrors the influx of jobs and workers to the city. The increase of workers in the city creates a need for places to live on the outskirts of the city.

Mitch and Melanie could easily be seen as stand-ins for the workers that had been known to be leaving San Francisco over the last decade. And as Mitch and Melany were well-to-do, they are not necessarily seen as the problem. The influx of birds is the problem and in the scene in the dinner after the city has been under full-fledged attack by the birds, one of the women in the dinner accuse Melanie of bringing the birds (Hitchcock 1963). Although Melanie denies being the cause of the attack, she does bring a pair of caged lovebirds with her from San Francisco. The pair of lovebirds were the first birds to arrive in Bodega Bay; therefore, the lovebirds stand in for the scouts or the early adopters that review the area and advertise it to others that might be looking for the same thing. As Mitch and Melanie are equated with the lovebirds they could be seen to perform the same function trying the area out and reporting it back to others who might be interested in a place to live outside of San Francisco. And the enjoyment that Melanie gets from her sunny seaside drive up the beautiful California coast shows how alluring the prospect of living in Bodega Bay might be for some one that wants to work in San Francisco and live where the housing costs are lower.

Although the film does not actually depict an influx of immigrants from San Francisco other than Mitch, Melanie, and Annie the increasing number of birds in connection to them symbolizes a bigger problem with population growth than just those three. The imagery of the Melanie surrounded by birds in the background of the pet shop is mirrored in the scene outside of the school house in Bodega Bay when the crows are gathering behind her on the playground equipment. The manmade pipes of the playground equipment and the telephone wires that the crows perch on are a more ominous reference to the cages that the birds were held in inside of the pet shop. This more dangerous imagery shows that the small town folks view the things that the birds symbolize as a much more dangerous problem than the people of San Francisco do. And the view of the birds massing one by one behind Melanie shows that the invasion of outsiders continues to grow.

Disregarding all of their other more obvious narrative motivations, Mitch and Melanie go to the small town of Bodega Bay for a weekend trip from San Francisco only to experience the destruction of the small town beauty and charm that had drawn them there in the first place. As a result of the destruction caused by the increase in population (whether by birds or immigrant people), the city of Bodega Bay is no longer suitable for a weekend getaway by the well-to-do, and Mitch and Melanie, with their original lovebirds in tow, beat a hasty retreat back to San Francisco. Therefore, Hitchcock’s The Birds portrays the fear that the increasing populations of major cities and the urban sprawl associated with this growth will wipe out the culture of small town America and ruin the weekend getaways of the rich.

Work Cited

Celestino Deleyto. “Focalization in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.” Miscelanea Journal Archives – FOCALISATION IN ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S THE BIRDS. Web. 05 Oct. 2014.

Du Maurier, Daphne. The Birds. London: Virago, 2004. Print.

The Birds. Hitchcock, A. Universal Pictures. 1963. Film.

“U.S. Geological Survey.” USGS Publications Warehouse. Web. 09 Oct. 2014. <pubs.usgs.gov/bul/b2188/b2188ch9.pdf>.

Ambiguous Framing

14 September 2014

When Henry James’s novella, The Turn of the Screw was adapted into Jack Clayton’s 1961 film, The Innocents, the frame story was conspicuously missing. Francesco Casetti’s “Adaptation and Mis-adaptations” says the reappearance of a story creates an area of discourse between the two stories (Casetti 82-83.) Both The Turn of the Screw and The Innocents are successful and entertaining stories only The Innocents has a much lower level of ambiguity. Much of the loss of ambiguity comes from the difficulty in translating Henry James’s famously complex syntax to the screen. However, if the film was framed by the story of Douglas’s narration, it could have maintained some of the ambiguity that was lost. Douglas’s story creates another level of depth to the already ambiguous Story in The Turn of the Screw by adding the possibility that the story of the governess was a complete fabrication created by Douglas.

The way Douglas strings along his audience for four days before beginning his tale can be seen both as a way of building suspense and/or as a way of stalling for time long enough to allow him to write the story that he has promised to tell. Douglas’s story takes place within the context of a gathering of storytellers and he is noticeably inspired by the lack luster ghost story that started off the novella. The narrator of the frame story says, “[N]ot immediately, but later in the evening…. Someone else told a story not particularly effective, which I saw [Douglas] was not following. This I took for a sign that he had himself something to produce…” (James 1.) Douglas did not announce right away that he had a similar story to tell. He waited and deliberated until after the next story was finished before he pitched his story. Although the narrator never says that how much time elapsed between the finish of the ghost story and the beginning of the next story, the gathering did not seem to be guided by a strict schedule. Therefore, there could have been a considerable lag between the time that Griffin’s ghost story ended and the next story began. But Douglas did not pitch his story then, nor did he pitch his story directly after the next story was finished. He waited until the gathering was about to break up for the night (James 1.) Douglas could have been spent that whole time trying to remember where he had kept the manuscript that the governess had given him, or he could have spent that time tying together different fictional elements together to think of a way to top Griffin’s story. After he pitches his story and the group begs for him to begin his tale he finds reason to postpone his telling for four days (James 4.) This delay in the telling of the story adds a touch of ambiguity to the question of whether or not the governess even existed to relate the story that Douglas promises to tell.

The parallels between the frame story and the governess’s story add to the question of whether or not Douglas is the author of the story. Both the climax of the governess’s story and the fame story revolve around the sending of a letter. The governess’s letter to the master mysteriously disappears before it can be mailed out (James 76,) and later in the confrontation with Miles, the fact comes out that the letter never had anything in it to begin with (James 84.) And just to reinforce the fact that there was nothing in the letter, the governess and Miles repeat the word ‘nothing’ two more times each (James 84.) Going back to Casetti’s argument that a reappearance creates a discursive field, the letter that Douglas plans to send becomes suspect. Yet, unlike the governess’s letter the novella never discloses whether or not Douglas’s letter is sent, or whether or not he actually receives the manuscript book in the mail. All the novella says is that Douglas produces the manuscript book on the third day and it is not even opened and read from until the fourth day (James 4, 6.) If Douglas did receive the manuscript in the mail, his postponement from the day of the third, when he claimed to receive the manuscript, and the night of the fourth gave him plenty of time to transcribe the story into the manuscript book, and even more time if he had the manuscript book in his possession all along. But up until this point, all of the ambiguity is delivered through the narrative plot.

The best case for an intentional ambiguity of whether or not Douglas is the author of the governess’s tale is delivered in carefully crafted syntax. The narrator of the frame story says, “But Douglas… had begun to read with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of his author’s hand (James 6.) This quote makes very clear that Douglas is a skilled orator if not an author outright. The phrases ‘fine clearness’ and ‘rendering to the ear of beauty’ as well as his earlier ability to draw out the suspense of the promised story for four days show that excels in at least two of the skills that would be required of a writer: the ability to sell a work and a knack for grabbing the audience through the skilled reading of a story. But the three most important words in the quote for drumming up ambiguity are contained in the phrase, ‘his author’s hand.’ Because the phrase does not say the governess’s hand or even more simply the author’s hand, this phrase could either mean that Douglas is the author of the manuscript or that the governess is the author of the manuscript depending on one’s reading of this line of the frame story. Since the last mention of the governess as the pronoun, ‘she’ was two full paragraphs before the word, ‘author’ and the mention of Douglas using the possessive pronoun, ‘his’ is right next to it, most of the evidence points to Douglas being the author. However strong the evidence is that Douglas is the author, the ambiguity remains. Another peculiarity of the frame story in The Turn of the Screw is that the story ends without returning to the frame. Therefore, the placement of the quote as the last line of the frame story leaves the very ambiguous line about the author’s hand at a position that could completely change the reading of the governess’s story without ever resolving the question of who authored the story.

The ambiguity of The Turn of the Screw creates a story that not only holds up to rereading, but also holds new surprises with every read. Of course, the film, The Innocents does not offer as much reward for multiple viewings as the novella, but the reading of the novella in conjunction with the viewing of the movie gives plenty of chances to compare and contrast the different interpretations between the two.

Work Cited

Casetti, Francesco. “Adaptations and Mis-adaptations: Film, Literature, and Social Discourses.” A Companion to Literature and Film. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004. Print.

James, Henry. The Turn of the Screw. New York: Dover Publications, 1991. Print.

The Innocents. Clayton, J. 20th Century Fox. 1961. Film.

Romero’s and Bakhtin’s Apocalyptic Carnival

25 June 2014

George Romero’s movie, Dawn of the Dead celebrates the violent excess and grotesque spectacle that Mikhail Bakhtin would be likely to term a world turned upside down. The film is filled with zombies invading the public spaces, wandering the streets all hours of the day and night like the revelers of carnival. According to “Mikhail Bakhtin: Carnival and Carnivalesque – Summary and Review” from the website The Cultural Studies Reader, “But the town square and its adjacent streets were the central site of the carnival, for they embodied and symbolized the carnivalesque idea of being universal and belonging to all people” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.)  The zombies thrive on the basest of urges, the urge to eat. The zombies of Dawn of the Dead are male, female, rich, poor, powerful, and lowly. The zombies in this film are diverse with examples of nun zombies and Hari Krishna zombies as well as a zombie in a nurse’s outfit and one fat zombie in swim trunks. There are zombies dressed for every profession and every recreational activity. In fact, the zombies have the look of individuals in costume. And when you include thick white makeup that the actors must wear to look like they are dead, the zombies in this film begin to resemble clowns on parade. As clowns, the zombies of Dawn of the Dead fit perfectly into Bakhtin’s of carnival. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead fits perfectly into the literary tradition of the carnivalesque; horror movies in general and especially zombie movies supply the cultural transgression that audiences need to continue to live within the strictly controlled structure of today’s society.

Dawn of the Dead begins by showing the chaos going on inside the newsroom of a television broadcasting network. While the people inside the newsroom are safe from the riot and death in the streets, their job as purveyors of mass media make them especially aware of the danger that is brewing in the streets. The awareness of the danger in the streets causes then to act erratically and panic. The fear and panic that the newscasters feel is spread to the individual residences through television programing. This radiating of fear, panic, and bad decisions from the streets to the media and then out to the people’s private residences parallels the way that carnivalesque is able to penetrate into all facets of society. The web article says, “[The carnival] penetrated the house […] and did not exist just in the public sphere or town square” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) And the fear and panic that spreads to everyone in immediate danger or just informed of it is given license to do things that would have been unthinkable before the beginning of the zombie outbreak. The web article states, “…Behavior that was otherwise unacceptable is legitimate in carnival, and human nature’s hidden sides are revealed” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) Peter, Francine, Roger, and Stephen all show no remorse when stealing gas to refuel their helicopter or looting the stores in the mall for the items that they need (Dawn of the Dead 1979.) But they did not just stop at the necessities; they looted high end clothing, electronic devices, and other luxury items that they definitely did not need. And all of this was deemed acceptable because of the extreme circumstances of the zombie outbreak. In fact, there is even a news cast within the film that directs the survivors to “remove the head or destroy the brain” of the zombie (Dawn of the Dead 1979.) The idea that a news authority would authorize the general public to murder other people on sight indicates the extent to which the laws have been loosened during this time of zombie carnival.

According to the web article, “The central ritualistic act of the carnival is the false coronation and deposition of the carnival king” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) The initiating act of all zombie films, not just Dawn of the Dead, is the rise of the zombie to a position of power, and the main conflict in Dawn of the Dead is the deposition of the zombie usually by inflicting some sort of violent trauma to the head of the zombie. In Dawn of the Dead, the supplanting of normal society by zombies acts as a de facto coronation of the king of the carnival. The carnival king is chosen from someone that is the exact opposite of a king (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) The zombies of this film are far from regal kingly material. While a king is an exalted example of what a human can become, a zombie is the most degraded example of what a human become. A king is stately and impeccably dressed while a zombie is hunched over, decomposing, and dressed in the tattered remnants of clothing. The web article states, “The carnival unites the two poles of change and crisis, birth and death, old and young, down and up, wisdom and stupidity etc. the dualistic imagery is characteristic of the carnival for their contradiction” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) Carnival’s dualism is also apparent within the desiccating corpse of the zombie. Birth and death unites in the zombie. The moment of a zombie’s birth is the death of the human that had once inhabited the body. The zombie is effectively immortal combining young and old in an eternally ambulatory corpse. While the zombie has lost its ability to think for itself, it is still motivated to eat and create more zombies by an instinctual drive. Instinct is a form of wisdom passed down through the genes, and therefore wisdom and stupidity are united in the zombie as well.

The final scene of Dawn of the Dead shows Peter and Francine flying off in the helicopter into the noon day sky, into the pristine pastoral paradise of forest and blue sky accented with big puffs of white clouds. Francine’s departure in the late stages pregnancy leaves the film with a sense of hope for rebirth and renewal of the Earth. And Peter and Francine serve as an Adam and Eve analogue, and their escape into the untouched wilderness resembles a return to Eden.  But this act of renewal and rebirth would mean very little without the death and destruction caused by the zombies. The degradation of normal society to its basest animal instincts is what allows the escape of Peter and Francine to have any significance. Bakhtin believes that the cycle of change and renewal, death and rebirth that is represented in carnival is what allows people to continue to function within the strict structure of society (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.) The web article states, “The carnival for Bakhtin is a festival of time which exterminates all and renews all” (The Cultural Studies Reader 2014.)

As a festival of time Dawn of the Dead is displayed to the general public within the confines of a 128 minute movie. The public’s consumption of this movie also follows within the confines of Bakhtin’s theory of carnivalesque. The movie audiences share in the enjoyment of this bloody carnival. The feelings of being a coconspirator in the cultural transgressions and sacrilegious debate allow the viewers of Dawn of the Dead and movies like it to have the feeling of change and renewal that allow them to go on with the rest of their boring daily lives and stay in lockstep with the constricting rules of society.

Work Cited

Romero, G. Dawn of the Dead. United Film Distribution Company, 1979. Film.

“The Cultural Studies Reader.” Mikhail Bakhtin: “Carnival and Carnivalesque” – Summary and Review. Web. 26 June 2014. <http://culturalstudiesnow.blogspot.com/2011/07/mikhail-bakhtin-carnival-and.html&gt;.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

The last thing that Diego says in Patricia Engel’s “Desaliento” stands out as a damning critique of an immigrant’s experience of the American dream. Diego says to Sabina, “You broke my heart just like you said you would. Like the fucking wind. You broke it wide open” (75.) This quotation works double duty as a comment on the relationship between Sabina and Diego and as the representation of the illegal immigrant’s experience in the United States. In Patricia Engel’s story, “Desaliento,” Engel Contrasts similar experiences between American citizens and Illegal aliens to highlight the flaws in American ideas about illegal immigration.

Sabina plays an interesting role in this story because she has a foot in both worlds. Sabina is a rich American citizen and she understands illegal immigration from the perspective of a citizen. She identifies with Diego as an immigrant because her family emigrated from Columbia under similar circumstances, but their immigrant similarities only go so far. Sabina sees in Diego her chance to experience the full immigrant experience. And instead of taking measures to help improve the conditions that Diego is living in, she decides to sit back and watch his poverty in all of its glory. However, instead of motivating Diego to try to change his circumstances, Sabina’s presence in his life served to reinforce the degrading experience that he was having at the hands of the bigoted American.

When discussing the other women that Diego sleeps with, Sabina says, “Roberta offered to marry Diego on the spot because she had her papers already. And Diego was considering it, which made me nuts” (64.) Sabina seems dubious about Diego’s consideration of the idea of marrying for citizenship, but when Elsa decided to marry into Israeli citizenship, Sabina is only slightly concerned. Sabina says, “The next summer, Elsa was pregnant. She met this Israeli guy in a Tel Aviv nightclub and they fell in instant love” (70.) When Diego was considering getting married into American citizenship, Sabina assumed that there was no way that he could possibly love Roberta. But when Elsa, a rich American woman wants to marry into citizenship of another country, Sabina does not feel the need to question her motivations. Additionally, when Nacho tells Sabina that he has a business degree, instead of believing that he is a qualified individual with a the skills and opportunity to better his place in the world, Sabina thinks of a joke about people from Argentina and laughs at him (69.) Therefore, Sabina shows that even with her special insight into problems that illegal immigrants face, she cannot help but contribute to the stigma that illegal immigrants face.

Upon further critique of Sabina’s interactions, one can see many more ways that she seems to be using Diego’s status as a way to make her feel closer to her Latina heritage without having to lift a hand to help solve the problems. Sabina does not hide her appreciation for Diego’s looks. She said, “I was mad for his fat lips and clear eyes, his choppy singsong Spanish and the way he thought shirts were optional” (63.) But what seems to interest Sabina is Diego’s exotic nature rather than the typical standard of masculine beauty. Although Sabina does not go straight out and say that she likes Diego for his poor lifestyle, she goes into great detail when describing the squalid conditions of his apartment. She described the overcrowded one bedroom apartment as a lover describes every detail of her partner’s body (62.) She didn’t just see the place once and never show up again. Sabina was there every time that she and Elsa were not at the beach (62.) When Nacho criticizes Diego for resorting to dealing drugs to get by, Sabina defends his defends him. She claims that Diego deals pot with integrity (69.) During all of the time that Sabina spent with Diego, she never once stopped to question the system that was holding Diego and illegal immigrants in the kind of poverty that forces so many of them to resort to breaking the law by doing things such as selling drugs.

Diego’s cousin Nacho is able to recognize that there is something unusual about Sabina’s obsession with him. Nacho asks her why she hangs out with Diego. Then, he says, “You’re a rich girl that likes to play poor” (69.) Although Sabina is hurt by being told that she does not belong, she never does anything to counter Nacho’s claims. Sabina’s hurt is not so much because she gets insulted by someone that she does not respect but because she feels at least in some small way like he is right. And not only is she a rich girl who is playing poor, she is a rich girl who is not doing anything to help the poor people that she is deriving her entertainment from.

The biggest difference between Sabina’s and Diego’s experience of the United States is in employment. Sabina always has a good job in one New York art gallery or another that she does nothing but complain about. Not only does she have the luxury to complain about the job that she has, but when she quits her job, she has the luxury to stay for months at a time in her parent’s condo in Miami while she lives on their money (61-62, 71.) Even though Diego is not legally allowed to hold a job in the United States, every time that Sabina and Diego meet up he has a new better paying job although his jobs are never ones that would be considered secure or prestigious. Diego hands out fliers for clubs, he busses tables, and then he deals pot (61, 66.)  Even with the fear and uncertainty that comes along with working illegally, never once is Diego ever heard to complain about the jobs that he has.

Like most other illegal immigrants, Diego was driven by the economic chaos in his home country to the United States by the desire of a better life and the desperate need of his family. Diego left Argentina because of an economic collapse and while he was scrounging for money in the United States, his mother was diagnosed with cancer (62.) After his mother died the economy of Argentina took another dive and the money that he had sent to his father was worthless as well (72.) But the United States is the land of opportunity where people of even the lowest means can become successful through dedication and hard work.

Through the eyes of the illegal immigrant running from economic disaster and living in the poorest of conditions the smallest amount of success can seem like fabulous riches, and Diego allows himself to be blinded by his rising standard of living. He buys himself two motorcycles, an Isuzu Trooper, and kite surfing gear (66.) He provides a place to stay for his cousin and he supplies his house with expensive beer (68.) He begins to use his money to buy the things that are meant to symbolize his attainment of some semblance of the American dream instead of saving all of his money for his eventual move back home. But with every added step on Diego’s ladder to success, the stress of living in a country that does not want him continues to weigh him down. His step up from handing out fliers to becoming a busboy added an increased level of interactions with the citizens that look down on illegal immigrants with disdain when they even notice them at all. Then, the step from busboy to drug dealer added increased scrutiny form the police. The increased possibility of being arrested by the police or being robbed and murdered by the other criminals that he had to deal with on a daily bases pushes Diego to finally leave the country. Diego seems to realize that if the American dream applies for anyone, it does not apply for illegal immigrants.

Once Diego leaves the United States he is given the chance to finally decompress from the daily anxiety that he must have been feeling. Now that he is free from the system that did not allow him the freedom to obey the law, Diego is free to invest his money in a bar, and hold his first legal job since before he had arrived in the United States (73.) The release of the constant day to day pressures allows him the time to reconnect with his cousin Nacho after all the bad blood that they had (73.) And Diego is finally able to see his relationship with Sabina for the tragedy that it was.

Desialento by Patricia Engel shows how even Illegal immigrants themselves and the second generation American Latinos that should be their best hope for political change are only doing things to hurt their chances to bring about positive political change in the future. And every day more and more Latino Americans, legal and illegal, are having their hearts broken by the American dream, broken wide open. “Like the fucking wind” (75.)

Fear and Loathing in Chicago

Native Son by Richard Wright follows Bigger Thomas through a series of bad decisions that lead him to being sentenced to death in the gas chamber. He murders one woman and severs her head, rapes and murders another, blames his crimes on someone else, and tries to extort money from the wealthy parents of one of the murder victims. Throughout all of these distasteful actions perpetrated by the main character, Richard Wright has the confidence to know that the reader will continue reading to the end of the book. One could just assume that the world is populated by morally bankrupt looky-loos that get their kicks from human suffering, and that may be the case. However, Richard Wright does not rely on untested pseudo psychology; he places his confidence in time tested literary technique. Richard Wright uses sentiment, characterization, and a portrayal of racism to make the reader feel like Bigger Thomas had no other choice; these techniques keep the reader emotionally invested in Bigger even though he is a highly unlikeable character.

Richard Wright uses character interaction to mold Bigger into a fully formed and believable character. Bigger comes fully furnished with family, friends, and goals. His goals clash with the goals of the other characters. Early in the story, Bigger argues with his mother over the possibility of taking a job that had been offered to him. Even though he lives with his mother, Brother, and sister in a small studio apartment, Bigger does not want to take the job (11). This argument with his mother paints a complicated picture of who Bigger is. Although Bigger’s choice to hang out with his friends rather than look for work does not paint him in a very appealing light, the poor conditions in which he lives and the constant arguments with his mother–not to mention the absence of his father and his relatively young age—work to create sympathy for this troubled young man.

However, a troubled family life can do little to excuse the murder and decapitation of a young woman. But this wasn’t just any young woman. It was a rich white woman and he was a young black man. He knew that he could not get caught in a room alone with her and live through the experience. He had years of experience dealing with whites and he knew what kind of contact was acceptable and what was not. Wright writes, “There were white people to either side of him; he was sitting between two vast white looming walls” (67-68). The scene had already shown Jan and Marry getting into the car on either side of Bigger. If he had ever experienced anything like this before, Wright would not have to repeat the statement nor would there be an explicit emphasis on the race of the occupants to either side of Bigger. Not only was this a new and unusual experience for Bigger, but also it was a frightening experience. The imagery of two white walls looming creates a claustrophobic feeling in the mind of the reader, and the feeling is attached to the scene. This anxiety at just sitting next to Marry in the presence of a white man is only a small fraction of the anxiety that he would feel as he was nearly caught alone in her room with her by her blind mother. Bigger’s fear of being close to white people does not excuse him killing Mary and chopping off her head but, one could clearly understand why he accidentally killed her. And after Mary’s death the reader’s empathy for the emotional turmoil that Bigger is going through allows the reader to accept the extreme actions that bigger is forced to take while maintaining the reader’s disapproval of those actions.

The anxiety that Bigger has at the presence of white people is not a mere character quirk. It is a symptom of the institutionalized racism that Wright imbues his novel with. A newspaper report that Bigger reads once he becomes a suspect and is on the run says, “Police reported that many windows in the Negro sections were smashed out” (244). The smashed out windows show the poverty and poor conditions that Bigger and all other blacks were forced to live in. And probably the most telling of all is that there is a Negro section of town. One of the best ways to make people feel inferior is to separate them into a ghetto and surround them by poverty and crumbling infrastructure.

After reading the quote about the Negro section of town, no one will be surprised to learn that Bigger’s childhood dream to become a pilot could never be fulfilled because whites did not think that black people were qualified to be pilots (16-17). Being caught up in this society, Bigger does not recognize these problems right away. He can only feel them in the abstract form. When speaking with Gus, Bigger asks him, “You know where the white folks live?… Right down here in my stomach… It’s like fire” (21-22). This is his inexpressible reaction to the racist society in which he lives. Gus admits that he shares this same feeling (22). The way Gus understands this uneasy feeling about their treatment by white society allows the reader to assume that the rest of black society probably feels this stress too. The stress of living among a people who constantly have their hopes dashed due to an unfair society creates a kind of social pressure, and Bigger is pushed to do all of the vile acts that he does in this novel. And again the reader’s empathy for Bigger’s plight is reinforced.

The longest and probably least effective use of sentiment takes place in the courtroom. While Max gives his statement to the court (382-405). He uses pleas to people’s emotion indiscriminately. One moment he is building up sympathy designed to save Bigger’s and the next he is building up sentiment that is likely to get bigger killed. Max says, “Your Honor, in our blindness we have so contrived and ordered the lives of men that the moths in their hearts flutter toward ghoulish and incomprehensible flames” (401)! The one element that shows without any question that this statement is meant to persuade the emotions of the people of not only the fictional people hearing it and the real people reading it is that it ends with an exclamation point even though it is not an exclamation. The next thing that one notices is that the statement makes no sense. The pointless and difficult nature of this statement is another indication that it is intended to persuade the audience. But no matter how confusing the writing is a patient reader can break it down and decode the actual meaning. “In our blindness” indicates that what we have done was done in innocence. Starting out by minimizing the blame that you are placing on the people that you are accusing of wrongdoing is usually a good tactic when appealing to emotion. “Contrived and ordered the lives of men” means that we have built society. The use of two synonymous words serves to tone down the negative connotations of the word contrived.  In this case, “the moths in our hearts” refer to our ever fluctuating and somewhat suspect emotions. Or since the statement is meant as an excuse for murder and rape the use of moths rather than butterflies is a nod to the heinousness of the crimes that max is asking us to excuse. And the “ghoulish and incomprehensible flames” are the suicidal actions that people take such as killing and decapitating rich white women. So what this statement is essentially is saying is that we are at fault (but not really) for making society a trap where the disenfranchised are forced to do things that are against their best interest. This flimsy little statement is what Max thought was going to bring sympathy for Bigger. And not only does Max’s ploy not elicit empathy in the judges eyes, but also it does not elicit empathy in the eyes of the reader. In fact, Max’s statement serves to remove all of the empathy that the reader had built up through the course of the novel.

And then Max goes on to make a statement like this one which is also meant to make people feel sympathy for Bigger. Max says, “Every time he comes in contact with us, he kills!… Every thought he thinks is potential murder” (400). This quote is much easier to understand and again the exclamation mark is used on a sentence that is not an exclamation as proof that the statement is meant to persuade. However this quote does nothing to bring sympathy for Bigger. Even though Max has made it clear that society at large is slightly at fault for creating this condition in Bigger, stating that murder is an inevitability does not help his case. While this 23 page rant against the evils of society was clearly intended as the highpoint in the novel and proof that Bigger should not be killed, I believe that it falls very short of the mark. In fact, no one in their right mind would excuse a murderer just because he should have murdered more people.

But just because the longest and most intentional use of sentimentality backfires and further alienates the reader from the character it was intended to excuse, does not mean that sentimentality is not used to great effect in other places in the novel. When speaking to Bigger in the jail cell Max makes a statement to Bigger that does help the reader to identify with him even though he has done all of these terrible things. Max says, “They hire people and they don’t pay them enough; they take what people own and build up power. They rule and regulate life. They have things arranged so that they can do those things and the people can’t fight back” (428). This quote effectively sums up Max’s failed 24 page argument in three lines. Had Wright omitted or otherwise reduced Max’s statement in court, this short and beautifully simple quote could have worked to make the novel end on a bittersweet scene. But after competing with the court room scene, not even Wright’s use of sentiment, characterization, and racism can bring back the sense of empathy that Bigger originally has. Richard Wright’s book, Native Son, serves to prove that even a confident and competent writer can be made to look like an amateur in the presence of a large enough mistake.

Tibby the Master of Counterpoint: Marxist Failure on Feminist Terms

Marxist and feminist theory work together in Tibby’s life to create his unusual status as a privileged failure. Tibby Schlegel is a man with all the advantages that one could hope for in life. He is young, rich, and educated in culture. One might assume that a man in London in the early twentieth century, with a permanent income and plenty of leisure time, would hold a prominent role in any novel. However, In Howards End Tibby is only a minor character. One of the major themes developed over the course of Howards End is the challenging of gender roles, but each time a gender role is challenged it seems to be later reinforced. So, this may seem more specifically the challenging of the importance of gender roles. Yet, Tibby’s character only seems to challenge gender roles, and worse, Tibby’s character only ever shows the negative results of challenging the prevailing gender roles. The inclusion of Tibby as a character, even a minor one, seems to complicate the statement that the novel tries to make about gender roles. So it stands to reason, that there is another important role that Tibby’s character fills. In E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, The character of Tibby Schlegel serves as a counterpoint to the other characters in the novel; scenes involving Tibby are used to highlight the masculinity of the other characters.

The typical Marxist take on the world shows that the base determines the superstructure. The base is everything that makes production possible. The money needed to start a business, the machinery that creates the product, and the income generated from that product are all part of the base (Peter Barry 151). The superstructure is every benefit the base affords. The things that make life enjoyable such as culture, art, religion, and freedom are all part of the superstructure of a society (Peter Barry 151). Tibby’s base is his the permanent income of himself and the other members of his family. His base gives him the freedom to pursue a life of a life of high art and leisure. His superstructure includes a good education in culture, a nice home in the city, servants, and plenty of leisure time.

Reification is the process by which people are stripped of their humanity and are seen in general terms (Peter Barry 151). Soldiers could be referred to as boots on the ground, or audience members could be seen as butts in seats. The results of reification allow people to be thought of in terms of objects, and, therefore, the people deserve no consideration as actual humans. An entertainer would not feel bad about canceling a show at the last minute if the only things that were going to be inconvenienced were ‘butts,’ and a military leader would a much easier time sending ‘boots’ into a deadly battle than actual people with lives and families. Referring to people as objects that are less than human to be able to treat them in a way that humans should not be treated is the essence of reification. However, Tibby’s experience with reification is somewhat unique because according to a Marxist perspective, Tibby’s freedom to live life on his own terms should free him from alienation and reification.

Tibby is not completely free of the reification process. Referring to Tibby, Margaret said, “In a way, I wish we had a real boy in the house- the kind of boy who cares for men” (Forster 33). Helen goes on to agree with her sister’s assessment of Tibby as not being real. This quote shows people who hold power over Tibby and how they alienate him. The interesting thing is that these people with power over him are not his employers (as a man of independent means, Tibby has none). They are not his religious leaders (Tibby is portrayed as nonreligious if not overtly atheist). Nor are they his political superiors (Nor does Tibby engage in much political activity as depicted in Howards End). By treating Tibby as if he is not real, Margaret and Helen allow themselves to manipulate his life in ways that they would not like their lives to be manipulated. This is an unusual twist considering the early twentieth century England was a patriarchal male dominated society.

In a patriarchal society the gender roles are fairly restrictive. These gender roles are a culturally enforced set of rules that define what clothing, actions and jobs are appropriate for a person as determined by his or her sex. What is deemed by society to be appropriate for males is considered masculine, and what is deemed by society to be appropriate for females is considered to be feminine. A patriarchal society is a male dominated society. For women to have any power over a man in such a context was definitely abnormal. Therefore, Margaret and Helen’s reification of Tibby, thinking of him as if he isn’t real, is one the techniques used in the novel to allow (mainly Margaret, but Hellen to a lesser extent) the stepping stone to break away from society’s typical rules of femininity.

However, Margaret and Helen’s ability to see their brother as something other than human also leads them to mistreat him from time to time. Their mistreatment usually comes in the form of emasculation; generally, Margaret and Helen say things to make Tibby feel less masculine. For example, after the Beethoven concert, Tibby went inside and made tea while the women talked outside. When Tibby called them in for tea Helen responded, “All right, Aunt Tibby” (Forster 33). As well as being a direct insult to Tibby’s masculinity by referring to him as an old woman, Helen’s taunt is based around the idea of man’s and women’s work. This is the culturally enforced idea that some jobs are inherently masculine, and other jobs are feminine.  For example, a man takes the trash or mows the lawn, and a woman mops the floors or prepares food and drink for the family.

In this scene, Helen teases Tibby because he is breaking cultural norms when he brews tea for the women. However, this scene is also interesting because the typical masculine and feminine roles are completely reversed. In scenes familiar from old-fashioned movies and traditional family meals such as Thanksgiving, the women work in the kitchen while the men stand outside, converse and smoke cigars. While it is obvious that Margaret, Helen, and Aunt Julie are not smoking cigars, they are outside discussing things while Tibby is in the house doing work in the kitchen. This is not to say that they are intentionally flaunting the rules of society by lampooning such an iconic family scene. However, it is possible that Forster envisions this scene as a tongue in cheek way to highlight how the gender roles are reversed in the Schlegel family.

One thing that the scene with Tibby does do well is show how his character is used a counterpoint to highlight the masculinity of Margaret and Helen. The weak and subservient image of Tibby preparing and serving tea to the three women serves to intensify the odd social dynamic in this family. Although Tibby, Helen, and Margaret all have their own incomes the typical masculine roles all fall on Margaret. While the quote about Tibby not being a real boy was intended by as a slight against Tibby, it also acts as a sort of comparison between Margaret and Tibby. Margaret wishes for Tibby to be “the kind of boy who cares for men” (Forster33). This statement is a direct response to the way Tibby leaves Leonard out of his conversation when they walk back from the concert to retrieve Leonard’s lost umbrella. Within a patriarchal society it is customary for the men in the family to make an effort to entertain other male guests, but Tibby decides to spend all of his time discussing the themes and motifs of the music that they had just heard with his Aunt Julie. Music is not a subject that Leonard is either interested in at the time or even understands in any detail. Therefore, Margaret fills the masculine role that Tibby refuses to fill. The failings of tibbys character serve to highlight the key points of Margaret’s character, but Tibby’s character does not just compare well against his sister.

Tibby is the equal opposite of Leonard; Leonard excels where Tibby fails and vice versa. Tibby lives a rich and leisured life. He is devoid of the wants and needs of the typical person of his day. He has a seemingly inexhaustible income that keeps him well-fed and well-dressed. All of his needs are provided for him. He lives in a large house in the center of the city. He is taken care of by servants and his older sisters. Even when his house is scheduled to be torn down, Tibby is unconcerned. He knows that everything will be provided for him. On the other hand, Leonard is poor, and he struggles for everything that he gets. Leonard is able to meet his needs at least at the beginning of the novel, but he is limited to filling his needs. He is able to splurge from time to time on the finer things in life such as classical music concerts. However, he must attend the cheapest and most conveniently located concerts, and his attendances of these events are limited to days that he can afford them and times that he can get away from work. Leonard has no one to help him pay the bills. In fact, he is further handicapped by the need to take care of Jackie. Leonard is preoccupied with the possible loss of his home even in times of plenty. But  both Leonard and Tibby share a dream of a life of culture.

Both Tibby and Leonard have a passion for the finer things in life, but because of their differences in monetary base and cultural superstructure they have a very different experience of the same things. At the classical music concert Tibby and Leonard are able to experience Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. However, when Tibby sits down to listen to this musical masterpiece he lays the full score on his knee and immerses himself completely in the music (Forster 25). Tibby uses his extensive knowledge of how to contrast melody lines in a musical technique called counterpoint, used primarily in the baroque period, to understand the complex and beautiful harmonies of a symphony that was created in the transition between the classical and romantic periods. Not only does Leonard’s status as a poor person preclude him from owning a full musical score of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but also his limited funds throughout his life would make sure that he had never been given the lessons in music that would be required to make sense of a musical score or understand that baroque counterpoint and harmony from the romantic period are two different musical styles that do not work together.

Tibby is able to use his background in music to anticipate interesting bits of music coming up, break down how a piece of music is put together, understand how this piece of music adheres to or deviates from the characteristics of other music of the same period, and generally understand the music in a way that Leonard can only dream of. And Leonard does dream of this deep connection with culture. Leonard thinks to himself, “Oh, to acquire culture…. Oh, to be well informed… But it would take one years” (Forster 31). Of course, this quote is a little later in the same chapter and refers to Leonard’s inability to understand the things that Margaret is talking about, but the sentiment seems to work in this context as well.

Leonard dreams about living in the world of culture but cannot let go of the other things in life that are nagging on him. Leonard begins the experience of listening to Beethoven by getting into a conversation with Magaret. The novel is not clear about whether he starts the conversation or not, or whether or not the conversation is truly about the music. But even if they are conversing about the music, Leonard is not likely to understand half of what Margaret says to him. On the trip to pick up his umbrella, Leonard thinks that her conversation flies out of his grasp like birds (Forster 31). Again his lack of knowledge is the culprit. However, some of his inability to live in the world of culture comes down to his financial worries. All throughout that evening Leonard is interrupted by one thought or another: “…He could not quite forget about his stolen umbrella… Ought he have paid two shillings? …Shall I try to do without a program?” (Forster 31). Leonard’s worries all seem to stem from a lack of funds. Even his lack of cultur comes down to his insufficient education due to his growing up poor. Also, Leonard’s sense of self-decency does not allow him to pay attention to the music when he heard that Fraulein Mosebach leaves her purse (Forster 29). He volunteeres to return her purse as a gesture of goodwill and in an attempt to do something that makes him look like person with culture. As a result, Leonard is unable to disengage from his everyday experience and get the most out of the culture that is surrounding him.

On the other hand, Tibby is able to tune out everything but the music that he is interested in, but he refuses to acknowledge anything from the real world. Tibby is constantly interrupting Helen’s fanciful visual interpretation of the music to give updates to the progress of the music (Forster 26). Tibby’s constant interruptions seem to be an indication that he is so involved in the music that he does not realize that he is disrupting the experience for others. Although, it might be a good idea to keep in mind his self-centered nature; Tibby may know full well that he is ruining the experience for others and just not care. However, due to the education afforded to the rich and his permanent income, Tibby has none of the worries that Leonard does. Therefore, he has very little distractions to keep him from thorough enjoyment of the music at hand. However, when he is asked to catch Helen before she leaves with Leonard’s umbrella he makes a show of his displeasure until it is too late to stop her: first, he complaines that he would miss the upcoming songs. Then, “Tibby rose to his feet, and willfully caught his person on the backs of the chairs” (Forster 26). Tibby is displeased by being asked to do something gallant and masculine. With Tibby’s outstanding knowledge of culture, he must feel that he does not need to do something to look cultured because he knows he already is.

Although Tibby grows up with all the advantages of a strong superstructure, he does not have the character and human decency that Leonard has. While a strong base and superstructure are key in developing a good basses in culture as well as giving one the freedom to break the rules of masculinity. However, Tibby has so much freedom from the rules of society that he sometimes comes across as a horrible person. When Tibby is being compared to Leonard it is understood that sometimes too much freedom can be a bad thing. It also seems that Forster is saying that hard work and struggle can be good for the soul, but too much struggle can crush the human spirit.

When writing his novel, Howards End, Forster found that although Tibby is a flawed character he can be juxtaposed against other characters to bring out nuances that readers may not notice otherwise. Now that Tibby has been used to bring understand to the successes and failures of Margaret’s and Leonard’s characters, others may find it useful to compare Tibby against other characters such as Charles or Henry. Another way to go might be to show the similarities between the way the characters of Tibby and Jackie, another poorly liked minor character. However Tibby’s character is approached in the future, it is useful to remember that Tibby is an important character whether or not he is a likeable one.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter, ed. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory.3rd ed. New York: Manchester University Press, 2009.

Forster, E. Howards End. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1998.

The Curse of Aristophanes’ Phallus

November 2012

USM Production

Lysistrata

The play Lysistrata is a comedy written by the ancient Greek playwright, Aristophanes. Ancient Greek plays were written in a very different context from modern plays. The symbolism of the Greek world does not properly translate in the modern context. The phallus did not incite the same sense of obscenity that it does today. Phallic sculptures and images were used in public for religious purposes and were often found in homes as decoration. Lysistrata makes wide use of the phallus not only as the main form of decoration of the set and actors, but also as the driving force for political change. The true impact of this symbol has been lost to the centuries. However, a modern rendition of this ancient play can still make comedic and political impact by marginalizing the importance of the phallic imagery and relegating it to an inane sight gag. The actors are the best weapon against overwhelming a prudish, modern audience with the sheer number of phalluses on the set; yet, the two lead actors use contradictory approaches to tread the line between funny and obscene.

Lysistrata, played by Lisa Fischel, and the Magistrate, played by Derrick Phillips, were the two shining stars of this production; they were both text book examples of how accomplished actors can manipulate their voices and bodies to tell a believable story. First, Lisa and Derrick are superb outside actors. They orchestrated both body movement and vocals in a believable way to forward the story. Both actors used big and small gestures to enhance the audience’s understanding of the spoken lines. Similarly, they used the rise and fall of the volume and pitch of their voices to engage with the audience’s imagination. Next, Lisa and Derrick are outstanding inside actors. They use the psychological aspects of the acting process to transform themselves from people in costume acting silly in the presence of others into living and breathing characters of fiction. Through the in depth study of play, the director’s instruction, and their own intuition, Lisa and Derrick bring the appropriate motivation and emotional content to their roles. Lysistrata and the Magistrate became the anchors that the ancillary characters needed to bring them into the world of the play. Notwithstanding their pivotal roles in the bringing together of the cast of actors, Lisa and Derrick began the play by moving in opposite directions in terms of the mood of the play.

Like Newton’s third law of motion, Derrick and Lisa’s every action were equal and opposite. Lisa played her character as a light hearted humorous character. She maintained the themes and political Ideas that the play was trying to put across just in a friendly, unassuming manner. However, Derrick played his character as a bombastic overly serious tyrant. His tact did not harm the meaning or message of the play, but it was harsh and jarring considering the play’s overall zaniness. This is not to say that a bombastic overly serious version of this play would not work. In fact, if the whole play was interoperated in such a way, it could fit into the genre of dark comedy. However, this version of the play was conceived as a broad comedy, and the tyrannical acting style adopted by Derrick was inappropriate to the play. Even though Lisa and Derrick were both greatly skilled, the first half of the play suffered due to the one actor’s conflict with the genre of broad comedy.

During the fifteen minutes of intermission something mystical and magical must have happened back stage because the rift in the mood of the play seemed to be mended. Derrick must have received feedback from the director, other actors, or audience members because he had softened his portrayal of the Magistrate to a tone that fit the play’s genre. From this point on, the play began to be enjoyable. All of the characters that were distracted by the conflict began to be drawn into the magic of the play. They forgot that they were performing in the play, and they became the play. Additionally, the second half showed a remarkable change in the general rapport of the actors. The actors and the audience were finally having the shared experience of delight and excitement that is expected of a play instead of the merciless anxiety of the first half.

Although the lead actors started the play with contradictory approaches, they worked things out and created a play that overcame its cultural limitations; the actors were able to make the world’s longest penis joke into a generally enjoyable experience. However, there is much more to Aristophanes’ play than just juvenile humor. Only, it cannot be seen past the modern interpretation of image of the male organ. If it was possible to change the phallic symbolism into more modern religious symbolism, the play might retain much more of its original power and meaning. However, even Aristophanes would blush at the idea of crucifixes protruding from men’s open zippers.

Post-Design Modernism

October 2012

USM Production

Firebugs

The scene opens to a man uncomfortable in his skin. He is tired aloof and angry. As the play progresses, the character does not. The content of dialog and the emotional portrayal of Biedermann are relentless. This character constantly hits the same note, and this note is discordant. However, the main characteristic of a postmodern play is the questioning of excepted theatrical conventions; rather, a postmodern play causes the audience to question their preconceived notions of what a play should be. The intention of the play is to cause a level of discomfort in the audience, so it is understandable that the protagonist be written as aloof and irritating, even a caricature of reality. Yet, nowhere does Firebugs by Max Frisch portray the postmodern aspect better than in the area of design; the sound design, lighting design, and set design all strongly display a postmodern bent.

The sound design of this play is largely conventional; sound plays a supporting role backing up the themes and action of the play. The preshow music was driving, computerized music of the industrial genre. The juxtaposition of modern day music with a play written in the 1970’s is postmodernism in its simplest and most subtle form. This style of music led to a feeling of disconnection and hopelessness that meshed perfectly with the play’s theme. However, the plays sound effects, for the most part, served only in the traditional sense to back up the action of the play. There were no sounds incongruous to the action that they were developing. The street scene had the expected sound of car horns and traffic, and the finale with the explosion and fire had the roar of fire, the cacophony of busy firefighters, and other sounds one would expect. The sounds were jarring and unsettling but not in the typical postmodern style. Yet, there were two instances where the sound effects could qualify as postmodern. The recording that signified the start of the play asked the audience to put out their lanterns and extinguish any open flame to avoid disrupting the actors or the audience. The carryover of theme and unusual language of preshow admonishment leads one to question if it is part of the play or just part of the typical playhouse routine. Additionally, the siren that sounds during the fire scene was reminiscent of an air raid siren leading the audience to question their assumptions for other meaning or symbolism hidden within the play. This questioning of preconceived notions is part and parcel to the postmodern ideal. Therefore, the sound design plays a part in putting forward the postmodern agenda of this play.

The lighting design pushes the postmodern aspect of this play one step further; the open, unhidden light fixtures, the color of the lights, and the use of movable lighting add to the unnerving aspect of this play. Foremost, the lights of a play are typically hidden from the audience with their only evidence being the brightening of the stage. However, postmodern plays do away with such theatrical conventions, and the light fixtures were not hidden behind curtains or blocked from view in any way. The flaunting of conventions forced the audience to reinterpret how they approach a play and, hopefully, how they approach life in general. Next, the colors of the lights set the mood of the play and helped to advance the theme. Although technically part of set design, the dingy bulbs glowing with a soft orange light over Biedermann’s dining room added a shabby dangerousness that perfectly complemented the theme of the play. The blue lights flooding the scene added a somber, depressing, off kilter feeling to the set. The yellow light that bathed the attic foreshadowed the burning of the house in the climactic scene, and the yellow and red of the fire were blindingly fantastic. The mobile lights were used in unconventional ways. The spot light was used to draw attention to the absurdity of Biedermann’s decisions. Every time that Biedermann was faced with a chance to change the tide of action and bring himself and his family through unscathed, the lights dropped and the spotlight swung wide to train in on him. This use of spotlight served to alienate Biederman from the rest of the characters and the audience as they gazed in awe at him making another bad decision. Even more unconventionally, the chorus had extremely bright LED flashlights strapped to their helmets. Technically part of costume design, the flashlights on the helmets of the chorus were a sadistic masterpiece; not only does this clever idea stay burned into the minds of the audience, but also the idea stays burned into the retinas of the people in the first row. Therefore, the use of flashlights is postmodern intention and not simply irritating. However, irritating is postmodern, and the lighting design of Firebugs is definitely postmodern.

The abstract but functional set design, while promoting a postmodern feel, added a gloomy, paranoid treatment to the whole play. The color scheme stood out as a great contributor to mood. The scenery was colored a rusty brown with large gears strewn about like a junkyard for discarded goliath war machines. The parts that were left unpainted were bathed in a sinister, dark blue light.  The result was a backdrop that could stand alone as a three-dimensional abstract work of art. The set had multiple levels, and the borders of each level stood as symbols for walls that did not exist. The attic was the only room with even the semblance of walls. In fact, the walls of the attic were created in the audience’s imagination by the charred remains of the room’s loadbearing studs. Additionally, the imaginary walls spur the audience to question not just the conventions of the play but the conventions of life in general. Like walls on the set, normal life is structured and segmented; each segment is named and categorized, and like the set of this play, these walls cannot truly exist or life could not be appreciated as a whole. Thus, the total effect of this stage design served to put the audience on edge, and planted the seeds of haunted imaginings in the audience’s mind while maintaining a postmodern ethic.

Firebugs by Max Frisch portrays its postmodern roots with effective lighting, sound, and set design. The intent of a postmodern play is to cause the audience to question every aspect of a play and discern for themselves what is more important the story or the tools that are used to create the story. Yet, the question remains; was Biedermann’s incessant single emotion barrage the postmodern intent of a bad director, or the failing of a bad actor? Yet, Biedermann carries on without reflection, understanding, or a discernible change in emotion.

When Humor is Not an Option

November 2012

USM production

School For Scandal

Over all, the directing of School for Scandal was done well. The stage space was well utilized. An assortment of backgrounds were used to denote a change of location; therefore, the entire stage could be used in any scene, and the large cast of this play often made use of this availability of space. The thrust section of the stage was a large circular platform and often took the guise of an interior sitting room which one generally assumes to be square. This could have been seen as a negative. However, the expert use of background flies and the precise positioning of the props turned the circular platform into any shape in the audience’s mind. Yet, the best and worst of the director’s choices were related to the actors; the director chose actors with great dramatic acting chops but left them without direction on how to achieve comedic timing.

The director’s choice of cast and crew was extraordinary. The actors worked well together. They played to humorous theme of the play, and aside from a couple of slips and falls, they pulled the play together without a hitch. In fact, Alex Piper nearly stole the show with his initial speech as Sir Peter Teazle. Through a tsunami of spit, he was able to communicate his character’s frustration with his young wife in a way that transcended the character’s dialogue. Although he was unable to maintain this level of heightened level of heightened communication throughout the entire play, he was never anything short of an outstanding actor. Chase Byrd’s portrayal of Joseph Surface in comparison to the character of Sir Teazle was understated. He portrayed Joseph Surface as a refined aristocrat with a taste for polite social interaction, no matter how spiteful and double-dealing his interaction may be. His character contrasted well against the pious yet overbearing spirit of Sir Teazle.  Not only did the director use Chase’s mellow character to balance out bombast of Sir Teazle, but also he used Joseph Surface for a wonderful bit of stage business: Joseph Surface sat down to gobble away the tension with a box of chocolates. This delightful bit of pantomime was one of the highlights of the play. However, since the play was billed as a comedy, the pinnacle of this play’s humor should not have beeen the convulsive Mr. Crabtree’s battle with Parkinson’s disease or whatever other neuromuscular disorders he may suffer from.

However, the jokes were made difficult by the olden character of the dialogue in this play; difficult jokes must be nurtured, but the playwright did half of the work himself. The jokes were written in layers; each one building in tension until the joke reaches the point catharsis, but in this case, the catharsis is a release of tension in the form of peals of laughter. In comedic circles this moment of catharsis is known as the punch line. The play was written with obvious punch lines, but they have been obscured by time; the awkward old-timey language of the play requires that actors pay attention to comedic timing in an effort to telegraph the humorous intent of the lines. However, as a general rule the actors completely ignored the jokes, and even the best designed and clearly written joke can be ruined with an inappropriate delivery. If the director had identified the jokes and taken them out of the context of the play he could have worked with the actors to bring the jokes to the fore. Instead, he left them as irritating Easter eggs to be found only by those who have a strong understanding of the workings of humor. Once the jokes were brought out of the script, the director could have them acted as miniature dramatic monologue. The actor could use his or her acting tools to increase the tension and have the miniature monologue climax at the punch line. The change of speech rate, the change of pitch and volume of the voice, and the use of body language can all be used to help the audience feel the joke. Additionally, a slow and clear lead-in is especially necessary when matters are complicated by old and difficult language. However, there was one actor that seemed to have a natural grasp of comedic timing. Rebecca Yeager, the actor who played Lady Teazle had the most success at bringing the jokes out of the dialogue and getting laughs.

The highlights and lowlights of the direction of this play both involve the actors; the dramatic abilities of the actors that were cast was very high, but the actors did not receive enough directorial input about the play’s jokes to get many worthy laughs. The play still got plenty of laughs; however they were laughs directed at the way an actor spoke or walked. There were even some laughs at the misfortune of poor Terrence Fleming, who played Mister Snake; he proved the slipperiness of his character by not being able to keep his footing throughout the play. But most of the laughs were strained throughout the length of the play as the repeated sight and sound gags lost their novelty. However, the director is clearly talented and did a good job on the play, but a comedy needs to be funny.