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Nov 18/11

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Sex, Sin and Zen (Spirituality); The Snow Leopard (Travel/Spirituality); The Concrete Blonde (Mystery); Various Art Shows and New Yorker Pieces

Sex, Sin and Zen (Spirituality) by Brad Warner, 2010

Since Brad Warner is the guy who got me interested in Zen, the arrival of any new book from him makes for a notable event hereabouts. (You can see reviews of his other books on Dilettante’s Diary pages dated Feb 26/08, Apr 14/09 and June 28/09)) It was a CBC radio interview on Tapestry that first brought Brad Warner to my attention. Clearly, this guy doesn’t exactly fit into the usual mold of the spiritual teacher. As well as being an ordained Soto priest, he has also been a bassist in a punk rock band and a promoter of Japanese monster movies. And, he has written a regular column for the soft porn website "Suicide Girls".

That background may help to explain that Mr. Warner’s readership, for this book at any rate, belongs to a somewhat different demographic from mine. And that, in turn, may underlie the message and the tone of the book, the subtitle of which reads: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between. Mr. Warner’s exploration of such matters strikes a decidedly hip and cool note. The very first chapter, in fact, opens with a famous grace before meals in which every instance of the word "food" is replaced by "piece of ass". You can see how that would help to assure some people that this spiritual teacher isn’t your typically solemn and prudish guru. The same readers would probably enjoy the jokey footnotes where Mr. Warner flags every sexual pun in his text.

To say that I could do with a little less of that sort of thing isn’t to deny that I enjoy Mr. Warner’s breezy humour. As when he says that he sees some readers flinching at something he has written: "I have Zen master powers that way – I can see you right through the pages of this book." However, most of the stuff that he’s trying to explain in this book doesn’t matter a whole lot to me. Most of us geezers, I suspect, have decided long ago whether or not we’re ok with pornography, stripping, masturbation, prostitution, and all that. But I can see that they might still pose big questions for some people, the ones who are more immersed in the scene out there, and who may make up the bulk of Mr. Warner’s readership/congregation.

To appreciate Mr. Warner’s approach to sexual matters, you have to understand that Buddhist morality doesn’t have concepts of evil and sin. It’s more about right actions and actions that aren’t so right, i.e. actions that accord with the rules of the universe and actions that tend to flout those rules. So Buddhism doesn’t have any hang-ups about sex as something inescapably connected with a sense of sin. The main thing, then, is not to abuse sexuality. Hence, the Buddhist option for the "middle way", i.e. the path between repression and obsession.

Given that the sexual questions don’t get me very hot and bothered, it came as a big surprise to find some of the book’s most interesting ideas in a long interview with the celebrated 1980s porn star, Nina Hartley. In reading the interview, you have to quickly get over the apparent paradox of this woman’s striving to follow Buddhist standards in her sex work: to show compassion, to make sure that no one is abused. Having digested that, you can go on to marvel at some of her insights. She talks about having grown up in a family where people didn’t have feelings so much as they had ideas about feelings. She notes that many of us, in our sexuality, get stuck around the age of four when something happened to us and we suddenly revert to that status in some sexual situations. She explodes the myth about the importance of mutual orgasm, saying that that’s an experience particular to the inebriated state of new love. Because of the sexual repression common in our culture until recently, she astutely observes, many couples were forced to fake some kind of love in order to get married, when what they really wanted/needed was sex. One of the most important comments she makes about relationships is that couples need to have such respect for each other that they can listen to each other express needs and negative feelings without resentment:

I may not like what I’m hearing. But I can tell you’re not saying it to hurt me. You’re saying it because you’re sharing your truth. And if I can’t hear your truth, what the fuck are we doing here?

Observations like that kept making me say What a wise woman!

Not that Mr. Warner fails to deliver some choice nuggets sprinkled throughout the discussion of sexual matters. The concept that there’s no self comes in Mr. Warner’s introductory remarks about why, as far as he's concerned, people are free to mate with whatever sex they choose, but the question of sexual orientation isn't a big deal to him. "It’s just that I don’t personally have a whole lot of interest in ego-based notions of self." Elsewhere, he makes the point that "Zen practice is about not getting high on anything and in so doing getting high on absolutely everything." In talking about pornography as fantasy, he makes the important point: "In Buddhist terms a whole lot of what we perceive as reality is an elaborate fantasy created by our brains as a stand-in for reality itself. In fact, we could say that all our perceptions are fantasies in that they are never actually reality itself but an interpretation of reality." What may strike some readers as shocking is Mr. Warner’s noticing that the kind of piety and devotion a disciple is supposed to show towards a spiritual master resembles in some important ways the power dynamics of sadomasochistic bondage. One of his most valuable correctives to popular thinking is the statement that it’s natural and normal to feel unfulfilled. "That’s true enlightenment. It’s when we feel fulfilled that we’re deluded."

As a kind of bonus, Mr. Warner ends the book with a short chapter specifically on meditation. Here he quotes the 13th century Japanese monk, Dogen, who was the main focus of Mr. Warner’s book Sit Down and Shut Up. In that book, I found the old boy maddeningly enigmatic to the point of being nearly incomprehensible. In this section on meditation, though, Dogen sounds quite reasonable. In fact, it’s one of the best treatises I can think of on meditation. Makes me think I might even begin to like the guy. Could that be simply because the topic is better explained here? Or does it mean that my mind is becoming more like a 13th century Japanese monk’s?

 

The Snow Leopard (Travel/Spirituality) by Peter Matthiessen, 1978

Recently, I’ve learned that this is the book that introduced many readers in Western culture to the subject of Zen. Given that the book won the US National Book Award for 1980, I’m wondering if it could be considered a kind of cultural landmark, an expression of the zeitgeist of that era when readers were suddenly open to weird and wonderful things from cultures that seemed exotic and foreign. Another example would be Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. (See review on Dilettante’s Diary page "Summer Reading 2010.")

The context of The Snow Leopard is a trek, lasting about two months, that Mr. Matthiessen made on foot in the Himalayan mountains of the Tibetan Plateau with zoologist George Schaller in late 1973. Mr. Schaller was hoping to study the blue sheep, rare everywhere in the world except there, in order to determine whether they should be classified as sheep or goats. The key to the distinction would be the way the animals mated. It was the expedition’s goal, then, to arrive at the breeding grounds in time for the annual rut. It was also hoped that the travellers might sight the elusive snow leopard.

To say that the trip was arduous would be a bit like saying that having open heart surgery can screw up your schedule that day. If the trekkers weren’t slogging through the rains of an unexpectedly long monsoon season, they were rushing to get through the mountain passes before the heavy snows. All this on survival rations, mostly of lentils and whatever they could scrounge along the way, such as potatoes. Mr. Matthiessen and Mr. Schaller depended on sherpas and porters not just for guidance and physical assistance, but even for their survival at times. However, dealing with the enigmatic and sometimes obstinate helpers didn’t make matters easy.

If you’re going to enjoy tagging along as a reader on an expedition like this, a lot depends on the company. In this respect, I find Mr. Matthiessen somewhat problematic. It would seem that the man has already racked up many credits as a journalist. He’s very intelligent and knows a lot about Buddhism. He has been studying with a Zen teacher. But he’s intense, serious and very moody. One minute he’s exhilarated with the joy of being alive, next minute he’s disgruntled and gloomy. As far as I can see, the man's bereft of any touch of humour. And then there’s his life situation. His wife has died of cancer within the past year and he has left his four school-age children in the care of other people while he makes this trip into the mountains. Maybe that’s what you have to do if you’re a journalist who makes his living by writing about these kinds of adventures, but the thought of his kids left behind doesn’t exactly endear the man to me.

His companion, in effect the leader of the trip, seems even less like a guy you’d want to spend time with, let alone in such daunting conditions. Mr. Schaller is taciturn and aloof to the point of seeming like a card-carrying misanthropist. It’s only when they’ve left behind virtually all traces of civilization and find themselves in the great, open wilderness that the man can express joy or enthusiasm for anything. At one point, he treats Mr. Matthiessen with curtness that borders on rudeness. Later, the two men are able to talk about the incident and a sort of apology smoothes things over. Still, they spend most of their walking hours apart, opting to relate to each other only during the nightly encampments.

And what of the sherpas and porters? Given the time of the writing, we can, perhaps, overlook some of the politically incorrect expressions of exasperation with the natives of the area. What’s more bothersome to me, as a reader, is that none of their characters emerge clearly in the first part of the story. It’s not until his return journey, when he’s accompanied by just four or five people, that they become distinct identities for me. Even so, there’s a certain amount of confusion, perhaps a reflection of the author’s own mixed feelings about any given person. One man, identified as Tukten, appears at times to be shifty and elusive, possibly given to physical violence. In the end, this same man turns out to be something of a Buddhist saint with a serenity and an uncomplaining acceptance of life that surpass anything a Westerner could hope to emulate.

What may be an inherent hazzard of this kind of writing is the fact that the going is plodding and laborious at times. One mountain pass looks an awful lot like another after a while. Ditto for gorges and frozen streams. Except for the occasional village or encampment that emerges vividly, it’s hard to get much sense of how one place differs from another. But Mr. Matthiessen’s considerable writing skills do bring life to certain passages. As when a wolf ambushes a flock of sheep. Or when an elderly, bent woman is seen gathering firewood with two little children gamboling at her side. Or when Mr. Matthiessen is invited into the tent of a nomadic family where a young wife tenderly cares for her elderly husband. And Mr. Matthiessen’s descriptive powers can be mightily impressive:

....Where morning sun lights the red leaves and dark still conifers, the river sparkles in the forest shadow; turquoise and white, it thunders past spray-shined boulders, foaming pools, in a long rocky chute of broken rapids. In the cold breath of the torrent, the dry air is softened by mist; under last night’s stars this water trickled through snows. At the head of the waterfall, downstream, its sparkle leaps into the air, leaps at the sun, and sun rays are tumbled in the waves that dance against the snows of distant mountains.

As for the philosophical or ideological content of the book, there’s a fair bit of Buddhist arcana about the history of various sects, the meanings of rituals and chants. This doesn’t interest me but it may well be the sort of thing that makes the book fascinating for many readers. With regard to the more particular aspects of Zen, some key concepts emerge now and then, such as the importance of living in the present moment. A striking epiphany occurs when Mr. Matthiessen realizes that it could be a wonderful thing if the expedition were to end without any sight of the snow leopard. The explorers would be spared the "desolation of success", i.e. the nagging doubt: "....is this really what we came so far to see?"

Without trying to pass judgement on whether Mr. Matthiessen is a true Zen practitioner, however, I would have to say that, in this book, he comes across more as a writer and an intellectual who’s excited about a new idea and who wants to make literary use of it. For the most part, he seems too caught up in notions of transcendence, mystical states, meaningful dreams, portentous signs and the spiritual "highs" that the true Zen teachers, as I understand them, warn against.(He mentions that he has a supply of marijuana with him and another reference seems to indicate that he has previously taken hallucinogenic drugs.) He does acknowledge that his own teacher warned him at the outset of this journey not to expect anything. And eventually, on his descent from the mountains, he sees himself as a failure, someone whose spiritual ambition has come to nothing. Maybe that self-knowledge can be considered a success in Zen terms.

 

The Concrete Blonde (Mystery) by Michael Connelly, 1994

If you’re spending a few days at someone's country home and you find yourself with some empty hours on your hands, you can usually consider yourself lucky to find a Michael Connelly on the bookshelves. In this case, Mr. Connelly’s detective, Harry Bosch, is on trial. Four years before the main section of the book, Bosch shot and killed a suspected serial killer he’d confronted. A police hearing cleared Bosch because the suspect had made a move that looked like he was reaching for a gun. But now, the suspect’s widow is suing Bosch. He, of course, wants to be able to prove that the suspect really was the serial killer. Several pieces of circumstantial evidence seem to point that way. Trouble is, another killing has recently occurred in a similar way, which would seem to mean that the serial killer is still on the prowl. Which would mean that Bosch nailed the wrong guy. And, given that the public’s memory of the Rodney King beating is still fresh, people aren’t cutting the police much slack.

An excellent premise for a mystery. Much of it revolves around the court room hearing and, as readers of Mr. Connelly’s more recent The Lincoln Lawyer know very well, he excels at that kind of writing. Every few pages, the tables are turned, thanks to machinations involving the judge, Bosch’s lawyer and the fiendishly clever lawyer for the plaintiff.

Enjoyable as all that is, I found myself feeling a little jaded about the sleazy aspects of the story. All the women victims of the serial killer were involved in the sex trade in one way or another. That takes us into some pretty dark and grubby corners of the world. Mystery writers have been wallowing too much in that stuff lately. Could we please have some nice, respectable murders now?

And speaking of respectability, I’m struck by what appears to be a requirement of sexual etiquette in Mr. Connelly’s world. Every time Bosch visits his woman friend for sex, he first takes a shower. Is that the way it is out there these days? Is it unthinkable that two bodies that had not just been washed could come together? Go tell that to Napoleon!

 

It's hard to get to even a fraction of the great art shows around town these days, but here are samplings of some recent winners:

Linda Martintello Edward Day Gallery, 952 Queen Street, Toronto; until November 26

It’s not often that you find an artist who has an original and distinctive way with landscape. That’s why I was so pleased to discover Linda Martinello’s work at Art Toronto this fall. (See review on Dilettante’s Diary page titled "Art Toronto 2011," just below the Nov 7/11 page in the navigation bar.) Now we get to enjoy a marvellous and much bigger selection of her work at the Edward Day Gallery. What’s most notable about Ms. Martinello’s paintings (mostly acrylic and graphic on mylar) is that they explode with the artist’s energy and passion. You don’t get the geographical details so much as you get the artist’s exhilaration on viewing them. Seen as something like frantic scribbles at first, they threaten to fly out of the frame. You may think you’re looking at an abstract jumble but gradually a scene will take shape before your eyes: you’ll see rocks (very well drawn), gorges, mountains, waterfalls. In the larger works, for the most part, the colours are very muted: greys, pale greens, blues and yellow ochres, with black accents. It’s as if the artist disdains to resort to lurid colours to convey her enthusiasm. In the smaller works, though, you get some splashes of purples and pinks that make certain scenes especially exciting.

 

Thrush Holmes, Vessna Perunovich, Michael Flomer and Kim Dorland Angell Gallery, 12 Ossington Ave, Toronto; until December 3.

Thrush Holmes is the rare artist whose work is intriguing enough to lure me out of my cave and down to the Queen Street art scene whenever he has something new to show. Here we have several of his flower paintings: bright, colourful blossoms in simple vases, placed smack in the centre of canvases. But these are far from being botanically correct flowers. In fact, you probably couldn’t even pinpoint what kind of flowers they are. They’re just splashes of colour in vaguely floral shapes, almost clown-like you might say. But they leap off the canvas with their vitality. What helps to make that happen is that Mr. Holmes makes jagged lines in neon colours over the flowers, like zaps of electric energy emanating from them. What I think Mr. Holmes is saying here is something like: ok, you want cutesy flowers? I’ll give you cutesy flowers! But I’ll jazz them up in a way that may unsettle you and make you think twice about asking again for cutesy flowers. As for Mr. Holmes’ other work in this show, it’s hard to know what to make of the large shapes, vaguely like the female form in profile, with bits of photographs of womanly flesh crammed into the outline, but not according to its scale, the effect being a sort of fun-house-mirror distortion. I’m not sure what the works are trying to say but I suspect it has something to do with the objectification of female sexuality. In any case, there’s something inherently disturbing about them.

Talk about disturbing – Vessna Perunovich’s video installation shows someone in a black dress struggling with a huge pile of coarse net, like fishing net or tennis court net, that’s partly wrapped around the person’s head and partly falling in a heap on the floor. It’s not quite clear to me whether the person’s trying to get the net on or off. I say "person" instead of woman because, in spite of the dress, the huffing and panting on the soundtrack sounds more male than female. Given that we never see the person’s face, the piece may say something about the human conflict between revealing and hiding the self. Or maybe it has nothing to do with us viewers. Maybe it’s all about the person’s struggle within himself or herself. At any rate, you come away exhausted by the person’s battle which, of course, you recognize as your own.

In the east gallery of the Angell, the gelatin silver-toned photographic prints of Michael Flomer have an eerie beauty. The artist appears to be looking through leaves and other vegetation towards electric lights in the distance, all of it suffused with a kind of misty glow. The arrangements of the lights and the plant matter make for serene, calm-inducing compositions.

Not so the works of Kim Dorland! At this year's Art Toronto, I admired his chutzpah with brazen landscapes featuring gaudy suns shedding obtrusive rays into the scene. In these works, however, the artist may have pushed the idea beyond its effectiveness. Not only are the suns and their rays more glaring than ever, the works are loaded with huge globs of material that look like what the drain man pulls out of your sewer.

 

Gill Cameron and Barbara Muir Studio Vogue Gallery, 216 Avenue Road, Toronto; until Nov 24.

For several years now, I’ve been admiring Gill Cameron’s paintings, many of which have won prizes in the shows of the Toronto Watercolour Society. Mostly what we’ve been seeing are Ms. Cameron’s very stylized and carefully-designed depictions of Georgian Bay scenes. Every tree, every rock and cloud is placed perfectly, with the precision of an etching. So it’s good to find here that Ms. Cameron can apply her considerable skills to quite other subject matter. Just at the gallery door are a couple of winter scenes consisting of dazzling compositions of blue and white. But most of Ms. Cameron’s work in this show features scenes from Africa (where she has done volunteer teaching). The same simplicity and the careful placement work very well in, say, a watercolour of a vast plane with a path leading to one of those stunted, spreading trees so emblematic of Africa and, in the background, mountains rising under sculpted clouds. When it comes to watercolours including people, we also get some new colours from Ms. Cameron, thanks to the fabrics the women are wearing: some reds, oranges and yellows that don’t appear in the Georgian Bay paintings. One particularly good watercolour in this show gives us several women walking in a line along the edge of a body of water, their garments swirling in dizzying patterns.

Most of Barbara Muir’s paintings in this show are large, sunny portraits. It strikes me that Ms. Muir’s portraiture is not the kind that emphasizes the diverse characters of her subjects so much as it celebrates the artist’s own joyful response to life with people at its centre. It’s not who the people are that matters so much as the fact that their positioning in the composition and their occupations express a very optimistic and humanistic view of life. One of the strongest works shows a woman sitting at a table reading, a bright red cloth and two coffee mugs on the table, a vase of brilliant flowers in the foreground. What matters is not so much the woman’s identity as the fact that the painting catches a beautiful moment in someone’s day. A painting of a young woman on a motorcycle, surrounded by cars, urban clutter in the background, makes a glorious composition of bright colours that would work almost as an abstract. Again, it’s not so much about the woman as about the wonder of our visual world.

 

Decadence/Austerity Navillus Gallery, 110 Davenport Road, Toronto; until December 17

This brand new gallery in a spiffy new building on the edge of Yorkville starts out with a show of brilliant work. Rather than try to comment on everything, I’ll highlight some of the artists whose work appealed most to me. Anne Tirey does large landscapes that leave much to the imagination. In one vast expanse of green, you might think you can make out people, possibly animals, a haystack, some trees, clouds, a fence. Makes you realize how little detail you need to set a mood that gets you fantasizing. Same with a February scene consisting mostly of some dark blobs that could be a woods seen through a blizzard. Another painting casts a spell in its minimalist way with a huge mass of white that appears to be a blossoming tree, a suggestion of a trunk and some blue sky. Cecile Brunswick’s paintings also convey a hint of landscape but in an even more abstract way. The swirling patterns and shapes leave you to make of them what you will. In one case, though, billowing pinks that were clearly fruit trees in bloom made me fall in love with the painting. Jasmina Danowski does works, in ink and gesso on paper, that look something like Claude Monet’s waterlily series, but with a 21st century sensibility. They’re not all hazy and indistinct; rather, the colours are bold and strong but you still get an enchanting sense of floating plants and water. In previous reviews, I’ve often admired the cool, grey and silver abstracts of Sabine Liva, so I’m happy to say that there are several of her works in this show. Some even feature warm, earthy tones for a change. Patricia Avellan’s paintings may fascinate or enfuriate you. Mostly, they’re just a few sketchy lines forming odd shapes on greyish backgrounds. This is certainly not a case of an artist shouting her message at you. She leaves plenty of room for you to come up with your own interpretations.

 

New Yorker Stuff

Lately, we’ve started flagging certain New Yorker pieces that stand out for one reason or another. Herewith, some recent ones.

The House at Sand Creek (Short Fiction) by Thomas McGuane; Oct 3, 2011

What amazes me about Mr. McGuane’s fiction is that his rough-and-ready, good-ole-boy tone of narration doesn’t quite hide glimpses of tenderness and humanism. Here, the narrator is saddled with a ditzy, difficult wife from Bosnia-Herzegovina who makes his life hell with her erratic comings and goings. And then there’s the busybody bachelor neighbour who seems to be trying to insinuate himself into the household, for whatever reason we do not know. Everything seems to be verging on the macabre but it ends on a note of surprising decency and civility.

 

El Moro (Short Fiction) by David Means; Aug 29, 2011

At first glance, I passed on this one. It’s about a guy who picks up a girl somewhere in California and takes her on a long drive. They both seem to be living on the margins, into drugs in a big way; the girl’s virtually a street person. The story’s told from her point of view. What put me off is that it seems to be one long string of run-on sentences in a monotonous, illiterate rant. The guy’s rambling on and on about his obsessions, in an egotistical way that reminds you of one of Jack Kerouac’s buddies. But then I happened to notice this comment about the girl:

Right then she had felt herself adjusting to his way of thinking, drawing on her months on the street, finding a place for him among the characters she’d met: junkies who took in a question and sucked on it for a few minutes before giving a response that seemed far off the mark, as if they were responding to whatever you’d uttered by combining it with some other, more weighty problems; meth freaks who’d answered a question before you even finished asking it and then, overjoyed at their precision and their mystic abilities, fell into blank funks of rage when you shook your head or corrected them....

Well, any writer who could offer such incisive observation of human behaviour might be worth a closer look, right? Definitely! The prolixity does take getting used to but you get caught up in it. Best of all, the writing eventually changes point of view and the ending comes through with a humane message quite unlike anything you were expecting.

 

Three Trials for Murder (Article) by Nicholas Schmidle; Nov 14, 2011

One of the best real-life murder mysteries you’ll ever encounter. A six-foot-six US Army sergeant who, at the time of the killings, looked like the young Robert Redford, has been tried three times for the murder of a woman and her two young children in North Carolina in 1985: conviction-acquittal-conviction. That last conviction is now on appeal. Throughout the trials, what appears to be solid evidence goes up in smoke. Eye-witnesses crumble and become useless. What led to the third trial was DNA evidence which hadn’t been available earlier. That’s when the army decided to court-martial the guy, thereby side-stepping the "double jeopardy" issue that prevented the state from trying him again. You’ll probably think the story would make a great book. Trouble is, the book has already been written – by a reporter who believed in the suspect’s innocence after his acquittal in the second trial.

 

Exorcism (Short Play) by Eugene O’Neill; Oct 17, 2011

This autobiographical work, written in 1919, dramatizes the author’s attempt to commit suicide in a flop house seven years earlier, at the age of 24. At some point, O’Neill thought he had destroyed all copies of the play, but one was found just this year in papers his ex-wife had given to screenwriter Philip Yordan. The play is seen as marking the moment of O’Neill’s turning from self-destruction to self-fulfillment in art. In that context, one can see why the work may be considered historically important to US theatre.

But I’m not sure The New Yorker has done the author's reputation any favour by publishing it now. To me, the melodrama of of the suicide and the recovery verges on the ludicrous. Not to mention the stilted dialogue. Granted, we have to allow that the author wasn’t allowed the linguistic freedom – shall we say ‘licence’ – of today’s playwrights. So maybe we can put up with the bowdlerized expressions of manly vehemence when two buddies are arguing: "Oh shut, up, you old woman! You’re worse than a wet nurse." And "Now, Jimmy, for Christ’s sake, if you want to hear this – and I do want to tell you so that things will be understood by someone afterwards – it’s choking me! – then you’ve got to can your sentimental drivel. Save it for your own sorrow. (Fiercely) I won’t put up with it, do you hear?

But do we really need the author’s self-indulgent stage directions? The "ly" adverbs come in instructions to the actors for nearly every speech: contentedly, hopefully, caustically, gruffly, kindly, sardonically, suddenly, huffily, excitedly, quietly, [‘excitedly’ and ‘sardonically’ again], defensively, sombrely, irritably – and that’s on just the first page. I’d always thought that, in good scriptwriting, the words of the speeches told the actors how they should be said. Besides, some of these directions are a little hard to envision. We’re told that somebody twists "uncertainly" on the cot. What kind of an acrobat does it take to pull that off?

Then there are the character descriptions. Here’s some of the detail about Jimmy, the roommate of the O’Neill character: "His face is that of a fat but anemic baby – round, flabby-cheeked, pasty-complected, loose-lipped. His eyes of a faded blue stare mildly from their wrinkled pouches." The description of the O’Neill character is even more ridiculously precise:

His face is oval, lean, the cheekbones prominent, lines of sleeplessness and dissipation deep about the eyes and mouth. His mouth is wide, the lips twisted by a bitter, self-mocking irony. His eyes are large and blue, with the peculiar possessed expression of the inveterate dreamer. His forehead, under a thick mass of black hair, is broad and wise; but his chin reveals weakness, indecision. The upper section of his face seems at war with the lower, giving the whole an appearance of conflict, of inner disharmony.

Darn it! I hear some producer exclaiming, We’ve got the perfect guy, weak chin and everything, but he’s having trouble instigating that warfare between the upper and lower sections of his mug. Will Mr. O’Neill refuse us permission to stage the play???

Maybe O’Neill was thinking of himself more as a short story writer than a playwright, seeing the characters exactly as he wanted to see them. Nowadays, a playwright shows more respect for the creative input of the actors and the production team involved in presenting one of his or her plays. I’m wondering if perhaps O’Neill himself suspected that this laboriously instructive kind of playwriting was going to look bad some day. After all, he turned out to have a very keen artistic sensibility. The New Yorker refers to the opinion of some O’Neill biographers who think he tried to destroy all copies of the play in order to placate his father. He may have had other reasons.

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