Quirk: a Perlustration in Eight Jaunts
A book in progress about language as tool, language as mystery, language as art, from the perspective of a non-scientist who uses language professionally in myriad ways, and who has played with it all his life.
To read the preface, click anywhere above the line.
Contemporary dictionaries define perlustration (if they define it at all) as a thorough survey or examination of something. That’s not how I’m using it in the subtitle of this book. I’m leaning on its etymological origin: “perlustro, from per- + lustro (‘wander through’).”
The word doesn’t have much currency nowadays. That’s one reason I like it and have felt free to bend it to my somewhat eccentric use. I also like that the root lustro calls to mind bright things, pearls that shimmer in the light (although the English words luster, lustrous and illustration actually derive from a different Latin root, lustrum, the name of an act of ceremonial purification; and in case you’re wondering, our word lust, which has no underlying relation to any of those other words, comes – by way of Old English, Old High German and Old Norse – from the Latin lascivus, which meant playful before it meant anything more salacious).
This book, then, isn’t intended as a thorough examination of its subject; instead, it’s a wandering-through and a selective shining of light on sights and scenes and shimmery things from a particular wordscape – the one that stretches across my cerebral cortex after 65 years of hearing, speaking and writing the English language. Maybe in some ways my perlustration is also about purification. There’s a vaguely transcendental aspect to it, at any rate. And I’d like to think you’ll find some gusts of lustiness – in the sense of playful – along the way.
Early in life I thought I was destined to become a mathematician or a physicist. I have a logical mind, a puzzler’s view of the world; I’m interested in discovering how things work, how they fit together. When fate twisted me off the career path I thought I was on, my logical, puzzling mind gradually transferred its focus from one set of abstractions to another – from math and physics to language. How does one weave words into a net that tells a story and communicates meaning? How do those individual words come by their magic? Why does one letter – say, c – do the things it does in the way it does, while others – q, k – sometimes do something similar but otherwise seem to have come from completely different planets with completely different natural laws?
I should state at the outset that I’m not a linguist or a philologist, and there will be nothing particularly scientific about the musings that follow. True specialists in the workings of human language (especially the English variety) will probably find many of my observations unsurprising and will almost certainly stumble across some things that I’ve gotten wrong. But given that I’m a writer and a literary advisor in the theater world, language is primary in my day-to-day work; it’s the sea in which I swim. I’ve long been fascinated by both its music and its meaningness and by the quirks and curlicues that sometimes reveal themselves when you bother to slow down and appreciate the molecules and mechanisms of what you’re reading, writing, saying or hearing.
A botanist, geologist, poet and recreationalist taking the same hike across the same countryside will undoubtedly see different things and think about what they see in different ways. I suppose I wander (and wonder) somewhere between the poet and the casual perambulator, and I’d like to think I’ve picked up enough incidental knowledge in my various pursuits over the years to be able to make the occasional worthwhile observation about the flora, fauna and mineral wealth of the English language.
All right, that’s enough pre-amble. Let’s walk. Stay hydrated, everyone.
Program Notes and Other Articles
In my career as a theatre professional, which has spanned 40 years, I've written hundreds of articles about the shows I've worked on -- some analytical, some informational and some a combination of the two. Below is a list of plays for which I have one or more articles, available for republication. Samples are included with the first 8 titles -- just click to access the collapsed material. I have also provided links to South Coast Repertory playbills that include other material I've written or compiled over the last 20 years. (All material is the property of the author -- not to be reprinted in whole or in part without permission.)
Sweeney Todd, by Stephen Sondheim, libretto by Hugh Wheeler
Stephen Sondheim’s exalted place in the firmament of the American musical theatre needs no advertisement, but it’s worth remembering that fully 25 years ago he had already been honored by the Kennedy Center for his lifetime achievements, on the strength of such popular and influential musicals as Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979) and Sunday in the Park with George (1984). (That’s not even to mention his early contributions as the lyricist for West Side Story and Gypsy in the late 1950s.) Since receiving the Kennedy Center tribute, he has continued to work with the same level of daring commitment, tirelessly revising old shows while also adding new ones to his canon. Even now, at age 88, he’s working with playwright David Ives (Venus in Fur) on a musical based on two of the films of surrealist director Luis Bunuel.
Sweeney Todd appeared during the fertile middle period of Sondheim’s career. It debuted on Broadway almost exactly 40 years ago, the work of an artist confident in his abilities but always searching for new challenges and moving in unexpected directions.
In 1973, while in England for a revival of Gypsy, Sondheim took in a production of a popular Victorian melodrama called Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, in a new adaptation by Christopher Bond. “I had heard it was Grand Guignol, and it was something that just knocked me out,” Sondheim said. “Bond’s new version was a tiny play, still a melodrama, but … it had a weight to it … He also infused into it plot elements from Jacobean tragedy and The Count of Monte Cristo. He was able to take all these disparate elements that had been in existence rather dully for a hundred and some-odd years and make them into a first-rate play. It struck me as a piece that sings.”
Sondheim’s first step in turning the play into a “piece that sings” was to arrive at a musical idiom that suited the material. “What I wanted to write was a horror movie … It had to be unsettling, scary, and very romantic. In fact, there’s a chord I kept using throughout, which is sort of a personal joke, because it’s a chord that occurred in every Bernard Herrmann score.” (One of the great film composers in the history of cinema, Herrmann was best known for his moody, dramatic, jazz-inflected scores for many of Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense films.)
With that in mind, Sondheim composed a score full of “unresolved dissonances that leave an audience in a state of suspense.” He also incorporated the “Dies Irae,” a musical passage from the Catholic Mass for the Dead (previously quoted by such composers as Berlioz and Rachmaninoff), as a recurring motif to re-inforce Sweeney’s connection to death. (It appears first in the “Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” when the chorus sings “Swing your razor wide, Sweeney! Hold it to the skies!”)
Although initially drawn to the source material by its spectacular use of the conventions of melodrama and revenge stories, Sondheim and his collaborators inevitably began to look for ways to deepen its thematic resonance. “For me,” Sondheim explained, “what the show is really about is obsession. I was using the story as a metaphor for any kind of obsession. Todd is a tragic hero in the classic sense that Oedipus is. He dies in the end because of a certain kind of fatal knowledge: he realizes what he has been doing. I find it terribly satisfying—much more so than any kind of accidental death, which often occurs in flimsy forms of melodrama.”
Director Hal Prince observed, “It was only when I realized that the show was about revenge that I knew how to do it. And then came the factory, and the class struggle.” Prince further commented, “I think it’s also about impotence … The reason that the ensemble is used the way it is, the unifying emotion for the entire company, is shared impotence. Obviously, Sweeney’s is the most dramatic, to justify all those murders. Impotence creates rage and rage is what is expressed most by Sweeney’s behavior.”
And librettist Hugh Wheeler added “We wanted to make it as nearly as we could into a sort of tragedy … The hardest thing of all was to take these two really disgusting people and write them in such a way that the audience can rather love them. And I think people did love Mrs. Lovett—yet she doesn’t have a single redeeming feature.”
As he developed the score, Sondheim incorporated the structural device of melodic leitmotifs to support the story-telling. “The notion of using motifs is to pique the audience’s memory, to remind them that this theme represents that idea or emotion. They’re guideposts along the way … When the motif comes on, no matter what the guise, the audience has a subconscious—and sometimes a conscious—emotional response. Most audiences are more comfortable with music that is more familiar. In Sweeney Todd, instead of using reprises of whole songs, I use reprises of motifs. By the time the second act rolls around, the audience is familiar with almost all the musical material.” (Sondheim, a lover of puzzles and mysteries, also uses a motif as a clue to a secret that lies at the heart of the story. It can be found in the minuet that briefly plays as Mrs. Lovett tells the sad story of what happened to Sweeney’s wife, in “Poor Thing.”)
Sweeney Todd has a kindred spirit in the Bertold Brecht-Kurt Weill musical, Three Penny Opera: both take place at a junction of the moneyed class, the working poor and the underworld of London; both have pronounced sociopolitical underpinnings; and both open with ironic ballads about their anti-heroic protagonists. As for Sweeney’s musical brethren, in addition to Bernard Herrmann, Sondheim has acknowledged the influence of British music hall songs in the songs he wrote for Mrs. Lovett , while commentators have invoked everyone from Gustav Mahler, Maurice Ravel, Alban Berg, Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev and Franz Schubert to Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein.
But however apt such comparisons and connections may be, Sweeney Todd is undeniably unique—and uniquely Sondheimian. To point to just two of its surprising idiosyncracies:
The show features not one but three songs entitled “Johanna” —one a yearning love ballad sung by Anthony, the young sailor who courts the girl with the yellow hair; one a strangely jaunty lament sung by Sweeney, who is Johanna’s father; and one a dissonant song of self-flagellation sung by the immoral Judge who lusts after Johanna. The three songs are linked by musical motifs and an obsessive repetition of the girl’s name, but each is distinctive and peculiarly appropriate to the man who sings it.
Speaking of love ballads, one of Sondheim’s loveliest is “My Friends” —sung early in the show by Sweeney Todd, the demon barber … to his blades. Those blades—which Mrs. Lovett has just returned to him—are the tools of his profession, but they will soon become the tools of his obsession. Mrs. Lovett then joins the song, harmonizing with Sweeney but singing of another kind of loving friendship—and the song turns into an unsettling musical depiction of the odd love triangle that will propel much of the action of this extraordinary musical. And when the song ends with Sweeney’s stunning declaration— “At last, my arm is complete again!” —we have a chilling premonition of where we’re headed. This will not go well.
But things did go well for the show itself: its initial Broadway production ran for 557 performances, to be followed by countless revivals the world over. The critic, Martin Gottfried, sums up its legacy: “Like Porgy and Bess, Sweeney Todd would become a repertory item, a staple of opera companies around the world, and an acknowledged classic. Had he composed nothing else, this show would have established Sondheim as a giant of the American stage.”
“It’s hard to overemphasize Sondheim’s influence on American musical theater. As a young man, he was mentored by Oscar Hammerstein II of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the songwriting duo who revolutionized musicals with Oklahoma! in 1943. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote fully integrated songs that advanced the plot and revealed hidden depths in their characters; in their hands, musical theater matured into a storytelling art form. Sondheim built on Hammerstein’s innovations by experimenting relentlessly with subject matter and form: from his early lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s music in the seminal West Side Story (1957) and for Jule Styne’s music in Gypsy (1959) to more than 50 years’ worth of scores that have pushed the boundaries and subject matter of musical theater in every conceivable direction. He is musical theater’s greatest lyricist, full stop. The days of competition with other musical theater songwriters are done: We now talk about his work the way we talk about Shakespeare or Dickens or Picasso—a master of his form, both invisible within his work and everywhere at once.”
— Lin Manuel Miranda
Curve of Departure, by Rachel Bonds
Rachel Bonds’ new play, Curve of Departure, takes its title from a poem by Sharon Olds called First Thanksgiving. Written from the perspective of a mother contemplating her daughter’s departure for college, the poem ends with these lines:
… As a child, I caught
bees, by the wings, and held them, some seconds,
looked into their wild faces,
listened to them sing, then tossed them back
into the air—I remember the moment the
arc of my toss swerved, and they entered
the corrected curve of their departure.
While Bonds’ play isn’t precisely about the kind of event being observed in the Olds poem, it does consider both curves and departures – and more generally, what it means to be a parent and to see one’s family change through additions and losses and unexpected events. It might be said that we plan our lives in straight lines but live them in curves. Life seldom proceeds exactly as we intended, throwing curves at us that we usually have failed to see coming. (In his song, “Beautiful Boy,” about a father’s love for his young son, John Lennon famously observed, “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.”) The course corrections required to respond to the unforeseen can be scary and maddening – but also sometimes liberating and life-changing in the best possible way. Each of the characters in Bonds’ play has been thrown some major curves recently – the most obvious being the one that has brought them together far from home, in a hotel room in New Mexico. But as they deal with the immediate situation, they’re also trying to adjust to other unexpected changes in their lives.
Several of those curves take the form of recent and prospective departures. The four characters are in New Mexico for a funeral, marking the premature end of a family member’s life. That particular departure elicits decidedly mixed emotions – given their complicated feelings about the man who just died – but so, too, do the possible departures looming on the horizon. These four face some difficult choices ahead, made so much more difficult because in each case love is a major complicating factor. But while different kinds of love intensify the challenges they’re facing, love also promises to help get them through the hard times.
It makes sense that Bonds would be drawn to the poetry of Sharon Olds, which has been praised for “its sensitive portrayal of emotional states, as well as its bold depiction of ‘unpoetic’ life events.” That description applies equally well to Bonds’ writing. Mike Donahue, the director of Curve of Departure, talks about a recurring dynamic in Bonds’ plays, which he describes as “these great tectonic plates shifting in peoples’ lives beneath the surface of what are seemingly innocuous every day interactions.”
The shifting of tectonic plates causes earthquakes, of course, some of them utterly devastating. “I write a lot about grief,” Bonds has said. “And fear. And death. Dark things. Time passing. I find myself returning again and again to the things in my life that I can't seem to put into words or explain. I keep trying to find a way to explain them.” But it’s useful to remember that tectonic shifts also give rise to new, extraordinary geographical forms, from mountains to archipelagos. Whatever emotional earthquakes the characters in Curve of Departure are experiencing, they face them with a kind of quiet, everyday heroism, and there’s every reason to believe the tremors will ultimately lead to opportunities for new growth.
Any attempt to describe Bonds’ play in an easily grasped logline will inevitably be reductive, because the play offers a nuanced portrait of life in all its messiness. Its characters and their relationships are idiosyncratic and complex; the “ragtag little group” they form is a nontraditional sort of family. But as the play traces the “corrected curves” of their story, it touches repeatedly on values that have sustained the human race since its beginning: compassion, caring and selfless kindness.
SHREW!, by Amy Freed
(More of my writing related to SHREW! can be found in the South Coast Rep program here.)
A 2003 survey done by the Royal Shakespeare Company revealed The Taming of the Shrew to be the second most popular play in the Shakespeare canon. Still, there’s no question that this comedy written at the beginning of Shakespeare’s career (around 1592) has become controversial in our time, due to its unabashed portrayal of the “taming” of Katherina – an intelligent, strong-willed woman brought to heel by Petruchio, who is initially more interested in her father’s money than in Kate herself. Shakespeare’s England may have been ruled by a woman, but it was otherwise an unmitigatedly patriarchal society in which “the weaker sex” was expected to submit to the will of men in all things.
And as recently as the 1950s and early ’60s, America – along with Western culture as a whole – couldn’t claim to be a great deal more enlightened in its gender politics. Men were lords of the manor and breadwinners; a woman’s place was in the home; and if she dared to enter the workplace she was subject to the brazen advances of the “madmen” who ran the professional world. Maybe that’s why Kiss Me, Kate, Cole Porter’s 1948 musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy, was so popular; and why Franco Zefferelli’s 1967 film version of the play, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, delighted audiences. (Wrote one observer, “It may not be reverent enough for purists, but this Taming of the Shrew is too funny – and fun – for the rest of us to resist.”)
But even as far back as Shakespeare’s own time – when laws curtailing husbands’ use of violence to discipline their wives were becoming more commonplace – there were those who questioned the fun Shrew had at the expense of its female characters, especially Kate. In 1611, near the end of Shakespeare’s career, his contemporary, John Fletcher, wrote a sequel to Shrew called The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed, in which Petruchio, after the death of Kate, marries a woman named Maria, who refuses him sexual favors until he submits to her will. The play ends with the advice “To teach both sexes due equality/And as they stand bound, to love mutually." For some years, Fletcher’s sequel was more popular than the original.
In 1897, George Bernard Shaw described Shakespeare’s Shrew as “one vile insult to womanhood and manhood from the first word to the last,” and called its last scene “altogether disgusting to modern sentiments.” He added, “no man with any decency of feeling can sit it out in the company of a woman without being extremely ashamed of the lord-of-creation moral implied in the wager and the speech put into the woman's own mouth.”
The speech to which Shaw refers (sometimes called “the submission speech”), is the coup de grace for those who find the play distasteful. Delivered by Kate at the end of the play to a woman who has just behaved disrespectfully to her husband, its opening lines are --
Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor.
-- and ends with her advising the woman to “place your hands below your husband’s foot. In token of which duty, if he please, My hand is ready, may it do him ease.” Every director faced with the challenge of staging Shakespeare’s Shrew nowadays – and every actor playing the role of Kate – must decide how to handle the submission speech. Do you speak it sincerely and trust that audiences will make allowances for the societal norms that were in place when it was written? Do you deliver it straightforwardly, but contextualize it by suggesting she chooses to submit out of the true, abiding love that has bloomed between her and Petruchio? Or do you couch it in irony, making it clear that Kate doesn’t mean what she’s saying? All those approaches have been tried – and more often than not have been found less than satisfying.
Directors have attempted other strategies to deal with the play’s troubling gender politics: they’ve cast all the roles with male actors; they’ve cast all the roles with female actors; they’ve cross-gendered it (Kate played by a man, Petruchio by a woman). They’ve put “quotation marks” around the whole story (see accompanying article, “The Late, Lamented Christopher Sly”). A well regarded 1976 production directed by William Ball for San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) largely avoided the problem by using a knockabout commedia dell’arte style to uproot the play from any sort of psychological ground and place its emphasis on slapstick fun. (Footnote: both playwright Amy Freed and director Art Manke were MFA acting students at ACT a few years after Ball’s heralded production.)
Arguably no contemporary production has completely solved the problem of The Taming of the Shrew for all audience members. But the play refuses to go away because, in the parlance of Shakespeare’s own day – it’s just too much of a “get-penny.”
But perhaps there’s another way to “skin” this Kate.
Amy Freed’s interest in The Taming of the Shrew dates back some 20 years, to her break-out play, The Beard of Avon, which was inspired by the Shakespearean authorship controversy – an argument promoted by scholars who refused to believe that a bumpkin from rural Stratford-on-Avon could possibly have commanded the knowledge and wit to write the three dozen or so plays ascribed to Shakespeare. Freed spun comedic gold from the authorship controversy by carrying its argument to an extreme: by the end of Beard of Avon seemingly half the nobility in England are collaborating with the bumpkin bard, using him as a front to hide their participation in such a vulgar pursuit as theatre.
Among its more amusing conceits was Beard’s revelation that the first draft of The Taming of the Shrew was penned by none other than Queen Elizabeth herself. Knowing well what it means to be a strong woman in a man’s world, Elizabeth writes a sort of fantasy in which a commanding woman is relieved of the self-imposed burdens of dominance, exchanging them for the comforts of love and domesticity.
Flash forward to 2014, when Freed was among the 36 playwrights commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to write “translations” of all of Shakespeare’s plays. Freed asked for The Taming of the Shrew, perhaps relishing the irony of a contemporary woman playwright finishing what Elizabeth started in Beard of Avon.
But having undertaken the task of translating Shrew, Freed grew frustrated at the strict rules for the project: only alter lines that have become incomprehensible to contemporary theatre-goers; no cutting or adding text, no “fixing,” no personal politics; leave the play in its original time period; keep Shakespeare’s heightened language – use rhyme where Shakespeare rhymed, use iambic pentameter wherever he did; and remain true to his imagery, characters, action and themes.
No fixing. But if ever there were a Shakespeare play that seemed to call for some fixing, Shrew would seem to be that play.
So even before she’d finished the translation project, Freed made up her mind to write her own free adaptation of Shakespeare’s Shrew. She was convinced that if the mature Shakespeare had written the play, rather than that young playwright just learning his trade, he would have brought a different, more complex sensibility to the characters and their story. She thought about the fully formed artist who went on to write Much Ado about Nothing’s more sophisticated battle of the sexes between Beatrice and Benedick; if that Shakespeare had taken up the story of Kate and Petruchio, how might the play be different, she wondered? Would it still be a simple, rowdy comedy about a braggart soldier subjugating an uppity woman – or would its story of two misfits finding love with one another come to full fruition?
Which is not to say that Freed was uninterested in the fun and frolic in Shakespeare’s play. One of the tasks she set herself was to do something about those infernal Shakespearean clowns, whose antics and contorted wordplay may have been funny 400 years ago … but seldom crack a smile among today’s audiences. She also aimed to hold on to the humor embedded in the struggle between two strong-willed, self-absorbed protagonists.
Freed describes SHREW! as more a reconciliation with than a counterattack against Shakespeare’s play It was not her intention to write a “feminist” take, to try to turn The Taming of the Shrew on its head. That would be too simplistic, especially since her play, like the original, takes place in the late 16th century. There were inevitable limitations to what a woman could be and do in that world. Freed’s Kate still delivers a chastising speech to the other women at the end of the play, admonishing them to respect their husbands. But it isn’t the same speech that Shakespeare’s chastened shrew delivered.
It’s a speech written by a woman playwright for a female character who has found her true self with a man who has ultimately proven worthy of her admiration and gratitude.
No irony needed.
Office Hour, by Julia Cho
Architectures of Loss
Julia Cho has a complicated smile. She shares it readily, and it often brims with warmth and cheer. But sometimes it’s tinged with sadness. It makes sense that this is the smile of the woman who wrote The Language Archive, a play about love that contains both persistent hope and deep disappointment. (It premiered on SCR’s Segerstrom Stage in 2010.)
Most of Cho’s plays have that same blend of contrasting tonalities. They reflect the author’s gentleness of spirit, her sense of humor, her awareness of the human capacity for goodness, aspiration, empathy, love, redemption – but they are inevitably shadowed by melancholy, often of an ineffable kind. This is a playwright who understands that pain and loss are inevitable in life and she doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that reality in her plays.
And some of her writing drills down deeper into dark places. BFE, a comedic family drama, is haunted by a serial killer who preys on blondes. The Architecture of Loss, another family drama, deals with reverberations from the unexplained disappearance of an 8-year-old boy. And The Piano Teacher – which was commissioned by and premiered at SCR in 2007 – begins by offering a loving portrait of a good-hearted woman before gradually uncovering the horrible secret she has lived with for much of her life.
And now comes Office Hour, a play sparked by the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 and further influenced by the more recent shootings at UC Santa Barbara. The perpetrators in both those incidents – Seung-Hui Cho in Virginia and Elliot Rodger in Santa Barbara – were young, Asian-American men. That congruence prompted Cho to wonder about the extent to which their sense of otherness might have contributed to the pathology that led them to violence.
Cho, who is herself Korean-American, has written about Asian-American characters and the Asian-American experience in a number of her plays, but to the extent that she’s interested in ethnicity, it has less to do with its sociopolitical implications and more with how culture influences specific aspects of the human psyche. That’s also true in Office Hour. It would be easy to misjudge the play as a ripped-from-the-headlines examination of the epidemic of gun violence on American campuses. While that issue feeds Cho’s story, the specifics of her characters ultimately interest her more than the general phenomenon.
“I read some books about Virginia Tech,” Cho says, “and there’s so much in what I was reading about how much Seung-Hui Cho frightened his teachers, how clear it was to the people around him that there was something very wrong with him.” That became the burr that stimulated Cho’s writing. What might be wrong with a man who could do something like that? And what assumptions are contained in our very idea of “wrongness”?
In grappling with questions of that kind, Cho eschews simple answers. She interested in complexity and refuses to reduce it. Maybe that’s why even her smile is complicated.
“I’m drawn to the ‘what ifs’. Sometimes an image sticks in the back of my head and there’s a spot that bothers me … that’s where a play comes from. Usually a small memory or an event. And the what ifs.” -- Julia Cho
A Dangerous World
Is there a more primal human emotion than fear? It cuts to our deepest instinct for survival. It’s a reaction to danger – to feeling overpowered and therefore threatened – and generally provokes one of two responses: fight or flight. Researchers have determined that these responses live in the realm of the autonomic nervous system, which places them beyond the reach of human reason.
A close cousin of fear is paranoia. In the aftermath of 9/11, paranoia became a national disease in the United States. The government even encouraged it, telling us, “If you see something, say something.” The problem is, if you’re looking for something threatening, it’s easy to begin seeing threats everywhere. But because terrorism remains prevalent both here and around the world – and we’ve seen a recent example close to home – it isn’t unreasonable to worry that it will happen again and that it could happen to us. And when experience has taught us to be fearful, or at least anxiously vigilant, how do we draw the line between legitimate concern and paranoia? Should we even try to draw that line? Maybe it’s better to be on the safe side, even if it leads to overreaction.
Of course, that’s the ultimate objective of terrorism – to instill terror that extends well beyond an immediate circumstance. But where does the impulse to terrorism begin? Wielded by those who feel they have no other means to gain the upper hand, terrorism is a power play. However boldly it may be rationalized by political and cultural manifestos, it is essentially an act of desperation, a lashing out by someone who feels historically oppressed and powerless – someone who has lived in and with a culture of fear.
The mass shooting in San Bernardino last December at first sparked considerable debate around the question of whether this was an act of terrorism or an example of deranged workplace violence. In some ways it’s a distinction without a difference, because both are manifestations of the same phenomenon: a display of power meant to turn the tables on one’s perceived persecutors.
And what’s true on the large-scale level of international terrorism can also apply to more intimate situations. Julia Cho’s Office Hour isn’t really about terrorism. Its characters are three university adjunct professors and the strange, troubled and troubling student they have in common. It begins with a scene in which the teachers discuss the student, the threat he may pose and the proper way to respond to it.
The teachers express a sense of frustration, unease and even a palpable fear at times. But is the fear justified, or is it a form of paranoia fueled by too many mass shootings on too many campuses across the country? The rest of the play sets out to answer that question, while also exploring several of the many ways this situation might play itself out.
After that first scene the entire play takes place between two people, in a small institutional room, in the span of an hour. Its world is the smallest of microcosms, but if Office Hour operates on an intimate level, the forces at work underneath its dramatic situation are not small or individual: they are systemic, cultural, societal and, at the deepest level, primally human.
Each character in the play at one time or another feels fear. Each character gains and loses power. Only one higher human emotion can bridge the gaps between them, mitigate fear and take power out of the equation.
The question is: can empathy find its way into this microcosm before time runs out?
[Rothko’s Seagram murals] are what you imagine might be the last lights, the final flickers of colour that register in a mind closing down. Or at the end of the world. “Apocalyptic wallpaper” was a phrase thrown at Rothko's kind of painting as an insult. It is simply a description; the apocalypse is readable in these paintings like a pattern in wallpaper – abstract, pleasurable horror. . . .
-- Jonathan Jones in The Guardian
In November 2014, a pair of Mark Rothko paintings sold at auction for a combined $76 million, not bad for work once dismissed as “apocalyptic wallpaper.” One can only imagine what the artist himself might have had to say about such a gargantuan sum, given his ambivalence toward the commodification of his art. It’s likely he would have grumbled at the fact that a single painting by his rival, Jackson Pollock, had sold a few years earlier for twice that amount. But surely he also would have had at least a passing thought about his humble, impoverished beginnings, and the financial struggles he faced through much of his early career.
A leader of the New York School of abstract expressionists and now generally regarded as one of the most important American artists of the 20th century, Mark Rothko earned his reputation based primarily on the so-called “color field” paintings he created during the last two decades of his life; but he moved through many artistic phases before arriving at his mature style.
His early work – figurative, expressionistic portraits, nudes, and urban scenes, characterized by a mood of brooding introspection and isolation – was influenced by his first and only art teacher, Max Weber, a proponent of the European Modernist school. During the Depression he became politicized, falling in with a group of leftist artists who defined themselves in part against a more traditional American aesthetic. In 1938, he took part in an exhibit at the Mercury Gallery called The Ten: Whitney Dissenters, which opened concurrently with and in opposition to an exhibit of American representational art at the Whitney Museum.
But by the 1940s Rothko became interested in myth and symbolism and the writings of such intellectuals as Carl Jung and Friedrich Nietzsche (whose The Birth of Tragedy figures significantly in Red). This led him to abandon expressionism and embrace the influence of surrealism, in work characterized by abstract imagery that aimed to release the kind of primal emotions embedded in ancient myths.
During the 1940s his aesthetic approach remained unsettled and sometimes changed abruptly. According to theartstory.org:
The decisive shift came in the late 1940s, when he began creating the prototypes for his best-known works. They have since come to be called his “multi-forms”: figures are banished entirely, and the compositions are dominated by multiple soft-edged blocks of colors which seem to float in space. Rothko wanted to remove all obstacles between the painter, the painting and the viewer. The method he settled on used shimmering color to swamp the viewer's visual field. His paintings were meant to entirely envelope the viewer and raise the viewer up and out of the mechanized, commercial society over which artists like Rothko despaired. In 1949, Rothko radically reduced the number of forms in his pictures, and grew them such that they filled out the canvas, hovering on fields of stained colour that are only visible at their borders. These, his best known works, have come to be called his “sectionals,” and Rothko felt they better met his desire to create universal symbols of human yearning … The all-over compositions, the blurred boundaries, the continuousness of color, and the wholeness of form were all elements of his development towards a transcendental experience of the sublime.
In order to envelop the viewer, Rothko worked on large canvases, which led some critics to suggest he was using size to compensate for lack of substance – to which Rothko responded, “I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however . . . is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human.”
In 1953 Rothko refused an offer from the Whitney to buy two of his paintings, citing “a deep sense of responsibility for the life my pictures will lead out in the world." By the late 1950s, Rothko’s elevated position in the art world was secure. In 1958 he was invited to represent the U.S. in the Venice Biennale and was given a major commission to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the newly completed Seagram Building in Manhattan (as dramatized in Red). In 1961 he received his first major solo exhibition, at the Museum of Modern Art, for which he refused to include anything painted before 1945.
In 1964 Rothko received his most important commission, to create murals for an interdenominational chapel in Houston. Rothko began the paintings in the winter of 1964 and continued to work on them until 1967; but the “Rothko Chapel” wasn’t dedicated until 1971, almost a year to the day after the artist had committed suicide.
Rothko had been subject to severe depression for many years, and by 1968 his health had deteriorated due to heavy drinking and an aortal aneurysm. He continued to feel that his work wasn’t sufficiently respected by the art world, a resentment that fed his depression. On February 25, 1970, at the age of 66, Rothko took an overdose of anti-depressants and slashed his arms. That morning, his assistant arrived at his studio to find the artist -- in the words of critic Jonathan Jones -- “lying dead in a wine-dark sea of his own blood … The pool emanating from him on the floor of his studio measured 8ft x 6ft. That is, it was on the scale of his paintings. It was, to borrow the art critical language of the time, a colour field.”
Mr. Wolf, by Rajiv Joseph
The first line in Rajiv Joseph’s Mr. Wolf is a question. So is the penultimate line in the play. In between those two questions are more than 400 others. In one monologue alone, spoken by the play’s central character, 20 of the first 24 sentences are questions. The very word “question” is said 18 times in Mr. Wolf. (For the sake of comparison, another famously interrogatory play, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, also begins with a question, after which 440 more are asked; and the word “question” is spoken 17 times, much more frequently than in any other Shakespeare play – prompting one scholar to write an entire book called The Question of Hamlet.)
People have asked questions since the dawn of humanity; in fact one could say the species defines itself by its inquisitive nature. It’s worth noting that the first question recorded in the Bible is not posed by Adam or Eve (or their all-knowing God) but by the serpent, who provokes Eve by asking, “Hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?” In a sense, that is the question that has given birth to all others, because it prompts Eve and then Adam to sample the fruit of the tree of knowledge … which leads not to knowledge but to the awareness of its absence, and hence to a need for the words “why,” “what,” “how,” “who” and their relatives. Once Satan has tempted them, the first humans begin asking questions – and questioning God – and in so doing, Adam and Eve (and all their descendents) acquire their mortal humanity.
Questions become necessary when knowledge is lacking: the act of questioning indicates a desire to discover meaning and truth. Questions can also be strategic. In the first scene of Mr. Wolf, the title character teaches his young female student that the key to surviving in the world is inquiry: “Ask as many questions as you can. People are made uncomfortable by questions, and then they will be off-balance.” The student will go on to use inquiry in just that way – as a tactic – but mostly she asks questions because she truly needs answers after her world has suddenly been split open by doubt and uncertainty.
While Mr. Wolf has an interrogatory spirit, its central questions are not really aimed at the ripped-from-the-headlines circumstance that propels its plot – although Joseph does mine rich dramatic material from the complicated psychologies of people whose lives have been turned upside-down (twice) by that circumstance. Instead, the play asks bigger questions – the kind of life questions any of us might ask in a moment of existential doubt: “Who am I?” “What do I do now?” “Where is God in all this?”
Questions of that kind tend not to be answerable with anything approaching certainty; and it’s the unanswerable question – or perhaps the unprovable answer – that sometimes gives rise to faith. Whatever else it may be about, Mr. Wolf looks at a group of characters who are situated in various places on a spectrum that traverses from certainty to faith to doubt to hopeless disbelief, and every character’s position on that spectrum changes at least once over the course of the play.
Hamlet, while discussing the play-within-a-play he will use to probe the conscience of his father’s murderer, refers to the “question of the play.” The phrase is Shakespeare’s tacit acknowledgement that one of drama’s primary functions – perhaps its most basic – is to pose questions; questions that are to be considered, consciously or subliminally, by both characters and audience.
The inquisitive nature of Mr. Wolf and its characters comes from Rajiv Joseph’s own propensity to ask questions – the reason he has chosen to write plays in the first place. “Right now I’m just very glad and grateful that I found my way to playwriting,” says Joseph, “and that from what I can tell from audiences, I’m not the only one interested in the questions in these plays.”
Mr. Wolf’s last question, in the closing moment of the play, finally prompts an answer … but the answer that ends the play can only give rise to new questions, which we in the audience are asked to ponder as we return to our own uncertain lives.
The wise man doesn't give the right answers, he poses the right questions.
There are four questions of value in life... What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for and what is worth dying for? The answer to each is the same. Only love.
-- Lord Byron
Religion survives because it answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?
Theater is there to search for questions. It doesn't give you instructions.
-- Vaclav Havel
Quite early on, and certainly since I started writing, I found that philosophical questions occupied me more than any other kind. I hadn't really thought of them as being philosophical questions, but one rapidly comes to an understanding that philosophy's only really about two questions: 'What is true?' and 'What is good?'
-- Tom Stoppard
A Midsummer Night's Dream, by William Shakespeare
Wandering in the Wood
"The Woods." As children, we had instant associations when we heard these two words, from myriad fairy tales told as we drifted out of the waking world and toward our dreams.
The Woods provided the shadowy setting for frightening ordeals -- Hansel and Gretel's abandonment and their encounter with the cannibalistic witch; and Little Red Riding Hood swallowed by the Wolf. The Woods was a place for magic -- practiced by fairies and hobgoblins – and a haven for the fulfillment of desires, where Snow White met her handsome Prince and lived happily ever after.
Fears, desires, magic: the forces, in other words, that charge our dreams. It's no accident, then, that William Shakespeare chose The Woods as the setting for his own Midsummer Night's Dream. Always ingenious about the universalities of human experience, he understood the special power our collective unconscious has assigned to The Woods. Moreover Shakespeare intuitively grasped the relation between primitive tales, dreams, and the primal fears and desires of the human animal. And he knew that the theatre, with its capacity for imaginative transformations, was a perfect arena in which to reinvent the old tales and renew their dreamlike power. So when he sends four lovers and a band of bumbling would-be actors into The Woods on a magical midsummer night, he knows that his audience knows that strange things are likely to happen. And he has arranged for the audience to see its own secret fears and desires played out.
Shakespeare accounts for the strangeness in his Woods by inhabiting the place with supernatural creatures -- the fairies led by Oberon and Titania, and the impish Puck. He based these creatures on figures from popular folklore and from ancient festivals such as the May Day celebration. He could count on his audience's instant recognition of the archetypal characters and their role in the confusion of a midsummer night.
In our age, when such supernatural creatures no longer play an active role in our folklife, we can look to another source for the magic and confusion that seizes Shakespeare's lovers (as well as Bottom and his men) when they enter The Woods. The sexual confusion of the lovers and Bottom's descent into animality can be appreciated as images from our psychological recesses, primal forces at work from within.
Shakespeare also chose The Woods for the wildness therein. He appreciated the contrast between that wildness and the order and stability sought by civilized society. If his characters were victims of a too-stringent law, then they must escape its grip by fleeing to a place of ultimate liberation. In The Woods they can play out those aspects of their fantasy lives that cannot be allowed in civilized society. Bottom isn't the only one who is translated into an animal in the Dream. The play teems with animal imagery and through the magic of metaphor virtually every character who enters The Woods takes on animalistic qualities.
As long as the night holds sway, animal nature has its way. But when daylight comes we hear the sounds of Theseus's hunt: a perfect emblem of civilization over-riding the animal world. Bottom loses his ass's head and the lovers wake up next to their rightful partners.
It is the province of dreams to release that which our conscious minds cannot safely apprehend; and by that release we achieve a kind of clarification. In the case of Shakespeare's Dream, the clarification has to do with a harmony between the highest civilizing impulses of humanity and humanity's “bottom” side.
Only by going into The Woods -- into the dreamland -- can Shakespeare's characters achieve the harmony that becomes theirs at the end of the Dream. And because their secret fears and desires are not so different – at bottom – from ours, we too find some harmony and clarification, along with a great deal of mirth.
Homebody/Kabul, by Tony Kusher (the program note below was written in 2003)
Of Paradise and Ruin
Late in Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul Mahala, an Afghan woman whose life has been crushed by Taliban oppression, wonders (from her vantage point in 1998) what will happen to her country if her oppressors are overthrown: “Will it sink again into unending civil war?”
A cursory look at any recent newspaper suggests the answer to her question. Post-Taliban Afghanistan now faces widespread insurrection against the interim government, power struggles between regional warlords and rampant banditry, which have combined to push the nation to the edge of anarchy. In the absence of redress by America and her global partners, some Afghans have even grown nostalgic for the Taliban’s iron rule.
But the ruthlessly enforced order of the Taliban is an anomaly in the history of Afghanistan, a drastic remedy to persistent conflict and turmoil. In fact Afghanistan has become so accustomed to upheaval over the course of two and a half millennia that one Kushner character suggests it ought to have a question mark next to its name on the map.
However if Kushner were only interested in laying bare the horrifying conditions of a distant other world – someone else’s ruined paradise – he’d have no need of the British family whose story the play chronicles. Homebody/Kabul suggests that the confusion that has wracked Afghanistan throughout its history is only one facet of a global Confusion whose roots go back to the beginning of recorded time. (“Our story begins at the very dawn of history,” says the character known as The Homebody in the play’s first line.) Herein lies the play’s true subject: We are all living in a ruined paradise.
Although technically composed of three acts, Homebody/Kabul is also clearly a play in two parts, as indicated by its slash-bisected title. Part one, the long opening monologue spoken by The Homebody, is a singularity: contained, constrained, impacted, imploded, strictly delimited by the mind of its solitary character and the walls of the small, “pleasant” room in which she sits telling us her story. (Nevertheless we feel The Homebody already straining against enclosure as her lavish language tangles up in itself like the root-ball of a plant that has outgrown its pot – only the first example of an epidemic communication breakdown in the play.)
Part two begins with the clinical description of a catastrophic dismemberment; and indeed, this portion of the play is an exploded, chaotic, epic dismemberment and mockery of part one’s tight confinement. It is, in form and substance, a portrait of Afghanistan’s own fractured soul and of the dislocation experienced by Western travelers who happen to fall down the Afghan rabbit-hole.
This structural division is only the most obvious sign of a wide-ranging duality that comprises many sub-divisions: West and East, mind and spirit, rationality and magic, disease and remedy, inside and outside, paradise and ruin, truth and falsehood, luxury and deprivation. These are real-world examples of what one character calls “duals” (a term drawn from computer networking), pairs of conjoined opposites whose aggregate forms the schismatic world of Kushner’s play.
It began with the exile from Paradise. It began with Cain slaying Abel. It began with the Tower of Babel. Hard to say precisely where the chaos that unsettles our world may have been born, but Kushner touches upon each of these possible mythic sources in Homebody/Kabul. Paradise and its loss are mentioned repeatedly by his characters (and one shares his name with the poet who most famously wrote of Paradise Lost). Meanwhile we hear of an Afghan legend, which holds that the biblical murderer, Cain, may have founded Kabul, may in fact be buried in the city. How fitting that the first son of Adam, the first man to commit fratricide, would found the capital of a nation that has been almost continuously torn by wars of conquest, civil wars and tribal warfare ever since. This legend was significant enough to Kushner that, as he reports in an Afterward to the published text, the play once included a long meditation on Cain and his legacy.
But it is the Babelization of world culture that seems to be of greatest concern to Kushner in Homebody/Kabul. The description of actual dismemberment that begins the second part of the play is an echo of the figurative decimation that occurred when the world’s Mother Tongue disintegrated into countless languages for a fragmented world. On a global scale we now suffer from a wholesale lack of understanding – linguistic but also cultural, religious, moral and political – between West and East. But even within tiny Afghanistan Pashtun cannot communicate with Tajik or Uzbek – and men cannot communicate with women because of Taliban restrictions. And lest we conclude that this is a large, political problem beyond individual control or responsibility, the failure of communication also infects the most intimate personal relationships in the play: between father and daughter, husband and wife, mother and child.
We do not understand each other, and the penalty for that failure is often horrifying. As The Homebody concludes in her opening monologue, “The touch which does not understand that which it touches is the touch that corrupts that which it touches, and which corrupts itself” – and by now ours is a world in which everything touches everything else, while understanding remains rare.
The image of Babel becomes embodied in the character of Mahala. This educated woman – a former librarian now imprisoned in her burqa, forbidden from working, from intellectual pursuits, from associating with anyone but her immediate family – has been undone by the constant flux of Afghanistan. Her confusion becomes devastatingly apparent when she attempts to communicate to a stranger her rage and bitter anguish. Khwaja, an Afghan who serves as guide and interpreter for one of the British characters, suggests that Mahala may be going mad. (Insanity being a natural response to chaos, nearly everyone in the play is described as insane at some point.) The rejoinder to his suggestion articulates what we have already felt for ourselves: “She isn’t mad, she’s fucking furious.”
Khwaja and Mahala emerge as a kind of human “dual” in the play. While she suffers from what amounts to multilingual demonic possession, he is the Esperanto poet who has embraced a “universal language” in an attempt to banish confusion. Invented at the turn of the 20th century by a Polish Jewish doctor, Esperanto (meaning “one who hopes”) sprang from the ideal that humanity could overcome its differences if all of us spoke a common tongue; but the sad, ironic truth for a man like Khwaja is that a hundred years after its creation almost no one in the world understands Esperanto. A “language without history” never stood a chance against the overwhelming world-historical Confusion.
But for all the bedlam Homebody/Kabul portrays on either side of its slash, it also contains a kind of embedded order, a symmetry that sees the play begin and end in the same small room. For The Homebody that room had become a place of imprisoning certainty; for the character who arrives there at the end of the play it is the anteroom to a glorious garden. The Homebody and her counterpart are another human “dual,” opposites with everything in common. They contribute to the symmetry that serves as an underlying reminder of what Kushner has been telling us all along: the world he depicts is itself a dual, a whole comprised of conjoined opposites, different and alike. Our tragedy is that we have allowed the differences to overwhelm us.
“She isn’t mad, she’s fucking furious.” Anger, which is after all one of the stages of grief, runs epidemically through the world of Homebody/Kabul, in which everyone is, for one reason or another, in mourning. So much has been lost, so many have died, whole cultures have withered, spirit and character have succumbed to luxury, freedom has succumbed to tyranny. In the face of such grief some sink inward while others lash out. But in every mind resounds the same question, the question that we recognize as the Great Question of our time: How will we touch each other without corrupting? How will we ever banish confusion?
Blue Door by Tanya Barfield - full South Coast Rep program with my material here.
The Caucasion Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht - full South Coast Rep program with my articles here.
Culture Clash (Still) in America by Culture Clash - full South Coast Rep program with my material here.
Five Mile Lake by Rachel Bonds - full South Coast Rep program with my material here.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare - full South Coast Rep program with my material here.
The Happy Ones by Julie Marie Myatt - full South Coast Rep program with my material here.
Hitchcock Blond by Terry Johnson - full South Coast Rep program with my articles here.
In a Garden by Howard Korder - full South Coast Rep program with my material here.
The Injured Party by Richard Greenberg - full South Coast Rep program with my material here.
The Language Archive by Julia Cho - full South Coast Rep program with my material here.
Life Is a Dream by Calderon de la Barca, translated by Nilo Cruz - full South Coast Rep program with my material here.
Man from Nebraska by Tracy Letts - full South Coast Rep program with my articles here.
Monster Builder by Amy Freed - full South Coast Rep program with my material here.
Ordinary Days by Adam Gwon - full South Coast Rep program with my material here.
Peter and the Starcatcher by Rick Elice - full South Coast Rep program with my material here.
Ridiculous Fraud by Beth Henley - full South Coast Rep program with my articles here.
Shipwrecked! An Entertainment by Donald Margulies - full South Coast Rep program with my material here,
System Wonderland by David Wiener - full South Coast Rep program with my material here.
Yoga Play by Dipika Guha - my article about the play can be found on the SCR website here.
Other Plays I've worked on as a dramaturg and written about. To inquire about my material for these plays, contact me at email@example.com).
(listed alphabetically by title)
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw
As You Like It by William Shakespeare
At Long Last Leo by Mark Stein
BAFO (Best and Final Offer) by Thomas Strelich
Ballad of Yachiyo by Philip Kan Gotanda
Billy Bishop Goes to War by John MacLachlan Gray and Eric Peterson
The Birds by Aristophanes, adapt. John Glore and Culture Clash
Blue Window by Craig Lucas
Boundary Waters by Barbara Field
Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore
Buried Child by Sam Shepard
The Caretaker by Harold Pinter
Charley Bacon & His Family by Arthur Giron
The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov
Cloud 9 by Caryl Churchill
Cold Sweat by Neal Bell
Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel
Dimly Perceived Threats to the System by Jon Klein
Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies
Driving Around the House by Patrick Smith
Faith Healer by Brian Friel
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune by Terrence McNally
Galileo by Bertolt Brecht
The Geography of Luck by Marlane Meyer
Green Icebergs by Cecilia Fannon
Happy End by Bertolt Brecht
Haut Gout by Allan Havis
Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw
Highest Standard of Living by Keith Reddin
Holy Days by Sally Nemeth
How the Other Half Loves by Alan Ayckbourn
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe by Eric Overmyer
Kiss of the Spiderwoman by Manuel Puig
Let’s Play Two by Anthony Clarvoe
Lettice and Lovage by Peter Shaffer
Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw
Man of the Moment by Alan Ayckbourn
Marry Me a Little by Stephen Sondheim, Craig Lucas and Norman Rene
Master Harold...and the boys by Athol Fugard
A Mess of Plays by Christopher Durang
Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw
The Misanthrope by Moliere
The Miser by Moliere
Moonshadow by Richard Hellesen
Odd Jobs by Frank Moher
Old Times by Harold Pinter
Once in Arden by Richard Hellesen
Our Town by Thornton Wilder
Play Strindberg by Frederich Durrenmatt
Playland by Athol Fugard
Prelude to a Kiss by Craig Lucas
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
Raised in Captivity by Nicky Silver
Reckless by Craig Lucas
Rum and Coke by Keith Reddin*
The School for Scandal by Richard Sheridan
Secret Rapture by David Hare
Shadowlands by William Nicholson
Sidney Bechet Killed a Man by Stuart Flack
Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare
Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine
Talley’s Folly by Lanford Wilson
Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
Tartuffe by Moliere
The Things You Don’t Know by David Hollander
Three Postcards by Craig Lucas & Craig Carnelia
Top Girls by Caryl Churchill
The Triumph of Love by Marivaux, adapted by Richard Greenberg
True West by Sam Shepard
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Unsuitable for Adults by Terry Johnson
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
You Can’t Take It with You by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
You Never Can Tell by George Bernard Shaw